WAYNE REILLY

Bangor’s ‘unwritten law’ encouraged illegal saloons

Posted Jan. 06, 2013, at 10:35 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 06, 2013, at 11:33 a.m.
Wayne Reilly
Wayne Reilly

Alexander Savoy ran a cigar store at 203 Broad St., said the Bangor City Directory a century ago. Mrs. Annie Burns operated a lunch room next door. But if you checked the newspapers or asked any passing policeman you would get another story.

Cigars were strictly a sideline for Savoy. He was a well-known saloon keeper. Mrs. Burns’ hired girls may have served some sandwiches, but police suspected she was also running a house of ill repute and selling liquor supplied to her by Savoy.

He sublet the space to Mrs. Burns. Up over the lunchroom were seven or eight bedrooms. Some “girls” picked up by the police said Savoy had “a hide,” a camouflaged place between the two businesses in which he stored liquor or beer for her use. They split the profits.

Dozens of other individuals in this area of downtown Bangor were conducting similar businesses in 1912. Wealthy men who owned the buildings profited from the rent. The area was still occasionally called the Devil’s Half Acre, or just The Acre.

Savoy had failed to pay a bill to a Boston wholesale liquor dealer. This oversight set off a series of events including two public hearings and lots of newspaper coverage that illuminated Bangor’s shady underworld. Readers got a detailed glimpse of the bizarre machinery erected by city fathers to avoid enforcing the state’s half-century old prohibition law. The city profited, if you didn’t count the hundreds of drunkards arrested every year.

During the fall of 1912, Savoy was approached by several bill collectors.

The third one, Daniel I. Gould, a local lawyer, appeared on Dec. 5, threatening to “bust him up” if he didn’t pay immediately. Savoy had several excuses expressed at various times in the ensuing press coverage. He said the bill was inaccurate. He said he couldn’t afford to pay. He said he was suspicious of the payment method. He was used to paying by mail.

Gould then made the oddest threat of all. He said he was going to report Savoy to the mayor and the chief of police. Savoy was already running an illegal business, and the police chief knew about it. It wasn’t the chief’s job to order illegal businesses such as Savoy’s to pay their bills, thus helping to prop up the importation of liquor into the Pine Tree State.

A few hours later, Police Chief Frank Davis, accompanied by several officers, appeared on the sidewalk in front of Savoy’s saloon demanding him to come outside.

“I’ll give you 24 hours to get busy,” Davis told Savoy and then walked off without giving the saloon keeper a chance to defend his actions.

A day or two later, police raided the saloon. Savoy was sentenced to serve 60 days in jail and pay a $100 fine and another 60 days if he didn’t pay. He had no money and a wife and child to support. He appealed the case and was out on bond, just one of the many liquor dealers whose fines each year helped finance city and county government under a system known far and wide as the Bangor Plan.

Even before an investigation was convened by the City Council, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was up in arms. Members wrote an angry letter to the Bangor Daily Commercial on Dec. 23, protesting “the anarchistic methods of our city administration” in overriding the state’s prohibition law. Here was a self-confessed saloon keeper complaining that he was being persecuted by the police, who turned out in force to help an out-of-state liquor dealer collect a debt. What kind of a joke was that?

Savoy found himself in the middle of a political donnybrook. Max Cohen, a pawn broker accused of falsifying pawn tickets and running an unlicensed pawn shop, was alleged to have a grudge against the police chief. He got wind of the Savoy incident and informed Alderman Benjamin W. Blanchard. Blanchard, who aspired to run for mayor, saw an opportunity to hold a sensational public investigation.

He summoned the saloon keeper, through his lawyer, to his office.

Blanchard typed up Savoy’s complaint that he was being persecuted by the police chief into an official affidavit. An investigation committee was formed by city councilors. The first hearing was held Dec. 27.

Police Chief Davis was asked what he meant by telling Savoy to “get busy.”

He testified, “I meant for him to be decent. I didn’t consider it proper for a man doing business on sufferance to evade the payment of a bill which would be legal in Boston.”

That meant Davis “suffered” Savoy’s existence in The Acre.

In response to questions from Councilman Charles H. Hubbard, Davis made some revealing comments about how the state liquor law was enforced (or not enforced) in Bangor.

“What is the law regarding saloons?” asked Hubbard.

“The unwritten law?” asked the chief.

“Yes.”

“That they should close at 10 o’clock each night, keep closed Sundays, run clean places, have no robberies or women about and no fights,” said the chief.

“What does this unwritten law come from?” asked the councilman.

“From an agreement between the mayor and myself,” responded the chief.

“There is a state law prohibiting the sale of liquor. You’ll admit you’ve broken the state law by allowing these places to run?”

Chief Davis replied, “I’ll admit that I’ve done the same thing as has been done for the past 50 years only perhaps I’ve been more honest about it — I have faced the situation without evasion.”

Under questioning from Alderman Daniel J. McGrath, Davis revealed even more about the mysterious workings of prohibition in Bangor.

“Hasn’t it been the custom for 25 years to let the sheriffs enforce the prohibitory law?” asked McGrath.

“Yes,” answered Chief Davis.

“And no police chief in all this time has ever done more than attempt to regulate the sale?” asked the alderman.

“That’s the idea,” responded the chief.

Councilmen asked many questions in an effort to get at an obvious issue: Were police trying to collect protection money from Savoy or other liquor dealers? Were they getting a cut of any bills collected for third parties like the Boston wholesaler? Various witnesses, including Savoy, denied any such activities were occurring. The question was never answered, however, to the satisfaction of a discerning reader.

Finally, waiting in the wings, was the subject of Mrs. Burns and her lunch room. Police Chief Davis claimed the main reason for the raid on Savoy’s place was not to punish the saloon keeper for not paying his bills; it was intended to collect evidence to enable police to arrest Savoy and Mrs. Burns with liquor. But the “hide” mentioned to police by the girls who had been arrested previously was not discovered during the raids that followed the argument over the unpaid bill.

Mrs. Burns was already “under bonds for the upper court on the charge of keeping a house of ill fame,” according to testimony at the hearing. And it was strongly suggested by some of the questioning that Savoy had once kept girls for immoral purposes at his saloon, but that was some time ago.

Davis’ concerns about Savoy supplying liquor to Mrs. Burns are not surprising. The year before he had vowed to close down any liquor dealers who were supplying “kitchen barrooms,” secretive operations such as Mrs. Burns outside of the city’s surveillance. While plenty of liquor was available in Bangor bars, prostitution was a riskier enterprise.

The hearing on Dec. 27, ended on a startling note. Daniel Gould, the lawyer, said that he was working on evidence that “tended to connect Mr. Savoy with the white slave traffic in Bangor.” Forced prostitution was a popular subject, but seldom was it mentioned in Bangor where there seemed to be enough enterprising volunteers.

At the next hearing, in early February, nobody brought up Gould’s accusation. The hearing was mainly a rehash of the first one with more details. But as later events would show, many progressive Bangoreans wanted something done about the city’s efforts to evade the state liquor law.

Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper 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 wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

 

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