Mysteries surround Fairbanks character

July 20, 2010 

In December 1932, Fairbanks businessman Charles L. Thompson disappeared in Mexico. Almost certainly, he and his traveling companion, Gabrielle Mitchell, variously described by the newspapers as his wife, mistress, and common-law wife, were murdered. Neither has been seen to this day.

Thompson owned a distillery in Tijuana; the liquor business was a dangerous business during prohibition.

Thompson's mysterious disappearance shocked Fairbanks. The community was further shocked to discover, after Michigan heirs expressed interest in the estate, Charles Lucas Thompson actually was Charles Leo Kaiser. The Thompson name was assumed.

Kaiser was born in Bay City, Mich., in 1878 and ran away from home in 1895, age 17. He came to Alaska between 1900 and 1905 as Thompson. There's a tantalizing bit of psychology in the name change. The young man who became Thompson was Charles Leo Kaiser Jr. -- when he gave up his birth name, he abandoned his father's name.

In becoming Thompson, Charles Kaiser was thorough to the point of pedantry. His parents were German immigrants. Charles told the census takers they were from Scotland and Ireland.

His parents -- his father a skilled machinist -- had six children, five daughters and Charles.

The youngest daughter, Nona, told the Fairbanks probate judge Charles wrote to her family from Prescott, Ariz., in 1900. The family did not hear from him again until 1917, when he wrote from Fairbanks and visited Bay City.

By 1917, Charles was a success story. Businesses, property, mining ventures -- a man in the Interior newspapers. All Fairbanks knew him, although all Fairbanks did not like him. Charles owned bars and had ties with local criminals. Gabrielle Mitchell was a prostitute who had come to Alaska from France to practice prostitution. As late as the 1930 census, she gave her occupation as "Proprietress, Sporting House."

I can't get the visit to Bay City out of my head. Why did he go? To impress his mother -- his father was dead -- impress his sisters, impress the community? To show belated affection for those he left behind? To see the road not taken?

Charles Thompson was a good-looking, well-dressed man who apparently had presence, charisma if you prefer. What went through his head as opened the gate and came up the walk to the Kaiser home? What did his mother, Margaret, and Nona feel as they heard his footsteps and then a knock on the door? Did Nona ever ask why he had changed his name -- or was that all settled (or put off limits) by mail?

I have never seen a photograph of Nona, but I imagine her as beautiful -- if only because her given name is so beautiful, Apolona. I also imagine her as smart, vivacious, captivating, the belle of Bay City.

But who knows.

I only know she died in Portage, Mich., in 1974, age 83, survived by her children and grandchildren for whom her brother, whether Charles Kaiser or Charles Thompson, was an old family story.


Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

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