When Penobscot logging was at its peak, lumbermen flocked to the bordello run by Fan Jones near the Devil’s Half Acre in Bangor, Maine. Rivermen in red shirts and tasseled sashes swaggered into town looking for the Sky Blue House of Pleasure, their pay burning a hole in their pockets.
According to legend, Fan Jones was handsome, gracious, slender and shrewd, the proverbial madam with a heart of gold. She was well-kept and so was her house. Folk songs dreamed up by her satisfied customers, mostly sailors and lumberjacks, spread her fame:
Fan Jones, She ran a cathouse
Way down on Harlow Street
If you’re a woodsman
Head straight there
And your friends you’ll surely meet.
Wild and Boisterous Play
Fan Jones was known as a good businesswoman who took full advantage of the opportunities presented by the booming little city on the frontier. At its height in 1860, Bangor shipped 250 million board feet of lumber, and more than 3,000 ships moored in its harbor. You could walk across the river on their decks from Bangor to Brewer, people said.
The ships came from around the world: China, Europe, Australia, but especially the West Indies. Timber was traded for molasses and rum, which the loggers imbibed with enthusiasm.
Though Maine had gone dry in 1851, Bangor stayed resolutely wet. In 1890 the city had 142 saloons, many of them in the Devil’s Half Acre. Under ‘the Bangor Plan’ (described as ritualized bribery of politicians and policemen), the city flouted Maine’s Prohibition law.
Robert Pike described the appeal of the saloons and whore-houses that lined the plank sidewalks of the Devil’s Half Acre in his classic book Tall Trees, Tough Men:
Reveling in work that permitted him to display his splendid strength and skill, the riverman also liked to throw himself into wild and boisterous play. … The songs he roared out as he strode boldly from one Haymarket Square dive to another, or as he approached Fan Jones’ noted Skyblue House of pleasure on Harlow Street, were not of the Sunday School type…
And, noted Pike, entrepreneurs like Fan Jones could count on repeat customers:
The logger came into Bangor for a good time, and he had it. True, he often woke up in jail with a splitting headache and bruises on his noggin, but after he had paid or worked off his fine he put a final bottle or two of the squirrel into his turkey and headed back up the river. There the passage of months and frequent re-telling to his colleagues made his Bangor adventures take on the aura of a wonderful time, and by the time spring had rolled around again he was ready and anxious to repeat the voluptuous experience.
Fan Jones was born in Brooksville, Maine, sometime in 1830, to Eliza and Benjamin Jones. She worked as a seamstress and possibly a servant for a wealthy family.
It isn’t clear how or why, but she became a prostitute in Bangor by 1850. In 1858 police arrested her for operating a house of ill-repute. She moved to another house at 233 Harlow St., a short walk from the riverfront and the Devil’s Half Acre. Shrewd with money, she bought the building around 1867. It earned the nickname the ‘Sky Blue House of Pleasure,’ supposedly because she had the chimney painted that color though no evidence exists that she did.
It was the most successful, longest running brothel in Bangor.
Fan Jones usually had eight seasoned women working for her; unlike many of Bangor’s brothels, she didn’t employ young girls. The house had as many as 12 bedrooms that could be used for commercial purposes. (To see 233 Harlow St. today, click here.)
The State Fair
She not only survived, but she did well enough to help others along the way. She adopted 16-year-old Caddie Graffam.
Fan Jones was fined a few times for running a disorderly house and for serving liquor. She served a few months in the Bangor House of Corrections in 1861. In 1870 a grand jury indicted her, and she tried to get out of town on the Maine Central Railroad. Marshals intercepted her in Fairfield and brought her back.
“[Imagine] Fan’s feelings at such disregard of women’s rights as would not let her choose her own direction to travel in,” commented the Whig & Courier.
Once a year she dressed her employees in lavish gowns from Paris and seated them in an open coach-and-six. They then rode in it in the parade that opened the Bangor State Fair. She set up a large tent near the fair for a week where her girls could ply their trade.
By the mid- or late 1860s, an ex-con named John Thomas moved into the Sky Blue House of Pleasure, and Fan jones started to go by the name ‘Mrs. Thomas.’ John Thomas may have been her real or common-law husband.
The Sky Blue House of Pleasure survived the Great Bangor Fire of 1911, but Fan Jones, then 81, had probably retired by then. She died of tuberculosis, like many in Bangor, in 1917 and was laid to rest in Mount Hope Cemetery.
With thanks to Rogues, Rascals, and Other Villainous Mainers by Trudy Irene Scee and Tall Trees, Tough Men by Robert Pike. This story was updated in 2020.