Friday, April 8, 2016

John Burns Was Wringing “Wet” in “Dry” Maine

Maine was the original home of prohibition against alcoholic beverages.  In 1846 the Maine legislature passed the first laws in the United States outlawing the sale of liquor except for “industrial and medicinal purposes.”  Nevertheless, John A. Burns, a Maine whiskey wholesaler, operated a wide open business for years, taking advantage of what many called “The Bangor Plan.” 

By the time Burns came along in the late 1800s, Maine had been fiddling with “dry” laws for a long time.  Because the 1846 law dealt only with sales, in 1851 a stricter statute was passed that also banned manufacturing.  When enforcement became a problem and bootlegging thrived, that law was repealed and for a while alcohol was available.  In 1862, another law created a “Commission to Regulate Sale of Intoxicating Liquors” that controlled spirits kept sold for medicinal and other authorized uses.  Liquor laws were tightened again in 1871 when the sale of wine and hard cider were proscribed.  Efforts to repeal these strictures failed, often narrowly.

In Bangor, Maine, a different alcohol regime reigned.  Liquor dealers, saloons, hotels and restaurants operated under what was called “The Bangor Plan.”  Under this arrangement, owners of establishments that sold whiskey, beer or wine could go to court twice a year and pay a set fine, some termed it a “tax.”  Police and other officials would ignore the traffic in spiritous drink the rest of the time.   

In 1893 former Maine Governor Neal Dow, the Prohibition Party stalwart shown left, was asked:  “Do you know anything about how the prohibitionary law works in the city of Bangor.  Dow replied:  “I do not know anything good about Bangor.”   

When the Bible-toting, axe-swinging anti-drink activist, Carrie Nation, shown right, came to town in 1902, she made a scene at the Bangor Hotel below, because drinks were served.  She promptly was escorted to her room, made to pack, ejected, and put into the custody of the local police.  Thereafter, she had only invective to say about Bangor.
What put Governor Dow and Carrie Nation into passions of anger, suited John Burns very well, thank you.  A native of the city, born there in November 1861, he was the son of Irish immigrants, his father a laborer.  Educated in local schools, he showed up in the 1887 city directory listed as a”shingleman,”  that is a provider of roofing and siding.  The following year, at the age of 27, he married.  His wife, 26, was Margaret.  She was of English ancestry, her parent both born in Canada.  Very soon they began to propagate Burns children.
The challenge of being a family man may have propelled Burns into more lucrative occupations.  In 1891 his directory listing was as the proprietor of  Riverside House on Bangor’s Washington Street.  Two years later he was listed as a grocer with Burns & Kanaley at 65 Exchange Street, the major commercial avenue shown above.  By 1897 he had teamed with Patrick H. O’Donahue in an enterprise at 119 Exchange that billed itself as “bottlers, grocers, cigars and tobacco.”  Whiskey and beer were major products.

By 1900, the partnership had been dissolved and Burns was operating as a sole proprietor at 119 Exchange.  He called himself a “bottler” in directories.  We might call him a liquor wholesaler, featuring his own embossed bottles into which he had decanted whiskey.   Shown here is a labeled quart of “Old Zach Taylor Pure Rye.”  The label indicates it was made in the 5th District of Kentucky, a federal designation that covered 136 individual distilleries, but Burns claimed was “bottled under our own supervision.”  My research suggests that this was a proprietary brand from Burns, named to mimic the well-known “Old Taylor” brand of Kentucky bourbon.

In addition to selling whiskey, Burns probably was “rectifying” it, that is, blending and compounding it in his own facilities before bottling.  The notion that this whiskey was Burns’ own, is enhanced by the embossing on the rear of the bottle.  It reads:  “Old Zach Taylor Pure Rye, J. A. Burns & Co., Bangor, Me.”  Liquor wholesalers usually embossed a brand on a bottle only if they knew it would be their own and would sell over a substantial period of time.  A Bangor historian has noted that “…The framed whiskey advertisements of Bangor wholesale dealer J. A. Burns & Co. [were] hanging in saloon windows all across town.”  Having been elected to the Bangor town council probably enhanced Burns’ confidence.

