Springtime in Bangor a century ago would bring with it many a young man’s fancy turning to love — and also liquor, street brawls and other anti-social activities. Women beware and gentlemen be prepared to defend yourselves, if out for a walk on Hancock or Broad streets or a few other thoroughfares attached to the Queen City’s netherworld.
First, the loggers began arriving from the woods. “The number of arrests by the police is on the increase just now, the woodsmen of all nations having commenced their usual spring pilgrimage to Bangor to spend their money in riotous living. On Tuesday the patrol wagon was busy during the day and night, the result being a full house at the station,” the Bangor Daily News reported March 22, 1916.
The mayhem picked up in the days ahead. Keep in mind the reporters and headline writers were paid a bit extra for injecting a little wit into their presentations. The spirit of objectivity disseminated by schools of journalism had not yet deadened their prose.
SPIRIT OF SPRING ANIMATES THE TOWN, a headline boldly proclaimed March 27. It continued: “Quick Finish to a Finnish Wild West in Broad Street — Rue Hancock Awakes.” No matter which Scandinavian nationality was involved, the Finns usually got the blame in these stories.
“A man with a gun who was doing moving picture stunts by shooting up a place in Broad Street late on Sunday afternoon was neatly corralled by Acting Captain Phillips and Patrolman Berry, who happened to be passing at the proper moment,” the reporter wrote. “The man arrested, who was somewhat intoxicated, is apparently a Finn… It was learned that he had called at an upstairs place conducted by a Finn, and had demanded liquor. On being refused he had produced a new revolver and fired a few shots.”
The police returned later and raided the place at 135 Broad St., seizing liquor and arresting one Ressio Lefouti, “the alleged proprietor,” and two women.
Meanwhile, that night over on Hancock Street, the center of much of Bangor’s immigrant population, a brawl broke out among a group of young men over “an alleged attempt to secure some money, cigarettes and one thing and another from one of the party.” Ross Stanley was taken to the hospital in the police ambulance with a broken jaw, while Walter Cochrane and John Connelly were arrested. No attempt was made to analyze their nationalities.
Things could only get more interesting with spring in the air. The next day a more serious brawl — a real puzzler — broke out on Hancock Street. No one seemed to be able to figure out whether the victim had been struck in the head with a hammer or stabbed in the chest with a “three-bladed knife.” Meanwhile, the perpetrator, another troublesome Finn, could not make up his mind whether his name was Chopin or Bjorkley.
The bemused reporter felt obliged to explain why these Hancock Street stories were so hard to cover (and why the names often sounded as though they were made up).
“It is hard to get to the bottom of these tragedies or near-tragedies among the Finns and Poles and Italians and Russians of upper Hancock Street. Of the swarm of witnesses last night only one told a straightforward and coherent story.” He was the younger brother of the victim and happened to speak “fair English,” as luck would have it.
Simon Chopin, who thought his name might be Bjorkley, was booked for assault with intent to kill for striking Thomas Prussey, a Russian, with a hammerhead late Monday night. That was the account of the policeman, who found a bloody hammerhead near the scene of the crime.
Chopin, or Bjorkley, “had been making trouble all night,” Leo Prussey, the victim’s younger brother, related to the reporter. “I saw him in Joe Wallace’s saloon before the assault. He pulled out a three-bladed knife, went up to Tony Raymond [a Pole who lives in Hancock Street] and threatened to cut his heart out, or something like that.”
The attack on Prussey originated in another brawl outside in the street involving “screaming women, crying babies and barking dogs — and general excitement.” Next thing, Chopin-Bjorkley came running down the street, blood running down his face, and a knife in his hand when he stabbed Tom Prussey, according to Leo.
Springtime jollity next moved to the ice in the Penobscot River, which people were still using as a path between Bangor and Brewer even though ice-out was very near and the frozen trail might disappear downstream in a heartbeat.
The Bangor Daily News reported March 30 that two women in two separate incidents about an hour and a half apart were attacked and knocked down by a mysterious stranger as they crossed at “the main ice path at the ferry,” which began on the Bangor side at the edge of what had been known recently as the Devil’s Half Acre. Today, that would be roughly beneath the Chamberlain Bridge, which wasn’t there in 1916.
Both victims were accompanied by other women and both carried handbags, one of which was seized by the thief. The newspaper surmised that both attacks were committed by “the same murderous degenerate.” A couple of days later the scene of the crime vanished as the ice moved down river, it was reported in the newspaper April 1.
The attacks on the ice were part of a series of assaults on respectable women that had occurred in Bangor and Brewer over the past year. Even boarding a trolley might not be safe in certain neighborhoods if groups of men were lounging around, a common occurrence on some street corners.
On March 31, the Bangor Railway and Electric Co. announced that passengers would no longer be allowed to ride on the rear platforms of trolley cars if there was room inside. “In the past there has been considerable annoyance to people, especially women, in boarding a car in being obliged to crowd past a number of men congregated on the rear platform,” the newspaper reported.
Women were generally safe in Bangor, however, even in springtime. As if to assert this fact, the Bijou Theater, located on Exchange Street near the city’s rowdy district, had hired an all-woman orchestra, the “famous Fadettes” from Boston to play concerts and to “perform musical interpretations of the photoplays” or movies for two weeks in late March and early April.
With a first cornet player named Miss Velma Virgin, the Fadettes sound like a higher-class equivalent of the “girl bands” of the era (such as the one portrayed in the movie “Some Like it Hot”).
The Fadettes grouped themselves about the stage “attired in white.” Their performance of “operatic airs by Tobani” and other classical tunes were played with “purity of tone, majestic rhythm and exquisite taste,” according to their publicity writer.
They were high class. “The young lady who has charge of the drum department adds to the general attractiveness of the act by her enthusiasm she puts into her work and the bland smile with which she from time to time regales the audience.”
Bangor’s respectable women — “club women, society women and members of various women’s associations and circles” reportedly flocked to the performances in groups. That was a sure sign that the theater was far enough, or at any rate protected enough, from the brawling on Hancock and Broad streets and the saloons nearby on Exchange Street. Or perhaps the respectable women appeared only for the matinees.
Even as the rough side of Bangor — its immigrant population, its transient laborers, its new forms of entertainment like vaudeville and movies — continued to expand, upper crust folks tried to maintain its air of exclusivity.
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 email@example.com