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Maine History Online
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Uncomfortable History

Third phase, burning of Old South Church, Bath, 1854
Third phase, burning of Old South Church, Bath, 1854Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

Text by Candace Kanes

Images from Maine Historical Society, Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum, Island Falls Historical Society and John Bapst Memorial High School

Some history can make us squirm.

Slavery, discrimination, treatment of Native Americans, harassment of immigrants -- these are just a few of the topics that often elicit statements of horror, shock, or embarrassment. Maine, as everywhere, has its share of historical events that some people would rather not know about or might want to sweep under the rug for comfort.

John Bapst, Bangor, ca. 1860
John Bapst, Bangor, ca. 1860Item Contributed by
John Bapst Memorial High School

For instance, in the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist group, was active in Maine. On October 14, 1854, Ellsworth Know-Nothings tarred and feathered Jesuit priest John Bapst and rode him out of town on a rail, in part because he objected to Catholic students having to read from a Protestant Bible. He survived the attack.

Know-Nothings in Bath burned a church used by Roman Catholics on July 6, 1854. Several paintings of the event serve as reminders.

In the early 1920s, another expression of nativism swept through Maine. The Ku Klux Klan, which had three distinct and mostly unrelated existences (Reconstruction, the 1920s, and the 1950s and forward), re-emerged in post World War I America to promote Americanism, which meant opposition to immigrants and immigration, Roman Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans. Photographs of white-robed paraders with pointed hoods on the streets of Maine surprise and upset many people who assume the Ku Klux Klan was a southern organization or that their only target was African-Americans.

How do we react?

  • Ignore these subjects and deal with history that is less personal, less likely to make us wish we hadn't encountered it?

  • Explain away the phenomenon as something that happened when "things were different?"

Ku Klux Klan parade, Brownville Junction, 1924
Ku Klux Klan parade, Brownville Junction, 1924Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

  • Put the topics in context to explain why the Know-Nothings and Klan did what they did or why their messages resonated with Mainers?

  • Do more research and try to find out more about what really happened in Maine, including searching for dissenting voices?

  • Seek information about the targets or potential targets of the groups to try to determine what the impact of their actions was and how these "targets" counteracted the groups?

Some combination of the final three choices probably is the most useful.

What did happen in the 1920s? Post-war economic problems, along with anxiety about the Russian Revolution and anarchy spurred by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's raids on union leaders, African-Americans, and others left many native-born, white, Protestant Americans concerned for their economic and social status. It was common to blame those who were at the bottom of the economic ladder or who were different for loss of jobs and a variety of changes in society.

Ku Klux Klan march, Milo, 1923
Ku Klux Klan march, Milo, 1923Item Contributed by
Island Falls Historical Society

The Klan in Maine was not extremely violent and its real interest probably was in the political arena: keeping Catholics out of office and electing sympathetic officials who would insure that Catholics would not be teachers, police officers, or hold other public service jobs. The Klan and others spread the idea that the Pope controlled Roman Catholics, who therefore were not real Americans, and hence were a danger. The Klan in Maine claimed to have gotten Ralph Owen Brewster elected governor in 1924.

Women of the Ku Klux Klan seal, Houlton, ca. 1924
Women of the Ku Klux Klan seal, Houlton, ca. 1924Item Contributed by
Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum

The Klan was a secret, fraternal society that held many social events and its 40,000-some members included everyone: doctors, lawyers, business people, ministers, farmers.

That said, the Klan was not just a benign fraternal group. The white robes, secret meetings, and public parades sent a particular message. Maine's many Franco-Americans, especially, were afraid of these public displays, knowing that they were the targets. Were they voiceless victims? Probably not.

A number of people from various ethnic and religious groups spoke out against the Klan and, in some communities, challenged Klan members physically. Franco-Americans confronted of Klan gatherings in Fairfield and Biddeford, among other places. The presence of the Klan probably was one reason Bangor began a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1921.

This complex history – of the organizations, the social, political, and economic context, the actions, the reactions, the proponents, the opponents – all needs to be present to help us understand the many elements that have been part of our past and, hence, our present.