Lewiston’s Rum War Brought Violence, Graft – and no Shortage of Booze

You might as well try to stop the Androscoggin River from flowing, as to try and stop the sale of drink here.

That was the gloomy assessment of Napoléon Lajeunesse, the Deputy Marshall (the equivalent of the Deputy Chief of Police) for the City of Lewiston, Maine, in 1893.  Futile or not, Maine’s temperance forces were determined to try and enforce the state’s law prohibiting the sale of alcohol in all forms, which had been in effect in various forms since the 1850s, and which was codified as a constitutional amendment in 1884.  It was Maine’s long experience with the law which led a Canadian Royal Commission on the Liquor Trade to interview Lajeunesse and a number of other Maine officials on the subject.  In the popular imagination, Prohibition in America is associated with a particular time – the period of federal prohibition from 1920-1933.  But the history of the movement in Maine is much longer; in fact Maine was such a leader in this field that anti-liquor laws in the late 19th century were known as “Maine laws.”  Just like the national movement in the 20th century, Maine’s prohibition law spawned law-breaking and corruption, and stoked tensions between the police and the communities they served.

Sagadahoc county sheriff Horace McClure pours out contraband intoxicating liquor seized by his department in the basement of the county courthouse. Bath, Maine, c1920s. Image: Maine Memory Network

Disregard for prohibition was widespread in Maine, but it was most vocal among the state’s Catholic communities – first the Irish, who were responsible for the 1855 Rum Riot in Portland, and later, Franco-Americans.  Newspapers like Lewiston’s Le Messager ran articles excoriating the law, and members of the community were not shy about openly flouting it.  In this context, it’s no surprise that the enforcement of the law was most troublesome in Maine’s largest cities, which were also home to its largest Catholic populations.  Lewiston was a notoriously “wet” town; in 1884, it was the only major city to vote against the measure to enshrine prohibition in the state’s constitution, which had passed statewide by a margin of 2 to 1.

A cache of liquor being taken off a ship in Portland Harbor at Grand Trunk Wharf in 1920 when Prohibition was in effect. Image: Maine Memory Network

The “rum question” dominated Maine politics for half a century, and in Lewiston and its surrounds, the division was acute.  Republicans generally backed temperance, with the support of rural Yankee farmers, while Democrats, supported by urban workers and immigrant communities, favored repealing the law.  This partisan divide also greatly impacted the enforcement of the law, because positions in law enforcement agencies were political prizes, awarded to party loyalists.  Members of the police department were typically appointed directly by the city’s aldermen and mayor, while the elected sheriff appointed his deputies (including the special liquor constables).  In return for jobs on the government payroll, public safety officers were expected to assist in re-election campaigns.  In the case of Lewiston, as Lajeunesse explained, this meant a Democratic police force was consistently at loggerheads with a Republican sheriff’s department.

It is a political farce and nothing else, and it is just the same in Portland and just the same in Biddeford, just the same in many of these large towns in Maine. If the party wants the votes they are ready to do as much as they can for the liquor sellers. The county sheriff of course, has a good deal of control over his deputies. The city of Lewiston has been Democrat c for the last three or four years, and the county is Republican and the sheriff is Republican, and it is a fight, right along, of the city against the county sheriff.


Lajeunesse – who, after all, was second in command of the Lewiston police force – admits that the enforcement of the liquor law in 1892 was left almost entirely to the sheriff and his deputies.  “It is not the duty of a police officer to seize anything until the warrant is put into his hands…they do not like to be bothered with this law.”

Police, City Marshal and Officers, Hallowell, Maine, 1888. Image: Hubbard Free Library/Maine Memory Network

But if the Lewiston police officers weren’t bothered with the law, the county sheriff and his deputies certainly were.  A good 90% of the prosecutions recorded by the Maine Attorney General’s annual reports in this period are for alcohol-related offences.  Some are serious incidents – assault, for example – but the vast majority are for minor crimes; intoxication, possession and running “disorderly houses” (saloons).  In addition to the offences, the reports also published the names of those convicted.  From these lists, it’s possible to determine that Franco-Americans were disproportionately convicted under the law.  Members of that community account for around 35% of convictions in Androscoggin County in 1892, but they made up just 20% of the county’s population.  Even in the Twin Cities, where the sheriff’s deputies presumably spent most of their time, Franco-Americans accounted for just a quarter of the population in that year.


Note: The estimates for Franco-American populations are taken from the censuses conducted by the parish of Sts. Peter & Paul in 1874, 1881, 1895 and 1901, and the author’s analysis of the 1910 US census returns for the city of Lewiston. Conviction data based on author’s analysis of Maine Attorney General’s annual reports, 1875-1910.


