A century ago, prohibitionists in Eastern Maine succeeded in ousting three Penobscot County sheriffs for not doing enough to stop liquor sales. Between 1913 and 1918, two years before federal prohibition, the battle over booze escalated rapidly, especially in Bangor, the hub of the area’s liquor supply.
Maine had passed the nation’s first state prohibition law more than 60 years before. Enforcement had been spotty through the decades. That was especially true in Bangor where numerous saloons became an important part of the city’s economy, quenching the thirsts of thousands of loggers and other itinerant laborers as well as the many immigrants who settled in the area.
Penobscot County sheriffs Wilbert W. Emerson, J. Fred O’Connell and T. Herbert White paid a price for the growing stridency of the radical prohibitionists. Emerson, a Hampden storekeeper, was impeached by the Legislature and removed from office by Gov. William T. Haines (along with several other Maine sheriffs) in 1913 as I described in two columns published in April, 2013.
Haines replaced Emerson with J. Fred O’Connell, a first term state representative from Milford. O’Connell had no previous police experience, but he hit the ground running. By the end of the year, Bangor was probably as dry as it would ever be, commented the Bangor Daily News, a moderate supporter of prohibition. The Queen City was no longer a “wide-open” town, but there were still “many places for the thirsty.”
Some of O’Connell’s targets were well-known bootleggers such as Augustus A. McIntyre, proprietor of the Golden Oak Cafe. Few liquor dealers actually landed in jail, but McIntyre was an exception.
He was “by far the most prominent of those, who in recent years, have been jailed in Penobscot County for violation of the prohibitory law,” reported the Bangor Daily News on April 4, 1914. He was “proprietor of a big and handsomely fitted restaurant, occupying three floors of an Exchange Street building, and his legitimate business is credited with having been very large.”
O’Connell acquired most of his brief reputation as a tough sheriff, however, by seizing whole shipments of liquor at railroad junctions and steamboat landings. The culmination of this approach was reported by the newspaper on May 6 when the sheriff and his liquor squad emptied the contents of a large Boston & Maine boxcar known as a “hay barn.”
Four two-horse trucks spent four hours hauling goods to the liquor room at the county court house. O’Connell described the achievement as “the biggest seizure ever made in Maine.” Nobody seemed to disagree.
“If O’Connell makes a few more cracks like that one today, most of the liquor dealers around here will be flat broke,” one unidentified dealer told the reporter.
While O’Connell was entertaining news reporters and the public with his raids, however, he also was developing political problems. Radical prohibitionists were not convinced he was doing his job as long as there were saloons left in Bangor and a few other Penobscot County towns.
Anti-prohibitionists, including the many Bangor residents profiting from the liquor trade, were upset at the massive seizures the sheriff was making at railroad sidings and steamboat wharves before the goods could be delivered to saloons.
Both sides made O’Connell into a scapegoat as part of an effort to unseat Haines, who was vying for a second term. The first hint of the sheriff’s troubles in the Bangor papers appeared in a Bangor Daily Commercial story on April 9 when a Somerset County Republican got up at the party’s state convention and cited O’Connell’s performance as the only “blot” on Haines’ liquor enforcement record.
The delegate had recently visited Bangor and provided a list of places where liquor was served openly. Unless Haines got O’Connell to close such places down, he would have trouble at the polls from “the radical enforcement wing of the party.”
For some weeks, Haines had been receiving similar complaints that O’Connell wasn’t doing his job as sheriff. As one reporter phrased it, Penobscot County was not “as dry as a covered bridge.”
Ironically, on the same day the sheriff made what was being described as the biggest seizure in state history, he got a letter from the governor asking him to resign, “if agreeable,” for not doing enough to enforce the Maine Law in the towns of Bangor, Old Town, Lincoln and Winn. (The Legislature wasn’t in session, preventing the governor from initiating impeachment proceedings before the fall elections.)
When a Bangor Daily News reporter asked O’Connell if he intended to resign, the outspoken sheriff responded defiantly in language almost too strong to print in a newspaper back then: “Not by a damned sight!” A few days later, he announced he would run for Penobscot County sheriff in the upcoming election.
The anti-prohibition Bangor Daily Commercial took advantage of this Republican imbroglio by declaring the whole dispute a “farce” in which Haines was trying to satisfy prohibitionists and rum sellers at the same time.
Caught between feuding Republican factions, the Bangor Daily News, a Republican newspaper, defended O’Connell by quoting his praises from other newspapers all the way to Boston.
Meanwhile, the sheriff continued his campaign to dry out the Queen City. “Deputies Smashed in Barred Doors: Spectacular Sunday Morning Raids on Hancock St. – Liquor Squad Makes Many Searches and There Are Several Seizures,” reported a large headline in the Bangor Daily News on July 13, one of many that summer.
About this time, the police department bought its first motorized patrol car. This event coupled with the controversy over O’Connell’s effectiveness gave the Bangor Daily Commercial more fodder for editorials. On a regular basis, the newspaper began publishing the number of daily arrests for intoxication, by far the city’s most prolific crime, pointing out there were still a lot of drunks around considering the effort by the Bangor police and the sheriff’s department to close saloons.
O’Connell’s competition that fall included T. Herbert White, a former Penobscot County sheriff and Bangor police chief for the Democrats; Arthur L. Thayer, a local lawyer and prohibition activist running on both the Progressive and Prohibition party tickets; and two independent candidates, including ex-Sheriff Emerson.
Several of O’Connell’s campaign speeches were covered in depth in the Bangor Daily News. On Aug. 5, the sheriff stood on the seat of his automobile encircled by cheering supporters “in Orono’s principal square,” his “tall figure silhouetted in the flare of torches.”
“I claim that I have done more than any sheriff in  years for the cause of prohibition. I do not claim to have made Bangor dry — it has never been that, and perhaps never will be,” he called out to the cheering crowd.
The obstacles he faced, however, were formidable. They included the large number of saloons — perhaps some 250 in Penobscot County — and the lack of support from judges who fined most dealers rather than sending them to jail. His liquor squad consisted of only five deputies, he noted.
The Republican Party had already been weakened by the brief rise of the Progressive Party. On election day, Maine voters ousted many Republicans, including Haines and O’Connell.
The new sheriff, White, even though he ran as a Democrat, was greeted by the Bangor Daily News with a large photograph and the comment that he had “more than the average man’s number of friends.”
Ironically, in 1918, White was ousted from office by Gov. Carl Milliken and the Executive Council for not doing enough to enforce the prohibition law. By then, a new state constitutional amendment had given governors more power to remove sheriffs, but that’s a subject for a future column.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.