BANGOR - The gangster had vowed that he would not be taken alive, so when federal agents descended on Bangor that Columbus Day in 1937, they came loaded with weapons and the grim expectation that their attempt to capture Al Brady and his Brady Gang would turn bloody.
Tomorrow, when 50 local residents reenact the gang's last shootout on the same downtown street, the bloodstains on the pavement may be the only thing missing from the action.
With devotion that has bordered on obsession - and raised objections from some residents who say the city should not glorify its violent past - organizers of the reenactment have spent 10 months combing thrift stores for period clothing and memorizing the timeline of that bright, violent morning. They have manufactured a replica of the massive Ballantine Ale sign that once overlooked downtown Bangor, recruited a college fraternity to hoist it into place on a rooftop, and marshaled an army of antique cars to park along Central Street, where the three- and four-story brick storefronts look much as they did 70 years ago.
Though no fake blood will color the pavement where Brady was riddled with bullets and breathed his last, firefighters will hose down the street anyway after the reenactment, just as their predecessors did after the gangster's body was hauled away.
"For these hours, that street belongs to me, and it is going back to 1937," vowed Gerry Palmer, the boisterous, bearded City Council member who is planning the event. "No one wanted to touch this subject matter, but I think it's old enough now to be touched and looked upon as a good day for Bangor, Maine."
Some critics of the event are uneasy with the organizer's decision to place a stone at Brady's long-unmarked grave.
"I'm not objecting to people having their fun, but why pay respect to someone who had no respect for human life?" said Jim Koritzky, a Bangor retiree.
Organizers say the project honors law enforcement and "good Maine people" who brought down the criminals. Among those expected at the reenactment is Walter Walsh, a former FBI sharpshooter, now 100, who was shot in the chest that day in Bangor.
The reenacters have the support of Loren Hylton, the nephew of Indiana state trooper Paul Minneman, who was killed by the gang in May 1937. Hylton and his wife, Karen, visited Maine in August and saw Brady's gravestone, and they approve of the marker and the reenactment, said Karen Hylton.
"[Brady] made the wrong choices, but he did live and affect a lot of people," she said. "It happened. Justice was served there in Maine, and we saw that."
Brady was 26 on Oct. 12, 1937, an Indiana native who had taken up a life of crime with two accomplices, Rhuel James Dalhover and Clarence Lee Shaffer Jr., in the depths of the Depression, after the deaths of his parents.
Their criminal careers began inauspiciously, in 1935, when they robbed a theater of $18. In 1936 they pulled off several jewelry heists, including one that netted $27,000, killed an Ohio grocery clerk and an Indiana patrolman, broke out of jail, fled to the East Coast, and started robbing banks.
The gang visited Bangor in October 1937 to buy a machine gun, said Dick Shaw, a Bangor historian and retired newspaperman who has spent 30 years studying Brady's last days.
Brady sought out a local store, Dakin's Sporting Goods, to buy the gun without attracting attention. The store's owner, Everett "Shep" Hurd, grew suspicious of the gangster, promised to find him a gun, told him to come back in a week, and then alerted authorities, setting the stage for the Central Street showdown and Brady's death.
Shaw, who will play Brady in the reenactment, says the event harkens to a time when "public enemies" were neatly dispatched.
"Who's evil today? Al Qaeda, and we don't even know who they are," said Shaw. "Back then, you had a clear line between the white and black hats, and in this case, good triumphing over evil."
On that long-ago Columbus Day, however, the outcome was unclear. The FBI risked the deaths of innocent people when it surprised the gang on a busy street at 8:30 a.m. An unknown number of passers-by witnessed the gun battle, and more rushed to see the lifeless bodies of Brady and Shaffer in the street. (Dalhover was arrested and later tried and executed.)
The locals' stories, told over and over, have kept that day alive in Bangor, said Shaw, whose mother, then 22, saw the event from a passing trolley car.
"She raised me on the story," he said. "I don't remember when I didn't know about the Brady Gang."
One reason for the reenactment is to pin down historical details while witnesses are still alive, Palmer said, and to correct inaccuracies that have crept into the legend.
Andrew Taber, 85, was on his way to the sporting goods store that October morning to buy brass polish. "It's a good thing I was a little late," said Taber, who for 50 years has run a watch repair business on Central Street, overlooking the shootout site.
He said he remembers watching coins fall out of Brady's pocket when the gangster's limp body was lifted into a basket.
"It doesn't hurt anybody to let people know what happened in Bangor," Taber said.
On a tour of the shootout scene Thursday, Shaw and Palmer, who will play Hurd, wore 1930s-style fedoras.
Unlikely collaborators, Shaw is soft-spoken and slight, a self-described introvert, while Palmer is a large, forceful presence who has willed cooperation with his vision from city leaders. Palmer often spoke in character, describing how Hurd received a $1,500 reward for his role in bringing the Brady Gang to justice and sold photographs of the shootout in his store for years afterward.
"After the Brady thing, how could I leave Bangor?" he said. "I'm the biggest story the state ever saw."
Brady was buried in an unmarked grave in Bangor's Mount Hope Cemetery. His brain was preserved at a Bangor hospital.
The modest grave marker, unveiled last month by reenactors in period dress, is a connection to history, said Palmer.
"To see a pile of grass there doesn't do much for people," he said.
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.