Friday, April 06, 2007

100 Years Ago in the Devil's Half-Acre

The Lewiston Sun Journal has a daily feature which looks back 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and 25 years ago. Today's was pretty interesting, and gave a name to a part of Lewiston that I hadn't heard of before.
In a Lewiston special to the Boston Herald on the local rum situation, it is stated that letters have been sent from Androscoggin County to Gov. Cobb asking him to send the Sturgis deputies here. The special concluded with this paragraph: "It is asserted that the liquor deputies pass the well-known places on the principal streets to make searches for liquor in the shops of the French quarter of this city, and the dives and kitchen bar-rooms in Hines alley and on 'The Devil's Half-Acre.'"
Little did I know, Lewiston wasn't alone in claiming this moniker. According to Wikipedia, Bangor was know as the Devil's Half Acre too: "Sailors and loggers gave the city a different and more widespread reputation - their stamping grounds were known as the 'Devil's Half Acre.'" [Source] Their information comes from "Maine League of Historical Societies and Museums (1970)" in Doris A. Isaacson: Maine: A Guide 'Down East'. Rockland, Me: Courier-Gazette, Inc., pages 163-172. The Bangor Daily News published an article about the events of 1906 that led to a wider recognition of this nickname:
'Crime wave' entertained Bangor
By Wayne Reilly
Monday, July 24, 2006 - Bangor Daily News

During the long, hot summer of 1906, Bangor became the crime center of the nation, perhaps of the world, at least in the fevered imaginations of reporters and editors at the Bangor Daily Commercial, the city's afternoon newspaper. "MANY CROOKS HERE ... Bangor is Pretty Nearly as Badly Off as Chicago Now ... HOBOES ARE INSOLENT," announced a multidecker headline on July 17. Hoboes, yeggmen, pickpockets, muggers, con artists, robbers and a host of other bad guys had been gathering in the Queen City since sometime in the spring.
The reporter advised, "One only has to take a walk through the section of the city known as the 'Devil's Half-Acre,' through the railroad yards and up along the river front from Washington Street to Foley shore below the Eastern Maine General hospital to satisfy himself of the number of these tough characters in the city."

Yet after setting the stage so well, the reporter admitted there had not been a single murder or bank robbery or something else really serious. The author seemed mostly concerned with the hoboes, that mysterious infestation of rootless men that bloomed like algae along the riverfront on the borders of the city's most exclusive neighborhoods each summer. Housewives had been scared out of their wits by villainous-looking individuals knocking at their kitchen doors looking for handouts.

And just the other night two young men "well known in society" had to employ a horse whip both on the horses and on intruding thugs to prevent being held up as they traveled by carriage with their wives just below the Tin Bridge in Hampden.
One of the benefits of living in a city with two newspapers is that there are often two sides to a controversial story. The Bangor Daily News was always ready to correct the Commercial's tendency to overdramatize the facts, and vice versa.
The city was safe. People "may visit the 'Devil's Half-Acre' or even the water front without being sandbagged or robbed or shot or stabbed or poisoned." The Commercial was confusing begging and drunkenness with real crimes, scoffed the BDN.
One of the most interesting crime stories of the summer, however, was more appropriate to a Norman Rockwell painting than to the lurid pulp magazines that documented heinous acts in Chicago. "THOSE HORRID BOYS ... They Go Swimming Without Bathing Trunks Again ... POLICE ARE SHOCKED," declared a playful headline on July 20 in the Commercial.
Bangor has recorded some ghastly crimes in its history, but not that summer. And soon the hoboes would be disappearing down the tracks like the autumn leaves.
[Please click here for full article: Source]

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