A lot of people were surprised when Maine became the first state to enact a prohibition law way back in 1851. None were more surprised than the inhabitants of Portland, a busy seaport and the home to a large, and somewhat rowdy Irish population plus a good many wine loving French-Canadians. They were said to consume more alcohol per capita than any other city in America—and that was a lot even by the thirsty standards of the early 19th Century.
Over 300 establishments served or sold alcohol along a stretch of street near the wharves, some of it by the dram over the bar, some in jugs and bottles, and some in open tubs to be ladled out to outstretched tin cups. Previously, by law employers were expected to provide rum breaks to laborers at 11 AM and 4 PM.
Although beer, wine, and other distilled liquors were available the drink of the masses was rum. And on the rum trade and the distillery business most of the big and fashionable houses of the local merchant elite had been built. Raw sugar imported from the Caribbean was made into rum for domestic consumption and for export. The wealth rolled in.
So how could such a state and city become the first to ban the manufacture, sales, and consumption of alcohol? The credit or blame goes to the tireless efforts of Neal S. Dow, a Quaker and reformer who became known as the Napoleon of Temperance and the Father of Prohibition. Sailors on the ships calling in Portland and the local Irish rabble called him more colorful names.
Born in 1804 he was a life-long teetotaler and an early zealot of the infant anti-alcohol movement. He had helped found the Maine Temperance Society in 1827. When that group proved to be less than absolutist—they only wanted to ban the distilled spirits and beer of working people while allowing the sale and consumption of wine, the preferred beverage of the privileged elite—he split off and created the absolutely 100% dry Maine Temperance Union ten years later.
Unlike many reformers, Dow was not above getting his hands dirty in electoral politics. In fact he turned out to be a gifted politician. The first efforts to enact state-wide prohibition began in the Legislature in 1837. It was soundly defeated, but undeterred supporters came back year after year. The influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840’s frightened Maine Yankees. Support for prohibition grew as Dow and other supporters painted lurid pictures of depravity among the unwelcome aliens. Prohibition quickly became a vengeful arrow point straight at the heart of the immigrant community. By 1849 supporters got enough support to get a bill through the legislature, but failed to get the Governor’s signature.
In April of 1851 Dow was elected Mayor of Portland. He put all of powers of persuasion and political clout to reviving the bill. Again it passed both Houses—many voted for it fully expecting, and hoping that the new Governor, John Hubbard would veto it. Dow got Hubbard’s ear and persuaded or pressured him to sign, which he did on June 2 of that year.
The national press dubbed it the Maine Law and Temperance forces around the country began pressuring state legislators to copy it. Dow was hailed as the hero of the movement and was invited to be the keynote speaker at the convention of the largest national Temperance society.
Portland voters, including not only the scummy Irish, but the small merchants who had operated all of those dram shops, bars, and grocery stores that sold liquor, and plenty of thirsty Protestants as well, had a different view. They handily threw Dow out of office in the next election.
The legislature was also under pleasure and began to ease both the terms of prohibition and the enforcement of the unpopular measure. Within a few years the rum trade was almost back to normal with various exemptions and exceptions and “home bars” serving the needs of the thirsty.
Undeterred, Dow ran again—and lost again—on a promise of rigorous enforcement in 1854. The following year, with the public support of the new Republican Party and the clandestine support of the secret, nativist Know Nothings, Dow got his old job back by a razor thin 47 vote margin.
He acted as if he had been given an overwhelming mandate and began once again clamping down on the liquor trade. The thirsty native grew restless.
In late May of 1851 rumors began to spread that a large supply of liquor, supposedly belonging to Dow, was being kept in the City Hall basement and would be sold at the Mayor’s private profit. The rumors were half true. A large shipment of alcohol did arrive at City Hall, and it was slated for sale. But the booze was bought by the city for strictly controlled sale for “medical and industrial” uses as outlined in the State law. It was to be sold by a city owned liquor store on the first floor the building.
The angry Irish, suspecting criminal hypocrisy took advantage of a state law that allowed any three citizens to petition a judge for a search warrant, if they believed a crime had been committed. Judges were required to grant the warrant. Which a local judge did.
A crowd of about 200 men marched from the Court House to City Hall on the afternoon of June 2, coincidently the anniversary date of the adoption of the state prohibition law. They presented their warrant at the door and demanded to be admitted to carry out a lawful search. Not only were they not admitted, but local law enforcement authorities made it clear that they would not execute the warrant or conduct a search.
A stand-off of sorts happened. But the crowd grew as men heard of the affair and got off work. By early evening many, some say over a thousand, were angrily milling about and making threats to rush the building. There was pushing and shoving and some rock throwing.
Dow called out the local Militia. When they arrived they gave the crowd one order to disperse, probably not even heard by most. Then, on Dow’s personal and direct order, the Militia opened fire on the crowd. Twenty-two year old John Robbins, an immigrant and first mate of a costal merchant ship was killed outright. At least 7 more were injured, including, apparently at least some bystanders.
Despite heavy public criticism for excessive use of force, Dow expressed no remorse. On the contrary, he bragged about “doing his duty” in letters to other national Temperance leaders. He never expressed condolences to the families of the dead and wounded. He characterized them as members of a savage, uncivilized mob. A local group of Temperance women presented him with a large silver cup in gratitude and he accepted it with pride.
But he could not get re-elected. He was ousted by a wide vote and never regained job again.
Over the next few years the legislature alternately loosened and tightened prohibition laws. But agitation over Abolition—another of Dow’s causes—put prohibition on the back burner.
When the Civil War broke out, Dow, still a powerful figure in the Republican Party, had no problem being appointed Colonel of the 13th Maine Infantry. He served under General Benjamin Butler in the capture of New Orleans and was promoted to Brigadier General and was eventually placed in command of the District of Florida. In an assault on Port Hudson in Louisiana he was badly injured and evacuated to a plantation home for care. He was captured by Confederate forces and served 7 months in a prison camp before he was exchanged for Robert E. Lee’s son General Fitzhugh Lee. In broken health, he left the Army.
After the war and after recovering from his wounds, Dow threw himself with customary energy back into his two passions—Temperance and politics. In 1865 he helped found a new organization, the National Temperance Society and Publishing House which became the vigorous propaganda arm of the movement churning out books, pamphlets, and tracks that flooded the nation. Eventually he saw dozens of state adopt versions of the Main Law.
Politics was tougher. Despite the cachet of being a Union General and wounded war hero—credentials enough to launch scores of political careers, and being a powerful figure in the most dominate Republican Party in the country, he was still so hated by the mass of Portland’s working classes that he could not hope to win any elective office. Moreover as the years wore on he became disenchanted with what he considered the Republican Party’s tepid support of prohibition policies.
In1880 he abandoned his ties to the Republicans and at the age of 76 accepted the Prohibition Party nomination for President. He garnered only 10,000 popular votes and placed a distant fourth place with James A. Garfield, Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, and James Baird Wheeler of the Greenbacks. He thus departed the national political scene as something of a ridiculous figure.
Dow lived on until October 7, 1897 when he died at the age of 93. He left his house to the cause to which he dedicated his life. It is the long time headquarters of Maine’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a shrine to his memory. It was declared a National Historic Site in 1974.
Ironically, after the adoption of national Prohibition in 1919, Portland became a prime center for smuggling whiskey by boat from Canada and Scotland.
Maine ratified the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution in December of 1933 only after the required 36 state had acted to end prohibition. The state law was overturned at the same time, which was upheld in a statewide referendum in 1934.
Today, despite the 20 old ladies of the WCTU who still gather at Dow House, Maine drinks as the nation drinks.