BANGOR, Maine — For 11 Bangor High School students and their drama club adviser, Tuesday afternoon’s re-enactment of a mob attack on a Bangor newspaper publisher 150 years ago was a living history lesson.
And for anyone watching the 30-minute presentation sponsored by the Bangor Museum and Center for History, it was a chance to learn about a forgotten Civil War story involving Bangor, journalism, politics, mob violence and First Amendment issues.
“I am a huge, huge history buff, but didn’t know about this event,” said Bangor High sophomore Brennan MacDonald, who wants to be a historian. “When they mentioned we had a chance to do this, I pounced on it. This gave me a chance to combine history and acting, two of my biggest passions, and it was a fantastic experience.”
The event involved MacDonald and 10 classmates — outfitted in authentic Civil War-era garb including top hats, waistcoats, vests, ties, petticoats and hoop skirts — walking from the Bangor Museum at 159 Union St. down to West Market Square and the Charles Inn. Once there, they re-enacted the events of Aug. 12, 1861, when a group of Bangor residents destroyed the office of The Democrat, a Bangor newspaper published by Marcellus Emery, and threw parts of his printing press out the fourth-story window of the building that now houses Mexicali Blues.
“I think it’s really important for us to take part in things like this because it’s important for us to realize the big role the state of Maine and city of Bangor played in the Civil War,” said MacDonald. “We sent thousands and thousands of men to fight for the Union, and Hannibal Hamlin and Joshua Chamberlain were local heroes.”
Emery was very unpopular in Bangor because of his pro-South views and opposition to the Union and the Civil War.
“The thing that struck me the most with this was how aggressive people could be with their political views. Nowadays this would never happen,” said MacDonald, who played a narrator who was a pro-war newspaper publisher and eyewitness to the 1861 incident. “We think our presidential elections are rough now, back in 1836, they were calling each other’s wives whores and dueling each other. It’s calmed down considerably.”
After making several speeches in “the town square” debating the Civil War and Emery’s status as a Southern sympathizer, the students also re-enacted the office destruction, throwing pieces of Styrofoam representing the printing press out a fourth-story window of the Charles Inn, which was deemed a safer alternative location to the actual building.
The event was the first in a new series called “History Comes Alive,” and according to museum and center executive director Jennifer Pictou, it won’t be the last.
“Everyone loved it and it looks pretty good that we’ll do more. I would like to see one or two a year,” Pictou said.
It was a learning experience for almost everyone, including the students’ drama club adviser.
“We frequently think of the Civil War happening in other states and it didn’t affect us, but it did and we’re not some little state up in the corner somewhere that never had any involvement,” said Deb Elz Hammond, theater arts teacher at Bangor High.
“Part of our mission at the museum is getting Bangor’s history out to residents and visitors,” said Pictou. “There are tens of thousands of people every day missing the pieces of history that are all over here because we’re so caught up in our everyday lives.
“They walk by the statues and cannons, but everyone will stop and look and ask questions if there are people walking around in costumes and re-enacting something.”