By Ron Formisano
University of Massachusetts Press,
176 pp., illustrated, $35 (cloth), $14.95 (paper)
The picturesque image of the sturdy lobsterman chuggung out of a rocky harbor with the dawn's first light is at odds with the fact that lobstering is a dangerous, sometimes violent, and always cutthroat business.
And it was the cutthroat nature of lobstering that triggered the events historian Ron Formisano chronicles in the "The Great Lobster War," the "tie-ups" that Maine lobstermen staged - during the summers of 1956 and 1957.
The "tie-ups" were organized by the Maine Lobsterman's Association in response to the decision by the major lobster dealers to cut the "boat Price" - the price per pound paid at the dock - below the 35 cents that the association wanted set as a minimum.
As Formisano reports, dealer John E. Willard Jr. controlled the "boat Price" of lobsters. "every morning, Jack would be on his phone, calling the other dealers and telling them what the price would be that day." It was he who, two years running, "put out the word" to drop the price to 30 cents.
Although the lobstermen were reacting to the dealers' action, the Justice Department, apparently at the suggestion of Willard, indicted the association and its president, Leslie Dyer of Vinalhaven, for violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Seven dealers were also indicted by tried separately. Both groups were found guilty, with the lobstermen's fines being remitted at the recommendation of the prosecutor, Cambridge native John Galgay.
When the lobstermen'ss case came to trial, it produced one of the most entertaining events ever to transpire in an American courtroom. "A show," Formisano calls it, "Maine lobster catchers, wrapping themselves in coastal patois for protective cove, mathching wits with the [governement attornesy], 'slick talkers' from New York, leading them verbally on a chase across the waters and around the islands of Casco Bay therough hours of evasive testimony."
One such chase came when Galgay thought he had caught lobsterman Irving Bracy admitting that the waters had been patrolled to deter noncompliers from working. Bracy spoke of tying up the boats and "holding turns so to speak for awhile."
"Galgay's eyes widened and he rose ont he balls of his feet." Asked what the phrase meant, Bracy replied, "Well, I suppose that comes from the fact that when you are using a winch to hoist a load, that by taking extra turns on it you can hoist it up and if you hold a turn by letting the winch turn. . ."
By now, Formisano reports, "the judge was holding his hand over a smile, and soft, knowing laughter was rippling through the room." At this point, Galgay realized that he had fallen for one of the lobstermen's verbal games.
But for all the Down East humor and the tripping-up of the government prosecutors, the lobstermen's case was doomed from the beginning when federal district Judge Edward T. Gignoux disallowed testimony abouth the lobster dealers' price-fixing.
As a result, Formisano writes, the lobstermen's attorney, Alan Grossman of Rockland, Maine, attempted to "pursue whenever he could" that disallowed line of defense so successfully that he turned most of the lobstermen called as government witneses into witnesses for the defense.
Based on Gignoux's ruling and his chage to the jury, the lobstermen were found guilty after four hours of deliberation. But such was the popular sentiment for the lobstermen that Dyer, Grossman, and the rest of the defense team joined the prosecutors at their victory party, and Dyer later sent Galgay a gift of fresh lobsters when the dealers pleaded nolo contendere at their trial and were fined.
In setting the stage for the events he recounts, Formisano provides a valuable view of the economics of lobstering, particularly the lobstermen's "ambivalent dependence on the dealers," not only to buy their catch but to sell them bait, to provide ddocking, to carry them over bad seasons and even, in some cases, to allow them to set traps off islands the dealers' owned.
The "war" was a turning point for Maine's lobstermen, argues Formisano. Never again would they "strive for or attain the unity and leverage of 1956-57" The associat9ion would survive but the outcome of the trial made it certain that it could never "serve as an agent to bargain with dealers."
Formisano, a professor of history at the University of Florida and the author of a well-regarded account of the busing crisis in Boston, summers on Chebeague Island in Casco Bay, the center of the lobstermen's organizing activities.
His account of the "war" between the lobstermen and the dealers is written with the skill and detachment of a historian, as well as, even more important, a feeling for the people and a love for the place of a (almost) native.