Rum, gambling, prostitution rampant in Rockland

By Daniel Dunkle | Feb 28, 2019

..."The immoral condition of Rockland could not be surpassed in this country."

That was the message a Secret Service agent communicated to Alderman Thomas Hawken, and which was printed on the front page of The Courier-Gazette Feb. 25, 1919.

The letter describes Rockland 100 years ago much as Obi-Wan Kenobi described Mos Eisley to a young Luke Skywalker, "a wretched hive of scum and villainy."

In the letter from Alderman Hawken, he seems to be defending himself and arguing that he really tried to clean up the city. In the letter, the issue of Rockland's profound immorality and debauchery is related to the naval station that had been located in the city. Hawken suggests that this city was too filthy for the Navy. That's quite a statement.

"The Washington authorities wrote to me that a ten-mile zone had been established around Rockland, inside which no prostitutes were allowed, being prohibited by the federal law. It was the duty of Major William B. Wright, Jr., of the 1st and 2nd Division Training Camp Activities, to see that the law was enforced," he said.

He went on, saying "...The immoral conditions of Rockland were such a menace to the young men at the Naval Station, that I informed the City Government that they must make a clean-up of the city, or else the United States Government would do it and in so doing would round up the City Government with the gang. The citizens have not forgotten what an excitement there was in the City Government when I gave them this startling information."

He stated that his goal was to protect the splended young men of the Navy from the city's depravity.

Despite the alderman's valiant effort at reform, which, it seemed, chiefly involved contacting city officials, Navy officials and working with a Secret Service agent, nothing was done and the Naval Station left for safer shores (perhaps some war zone where these splendid young men could be properly shot at, rather than threatened by city prostitutes, gamblers and rum-purveyors).

Prior to the departure, "Vice was allowed to run rampant, thus permitting the young men of the Training Station to become debauched, ruining their lives, and the lives of young girls of Rockland."

He went on to say that those who wanted to clean the city up "could expect no help from the City Government of Rockland."

The letter talks about the existence of clubs where rum, drugs and prostitution were prevalent, Park Street is mentioned as a location for some of these clubs. There are also references to "a certain truckman here [who] had been through to Bangor for two loads of liquor and drugs: That the same truckman had run a gambling joint in his barn, for the sports, on Sundays," and, "That there was a liquor hide in the Northend, that was being moved to Thomaston on that very day, because they had been told Mr. Hawken was to raid it, and that some of my acquaintances were in the work and one of his men was helping;" and, "That autos were bringing liquor from Belfast to Rockland and storing it in a garage on Park street."

In addition, "nude poker was played and debauchery in all its horrors was carried on..."

He also accuses a police officer of leading the undercover Secret Service agent, who was pretending to be drunk, to a place where he could buy whiskey.

The letter shows us a side of Rockland we don't hear about in the formal history of the city, and it is a side that I have been told about in various coversations over the years. This was a very important and busy seaport in the era when the lime industry ruled, and these streets where you now see art galleries and foodie havens were once pretty tough.

It also offers us a look at how attitudes change over the years, certainly in the way it is suggested that young men need to be protected from debauchery. Where are the calls for the sailors to exercise personal responsibility fo their actions?

In other news...

This column comes to you Thursday, Feb. 28.

It is interesting to see some of the things that took place in history on Feb. 28.

On Feb. 28, 1993, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms launched an unsuccessful raid on the compound of a cult in Waco, Texas, known as the Branch Davidians, according to and numerous other sources online. The group was led by apocalyptic leader David Koresh. The heavily armed cult members fought back and a seige began that would last 51 days. It ended with a tear gas attack by government forces April 19, followed by a fire. Various reports say that between 70 and 80 people, including children, were killed.

On the lighter side, 10 years earlier, on Feb. 28, 1983, "M*A*S*H" aired it's final episode. Anyone from my age group (mid-40s) grew up watching this sitcom, which centered on the Korean War, while actually serving as a critique of Vietnam (according to The show started in 1972, based on the 1968 Richard Hooker novel. The novel had previously been adapted into a 1970 Robert Altman film.

"M*A*S*H" brought us some of the most iconic characters in the history of comedy including surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, played by Alan Alda, camp clerk Radar O'Reilly, Margaret "Hot Lips" Houlihan, Corporal Max Klinger, and I could go on and on.

Once the show was in syndication, it seemed always to be on, and you didn't really mind that. I would come in, glance at the TV and be like, "Oh that's the one where they knock down the wall in the colonel's office," or "Is this the one where Hawkeye demands ribs for dinner?"

My all-time favorite image from the show will always be Klinger attempting to hang-glide out of the war while wearing fuzzy pink slippers.

The show ran more than 250 episodes.

Daniel Dunkle of The Courier-Gazette lives in Rockland. He is author of the novel, "The Scrimshaw Worm." Send in your stories, photos and memories via email at:; or snail mail to: 91 Camden St., Suite 403, Rockland, ME 04841. Vintage Ink columns rely on back issues of The Courier-Gazette for source material. Other sources will be cited specifically.


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Comments (2)
Posted by: Dan Dunkle | Mar 07, 2019 08:02

Thanks Alison!

Posted by: Alison S McKellar | Mar 06, 2019 23:13

Great stuff. Thank you!

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