In late August 1916, you could visit the Eastern Maine State Fair and see “a big museum of freaks,” as one reporter called the sideshow exhibits.
There was Baby Jim, the 793 pound youngster; the Steel-Skinned Man, who lay on a bed of nails; Stella, the girl with a head but no body “and yet alive”; Titena, the smallest baby on earth, whose height was two inches and weight one-and-two-thirds ounces; Capt. Jack Howard, the tattoo king; Alphonso, the human ostrich who ate glass and nails; and a two-headed giant who was “captured in a cave in Egypt.”
One did not need to go to the fair, however, to see a sideshow. The Queen City of the East’s downtown sideshow could be just as entertaining.
Courageous folks could stroll up and down Exchange Street between its intersection with State and Union Station and view this local sideshow featuring inebriated men and women, boys and girls, immigrants and farm boys, thugs and dandies, crowding the doorways of packed saloons, staggering down the sidewalk and lying in the gutter, laughing, shouting, screaming, fighting, swearing and drinking the rot gut sold in the cheapest bars.
On Monday, Aug. 21, 1916, the morning before the fair opened, the Bangor Daily News described this local sideshow for its readers. It was an election year, and Mainers would be voting for state candidates soon.
The Republican newspaper was evidently trying to embarrass anti-prohibition Democrats who refused to enforce the state prohibition law, while promoting the Republican’s national prohibition plan. Republican presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes was coming to town next week to give a campaign speech.
The thousands of fairgoers from all over Maine made a perfect audience. Plus, there were plenty of well-known Democrats passing through town, like U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker and U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, on whirlwind visits in support of President Woodrow Wilson and other Democrats.
RUM AND UGLINESS RUN RIOT HERE, the headline in the paper read. The newspaper’s office happened to be situated on Exchange Street, so the reporter didn’t have to go very far: “Exchange Street on Saturday Night like the Midway of a Mining Town — Grand Orgy of Filth and Drunkenness.”
“Exchange Street will serve as a glaring example of how far this supposedly well-behaved town has progressed on the road to demoralization with the authorities looking on,” the story’s lead read.
The street was not a place for the faint of heart on a summer night. “From twilight til midnight the street crowds were sprinkled with drunken men and the sidewalks were fringed with loud-mouthed, insolent loafers … Scores of saloons [were] so full it was difficult to get near some of them.”
The reporter related a series of disturbing sights he had witnessed.
At the corner of State and Exchange streets, a drunken man abused his “patient, careworn” wife as she tried to get him to go home. Another drunk leading a goat climbed the stairs of a restaurant until a policeman pushed him into the street. An intoxicated young woman was nearly struck by a trolley car as she walked down the tracks in the middle of the street.
A fight in an unnamed Chinese restaurant could be viewed from the street below through a large window. It ended when a man shoved a woman through the window. A screen saved her from falling to the pavement, preventing “a first-class homicide.” A couple of days later another fight broke out in the same “Chinese joint” between a traveling salesman and some thugs.
“The worst elements of the community have free range on Exchange Street, and decent people apparently must grin and bear it,” the reporter complained. He suggested “a few smart clubbings” by the police might clear out the “would-be sports and hulking, vicious toughs who now make it disagreeable for decent men and unsafe for women and children.”
The newspaper ran a tally of arrests for drunkenness, Bangor’s biggest crime by far. There were 23 on Saturday, 36 on Wednesday and 29 on Thursday. The defendants in court each day ranged from old men to young women to at least one small boy in short pants.
Gradually, this bedlam revealed itself all over the city. Riotous behavior even spilled over to the fairgrounds. When two drunks got into a disagreement and the police intervened, a “free fight” ensued. Three men were arrested, a man was knocked out and a woman was knocked down, the Bangor Daily News reported Aug. 25.
Few people thought a temporary solution to all this mayhem would be a trolley strike. Labor strife between the Bangor Railway & Electric Co., which operated the area’s electric trolley system, and the members of a new union seeking recognition had been simmering for a couple of weeks.
A strike during fair week when thousands of visitors were on hand as well as all the campaigning dignitaries would have been a disastrous blow to the city’s image. The union — in an act demonstrating its naivety — agreed to put off the strike until the morning of Saturday, Aug. 26, the day after the fair was over.