Remember that the Irishman’s open selling of whiskey occurred amidst the harsh Maine dry laws.  He was going into court semi-annually to pay his fine for “liquor nuisance,” amounting to $210, equivalent to something over $5,000 today, but a still a bargain.  Moreover, as recorded by the State Attorney General, some citations to Burns resulted in “no prosecution” — reason not given.  He was among six Bangor wholesalers paying the fine/tax, along with 91 saloons and other drinking establishments.

“Dry” forces in Maine constantly were attacking the “Bangor Plan” that let Burns and others operate openly.  Said one prohibition organ: “The city is overrun with saloons and low dives; gambling machines are scattered over the county by scores; the business of robbing drunken lumbermen continues, licentiousness and criminality abound and unarrested law breakers thumb their noses at the court.
When the heat was on, saloonkeepers often tried to reduce their visibility.  Although the Bangor historian quoted earlier mentioned Burns’ signs hanging in saloons, the photos of local drinking establishments above and below seem to tell a different story.  Said to be a “typical saloon front,” the windows look almost austere, with just a few bottles showing to indicate it presence.  The interior, below seems similarly chaste — no nude paintings, large liquor or beer ads. Note the bar has been moved out and behind appear to be napkins on tables, where drinkers can sit, presumably free of prying eyes. 
Meanwhile Burns was having a family life. He and Margaret were living at 20 Newbury Street in Bangor’s First Ward.  Built in 1880, their frame house, shown here, had eight bedrooms and five baths, to accommodate their growing family.  The 1910 census recorded the couple with five children:  Mary, 19; George, 16;  Margaret R., 13,  and John W., 5.  The household also contained one servant.  In addition to his liquor interests,  by 1910 Burns also was owner/manager of the Graphic Theater at 177 Exchange Street, shown here. That is the occupation he gave the census taker.

 Things came to a head in Bangor in late 1912 when a prohibitionist governor decided to press Maine’s “dry” laws on the town.  In succession he removed three sheriff’s for failing to enforce the law.  According to the New York World, it was thought that in Bangor “a good many of the liquor dealers would be sent to jail.”   John Burns surely would have been among them.  As lawyers for the liquor dealers repeatedly found flaws in state warrants, however, booze continued to flow into Bangor in carload lots.  In March 1913 alone, Burns was recorded as receiving one barrel and six cases of whiskey; one case of other liquor;  eight barrels, ten half barrels and eight quarter barrels of beer; and one barrel and one case of wine.  The newspaper commented:  “The great wave of liquor law enforcement which was started…with such a flourish of trumpets seems to have receded to a weak splash.”

After the farcical events of 1913 Burns and other alcohol purveyors in Bangor appear to have been left alone to operate openly for the next few years.  As National Prohibition loomed, however, even the most stubborn liquor dealers and saloonkeepers were forced to close.  In 1919 Burns hired a local contractor to make extensive renovations to his Exchange Street store to prepare it for other uses.  He continued to manage the Graphic Theater until February 1922.  Felled by pneumonia during a harsh Maine winter,  after two weeks illness he died at age 60.   Aided by the “Bangor Plan” during some 18 event-filled years, John Burns had managed to be thoroughly and openly wringing “wet” in “dry” Maine.

Note:   For years without success I had been seeking a Maine “whiskey man” to feature on this blog.  Then recently Peter Samuelson of Intervale, New Hampshire, introduced me to John Burns.  Peter collects labeled whiskeys and found and photographed for me the Old Zach Taylor Rye bottle shown above.  Those pictures and additional material he provided opened an opportunity to explore the life and times of this Bangor liquor dealer.  I am grateful for his help.


  1. Our antique bottle club recently featured this Burns bottle with the pictures from Peter Samuelson. Most of us didn't know there was a "Bangor" embossed whiskey bottle out there. Interesting read, thank you for writing and posting.

  2. Dear "Unknown": The Burns bottle was a surprise to me as well, having looked for years for a Maine "whiskey man" to write up. Thanks to Peter I was able to focus some research on Bangor and Burns. The story proved to be an interesting one.