WAYNE E. REILLY

New sheriff dries out Bangor in 1913

Posted April 29, 2013, at 4:44 p.m.
J. Fred O'Connell
Courtesy of Dick Shaw
J. Fred O'Connell

BIG DROUTH BEGINS IN BANGOR TODAY, announced a large front page headline in the Bangor Daily News on Monday morning, April 14, 1913. That’s a drought of liquor, not rain, and everybody in Bangor knew that. Penobscot County Sheriff Wilbert Emerson had just been impeached by the Maine Legislature for not doing enough to enforce the state’s more than 50-year-old prohibition law (for details leading up to this event see my column on April 15, 2013).

In Augusta, Gov. William Haines seemed to be vacillating on whether to fire the popular lawman, despite the Legislature’s directions. And Emerson was vowing to redouble his effort to shut down the saloons in the Queen City of the East in a last desperate effort to keep the job he had only held for three months.

“So long as I am sheriff, Bangor is going to be dry. Every place in which liquor is sold will be raided, and raided quick if it opens Monday morning,” the Hampden storekeeper told the newspapermen.

The liquor dealers were in “a state of panic,” said the newspaper. Many of the best bars had closed Saturday. Saloon keepers were shipping their huge liquor supplies back to the wholesale dealers in Boston where they bought them. Wagon loads of kegs and crates pulled by horses were seen rumbling through the streets at all hours of the day and night headed for the steamboat landing.

“The day of the gilded bar with the lager straight from the wood, its high grade whiskeys and its white-coated wine clerks seems to be over in Bangor, and the town is in for another experience of the warning whistle, the watcher, the wireless, the scout, the spotter, the club, the Saturday night speakeasy and the Sunday kitchen bar,” the reporter opined.

Much of the jargon he used had to do with all the ways available for eluding the law. For example, clubs like the Tarratine avoided the law by providing members with private lockers for their liquor supply. Spotters employed by barkeepers were back standing in doorways and on rooftops looking for the cops. Pocket peddlers were selling from individual bottles “on the hip” either from behind the bar in saloons that had gone dry or out prowling Bangor’s streets and alleys.

On Monday, a squad of deputy sheriffs visited more than a dozen places, but found only low-alcohol Uno beer was being served. Whiskey was being handled clandestinely in pitchers that could be emptied down the drain in a raid, and “there would be nothing left for them to seize but the smell,” noted the Bangor Daily Commercial.

Elaborate “hides” were back in vogue. One in particular found by police in a cheap hotel was described in the Commercial on April 16: “In a bedroom under the floor beneath the bed was a tank. From the tank a lead pipe led to a room below, where it terminated in a faucet beneath a piece of wood which formed one of the blocks in the upper corner of the door finish.”

In some places it was tough for a gentleman to get a drink.

“In Exchange Street, watchers were especially noticeable in the doors of various suspected shops, and, before entering, a prospective customer would have had to run a gauntlet of scrutiny,” a reporter observed. “One man tried hard to get a half pint, but failed. ‘He was too well dressed,’ commented a seedy bystander. ‘I could have got it for him.’”

On Wednesday, the Bangor Daily News declared, “Less liquor was sold in Bangor yesterday than on any day in 25 years, with the possible exception of that strenuous time immediately after the great fire.” About 60 percent of the saloons were closed and the others, usually “the cheaper places,” were selling Uno, although a healthy pocket peddling trade was underway. Nothing was served in the best hotels, and even in the Bangor House you couldn’t order a drink up in your room. Small bands of deputy sheriffs were even raiding drugstores where medicine often had a high alcohol content.

On May Street, detectives spotted a suspicious covered wagon and gave chase on foot. The driver whipped his horses into Summer Street and onto Railroad and Main streets, making a narrow escape into a side street with his suspected wagon load of contraband, the BDN reported. This was the era before police radios and cars, unless the officer owned his own.

Little was unearthed in these raids. A doorman was arrested at one dive for slamming the door in an officer’s face, while a spotter was picked up for tipping off the barman at the St. James Hotel that a raid was in the offing.

Then on April 24, a major stash was uncovered on Lincoln Street — “the biggest liquor seizure made in Bangor in recent years.” Four wagon loads of “wet goods” were taken to the “rum room” at City Hhall for storage. But it all turned out to be an unfortunate mistake. Later a judge ordered the liquor be returned to its owner, Arthur Cox, because the wrong address was on the search-and-seizure warrant. Presumably the goods were “returned to Boston,” the newspaper suggested.

Behind all this activity, a political drama was taking place in Augusta. The Executive Council voted on April 24 to instruct the governor to remove the impeached sheriffs in accordance with the legislative directive, resolving any doubts about what would happen to Sheriff Emerson. An array of candidates was rumored to be vying for the sheriff’s job even as he did his best to keep it.

The winner of the contest was J. Fred O’Connell, a Republican representative to the Legislature from Milford who had been active in several recent well-publicized floor battles. Ironically, he had voted against the removal of Emerson in the impeachment proceedings. O’Connell was active in Republican politics for many years afterwards, as was Emerson.

Religious and temperance groups were ecstatic about Gov. Haines’ efforts to enforce prohibition. The Eastern Maine Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church passed a resolution on April 23 praising his attitude. A few days later the Temperance Society praised the election of Haines and “the retirement to private life of certain officials guilty of deliberately betraying the confidence of their party.”

The temperance advocates also praised the recent passage of a new federal law called the Webb Bill forbidding the shipment of liquor into “dry territory” such as Maine. A few days later the Maine Central Railroad announced it would not ship any liquor suspected of being for illegal sale.

“Dry territory” was growing in size as more states jumped on the prohibition bandwagon, and federal prohibition moved closer to reality. Maine’s prohibition law had been the first state law in the nation, but supporters had never been able to enforce it in a politically effective manner in a few places such as Bangor.

Sheriff O’Connell initiated his first raid on Saturday, May 10, at the Globe Hotel on French Street. Six deputies came armed with a search-and-seizure warrant riding in two automobiles, which, of course, belonged to two of the deputies. They arrested a man running in an alley near the rear of the hotel with three quarts and three half-pints of whiskey cradled in his arms. He had just left the hotel.

How did the battle against booze in Bangor go after that? The Bangor Daily News summed things up in its end-of-the-year edition on Dec. 31, 1913, under the headline “The Rum Crusade.” Since O’Connell had taken over, “Bangor has been, if not actually dry, at least as dry as an active, honest sheriff and a hard-working force of deputies can make it. There are still many places for the thirsty … . but there is a nearer approach to prohibition than Bangor supposed it would ever get.”

Bangor was no longer a “wide-open” town. The forces of prohibition were in control for at least a while.

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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