February 26, 2020
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Bangoreans were fed up with circus of vice in 1909

“SCARLET LADIES; FLOODS OF RUM.” This bold lead on a multitiered headline at the top of page one of the Bangor Daily News on Monday morning April 5, 1909, was a shocker even for the Queen City. It continued, “Surprising Conditions Discussed as Mayor and Police Chief Face Broadside of Questions From the Voters’ League.”

Proper Bangoreans were fed up with vice, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. The Voters’ League was the latest manifestation of the Progressive Era in Bangor. Reform was in the breeze, and city fathers had better take a sniff.

They appeared to have gotten the message already. The weekend before this momentous meeting between the voters’ league, the mayor and the police chief, Bangor cops had rounded up a dozen street walkers, or “lady friends,” as they were sometimes known. Liquor raids had been on tap as well. “Whether Chief Bowen wants to make a record as a reformer or whether he thought it was about time to make a demonstration to frighten the bar keepers and the women, nobody knows,” commented a surprised reporter for the Bangor Daily News on March 29.

The upstanding men of the voters’ league were not so easily impressed, however. A special committee, consisting of “preachers, substantial businessmen, eminent representatives of many professions and trades,” came to City Hall on Saturday night, April 3, for separate meetings with Mayor John F. Woodman and Police Chief John C. Bowen. They asked, “Why are some of the laws here enforced and others nullified? Why do hundreds of bad women parade the streets at night, and why do hundreds of saloons run wide open day and night? Why is Bangor sometimes quoted as one of the wickedest … cities of its size in New England? Why are the police so blind to so many things?”

Mayor Woodman was a model host. He brought forth a bag of large oranges and a box of choice cigars. He smiled graciously. He shook hands. He greeted many of the petitioners by their first names. He was completely noncommittal. “Gentlemen I will take under consideration all that you have said,” he repeated.

Prohibition had existed in Maine for more than 50 years, yet one could obtain a drink in the best hotels or the lowliest waterfront dives. Prostitutes plied their trade openly, and slot machines sat on the counters of untold numbers of businesses. This circus of vice was propped up especially at this time of year by the thousands of loggers, sailors and other transient laborers passing through the city.

Attempts at law enforcement were sporadic. The police rounded up the usual suspects and seized a few gallons of booze when political conditions were ripe. Under the city’s infamous “Bangor Plan,” liquor dealers were fined instead of jailed, and the money was used for civic betterment projects.

Bangor’s reputation as a vice capital grew, as the state’s Legislature fumbled. “BANGOR NOT DRY; 300 PLACES OPEN,” a large, embarrassing front-page headline in the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 20 had declared based on the testimony of a senator from Knox County who wanted to resubmit prohibition to the state’s voters. Meanwhile, Maine’s governor that year vetoed a bill that would have made jail sentences mandatory for liquor violators.

“For the second city of the state, in wealth and population, to nullify the constitution of the state and refuse to enforce its laws, is a simple case of anarchy,” professor Robert Sprague of the University of Maine told Mayor Woodman on that Saturday evening long ago when the voters’ league took on City Hall. Nobody seemed to know who was responsible for enforcing the laws, and Woodman did little to clarify the issue.

Hadn’t the chief of police declared that liquor would not be sold on Sundays or after 10 p.m., implying that its sale was sanctioned at other times, asked Edgar M. Simpson? “Could you find outside the libretto of a comic opera anything more exquisitely ridiculous?” the lawyer wanted to know.

The Rev. Frederick Palladino of the Pine Street Methodist Church added, “If a man wants liquor here he can get enough of it to swim in. The city is wider open now than it was last fall. … More drunken men are staggering in the streets. A short time ago I made an investigation of the boarding house district, and of the 60 places which I visited, liquor could be had in 40.”

Professor Sprague had done his own investigation. “Recently, I entered one of the leading hotels of this city. … On the left of the smoking room there were three men lying flat on the floor in a drunken stupor. On the right there were four others in the same condition. Three more were laid out dead to the world on chairs. I passed into the bar. Seventeen men were drinking beer and whiskey. On my way out, I passed a policeman who was walking comfortably back and forth before the door.” He continued, “There is no place in this country … where you find more degenerate holes than in the city of Bangor. Are the police blind — or are they told to be blind?”

The Rev. Carl F. Henry of the Universalist Church asserted Bangor’s reputation was blocking national reform. “A vast sentiment of moral reform, a great wave of prohibition, is sweeping over the country. And do you know the chief obstacle to this country-wide sweep of civic advancement? It is the city of Bangor! The utter failure of Prohibition in this one city is quoted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf. It has defeated wholesome legislation as far away as the state of Washington. It has worked incalculable harm.”

After this lopsided exchange, the voters’ league moved downstairs to grill Chief Bowen. Not surprisingly, the police had just completed another raid. Billy Townsend’s unsavory roadhouse on Stillwater Avenue had been roughed up a bit. The results were in plain view as the men from the voters’ league entered the police station. “They found the office filled with somewhat tousled, peevish ladies, four-gallon jugs of whiskey and innumerable glasses with foamy suds still lingering in their depths,” reported the Bangor Daily News.

How seriously would these respectable gentlemen of the voters’ league be taken as the days went by? We can get some small idea by moving ahead to a meeting of the common council reported in the Bangor Daily News on April 14. Councilor Benjamin W. Blanchard read an order calling on the chief of police to enforce prohibition more stringently. Councilors looked surprised as if Blanchard “had exploded a dynamite bomb instead of a verbal one.”

“Is it necessary,” asked Councilor John H. Fahey, jumping to his feet, “to instruct the chief of police to do his duty? I move that the order be laid on the table.”

“Under the table,” suggested Councilor Patrick O’Leary.

“This isn’t the voters’ league,” remarked someone else.

Blanchard “started to walk from his seat to the president’s desk, and long before he reached it the order was as dead as a door nail. It had been tabled promptly, unanimously, and amid rounds of derisive laughter.”

Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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