On a spring afternoon in the late 1850s, an upbeat tune from a piano spills out from a curious brick house with a sky-blue chimney. A young lumberjack walking up Harlow Street in Bangor, Maine, stares at the colorful construct. Could this be the salacious destination he’s heard so much about? After spending months cooped up at a remote lumber camp, he’s traveled atop logs floating down the Penobscot River to this booming frontier city. The trip has been thrilling, but this greenhorn is ready for a different kind of fun.
Inside the house, cigar smoke and lady’s perfume drift about, circling pretty women in revealing slips and brawny men who’ve just left a hard day’s work on the river. Some tap their feet to the music and cheer; others stumble upstairs for a different brand of entertainment. Drunk loggers slam frothy steins onto the chiseled log counter, splashing ale into the air. A woman with a wad of cash stuffed high in her stocking flashes a wicked smile as she walks by the mob of hungry customers ready to pay top dollar for what Fan Jones, keeper of the Sky-Blue House of Pleasure and one of the most notorious madams of Devil’s Half Acre, has to offer.
In 1851 Maine became the first state to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, distinguishing it as the birthplace of Prohibition. The legislation, known across the nation as “the Maine law,” was groundbreaking and controversial. Not everyone followed the rules. Although Maine was a “dry state,” the central city of Bangor remained exceptionally wet. Secret liquor wagons rolled along; bootlegging virtually became sport. By 1890 the city was home to 142 illegal saloons, most of them situated in the infamous section known as “the Devil’s Half Acre.” The smuggling of banned spirits gave way to other lawless acts. Brothels popped up all over the city, and among them was Fan Jones’s legendary Sky-Blue House of Pleasure.
Not much is known about how Fan Jones, “the proverbial madam with a heart of gold,” became a prostitute. According to The New England Historical Society, Nancy “Fan” or “Fannie” Jones was born in Brooksville, Maine, sometime around 1830, to Eliza and Benjamin Jones. For a time, Fan Jones worked as a seamstress and possibly as a servant for a wealthy family, but eventually her work life took an abrupt volte-face.
In 1858 Jones was arrested for running a house of ill repute. Soon after, she moved to a large house situated on the outskirts of Devil’s Half Acre, only a short walk from the riverfront – a prime location for a business that serviced workingmen. Jones worked there for several years before buying the building around 1867. Popular legend had it that she insisted the chimney be painted sky-blue so that men could easily find their way to her brothel. A fresh coat of paint every six months ensured it would be a conspicuous, welcoming landmark to loggers coming down river and sailors going up. The establishment soon became known as “the Blue House.”
One song archived at the University of Maine Folklore Center at Orono captures a logger’s love of Bangor’s Sky-Blue madam:
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.
Bangor was by then the “Lumber Capital of the World,” often shipping more than 200 million feet of board each year. In 1860 alone 3,376 vessels arrived in Bangor, most of them filled with adventure-seeking men.
In his book, Tall Trees, Rough Men, Robert Pike describes the lure of Prohibition-era taverns and bordellos in the city: “…there was naturally a demand for fun and relaxation, and where there is a demand, there springs up a supply. 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.”
But it wasn’t just the working class that the Sky-Blue served. Across town, Bangor was polished and highbrow, with pre-eminence in the manufacturing and shipping industries. The city also became a cultural mecca when Norumbega Hall opened to a white-tie gala on October 19, 1855, attracting the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James A. Garfield and William McKinley, according to author Bill Caldwell in Rivers of Fortune. This was followed by the establishment of the European and North American Railroad in 1871, celebrated in-person by President Ulysses S. Grant, and the Bangor Opera House in 1882.
If the upper crust had an itch for poetry, theater and political ovations, they didn’t have far to travel for more discreet entertainment. Jones’s staff fit the high expectations of the many businessmen and aristocrats who discreetly passed through her brothel doors. As described in Rogues, Rascals, and Other Villainous Mainers, by Trudy Irene Scee, the immaculate and well-kept house had twelve rooms that were in constant use. Jones marketed the Blue House in colorful ways. Each year she would buy gowns from Paris, sparing no expense, and she and her girls would all ride in horse-drawn coaches in the parade at the Bangor State Fair. Their trade spilled from house-to-tent during the duration of the festivities, earning a pretty penny.
Jones did have a few run-ins with the law. She was fined numerous times for selling liquor and running a disorderly house, and even served several months at the Bangor House of Corrections in 1861. Then came her attempt to flee the city after a grand jury indictment in 1870. That day, Jones stepped off a train at a dark depot near Kendall’s Mills (now Fairfield), sixty miles outside of Bangor. Dressed in a conservative gown and large-brimmed hat, she set her suitcase on the ground. Incarceration is the worst form of oppression, she likely thought to herself. At that point, desperation set in and she would have done anything to avoid imprisonment.
As the train rumbled away, she walked alongside the track, heading south. If she could make it to Portland she could jump on a wagon headed west. But her wishful thinking was cut short.
Bright light beamed through the darkness, illuminating Jones. Within seconds, a dispatch from Marshal Bolton surrounded her. Two law enforcement officials grabbed her by the arms and wrestled with her hands.
The exchange went something like this: “Excuse me, gentlemen! This is no way to treat a lady,” Jones objected. The men laughed and continued to secure the shackles.
“Miss Jones, I would hardly be so kind as to describe you in such a manner,” a tall, scruffy officer responded with a smug smile.
Local news outlets often mocked Jones and her establishment, and they had a field day when she tried to escape via the Maine Central Railroad. “[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.
Jones did, however, have a reputation as a compassionate person, per author Trudy Irene Scee, and was said to have helped female friends along the way.
It would be hard to imagine Jones having any kind of social life, but she somehow maintained personal relationships with men that extended far beyond her line of work. Scee also wrote that Jones had several male business associates and a few romantic interests in her lifetime.
By the 1860s, she had taken the last name of her longtime partner or husband, John Thomas, who had lived at the Blue House for several years. He was listed in city directories as a carriage maker, boarding house manager, and various other blue-collar occupations. Thomas entered public records with Jones in 1858 when he was sentenced to four years in the Maine State Prison for breaking into a local bank with a skeleton key.
Jones gave birth to a daughter Caroline, or “Caddie” for short, in 1864, according to Down East magazine. Caddie gave birth to two, possibly three, children.
Jones died in Bangor in the 1930s from tuberculosis, and was laid to rest at Mt. Hope Cemetery under the name Fannie N. Thomas. Prior to the Civil War she had purchased the lot in the garden section near the Penobscot River – the same river that brought many clients her way. She is surrounded by some family and twelve other women of no relation. Given her generous nature, many believe she pre-paid for burial plots for some of her working girls, friends and confidants. Though no records exist documenting her own burial, it is believed she is placed in the unmarked spot between Thomas and one of her grandchildren.
The Sky-Blue House of Pleasure survived the Great Bangor Fire of 1911, which destroyed much of the city’s downtown, and remained standing until 1950.
One of many frontier madams, Fan Jones was keeper of a shop at a time when working girls were a dime a dozen. Prostitutes led hard lives in the 1800s; the trade was not exactly lucrative for the average female. Many lived in poverty and often ended up in poor houses or jail. Disease was rife in the crowded neighborhoods of Bangor and especially in the close quarters of the city’s bordellos. Jones not only survived, she prospered. Big money flowed down the Penobscot into the city, and she took advantage of the opportunities – a steady flow of clientele, flourishing industries, and a wild and boisterous landscape. She was a shrewd businesswoman, and her house became the longest-running, most successful brothel in Bangor: a good time guaranteed, if you found the sky-blue chimney.