On Saturday, Chief of Police Lindley Gilman also ordered the saloons to close to prevent liquor from inflaming violence during the already tense situation.
On Monday, four of the most notorious bars were raided, and their owners arrested when they remained open. Two of them, Chaison’s Hotel and the Eastern Eating House, were on Exchange Street, and the other two, the Globe Hotel and The New Royal, were located nearby on French Street.
The owners were fined. “Bangor was more nearly dry … than it has been for a long time, and there was no intimation from City Hall that the drouth is anywhere near ended,” the BDN jubilantly reported Aug. 30.
After police shut down the E.E. Bottling Works, where they seized three jigger loads of Moxie bottles full of whiskey, intoxication on city streets was reduced even further, the newspaper reported Sept. 2.
Just how long would this dry spell last? Probably not very long.
“How long are the saloons to remain closed,” Gilman was asked after the raids.
“Probably as long as the strike lasts,” he replied.
The strike was a failure almost immediately. Despite a few torch light parades and rallies and some minor violence, some strikers returned to work. The company also claimed it was having no trouble hiring retirees and new men to take over empty jobs. Car service was “nearly normal,” the Bangor Daily News reported Aug. 30.
But suddenly on Sept. 5, the day after Labor Day, before the strike was officially over “a mysterious turn of alcoholic vaudeville,” as a BDN headline writer put it, was performed much to the astonishment of most Bangoreans.
“On Tuesday morning Bangor’s 112 saloons, which had been closed by order of Mayor Woodman and Police Chief Gilman since the beginning of the street railway strike on Saturday, Aug. 26, opened for business. Curtains were raised from doors and windows, bartenders returned from their vacations at nearby lakes and ponds and news spread through the city that the lid had been lifted,” the newspaper reported.
“At four in the afternoon the saloons closed as quickly and as quietly as they had opened; curtains were drawn, doors were locked — and again the lid was on,” the newspaper explained.
Apparently, word had gotten out, perhaps from the mayor himself, that Labor Day was the end of the “drouth.” But the City Hall liquor lobby hadn’t counted on public opinion. “Floods of protests were received,” the newspaper said.
One of the main protestors was none other than Gilman, who resigned his job as police chief in protest. Within a couple of days the issue had been resolved, however. Woodman backed down and Gilman was back on the job and the saloons remained closed.
The Bangor Daily News had the last laugh. Bangoreans had just witnessed “the remarkable spectacle of their Mayor in open alliance with the saloon element … If he thinks that the saloons will re-elect him public sentiment should make it clear that he has mistaken the strength of his ally,” an editorial said.
The strike continued to slowly resolve itself, despite the torch-light parades and rallies.
By the night of Friday, Sept. 8, the city escaped embarrassment when Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican presidential candidate, gave a speech before thousands at the Bangor Auditorium. Crowds of supporters had no trouble taking trolley cars from the train station and West Market Square to the Auditorium. Full service had been restored, company officials declared.
By Monday morning, the strike was over. The Bangor Daily News headline said, STRIKE IS OFF — COMPANY WINS. On Saturday, the strikers had voted to end it after the Amalgamated Association of Street Car Motormen and Conductors in Detroit said benefits would end in a week. The out-of-town organizers “left Bangor at midnight.”
“The company’s victory is complete as might have been expected for its position was in every respect right and fair, and it had the support of the conservative and thinking public,” the reporter commented.
On Tuesday morning, the city was wide open again. The state elections were over in Maine and the presidential election still was to come in November. The city’s 112 saloons were open for business again.
There were so many customers “that even the extra bartenders couldn’t care for them,” the Bangor Daily News reported Sept. 13. “Now that the strike is off and election is over, conditions are once again more normal — for Bangor.”
Carl E. Milliken, the governor elect, had promised to enforce the state’s liquor law, the Boston Globe reported Sept. 15. He especially had mentioned shutting down the Bangor saloons, famous even in Boston.
Bangor voters, however, had other ideas. They cast a majority of their votes for the Democratic candidate, incumbent Oakley Curtis, and they helped re-elect Sheriff T. Herbert White, a Democrat who had done little to enforce prohibition in Penobscot County. The merriment would certainly continue on Exchange Street for awhile, but a showdown was on the horizon.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com Thanks to Charles A. Scontras for additional information about the trolley strikes in Bangor and Portland in 1916.