Jack London's "To Build a Fire" is one of the rare pieces of fiction set in the Gold Rush that continues to attract readers. In vivid economical prose, London rapidly tells the story of a greenhorn who freezes to death, alone except for his dog, on a remote Klondike trail. This is a tale of small mistakes at 50 below zero (or colder) following a profound failure of judgment. When the man leaves his warm cabin without recognizing the danger the cold presents, he is doomed.
London's fiction is founded in fact. Men did freeze to death on Alaska trails, and not all of them were greenhorns. Territorial inquest records confirm this. But the hundreds of inquests in the State Archives in Juneau suggest suicide was more common than freezing to death. Clearly suicide constituted an occupational hazard to many men who trapped, mined, cut wood or otherwise supported themselves in the woods. My Dad, Fabian, who spent 30 years trapping, made a distinction between "trappers and misfits with trapping licenses."
Of course we don't know if suicides had emotional problems when they arrived in the woods or developed them while living there.
In the summer of 1919, the archives tell us, Dennis Healy, an Irish immigrant of about 50 who lived near Nulato, jumped into the Yukon River from his boat and drowned. "His main hobby," neighbor William Alford told a coroner's jury "seemed to be that he was going to starve to death and that he was being watched by officials who were going to put him in jail as a result of a blackmailing plot of some Indians who were going to accuse him of rape." Apparently Healy had been troubled for weeks if not months and talked openly of taking his life. "The old fellow was getting nutty, and he killed himself just as he said he would," tartly added a second neighbor, J.J. McDermott.
Suicide was standard copy for early newspapers. On May 15, 1913, the Fairbanks Times carried a story headlined "Writes poetry, drinks deadly laudanum dose." The story said Fred Church of Ruby -- "a young man who had been in the north for some years" -- took his life after a bout with melancholia. What role poetry played in his life and death is not explained: Poetry is mentioned only in the headline.
Church did leave prose behind, however -- letters to his mother, his father, his friend George Riley and the public. To his mother, he wrote, "Don't cry when you read this. 'Tis God's will that I go for he came to my cabin door and said 'Come' so I go." The letter to his father, said the newspaperman who wrote the news story, described the enjoyment the young man received watching the dog races earlier in the year. Young Church also mused about moving to Canada. In the letter to Riley, Church requested forgiveness and told his friend "I am going on a long journey." The newspaperman described the letter to the public as "very disconnected," and said "Church had exhibited signs of melancholia of late, but his friends did not consider the matter seriously. ..." Apparently melancholia was considered a diagnosable disease with symptoms so well known they needed no explanation. Today we probably would use the word depression.
In recent years, Alaska has been at or near the top of the nation in suicides per capita. Perhaps this was also true when Dennis Healy and Fred Church took their lives far from anyone who collected suicide statistics.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By MICHAEL CAREY