The appointment of a new Penobscot County sheriff after the impeachment of his predecessor in 1913 led to a frenzy of activity aimed at crushing the Queen City’s liquor trade once and for all.
Sheriff J. Fred O’Connell was appointed by Gov. William Haines after the Legislature impeached Sheriff Wilbert W. Emerson for not doing enough to enforce the Maine Law, the nation’s oldest state prohibition statute. Emerson, a veteran deputy, had only been in office for three months.
Sheriff O’Connell, a Republican state legislator, and his deputies seemed to be everywhere in the spring of 1913 as they set out on the hopeless task of drying out Bangor, where saloons were said to be more common than grocery stores. Here are a few headlines from the Bangor Daily News that tell part of the story.
May 31: “SHERIFF GETS AFTER BIG LIQUOR DISTRIBUTORS: Strikes at the Kitchen Dives by Shutting Off Their Supply.” This operation entailed a midnight raid at the Glenburn train station. “The war is on, and in good earnest,” declared the reporter.
June 2: SHERIFF O’CONNELL HAS BEEN THREATENED: Anonymous Writers Threaten to ‘Get’ Him for Activity in Closing Saloons. “I don’t know whether I shall take any action or not,” O’Connell said. Anonymous letter writers are usually cowards.”
June 24: “SHERIFF ORDERS CLUBS STOP SELLING LIQUOR: O’Connell Serves Notice on Officers of Bangor Lodge of Elks and ‘Riding and Driving Club’ to Quit.” Alderman McGrath of the Bangor City Council complained the Sheriff’s Department was spending too much money on his “liquor squad.”
July 11: “SHERIFF O’CONNELL MAKES RECORD HAUL: Entire Carload of Kentucky Whiskey — 620 gallons, Valued at $1,612 – Now Reposes in the Court House.” Once again the target was a railroad car, in Hampden this time, loaded with enough liquor to fill “a big hayrack and a long jigger.”
These were but a few of the headlines outlining Sheriff O’Connell’s frenetic efforts to shut down the Penobscot County liquor trade, particularly in Bangor, which had gained a reputation all over the country for its wide open saloons.
The victims of this Reign of Terror in the Devil’s Half Acre and surrounding neighborhoods included a host of small businesses catering to woodsmen and other laborers. They included Pope McKinnon’s Globe Hotel and Eugene McCarthy’s Waverly House, both on French Street, Joseph CLuett’s South Brewer Hotel, Frank Largay’s Riverside House, Edmond Tardif’s Eastern Eating House and Victor Chaison’s Hotel, both on Exchange Street, and many more boarding houses, restaurants, clubs, cigar stores and the like.
The circumstances surrounding these raids were often colorful.
At the Pastime Club, for example, deputies had to smash down a heavy door after “an invisible sentry” drew back a sliding panel and “didn’t like what he saw.” At the Golden Oak Café, they arrested a fellow “whose chief duty was to press an electric button of warning when the deputies hove in sight.”
Smashed doors were only part of the wholesale destruction.
At Edward Burke’s on Hodgdon Street, deputies found a carpenter installing 75 feet of lead pipe to channel liquor from kegs hidden in a backroom to the barroom. “They ripped out the bar, gathered up all the glasses, dice boxes, cards, a cigar machine, faucets, took out the ale and the lead pipe and when they left the place it was a scene of desolation,” noted a reporter for the Bangor Daily News on October 15.
Clever “hides,” where liquor and beer were secreted, were commonplace. Sometimes it took the deputies hours to find them.
Victor Chaison, who had recently built a 26-room hotel with a restaurant and an elevator next to the Palace Theater on Exchange Street, kept his liquor in a small room in the basement buried inside a coal bin beneath the barroom. Access to the “wet goods” was had through a couple of trapdoors, one controlled by a button at the bar.
The same day the deputies discovered Chaison’s “hide,” they found a “booze mine” in a “pocket” under some stairs at 103 Exchange St. that produced “a jigger-load of stuff.” The owner of this “stuff” went undetected, recorded the Bangor Daily News on October 15.
Dozens more raids were conducted in nearby small towns like Orono and Lincoln. On the morning of the Fourth of July, a drinking day for the workingman, the sheriff boasted, “I won’t say there is no liquor for sale in Penobscot County … but I guess there isn’t much, and those who are seized with a Fourth of July thirst will have to hunt for their refreshments.”
Fast-moving motorboats were replacing schooners in transporting liquor supplies up and down the Penobscot River.
In the winter months, when the river was frozen shut, Sheriff O’Connell and his deputies focused much of their effort on rail yards, where huge shipments of bottled and kegged goods with names like Sunny Smilie Rye, Nectar of the Gods, Aeroplane Sour Mash and Swastika Old Stock were stored, waiting to be claimed by mysterious parties.
Strange wagons, even an undertaker’s wagon, seeming to be going nowhere in particular, were targeted for searches.
Meanwhile, hotel proprietors in respectable hotels like the Bangor House and the Penobscot Exchange protested they had to charge higher rates if they couldn’t serve liquor. HOTEL IS HIGH WHEN TOWN IS DRY, rhymed a perfect headline in the Bangor Daily News on July 3. Bangor’s convention business was threatened by these higher rates, and the Grange was already considering going somewhere else.
Most of city’s prohibition stories were published in the Bangor Daily News, a Republican newspaper. The anti-prohibition Bangor Daily Commercial, the paper read by Democrats, ignored much of the excitement, preferring to sit on the sidelines and take pot shots at prohibitionist zeal instead.
In response to comments by Gov. William Haines and Sheriff O’Connell that Bangor was finally dry or as dry as could ever be expected, the Commercial went on the offensive, citing the growing number of drunks staggering around the city.
Thirty-two drunks had been held at the jail on the previous weekend, the paper wrote on November 24.
“This is the largest number arrested for intoxication for any Saturday night and Sunday since the commencement of enforcement by Sheriff O’Connell and his deputies,” noted the Commercial with glee.
“It appears from these records that the more enforcement we have the more drunks there are, and instead of Bangor being dry … it is wet and at times very wet.”
The newspaper further noted that in September the jail had held 133 drunks and 54 shelters (intoxicated people placed there for their protection) and in October the number had risen to 253 drunks and 59 shelters.
THE SHERIFF MAKES A STINGING REPLY was the headline on a Bangor Daily News story on Jan. 7, 1914 after O’Connell struck back at his critics. His words are a good guide to the special interest groups who controlled Bangor at that time.
“I have not heard any complaints from those who advocate enforcement of the law for the sake of general sobriety and good order, and to save the laborer’s wages from going into the tills of saloons instead of being used to support their wives and children,” he responded angrily. “… It is the other class that is complaining — the interested class. This includes liquor dealers who have been caught with the goods, bartenders, spies and bottle holders out of a job, or, possibly, a few owners of property that doesn’t rent as well as formerly when there were more saloons than grocery stores here.”
Bangor’s battle over booze of course was far from over. The prohibition movement was sweeping the land. Maine had been the first state to adopt a law banning liquor sales in saloons back before the Civil War, but now there were nine dry states. The push for a federal prohibition law – even a constitutional amendment – was well underway, according to a wire story in the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 12, 1914.
Sheriff O’Connell would have to scramble to keep up with the anti-liquor sentiment growing every day. Moral causes of all sorts were getting the upper hand nationally as well as in Bangor. Gamblers, prostitutes, drug users and even tango dancers were facing a rough road as the good folks of the Queen City of the East donned their Sunday best.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His new book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.