Bangor was already a notorious battleground in the prohibition war, so it was natural that the militant members of the state’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union would choose it as the site for their annual convention a century ago this week. The “white ribboners,” as they were known because of their emblem, were confident in their eventual victory. Maine, the first state to pass prohibition, was now one of nine with prohibition laws and more were expected to join the rolls of “purity” soon. Could federal prohibition be far behind?
A parade through the streets of Bangor on Sept. 16, 1909, was just the thing to attract attention to the glorious cause. Dozens of schoolchildren joined hundreds of temperance warriors dressed in the long skirts and big hats of the era accompanied by a platoon of policemen and the ever ready Bangor Band. They marched from the Columbia Street Baptist Church down Middle Street to Main to State to Harlow through Central to West Market Square. They carried banners proclaiming “Bread is Better than Beer,” “ The Only Good Saloon is no Saloon” and “Maine Leads, the Nation is Following.” They sang hymns and looked grim.
Hundreds of people watched the spectacle. “It is the first parade of its kind that has ever been held in Maine, or in connection with any convention of the WCTU, and its promoters said that it was a great success,” declared the Bangor Daily News the next morning.
Despite the growing success of prohibition nationally, Maine’s liquor law seemed in disarray, and Bangor’s bar scene was infamous. The city’s official representative, Mayor John Woodman, felt obliged to go on the defensive in his remarks to the convention on Sept. 15. “No city has been so abused as has this one,” he said. “Certain writers have seen fit to publish all over the land stories which I know to be false. I wish to say that our city is as safe and as clean [of vice] as any other. You ladies can go anywhere — you will not be insulted; I do not think that you will meet very many drunken men. And when the papers print of children selling liquor on the street corners, of immorality and degradation — well, I wish that you would investigate for yourselves … May you see us as we are — no better, no worse.”
Perhaps he had advised them to stay off Exchange Street and out of some of the other neighborhoods along the waterfront — places the paraders notably skipped.
The comments that same day of Mrs. Lillian M.N. Stevens, president of both the Maine and national WCTU organizations, help place Bangor’s unsavory reputation in some perspective. Prohibition laws at their worst were better than license laws at their best, maintained the Dover native. Bangor could be a lot worse.
“The prohibitory law throughout our state is enforced better than for many years. … Does someone say, ‘Even in Bangor’? Let the Bangor people answer that,” she said, unwilling to confront her hosts directly. “I have often to answer for Bangor in other states and even other lands. At the close of an address in Manchester, Eng., with Prohibition Maine for my subject, an intelligent looking gentleman said to me, ‘You did not tell us about Bangor!’ One would sometimes think by what he reads in the license or liquor papers that Bangor was the seat of anarchy, and home to desperadoes.”
Mrs. Stevens blamed much of this reputation on the “liquor interests” that, she alleged, paid people to plant negative publicity about prohibition in Maine in the press. Enforcement of a liquor law was always better than a license law, which led to even worse chaos, she claimed. There would always be “blind tigers” — a term for illegal speakeasies — no matter what the situation.
“Admitting that the statement is correct that there are 50 blind tigers in Bangor, under the plan of the Model License League there would be at least 50 legalized gilded saloons on some of the best streets and street corners of the city plus as many illegal dens as now exist. How do I know this? Because it is so in license cities, and it is in the nature of the liquor trade — the most diabolical, lawless monopoly in all the world,” said the formidable political activist.
Stevens urged Bangoreans to think about their inspiring past. Did they remember the great temperance mass meeting of 1843? Did they recall presenting to Neal Dow, the state’s great liquor reformer, “a beautiful silver pitcher” in recognition of his efforts to secure passage of the state prohibition law? Did they remember voting by a “decided majority” in 1884 to place prohibition in the state’s constitution? Current problems were not the law’s fault, but the fault of officials who did not enforce the law.
A few days after the WCTU’s whirlwind appearance, the Bangor Daily News, which supported prohibition in theory, but not the heavy-handed efforts being used to enforce it, claimed to have spotted an end to the current mess. In the last criminal term of the Supreme Court, one liquor dealer had gone to jail, but 12 others had skipped town before final sentencing. The newspaper saw a “bright lining” to this situation.
“There are only 240 proprietors of saloons and kitchen bars in the entire city,” noted the reporter with tongue firmly planted in cheek. “Hence if 12 of said proprietors choose voluntary exile at the close of every criminal term, the elapse of 10 short years will find them all living elsewhere, and the saloons and kitchen bars will be but a memory.” Like most prohibition schemes, serious or otherwise, this one sounded good on paper until you did the arithmetic.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column may be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.