“HANCOCK ST. SCRAP – Race Feeling Ran High in the Municipal Court Monday,” said the headline in the Bangor Daily Commercial a century ago. A 9-year-old boy named Courtney had been accused of throwing rocks through the windows of “a Jewish baker,” Isaac Dvorin. The boy’s older brother attacked Dvorin when the baker collared the culprit in a nearby alley.
“For some time race feeling has been running rather high on Hancock Street and numerous brawls and encounters – not confined especially to any one nationality – have been heard in the municipal court, so that at the present time certain residents of the street seem ready to scrap on the least provocation,” said the newspaper on Oct 12, 1908.
A “race war” was going on in Bangor since thousands of immigrants had moved into the city. Greeks, Eastern European Jews, Syrians, Russians, Canadians, Scandinavians, Italians, Irish, Armenians and other national groups had been arriving in large numbers since the late 19th century. By 1910, nearly 40 percent of the Queen City’s population was either foreign-born or the offspring of at least one foreign-born parent, according to the U.S. Census.
Friction existed among ethnic groups as well as between the new foreigners and Bangor natives – mostly those of Anglo and Irish descent. Much of it was centered on Hancock Street where many of the new Bangoreans lived. One group that was singled out in particular because of their religion were Jews, who had been arriving from Russia and its provinces. As with the other groups, leaders were emerging to fight against the discrimination, which ranged from ridicule to occasional violence.
The Bangor newspapers loved to describe the various scrapes that occurred. “GOT BLACK EYE IN RACE WAR,” said a headline in the Bangor Daily News in January 1908. Nicholas Rogers, an “Assyrian,” and David Koborosky, a Jew, were in court. Koborosky, a junk peddler, said Rogers, a grocery store proprietor, had assaulted him. Koborosky had a black eye to prove it. Apparently neither man spoke English. Two interpreters were needed. The details of the case are difficult to sort out today. One paragraph in the story, however, illustrates the level of anti-Semitic tension that existed.
“D.W. Nason, who was counsel for the complainant [Koborosky], objected to the witness alluding to Mr. Koborosky as a ‘Sheeny.’ Rogers said that that was his title, which remark caused Max Cohen, an interpreter, to warmly advise Rogers to designate the complainant by his proper name,” the newspaper reported. Sheeny being a highly objectionable anti-Semitic expression, the reader can only wonder today why the judge did not himself “warmly” correct defendant Rogers, who was found guilty and fined $10 and costs.
Another example of these ethnic tensions occurred later in the year when Fire Chief William Mason suggested that Jewish clothing merchants were burning their property to collect insurance. “Hebrews Have Formed a Club to Prosecute Suggestion of Incendiarism,” said a headline in the Bangor Daily News on Oct. 13. Mason said, “Recent fires in the stores of Jews have been of suspicious origin, and have warranted careful investigation.”
A prominent, but unnamed Jewish clothier told a reporter, “Yes, we have formed a club to act in the defense of any Hebrew who is thrown under unjust suspicion … . It has given us a black eye all over the state, and hereafter we are going to make Mr. Mason or any other prove his words or retract them.”
This merchant continued, “I can show you by figures that the percentage of fires on the premises of Jews, in ratio to population, is less than on the premises of other people. But the minute a fire starts in one of our stores, the cry goes up that it has been set. And I will tell you one other thing. No insurance company would settle a loss that they thought was suspicious. And you can’t show a case where payment has been held up.”
Chief Mason responded, “The Jew clothiers have formed a club, the object of which is to defeat me for re-election next spring. I will continue to hold the course that I have followed since I took office and shall investigate fires wherever I think it is necessary, whether they are on the property of Hebrews, Frenchmen, Americans or Italians … .”
Jewish leaders, such as Max Cohen and the unnamed clothier, were emerging to counter such treatment. One who left behind a written record was Louis Plotkin, the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel between 1906 and 1909. Born in Russia, he had mastered the English language so thoroughly that the Bangor Daily News regularly ran his columns.
Plotkin wasn’t afraid to disagree with the conventional beliefs of the power elite. He did it so eloquently that his words were undoubtedly read with respect by the many Bangor residents who were interested in the newcomers.
The first time I noticed one of Rabbi Plotkin’s pieces was in the May 5, 1908, edition of the newspaper. The superintendent of the Eastern Maine Insane Hospital, H.W. Mitchell, had given a temperance lecture at the YMCA on the connection between alcohol use and insanity. Basically, Mitchell said don’t drink, even in moderation. This reflected the beliefs of the majority of Mainers, especially Republicans, who supported the state’s prohibition law.
Citing traditional Jewish beliefs as well as his own observations, Plotkin bravely attacked the idea of total abstinence. “Since Noah planted a grapevine and got drunk … mankind has had a great appetite for every intoxicant. It is ridiculous to prevent anyone from taking any liquor.” In fact, he said there was more drunkenness in cities where prohibition existed than in cities where people were allowed to drink in public.
“What I saw here and there I described,” he said, referring to what he had witnessed in Bangor, where public drunkenness was by far the No. 1 crime.
As the weeks went by, Rabbi Plotkin continued to write about Jewish beliefs. “OBSERVATIONS BY RABBI PLOTKIN – Touches upon Capital vs. Labor and Explains Some Talmudic Law,” Oct. 19; “‘THERE IS A HELL’ – RABBI PLOTKIN – Prominent Bangor Hebrew Makes Sharp Retort to Pastor Russell,” Oct. 29; “RABBI PLOTKIN ON WOMAN’S LOT,” Nov. 24; “HEBREWS CELEBRATE EIGHT DAY FEAST – Story of the Lighted Candles,” Dec. 21.
Such columns were collected in a book, “Some Talmudic Gems,” according to the centennial history of Congregation Beth Israel. Rabbi Plotkin returned to New York City where he became a rabbi in Brooklyn.
Today the “race wars” that existed in Bangor and every other city in America a century ago have cooled considerably. There are always new groups of immigrants who need to be protected. But the incidents described at the top of this column are now only bad memories thanks to men like Rabbi Plotkin.
Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.