The Case of Jack and Florence Bettencourt

Driving through the midcoast town of Liberty, Maine you’ll encounter a little village that appears almost suspended in a time from decades or even a century past. Many of the buildings that line Main Street remain unchanged from their late-18 and early 1900s appearance, save for maybe a coat of paint or two throughout the years. The classic gas pumps still standing outside an old converted Mobile station really make you pause and wonder what the town was like in years gone by.

Just outside of the little village of Liberty, still on Main Street, is another building that is largely unchanged from its original appearance. The brown wooden structure sits vacant now, the dusty gravel parking lot empty, the porch bare and windows dark. If you were to travel back in time about 50 years though, that empty building was a favorite place for the people of Liberty and beyond. Its owners, Jack and Florence Bettencourt, were an essential thread woven into the fabric of the small Maine town. In December of 1973, that fabric was torn apart when the Bettencorts were found gunned down at their own home.

This is the story of Jack and Florence and the legacy they left behind on Dark Downeast.

Joaquin and Florence Bettencourt

The town now incorporated as Liberty, Maine, located on the ancestral lands of the Wabanaki people, calls itself one of Maine’s best kept secrets. It’s a tiny town, even today, with under 1000 residents. In the 1970s, the town was even smaller, just about 500 people called it home. Among the residents were Mr. Joaquin Bettencourt, better known as Jack, and his wife, Florence.
Jack ran a second hand clothing store in town, located in an old supermarket building across from Walker Memorial School on the main route through Liberty. He didn’t advertise and he didn’t have a sign out front, well, except for the one that listed the store’s hours – only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Because of that, customers often called the store “Store Hours”, as they were the only words on the building’s facade. 

In the December 7th, 1973 edition of The Maine Times, writer William Maseychik shined the spotlight on Jack Bettencourt and his business, calling it the emporium of the shabby chic. It was Jack’s idea to buy second hand clothing in Boston and all over the world and bring it back to Maine for sale. Jack wore his own merchandise. He was described as gruff and semi-balding.

Before the second hand clothing store business, Jack was a “27-year Boston retail man” according to the Maine Times, and prior to that, he spent 8 years in the Marines serving in World War II. When asked about his service, Jack told the writer, “I had all I can want of it. Working for the government is strictly for the birds.”

Maseychik describes what treasures you could find inside the converted grocery store, which maintained a warehouse vibe inside. There were shirts and shoes and girdles and house dresses, work boots and beer truck jackets, mechanic’s and salesman’s uniforms with name patches still sewed onto the breast. Absolutely nothing was labeled or priced. You’d have to wait in line and once you reached the counter, Jack would tell you how much he wanted for the items you held. 

A career salesman, Jack employed his own unique pricing structure that involved assessing the item’s flaws and features. As quoted in The Maine Times, Jack might say, “Let’s see – frayed cuff, two patches, genuine Wranglers. Not bad. $1.00? I should be getting $3.00.” It was generally believed that if Jack thought you could afford something, the price was higher. Customers liked to play a guessing game before it was their turn to hear the total from Jack.

Though definitely a businessman and needing to turn a profit at the store for his livelihood, Jack Bettencourt helped those in need with affordable clothing, often charging only a few dollars for an “armload of clothing”, according to the Bangor Daily News. A woman told the Kennebec Journal, “It’s a terrific loss for the town because he kept the poor people in warm clothing. When large families came he would always clothe them for a small amount of money.”

Jack was known to carry two wallets – one for small bills and one for larger. He didn’t trust banks. He was also known to dislike children, but that didn’t seem to make anyone like him any less. Sheriff’s Deputy Leon Barton later said that though known to be a bit rough and perhaps grumpy, Jack was “different when you got to know him. He was very pleasant.” 

In all the source material, little is written about Mrs. Florence Bettencourt. In fact, one article in the Morning Sentinel notes that “Few people reported knowing Mrs. Bettencourt” and she was rarely seen and kept to herself. She was born in Ireland on March 29, 1899, making her 74-years old in 1973, though her age was misprinted as “mid-fifties” in several articles at the time. Two of her three sisters still lived in Ireland, the other with her husband in Portland, Maine. Jack and Florence had raised their niece, Kathleen, since she was a young child, but she lived in Georgia in 1973.

Just three days after the feature story about Jack Bettencourt and his shabby chic emporium was published in The Maine Times, Jack and his wife Florence were dead.

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