OUR CITY — ITS PRIDE AND SHAME: That was the title of the Rev. Christopher W. Collier’s sermon at Hammond Street Congregational Church on Sunday morning, Nov. 19, 1911, a century ago. Being one of the most prominent clerics in the Queen City and given the importance of his subject, Collier had a ready audience. The Bangor Daily News published his words the next day.
Bangor’s “pride,” according to the Rev. Collier, was its wealth, its beauty, and its generosity to the poor. Its shame was — what else — its failure to enforce the state’s prohibition law. Just two months before, the state’s voters had narrowly turned down an effort to repeal the prohibition amendment in the Maine Constitution. Bangor voters, however, had voted by a three-to-one margin for repeal. This lopsided vote reflected the fact the city had not made a serious effort to enforce the liquor law in many years.
The Rev. Collier said he had traveled the world and seen the way laws were enforced in many countries. He declared he had “never in any land in any city … seen such callousness over violated law as I see everyday here … . It is enough to make every patriotic citizen blush with mortification and shame.”
He had recently asked a number of “earnest men” how many saloons there were in Bangor. “One said 175, another said 300, another said, ‘I don’t know, but so far as the enforcement of the law is concerned, I don’t see why there might not as well be 500 or 1,000.”
“Can any lover of the city look on the saloons at the foot of Broad Street, at the head of Union Street, or those gathered around Pickering Square, all in open violation of the law, can he look on these and others like these and then speak of his city with pride?” the Rev. Collier wanted to know.
While the Rev. Collier was blushing in mortification, Police Chief Frank Davis, a man well grounded in the politics of the city, was planning his next liquor raids. These raids by Davis and former chiefs had for years been carefully crafted to make it look as though the city was trying to enforce prohibition, when in fact it was regulating the steady flow of demon rum on its own terms and reaping some of the profits. Liquor dealers who followed local rules were left alone, but a few troublemakers were punished.
Back in April, Davis had made it clear saloons would be allowed to operate if they followed certain standards. They had to close by 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and shut down completely on Sundays. Davis’ approach appeared to some to be a “renaissance of the Bangor Plan,” the system under which hundreds of saloons flourished as long as they paid the city a fine each year.
The week after the Rev. Collier’s sermon, and perhaps in reaction to it, Davis added a new wrinkle to his campaign. He targeted “kitchen barrooms,” which operated on the lower end of the liquor hierarchy below the fancy saloons and hotel bars, but a notch above “pocket peddlers,” those fast-moving fellows who sold drinks in alleys or crowds from bottles concealed in the deep pockets of their coats. Kitchen bars were small-time, hole-in-the-wall operations. Because they were difficult to control, or even detect, they were anathema to the police and politicians who ran the city.
In what the Bangor Daily News declared to be the “largest raid ever made by the police department,” Davis’ men seized five “wagon and dray loads” of liquor at the Pickering Square cigar shop and May Street storehouse of James J. McCann on the Wednesday after the Rev. Collier’s sermon. The haul included “18 barrels of ale, 19 halves of ale and 10 halves of lager.” Instead of fighting the case, the way most liquor dealers had been doing the past few years, McCann paid a fine of $100 and costs and presumably went right back into business.
The most interesting part of the story, however, was that McCann had been targeted not because he was a liquor dealer, but because he supplied kitchen barrooms.
“Kitchen Bars to be Wiped Out,” declared a big headline in the Bangor Daily News on Nov. 23, the day after the raid. A subhead said, “Some Plain Talk by Chief Davis — Wholesalers Who Sell to Kitchen Bars Will Get Into Trouble.”
“You may make this as plain as you like,” Chief Davis told the newspaper reporter. “I intend to drive the kitchen bars out of business. They sell at all hours of the day and night; they are open Sundays; and many of them dispense rank poison in place of liquor. In short they are unmitigated evils, breeding all manner of lawlessness and crime and I will not tolerate them.”
McCann had violated his “explicit orders” not to sell to kitchen bars, declared Davis. The only evidence of this that the reporter could muster for his story was that McCann was alleged to have sold liquor to Mrs. Florence McNeil, a kitchen bar operator whose establishment had been raided the night before.
Davis, who spent much of his career working for city newspapers, had a way with words. He made it sound as if he was enforcing prohibition when in reality he was only nibbling around the edges of the Queen City’s massive liquor trade. Too many people were profiting from demon rum for any official to make a serious effort to enforce the law. For the time being, the Rev. Collier and other law-abiding citizens would have to be satisfied until the political winds shifted in a drier direction.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com