BANGOR, Maine — Interested in a lesson in one of the quirkiest moments of Bangor history, when members of the Al Brady gang were gunned down by the FBI on Central Street the morning of Oct. 12, 1937?
A realistic painting of the event hangs in Giacomo’s, an Italian specialty cafe at 1 Central St.
Go see the painting — but be prepared.
“Brady at Bangor,” a 6½-foot-by-16½-foot oil painting done primarily in the late 1970s by Orono native Leon Treadwell, has sparked controversy in the three weeks since Giacomo’s owner, Milva Smith, and her husband, Bangor lawyer Steve Smith, mounted the painting in the establishment.
The painting, hanging above a deli case filled with meats and cheeses, is a graphic depiction of the shootout, with images of bloody clothes, rotting flesh and spurting blood.
While some regulars appreciate the documentation of Bangor history, others apparently feel the ghoulish faces, graphic gunshot wounds and morgue scenes are a little repulsive for an Italian cafe that serves wine by the glass, pressed sandwiches, espresso and baked goods.
The controversy has prompted an informal poll of customers who are asked to mark on a piece of paper whether they want the painting to remain on display. As of Friday morning, votes were running about 77 percent in favor of keeping the painting up in Giacomo’s.
“Ah, the controversial painting!” said downtown resident Michael Goodwin, a Giacomo’s regular who stopped in Friday for a cup of coffee. “I think it’s really cool. It caught my attention when I went by it the first time a couple of weeks ago. It’s definitely an attention-grabber. … It’s kind of neat to have something like this up, with the history of this in Bangor.”
Some of the complainers, according to Milva Smith, feel the eatery isn’t the right place for blood and gore.
“I definitely can understand that,” she said. “A few people have said it’s not very appetizing to be in its presence in a deli. But the yes [votes] were really strong. People were saying, ‘Don’t move it [because] it’s important to see.’”
Smith said her husband borrowed the painting from local resident Linda LeClair, who had the painting in her possession. Steve Smith had wanted to mount it somewhere inside Giacomo’s, considering the proximity of the eatery to the place where Brady was gunned down. The spot is marked with a plaque on the sidewalk down the block on Central Street, near the space that now houses the Friars’ Bakehouse.
The Smiths intended to hang the painting on the back wall of Giacomo’s, but it was too big for the space. They decided to hang it from the ceiling over the deli case, and angled the bottom away from the floor so customers could see the whole thing.
Milva Smith first saw a photograph of the painting shortly before it was delivered to the cafe.
“I was startled and stunned,” she said. “I just did not particularly like it. It arrived several weeks later, and it has grown on me. I actually have learned to appreciate the artist’s message here, and I really like it. It seems to work.”
“Brady at Bangor” depicts the moment of the shootout, when gangsters Al Brady and Clarence Lee Shaffer Jr. faced a barrage of gunshots from FBI agents. Shaffer is shown taking a bullet under his arm, blood spraying from the wound.
At the top of the scene, Treadwell painted portraits of an intense Brady, a sneering Shaffer, and a cocky Rhuel James Dalhover, the third gang member who was in Bangor, with some of the handguns they used.
On the sides of the painting, against a painted wood background, Treadwell painted the corpses of Shaffer on the left and Brady on the right. Both bodies are depicted with gray skin and bloody clothes. Shaffer’s left eye seems to have rolled back inside his head; his other eye socket appears to be empty.
The corpse paintings drew the ire of an anonymous person Thursday during the lunch hour, but not for the graphic elements.
At some point around 11:30 a.m., Giacomo’s manager Brett Settle said Friday someone taped a note on a window at Giacomo’s railing against an inaccurate depiction of the bodies. Apparently, the person thought the artist meant to paint the bodies propped up against buildings, and didn’t seem to understand the bodies were painted as if they were lying in the morgue.
“The bodies were lying in the middle of the street, not on any building,” the note read. “This seems a tad megalomaniacal, to say the least, as well as crude. There’s enough historical distortion in this country. There is nothing decent about being pompous. It is disgusting.”
Milva Smith and Settle laughed off the note Friday morning.
“I don’t think [the letter writer] gets it,” Smith said.
In the painting, Treadwell included images of old Bangor Daily News articles, photographs from the scene, and more guns.
It’s also a depiction of downtown Bangor in the late 1930s, when shops such as Dakin’s Sporting Goods and C.D. Merrifield & Co. lined Central Street.
Former BDN writer Dick Shaw, a Bangor historian who participated in a Brady gang re-enactment in 2007, said Treadwell intended for the painting to be somewhat shocking. In a BDN story about the painting’s 1980 unveiling, Shaw wrote that Treadwell examined autopsy reports to replicate the bodies lying in the morgue of what was then Eastern Maine General Hospital.
“I think he wanted to make it really graphic,” Shaw said this week.
Treadwell succeeded, according to some Giacomo’s patrons, but Shaw can’t remember any public outcry about the painting in 1983, when it was displayed in a window of Freese’s Department Store in Bangor. Shaw said it may have been on display at the Bangor Mall and also at the old Paul’s Restaurant, where patrons may have appreciated the painting in the gangster-themed speakeasy.
“Brady at Bangor” went up in a window of Epic Sports, across Central Street from Giacomo’s, during the shootout re-enactment. A clerk at the sporting goods store said this week there was a mix of comments about the painting when it was on display.
“I’m saying, it wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I don’t recall any big controversy,” Shaw said. “It is pretty graphic and bloody.”
Treadwell, who died in 2007 at the age of 72, started on the piece in 1977, according to a Shaw story from that year. Treadwell conducted extensive research and worked from documents such as a descriptive letter he received from FBI sharpshooter Walter Walsh, who was wounded during the shootout.
Shaw wrote in 1980 that Treadwell painted the work on a 9-foot-by-24-foot piece of white duck canvas, stretching it on a finished pine frame made of two-by-fours and two-by-threes. He spent 180 hours sketching.
Shaw recalled that Treadwell sketched the scene in downtown Bangor late at night, prompting questions from local police.
Treadwell envisioned the large work going into an office such as a bank, Shaw said. Shaw told him that probably wouldn’t happen, considering the Brady gang robbed banks.
Born in Augusta, according to the obituary in the BDN, Treadwell was a graduate of Orono High School. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he began working in the construction business, but his real passion was for drawing and painting murals. Shaw recalled Treadwell also worked as a deliveryman for the Orono restaurant now known as Pat’s Pizza.
“Brady at Bangor,” mentioned in the obituary as one of Treadwell’s notable works of art, likely will remain on display in Giacomo’s until October, or as long as the eatery’s customers still enjoy its presence.
“Our gut was telling us that we wanted it to stay awhile,” Milva Smith said. “If you look past the guns and the blood, you can see a snapshot of what [Central] Street looked like, what the buildings looked like. I love the fact that our building is actually displayed in there. And there are a lot of people who come in and had no idea this happened in Bangor.”