At first, it sounded like an April Fools’ joke. Was Bangor about to shut down the hundreds of illegal slot machines run by small businesses throughout the city?
“Late last night, a palpitating rumor — more than a rumor, a warning — flashed over the wireless and quickly ramified all over the town. ‘Duck the slot machines if you don’t want to lose ’em – trouble coming!’” reported the Bangor Daily News on the morning of April 1, 1914. The “wireless” was shorthand for the system consisting of messenger boys, phone calls and the like, which kept saloon keepers and other interested parties apprised of what the police were up to.
To hear it told today, Bangor back then was a regular gambling den of iniquity. Hundreds of slot machines sat on the counters of all sorts of commercial establishments from saloons and restaurants to corner stores and pawn shops, providing these businesses with a steady flow of extra income.
Some of these machines dispensed cigars, while others awarded coupons for 50 cents or a dollar for purchasing other merchandise. Many, known as “money machines,” paid out winnings in cash. They were usually in saloons and pool halls “and other places where men and boys congregate.”
Many regarded the machines as a corrupting influence into which “regular addicts” dumped money that should have been used to support their families.
The idea that gambling was a viable “economic development tool” in this era of thriving farms and mills would have sounded ridiculous, if anyone had dared to get up and say it. After all, gambling was immoral. And it was against the law. It existed in Bangor only because of the high level of tolerance shown there toward all sorts of vice.
“Why conditions in Bangor which would not be tolerated in New York, Chicago or any large city have been allowed to go on without … hindrance as they have in the past year or more in regard to gambling machines, is more than I can comprehend,” a “former city official” told the newspaper reporter. “I am sure it is not graft or protection from those ‘higher-up’ — not at all, but simply carelessness and indifference.”
He added, “I venture to say that there is in operation in Bangor every week day — and many on Sunday — at least 1,500 slot machines all directly contrary to the laws of Maine against games of chance, machines in which a nickel played may not win anything, be as much lost as if it was thrown in the river.”
The rumor of doom came true one month and one week later. “MAYOR SAYS DEATH TO SLOT MACHINES” was the melodramatic headline on May 6 in the Bangor Daily News.
It happened quickly and decisively — like the descent of the blade on a guillotine. Chief of Police Thomas O’Donohue was explaining to the city council that Hyman Davis had applied to open a pool room. ”Davis hadn’t been especially anxious for a slot machine, it appeared, but it seemed to him that he ought to run one in view of the fact that most of his neighbors did,” reported the newspaper.
“Turning suddenly in his big oaken chair, the mayor flashed out: ‘We’ll settle this question right here and now. Mr. O’Donohue, you may instruct your men tomorrow morning to notify every owner of a slot machine that it has got to come out. Make no exceptions. And they will stay out just as long as I occupy this chair.’”
The results of this alarmingly sudden declaration were swift. “CLEAN-OUT OF THE SLOT MACHINES: Mayor Gave Orders for Them to Go, and Go They Did,” the newspaper announced the next day. Chief O’Donohue had lined up his day squad the morning after the city council meeting and given them their orders. Within an hour they had visited “at least two hundred places — some of eminent respectability — and one widespread form of gambling had come to an end.”
The reporter explained that slot machine gambling in Bangor “was more than a fad — it had grown into a mania shared by all classes from eminent businessmen to ragged street urchins. Thousands upon thousands of dollars monthly poured in the maws of the machines, and all other forms of gambling here were trivial in comparison.”
Of course, such declarations had been made in the past by various politicians, but the slots had reappeared. Chief O’Donohue, however, was confident enough to state in his annual report to the citizens of Bangor on March 1, 1915, “Today it can safely be said that there is not a gambling machine in operation in this city.”
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.