Bangor’s liquor dealers were confused a century ago. Anti-prohibition Democrats had swept the fall elections, taking over the House and Senate and the governor’s office, yet the Republican-inspired Sturgis Commission was back in town arresting barkeeps. The Democrats had vowed to abolish the six-year-old Sturgis Commission, which sent out its detectives to enforce prohibition in naughty towns like the Queen City of the East. They also had vowed to submit the prohibition amendment in the state constitution to voters for reconsideration.
But the headlines in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 16, 1910 sounded like something entirely different was happening. HIDE YOUR BOOZE — HERE’S AWFUL NEWS!, said the multi-tiered bit of doggerel. “Sturgis Sleuths Again Are Here, and Soon There’ll Be Sad Lack of Beer.”
The Sturgis detectives had left Bangor more than a year ago. They wanted to give newly elected local law enforcement officials a chance to crush the city’s notorious liquor trade. In places like Bangor, of course, the idea was something of a joke. The city had been winking at the Maine law, the first-in-the-nation state prohibition law, for decades.
“No raids have been instituted by Sheriff White, while Police Chief Gilman, after frightening the dealers by frequent raids last spring and summer suddenly ceased, with the exception of a few spasmodic seizures when the Democrats won the last election,” summed up the BDN. “In the meantime wide-open conditions have prevailed in the city. New places have opened for business and business has been conducted with the greatest freedom. He who desired to quench his thirst with something stronger than soda had numberless shops to choose from and draft ale was common.”
Then, out of the blue, the Sturgis men showed up at their local office and storeroom on Franklin Street. They raided two places, starting what was believed to be another rein of terror aimed at the “liquor trust.” Charles H. Milan’s place at 139 Main St. and James W. Cratty’s shop at 42 Harlow St. were surprised, liquor seized and the proprietors summonsed to municipal court.
As usual farce turned into soap opera. “No sooner had these raids been made than there was a panic among the dealers. “The ‘Where-are-they-now squad’ set the wireless working, and all kinds of vehicles were pressed into service to cart away the liquor,” reported the amused newsman. “Guards were stationed at approaches … ‘The Sturgis men are here!’ was the cry.” (Readers of my previous columns know that “The Wireless” referred to the system of lookouts posted on street corners and atop buildings to spot approaching lawmen.)
Another headline in the same newspaper that day announced LIQUOR DEALERS FEAR DOUBLE CROSS. “Most annoying rumors are afloat that the incoming administration is going to do something in the way of enforcement,” the reporter explained. It seems that even though the Sturgis Commission had been targeted for extinction, some top Democratic officials claimed the new administration planned to enforce the Maine law. “How’s a poor man who is trying to make an honest living selling a few barrels of whiskey and a [train] carload of beer a week going to know where he’s at?”
Was the appearance of Sturgis men in Bangor a parting shot by the outgoing Republican administration? Would the dirty work continue until April, when the commissioners’ terms expired?
“Looks as though it was a double-cross,” an Exchange Street “purveyor of choice wines and cigars” said to the reporter. “We vote the Republican ticket and we get the Sturgis deputies. We vote the Democratic ticket and we get Hell.”
The Sturgis detectives made a few more symbolic moves in Bangor during the next few days, raiding places on Exchange, Franklin and Hammond streets. But the main target of their activities turned out to be Old Town, where 37 warrants were served.
Meanwhile, Sturgis was dissolving. The commission’s appropriation had run out and its detectives suddenly left the city, the Bangor Daily Commercial, an anti-prohibition Democratic paper, announced jubilantly on December 30. “The Sturgis deputies have left Bangor and as yet the lamenting over their departure has been too faint to make itself heard.”
In January, the governor removed the commissioners from office. In February the law was repealed.
The BDN, a pro-prohibition Republican paper that nevertheless decried the Sturgis Commission’s violation of local control, moaned in an editorial, “Sturgis was the final ruination of the Maine Republican Party as an organization.” For the first time since 1847, Democrats had seized control of both the Maine House and Senate, according to the newspaper.
What would local officials do now that the responsibility for enforcing prohibition had been handed back to them? A curious reporter from the Bangor Daily News asked Sheriff White. He got a curious answer.
“No doubt the liquor dealers will tremble in their shoes when they read what Sheriff White said … [it] will ring the length and breadth of this good old State of Maine. It will echo from Kittery to Fort Kent and from Madawaska to Monhegan.
“Sheriff White pondered deeply. He knew that his answer was to be printed in the paper. He knew that he must speak with due caution and advisedly. He finally answered: ‘I don’t know.’”
Bangor’s liquor dealers were no longer confused. It looked like it was time to start the party up again.
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 can be sent to him at email@example.com.