June 24, 2018
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Sheriff impeached in effort to close Bangor saloons

Bangor Museum and History Center | BDN
Bangor Museum and History Center | BDN
The Metropolitan Cafe at 157 Broad St. in the Devil's Half Acre was one of Bangor's finest watering holes in the first decade of the twentieth century.
By Wayne E. Reilly, Special to the BDN

Maine had been trying unsuccessfully to enforce its first-in-the-nation prohibition law for more than 50 years. Nothing seemed to work in places like Bangor, not even a constitutional amendment or an army of state liquor detectives.

Now, at the dawn of 1913, a century ago, a new Republican governor, William T. Haines, had what he thought was a better idea. Vowing to enforce the will of the people, he announced impeachment proceedings against certain county officials who weren’t doing enough to stop the flow of alcohol.

His first list of targets included several sheriffs and a county attorney. One was Penobscot County Sheriff Wilbert W. Emerson. The Hampden man had been in office for only three months, yet he was going to be used as a scapegoat for 50 years of bureaucratic blundering and corruption.

Emerson’s impeachment trial for “wilful and corrupt neglect to enforce the prohibitory law” began April 10, 1913 before members of the state legislature. Judge Benjamin F. Cleaves of Biddeford, a member of the attorney general’s prosecution team, summed up the state’s case. Up until a little over a week ago, around the time news of the crackdown hit the newspapers, “liquor was as openly sold as groceries” in the Queen City, he said.

No attempt was made to hide the state of things, the judge stated. Saloons were separated from the streets only by doors and when the doors were open in warm weather anyone could look in and see men drinking and rows of bottles behind the bars.

If Sheriff Emerson had made a “decent effort” to change things, the attorney general would have given him more time to clean up the city, but things were little different now than they had been under the previous administration. (The popular Hampden storekeeper had been a deputy for several years in the administration before that one.)

Large quantities of liquor were being shipped into the city, noted Cleaves. “It was hauled through the streets by the cartload in broad daylight.” On one occasion, “the police patrol wagon had to be held up by the cart loads of liquor in the way.” Emerson had “sworn out 50 complaints or warrants since Jan. 1,” but there was no day since that date that he couldn’t have issued double that number in Bangor alone “had he desired.”

Judge Cleaves hung a large map of downtown Bangor on the wall of the House chamber next to the speaker’s desk. Saloons were marked with red spots.

He pointed out several of these places on Exchange and Harlow streets. They ranged from squalid dives to the luxury resorts. One on Harlow Street was housed in “a shack” thrown up two years ago after the city’s great fire. Another, the Jameson place, was comparable to a famous watering hole in Bangor’s larger sister city to the south, the Hollywood, “Portland’s palatial barroom.”

The saloons in Pickering and Haymarket squares were particularly open and notorious, the judge said, as was a place on Hammond Street — next door to City Hall. He also mentioned the Devil’s Half Acre at the foot of Broad Street. “The name requires no explanation,” he added.

A host of witnesses followed, including Maj. W. E. Southard, a civil engineer, who had drafted the map. He said he had located 52 of the saloons on his map by traveling about the streets, while two other men had informed him of 16 others.

Of course, these numbers sounded a bit low to anyone who read the newspapers. A list kept by the police the year before counted 87 saloons, according to the Bangor Daily News on April 12, 1912.

Even that number sounded low to the reporter, who had “tips from reliable sources” placing the number at anywhere from 100 to 300 and sometimes higher, depending on whether thousands of loggers were in town or whether law enforcement officials had decided to stage a crackdown.

Of course, many of these places were not “substantial saloons,” or “out-and-out thirst quenchers.” They were “small holes-in-the-wall or kitchen barrooms, who are apt to be in business one week and out the next.”

Witnesses described many of the saloons on the map as sumptuous affairs containing marble bars, brass rails and huge mirrors with rows and rows of the best whiskey and ale displayed. Sometimes several bartenders wearing white jackets took orders. Peter McAuley’s place on Franklin Street had potted palms and flowers in the front window instead of the usual array of cigar boxes and tobacco signs.

The city’s best hotels — the Bangor House, the Penobscot Exchange and the Windsor — were all named as offenders as well as a number of lesser-known places, especially down by the waterfront where loggers and sailors stayed. Some of the best restaurants, including the Manhattan Cafe on Exchange Street, also sold liquor.

But was any of this Sheriff Emerson’s fault after just three months? His lawyers put up a vigorous defense. He had done what he could, but had also had to deal with four murders, an arson case and the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad strike during his short time in office.

Emerson repeated all the raids made by himself or his deputies, and the many indictments issued. Of course, he had also been responsible for enforcement efforts in Dexter, Brewer and Old Town and especially in Millinocket, where it was said all the saloons had been closed up by the enthusiastic deputy on duty there.

Sheriff Emerson had set out “to eradicate the liquor traffic in Penobscot County,” argued his lawyer, Judge Charles Dunn of Orono. “He could not do this in three months nor could any man. I doubt if any man could eradicate it in three years.”

The prosecution continued to hammer away, however, at what appeared to be Sheriff Emerson’s uncertainty and inconsistencies. Judge Cleaves asked him if he was aware that during one month more than 42,000 gallons of liquor was delivered to Bangor by the Maine Central Railroad?”

“I never heard of it until today,” said the sheriff.

“Do you realize that your deputies only seized 500 gallons of that 42,000 odd gallons of liquor which came into Bangor during one month?”

“I am aware of it now,” responded the sheriff.

Cleaves managed to point out that on one particular raid one of Emerson’s deputies had actually seized a laundry wagon instead of “a booze wagon,” a bit of trivia which surely must have drawn titters from the audience.

The Legislature voted overwhelmingly to remove Sheriff Emerson from office on April 11. Their vote was only a recommendation, however. Gov. Haines would make the final decision.

That weekend in a desperate effort to keep his job, Emerson declared to the Bangor newspapers that he intended “rigid enforcement” of the liquor law from now on, and that he intended to make Bangor as dry as possible. Raids had already begun on Saturday.

“BIG DROUTH BEGINS IN BANGOR TODAY,” declared a large headline in the Bangor Daily News Monday morning. Many of the saloons had closed, sending loads of liquor back to Boston. “Bangor liquor dealers are in a state of panic,” the newspaper reported. But would even this be enough to spare Sheriff Emerson?

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. Thanks to Jean London of the Hampden Historical Society for information for this column.


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