It is hard today to imagine the mayhem that reigned in downtown Bangor around the Fourth of July a century ago. Beginning before midnight on July 3, gangs of young men roamed the streets firing shotguns and pistols, and setting off huge “cannon crackers” and other explosives in a deliberate effort to terrify anyone who ven-tured out. Women, children and the elderly were targeted, as was anyone relying on a horse for transportation.
This chaos, which the police largely ignored, lasted for more than a day, affecting parades, concerts and other civic events, and stretching into the wee hours of July 5. People of means fled the city by train and steamboat, retreating to summer camps or country hotels. People of little means endured.
Usually there were several serious injuries. In 1909, “a Jewish frankfurt sausage man” (as described in the Bangor Daily Commercial on July 6) named Samuel Alpert was blinded in one eye when a “street hoodlum” threw a cannon cracker at him.
Alpert was still doing a brisk business after midnight July 5 at the corner of Main and Union streets when a large crowd of youths surrounded his cart. The attacker, who had harassed the vendor before, asked him for a hot dog “on trust,” retaliating when his request was denied.
The event raised a tremendous outcry. In a city where anti-Semitism was rampant, as it was everywhere in America then, it is noteworthy that more than $500 (with a value of more than $10,000 today) was raised to help the Alpert family.
In the spring of 1910, city fathers planned one of the biggest Fourths ever. Parades, band concerts, athletic contests, a firemen’s muster, horse races and fireworks in Summit Park would attract crowds from all over central Maine. Two torpedo destroyers on loan from the federal government were scheduled to anchor in Bangor’s harbor.
Meanwhile, the city’s two daily newspapers kept harping on safety. A new ordinance was passed by the City Council in June banning the use of cannons, guns, rifles, pistols, toy pistols, cannon crackers and slingshots within city limits. No merchants were allowed to sell any of these items for use in “pyrotechnic displays” unless approved by the council. The only trouble was the law didn’t go into effect until Aug. 1.
A few days later, the Commercial claimed storeowners had decided not to sell firecrackers measuring more than 4 inches in length. Instead, stores would be selling “Chinese crackers” because they were less dangerous. It would be “A SANE AND SAFER FOURTH,” asserted a large newspaper headline.
The Bangor Daily News, however, threw a wet blanket on this theory on July 2. An unnamed citizen said the dealers were selling “the most venomous crackers” he had ever seen. “Why, there is enough dynamite in one of them to blow up a house.” Then, there were the blank pistols displayed prominently in stores.
As the big day got closer Police Chief Lindley Gilman pointed out that there were already enough ordinances on the books for “a safe and sane Fourth,” and he intended to enforce them. But things got off to a bad start as the Bangor Daily News reported in a hair-raising story on the morning of July 4 after sending a reporter to witness the initial festivities the night before.
“‘SANE’ FOURTH BRINGS CARNIVAL OF DYNAMITE,” the headline screamed. The subhead continued, “Shot Guns, Revolvers, Deadly Crackers Make the Streets Hideous — Criminal Brutality in Exchange Street — Police Look On and Do Nothing.” The details must have made Chief Lindley choke on his toast and cof-fee that morning.
“A hulking, overgrown bully, two-thirds drunk, selected a dynamite cannon cracker twenty inches long from a pile of many similar crackers, lighted it with care and threw it as near as possible to a small boy standing on the opposite side of the street. It exploded with a report like a cannon, shaking the glass in neighboring win-dows. Heads appeared at the windows of the Penobscot Exchange [a hotel at Exchange and Hancock streets] for an earthquake would have been mild by comparison,” the story began.
More of these “crackers” tore holes in the paving and filled Exchange Street (where the Bangor Daily News offices were located) with “blinding smoke.” Some nearby policemen watched and walked away.
“Never have the crowds parading Bangor streets on ‘a night before’ been armed with such formidable weapons,” the reporter wrote. “There were shotguns and revolvers by the hundred, but, far worse than these were the dynamite crackers. … Twelve-year-old boys monkeyed with revolvers nearly as big as themselves. One of them lost a finger and went home crying.” A man with a frightened horse raced up Exchange Street and through East Market Square after he became the target of bomb-throwing crowds.
Things calmed down considerably the next day, attributable to a more vigilant police force as well as the rain that fell much of the day. “SANER FOURTH; A FINE PARADE,” declared the Bangor Daily News on July 5. The police had finally weighed in, seizing an estimated 150 revolvers — “a bushel basket full of guns of many makes and sizes all taken from those who were using them carelessly.”
The newspapers reported that only two serious injuries — both self-inflicted — had occurred. John Coulter of Brewer injured his hand and needed 17 stitches in his lip after the cannon cracker he was holding exploded. James Kelley was celebrating “in the Acre, at the foot of Broad Street,” when he “blew off the thumb on his right hand” and smashed some of his fingers by holding a cannon cracker too long.
Innocent bystanders seemed to have survived yet another Fourth of July in the old Queen City. A few revelers had actually been reduced to blowing horns and whistles in an effort to reduce the mayhem. The battle for the streets of Bangor, of course, would be fought all over again the next summer.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.