Liquor War is on again in Bangor,” shouted a bold, black headline in the Bangor Daily News three days before Christmas 1903. “Seventeen Warrants Out and Seven Seizures Made Last Night – County Attorney After the Uno Men.”
The cozy relationship between saloonkeepers and the law was being disrupted once again.
“Things have been going so quietly of late that many of the liquor dealers of Bangor and a good many other people, too, had come to the conclusion that the cruel war inaugurated last June was over,” led the reporter.
County Attorney Bertram Smith obtained arrest warrants Monday afternoon, and by 7 p.m. a small army of deputy sheriffs and city cops had raided 17 saloons, or tried to.
Someone had tipped off most of the miscreants, and 10 of the shops were closed. Activity was found in only seven establishments run mostly by men with such ethnic names as Moriarty, Doherty, McCurdy and Boudreau. They were conducting business at dives on Harlow, Exchange and Broad streets and at the famed Bangor House.
Several pitchers were smashed as the bartenders tried to dump the goods, and Deputy Emerson cut his hand in one such “mixup.”
Some of the barmen said they were only selling “good old uno beer,” which allegedly had a very low alcohol content, so samples had to be sent for analysis in a couple of cases.
Smith and Sheriff Lindley Gilman were only getting warmed up. Tuesday morning they herded the culprits through court. Federal tax records showing the names of liquor dealers who had paid the U.S. government to get their booze were used to convict some of them whether or not any liquor was actually found on the premises.
That evening Smith and Gilman headed for Old Town with a posse to conduct more raids.
“But every place visited was as bare as Mother Hubbard’s famous cupboard,” commented the NEWS correspondent, who found the activity quite humorous. “The proprietors did not appear to be overwhelmed by surprise and greeted the visitors with smiles.”
The next Monday, however, the raiders launched a surprise attack, rounding up six saloonkeepers on Lower Water Street, and at the City Hotel and Cousins Hotel, and at Basin Mills at a watering hole known as Joe Pooler’s Place. Once again, things went peacefully, except Mr. Cousins, the hotel proprietor, took flight and remained missing several days later.
The next day, the liquor business in Old Town “was rather demoralized,” and lookouts had been posted at the doors of the places that were still open, noted the correspondent, who seemed to know where all the saloons were along with everyone else in town.
A few days later this traveling vaudeville show moved to Brewer, where “the largest seizure of liquor” in the city’s history was made. A “sled load” of booze was found stored in the cellar of a house at King’s Court allegedly intended for use in the adjoining South Brewer Hotel. The bartender was arrested for selling liquor to a young boy, a possible reference to a newspaper story a few days before describing the plight of “two little newsboys” who were found staggering about “blind drunk” in Bangor.
What is one to make of all this mayhem, accompanied by tongue-in-cheek newspaper coverage as if it was all a practical joke on the public? Well, of course, it was to the weary reporters, who knew the liquor dealers would all be up and running again in a few days and that many people didn’t care.
For more than half a century, liquor sales had been illegal in Maine. Citizens had even enshrined prohibition in their state Constitution. Yet the law was a shambles, and liquor flowed like water in the larger communities. There was little agreement on how the law should be enforced, or whether it should be enforced at all.
Republicans tended to be pro-prohibition while Democrats wanted to get rid of what had come to be known as the Maine law nationally because Maine was the first state to go dry.
It all depended on what sheriff was in office, or what judge was on the bench. For example, earlier in 1903 Maine Supreme Court Justice Albert Spear had boosted fines and threatened repeat offenders with jail time. The Rev. R.E. Smith of the Pine Street Methodist Church had delivered a stinging sermon printed in the Bangor Daily News that called the current conditions “a giant octopus, which has cuddled our city in its many slimy and treacherous arms.”
But a few months later, Mayor Flavius Beal expressed to reporters his opposition to the law and the impact crackdowns had on driving liquor use out of respectable saloons into the “kitchen bars” and onto the streets, where “pocket peddlers” did a brisk business. “Why, on Saturday when I went to the wharf to board the steamer to Islesboro, I saw six men drinking out of bottles in a sneaking sort of way,” he complained.
Bangor was one of the most notorious watering spots in the state. It was estimated that there had been 150 saloons at the beginning of 1903, but this number had dropped to 30 or 40 by July for at least a few weeks after Justice Spear’s remarks. Arrests for public drunkenness had soared from 895 to 1,236 in four years, surpassing all other crimes many times over.
The city’s name was even attached to a system – the Bangor Plan – used to nullify the law completely in Bangor and many other parts of the state.
The famous Maine journalist Holman Day described how it worked in a magazine story in 1908: “The sheriff and county attorney allowed a certain number of saloons and hotels to sell liquor. Prior to the term of court at which fines were to be ‘assessed,’ the county attorney, or his agent, went to the office of the collector of internal revenue at Portsmouth, N.H., and drew off a list of names of those in the county who were paying a special liquor retailer’s tax to the United States government. Then the county attorney presented the list to the grand jury and it was accepted as evidence that each party was a dealer in liquor and the parties were accordingly indicted on that evidence alone, and accepted the indictment without protest and came up to the ‘cap’n’s’ office and settled without demur. Each paid the regular fine and costs amounting to one hundred and ten dollars. Usually the county ‘assessed’ twice a year.”
The Bangor Plan paid the county’s debts and built a new courthouse, said Day.
Justice Spear’s higher fines and threats of jail time had clearly shaken up the cozy system that had evolved between Bangor and its saloonkeepers. The Rev. Smith and his parishioners and others like them were fed up with the hypocrisy.
The drama that was going on at Christmastime 1903 was only a short chapter in a long-running soap opera that would not end until 31 years later, when Mainers finally overturned their constitutional amendment. It was nearly a year after national Prohibition was repealed.
Richard R. Shaw contributed information for this column. Wayne E. Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.