It is likely that Franco-Americans (as well as Irish and Jewish residents, whose names also feature in the conviction lists) were deliberately targeted by the county constables.  Much of the initial impulse for prohibitory laws came from perceptions that Catholic immigrants were “nuisance drinkers.”  One Lewiston account described the inhabitants of the Little Canada neighborhood as “street Arabs.” The Canadian commissioners’ report contains further clues.  William Larrabee, the Auburn Chief of Police, testified that the law was “well-kept” in his city, and that the lawlessness was largely restricted to Lewiston.  Likewise, Sheriff Hill opined that “Auburn is a temperate place and always has been.”  Deputy Marshall Lajeunesse, however, offered another reason for the low arrest rate in Auburn: “Well, they are a little more careful over there. They sell some liquor, but they sell it on the quiet, and they are nearly all one party over there — they are nearly all Republicans; whatever Democrats are over there, are so few that they dare not act.”  Franco-Americans had little time for the liquor law, but that didn’t make them the only people who disregarded it, as former Democratic mayor of Lewiston, William Newell, noted

These French and Irish people look at the subject of selling rum differently from what a Yankee does who is raised in the country. It is absolutely impossible to prevent these people selling rum…they see no reason why, if they want a glass of liquor, they should not take it…I do not mean to say that the American born do not drink liquor…There is no question about that. They do not have any liquor saloons in Auburn, but they come over here for it.

Another former mayor, Dr. Alonzo Garcelon, then over seventy years old bemoaned the effect of the law on the city in which he was born.

We occasionally had drunkards in the town, but you could count them on your fingers and there were very few indeed, but here in our streets now, you see the sons of respectable men, who have been brought up in this town and who have turned out to be miserable drunkards under our prohibitory law., I cannot account for that…I am not speaking now of our foreign population. I am speaking of men who were born and brought up here and their fathers before them.

That’s not to say that Franco-Americans were innocent of any wrong-doing.  Lajeunesse estimated that on Lincoln Street alone, the main thoroughfare of Lewiston’s Little Canada neighborhood, some 300 kitchen bars and fake “apothecaries” were in operation, selling liquor.  Convictions are recorded for community leaders like Dr. Louis Martel, state representative in 1884; P X Anger, a city alderman, and Robert Wiseman, who would go on to be elected the city’s first Franco-American mayor.

In addition to ethnic prejudice and political partisanship, Franco-Americans also faced extortion from the sheriff’s department.   While the Republicans interviewed by the commission denied it, the Democrats, including former mayor William Newell, all testified to mass corruption among the constables.

A certain lawyer in this town… lawyer, as it is claimed, went around to the different men who wanted to sell liquor; one man paid $5 a month, another $10 and another $15, according to his traffic and means. This lawyer collected the amounts; the sheriff had half and the other two [deputies] had the other half : that is hearsay, but from everything that I could understand, it points in that direction.

This system of corruption and vice played out vividly in the pages of the Lewiston Daily Sun through the career of one particular liquor constable, Eugene F. Lawlor.  Lawlor styled himself as a zealous enforcer of the law, and raided the most notorious bars regularly (including Dr. Wiseman’s place on Cedar Street).  When the offenders refused to show up in court, he procured warrants for their arrest.  Not surprisingly, this made Lawlor an unpopular figure in Little Canada, and one night in November 1899 , he was involved in a late-night scuffle outside a drinking hole.  Though Lawlor himself was arrested by Captain Albert Bussiere of the night watch for assault and intoxication, the constable argued that he was a victim of the enmity of both the drinking community and his counterparts in the police force, and he was acquitted.  However, just two months later, Lawlor was back in court on charges and this time, the truth was undeniable.  The constable was discovered on his back in the snow, paralyzed by drink, in a Little Canada alleyway the dead of night. Numerous witnesses including Dr. Garcelon, the City Physician, testified to his drunken state, as did his fellow drinkers in the speakeasy – who had seen him put away “eight to ten drinks.” Lawlor’s behavior wasn’t just limited to hypocrisy – he was engaged in extortion as well, just as Mayor Newell had stated years earlier. Not only did he demand free drinks (“I am the notorious Lawlor,” he is said to have proclaimed, while brandishing his revolver), but he had conspicuously stayed out late after his shift was over, sending his partner home for the night, leaving him free to extort local businessmen on his own.   No wonder one of the bar patrons who helped him out of the establishment testified that  he “was sick of Lawlor and wanted to get rid of him” and that he “did not care enough about him” to cover the policeman for warmth, or even replace a missing boot.

The lessons of Lewiston’s Rum War echo down to us in the present. Not only does it speak to the futility of trying to control illicit substances without widespread community agreement, but it shows the tragic results when law enforcement are disconnected from the community they serve.  In recent weeks, the fate of African-Americans stopped by police has been highlighted by Black Lives Matter activists, while the several police officers have been killed in the name of avenging this mistreatment.  While the police forces and sheriff’s departments of the 1890s are much different to those of today, for both Black lives and “Blue lives,” building understanding between law enforcement and the public is as much the key to enforcing the law and avoiding further tragedies today as it was more than a century ago.



James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.