Harriet S. Foyer, alias Aunt Hat, was the most notorious madam in the Bangor area at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her bawdy house in Veazie on Shore Road overlooking the Penobscot River was an occasional target of sheriff’s deputies and even the Bangor police.
Maintaining a house of prostitution and selling liquor were among the charges against Aunt Hat during this period. In 1907, the establishment became the center of a homicide investigation after the body of one of her customers was found on nearby trolley tracks. In 1909, in another sensational case, a teenager charged she had been held captive there for “immoral purposes.”
These events occurred near the end of Aunt Hat’s career. She was already an elderly woman. She owned a great deal of property, but may not have had much money. Strange stories began to emerge that her establishment was also the town poor farm. Then, as if she had developed a double, Hat turned over her property to the Salvation Army. Had she suddenly become the proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold” enshrined in sentimental literature?
Town reports verify some of this activity. In the Veazie annual report for 1910-1911, both Harriet Foyer and Harry Foyer, her son (according to the U. S. Census) are listed among those receiving public money for “support of the poor.” Two men are listed as the objects of their beneficence. I suspect more research in such documents would uncover other references to Aunt Hat’s charitable activities.
Harriet’s reputation for charitable behavior is also preserved at the Maine Folklife Center at the University of Maine. “She was one of the biggest-hearted women that ever lived,” 82-year-old Odillion C. Turner, a Veazie resident, told an interviewer in 1977. “A man off the drive or out of the woods who got drunk was likely to get rolled for his money. On the other hand, she would take care of men who were down and out or sick, until they were back on their feet.”
By 1910, Hat had struck up a relationship with Arthur Armstrong, head of the Bangor chapter of the Salvation Army. Armstrong reportedly made efforts to gain clemency for her in a case involving two New Brunswickers who visited Hat’s place one night while on a spree. By that time she claimed to have moved out of the main house and into a nearby cottage where she had nothing to do with the antics going on at her old business site.
Had Aunt Hat gotten religion? I have wondered if the death of her nine-year-old granddaughter, Hazel, might have touched off such a conversion. Hazel was killed while crossing the railroad tracks “at a point opposite the upper entrance of Mount Hope cemetery,” the Bangor Daily News reported on June 10, 1907.
The next dramatic event that I’ve noticed in Aunt Hat’s saga (and the reason why I am writing this column) was reported in both Bangor newspapers on Oct. 16, 1911, a century ago yesterday. Fire destroyed “the dwelling house on the river bank in Veazie, three miles from Bangor, owned by Arthur E. Armstrong of the Salvation Army and occupied by two families who are also Salvationists. The house, which formerly was owned by Harriet S. Foyer, was a large frame structure, well constructed and equipped with many conveniences,” reported the Bangor Daily News that morning.
An alarm had sounded in Bangor and “a steamer” had started out, but had turned back “when it was found that the fire was three miles away.” Fire Chief Mason, however, continued to the scene and directed volunteers “in a successful effort to save the barn.” Veazie firemen reportedly did not appear, and the nearest hydrant was nearly a mile away “so that no attempt was made to lay a line of hose.”
In the afternoon, the Bangor Daily Commercial referred to the place as “a former notorious resort.” It said, “About two years ago, the former owner (Harriet Foyer) joined the Salvation Army and the property was purchased by Arthur E. Armstrong, adjutant of the local corps of the army.”
I checked out this surprising news at the Penobscot County Registry of Deeds. Sure enough, Harriet S. Foyer sold her land in Veazie to A. E. Armstrong on August 2, 1911, a little more than two months before the fire. But the story doesn’t end there. A second “conveyance” was transacted on Feb. 21, 1913 between Harriet Foyer and Armstrong “as additional security to secure performance of the terms of a certain bond or agreement” they had entered into on Aug. 2, 1911. Harry Foyer still “occupied” the property.
Whether Aunt Hat had a religious conversion or she was just trying to strike a deal with the Salvation Army that would keep her out of jail and help her pay her bills, we may never know. A good deal of research remains to be done before the details of Aunt Hat’s complicated life are fully understood.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears every other Monday. An illustrated collection, Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com.