In 1907, lumber barons persuaded politicians to pass the Maine peonage law to keep lumberjacks on the job. If they quit work, they went to jail.
Maine lawmakers copied from an Alabama law designed to tie workers to their employers . They employers put them into debt and the government put them in jail if they didn’t work it off.
The work was hard and dangerous, even deadly. It required men to spend the long winter in the northern Maine woods.
Historian Charles Scontras concluded 342 men went to jail after employers tricked them into accepting lumber work they couldn’t do. Or employment brokers loaned train fare and dumped miles from the camps. Or the company store gave them credit to buy overpriced boots and clothes and other necessities.
“Hundreds of men have been thrown into jail because of this cruel and much abused law,” reported Maine Labor Commissioner Roscoe Eddy.
Maine Peonage Law
One August day in Bangor, Maine, Peter Poulskaw and Nicholas Eilandy took jobs at a logging camp. They had arrived from Poland, had no money and didn’t speak English.
They were among the tens of thousands of men, many immigrants, who came each year to Bangor and Lewiston, Maine. They’d spend a few days in cheap boardinghouses before shipping off to the north woods.
A Bangor employment agent told Poulskaw and Eilandy the logging camp was 3-1/2 miles from Kingman in northern Maine. He gave them cash for train fare to Kingman. When they reached the town, they found out the camp was really 35 miles away.
The Bangor Daily News reported they ‘expected to walk the distance and not relishing the idea had vamoosed.’ Poulskaw and Eilandy were caught, arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail.
The Maine peonage law stayed on the books for seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Alabama law as unconstitutional. Then in late 1916, the Maine labor commissioner’s report appeared in the Bangor Daily News, calling the law ‘obnoxious.’
“Under its provisions hundreds of men have been convicted and forced to serve a sentence in jail for no offense other than being in debt,” the report said.
The labor commissioner also criticized judges who are ‘anxious to make the sentence satisfactory to the influential lumbermen operating in the vicinity.’
The lumbermen’s reaction to the labor commissioner’s report was swift, sure and anonymous.
The newspaper quoted them calling the report a ‘false alarm.’ The lumber barons claimed only a half dozen men had been prosecuted. They complained the crews were made up of ‘foreigners and the scum of Boston,’ most of whom were unfit for hard work. They complained the men were taken into the woods ‘at much expense and after working two or three weeks have left.’
But they did actually concede they’d tricked the workers into taking the jobs.
The Maine peonage law became the object of national criticism. Labor unions attacked it. The U.S. Immigration Commission called it ‘the most complete system of peonage in the entire country.’
Finally, in 1917, the Legislature repealed the law.
With thanks to Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire by Wayne E. Reilly. This story updated in 2023.