Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Today, Russian Jack describes a neighborhood, school, businesses and one of Anchorage’s most cherished, historic parks. Yet, most would be surprised to learn that the name “Russian Jack” derives from a convicted bootlegger and killer.
Jacob Marunenko was born in 1883 in Parevka, Russia. He first came to Alaska in 1907, after abandoning his wife and children. By 1916 at the latest, he was working for the Alaska Engineering Commission, the organization charged with constructing the Alaska Railroad.
Almost no one in town called Jacob by his original name. He seemed to prefer the more Americanized “Jack Marchin.” Many more just called him “Russian Jack.”
By 1920, he was the proprietor of a Fourth Avenue pool hall that doubled as his home. Anchorage at this time had a complicated relationship with vice. Prostitution was simultaneously banned by city authorities and allowed to exist either openly outside town limits or secretly within. Alcohol was prohibited throughout Alaska, not that it was obvious in any frontier town. Many Anchorage businesses were fronts for more criminal activities. Cigar shops housed “sporting girls” in the parlance of the day. And pool halls typically also offered gambling and booze.
Around this time, Marunenko became more deeply involved in bootlegging. In 1923, he was busted in possession of three gallons of moonshine and three barrels of mash, the fermenting moonshine precursor. By the mid-1920s, he moved to a cabin he built outside of town in what is now Russian Jack Springs Park. His only official claim to the land was a permit to harvest lumber. Homesteaders Peter Toloff and Nicholas Darlopaulos, who held the claim for the 320 acres that became Russian Jack Springs Park, allowed Marunenko to live there.
Marunenko likely hid at least one illegal distillery near where today’s Anchorage residents jog, bike and ski through the park. A mixture of caution and public acceptance defined his operation. His customers ranged from criminals to the social elite, and they received regular deliveries. But he also went to some lengths to disguise his trade. Historian John Bagoy recalled Marunenko hiring a “woman to push a baby buggy with a doll and a jug of moon underneath it.”
After Prohibition ended in 1933, he made his living with carpentry and odd jobs. But early on the morning of March 22, 1937, his story turned darker with the shooting death of a local taxi driver, Milton Hamilton. Earlier that preceding night, Marunenko and Hamilton were part of a group drinking at the Anchorage home of Doris Simmons. Hamilton had a rough reputation around town, and the two men began to argue over his behavior towards Simmons. The two began to fight, the larger Hamilton beating Marunenko badly, opening wounds on his face and breaking two of his teeth.
“I had no chance to get away,” said Marunenko at the trial. “He hit me about eight times. I don’t know why he hit me. I don’t remember making any remark to cause it.”
Marunenko fled outside, thinking to return home, but, after an hour, he reentered Simmons’ home to retrieve his hat and coat. There, he claimed that Hamilton attacked him again. “Someone grabbed me by the throat and started choking and beating me. I tried to holler but couldn’t because of the choking. Something hit me hard on the head. I was afraid I was going to be killed.” Marunenko grabbed the pistol from his coat pocket and fired once, to “make a noise and get loose.” Hamilton died on the spot. “Honest to God, honest to God, I couldn’t help it!” said Marunenko to Charles Black, a neighbor from across the street who rushed over to investigate.
The witnesses told a more complicated story. After the first fight, Simmons ordered Marunenko to leave but allowed Hamilton to stay, even after the others present left. Black, a former Army medic, claimed the position of Hamilton’s body did not support Marunenko’s account. For his part, Marunenko claimed self-defense, and he indeed bore several severe wounds, including a fractured skull.
The trial took place January 10-17, 1938. The jury found Marunenko guilty but was somewhat swayed by his story. Instead of first-degree murder, they returned a verdict of manslaughter and recommended leniency. The presiding judge sentenced him to two and a half years, rather than the maximum 20, at the McNeil Island federal penitentiary outside Seattle. He did reject Marunenko’s plea to serve his time in Alaska.
After his prison stint, Marunenko returned to Anchorage. By the late 1940s, residents seemed to have forgiven his criminal past and accepted him as a local character, a colorful link to Anchorage’s past. During the 1948 Fur Rendezvous, several local businesses campaigned for the election of Marunenko as the King of the Mardi Gras Ball. Though he lost the election, officials proclaimed him as the event’s prince.
Marunenko became an American citizen in 1954. Some time after 1959, he left Alaska for good, settling in the small, desert town of Arvin, California. On October 28, 1971, he died of heart disease.
The hard question is, why did Anchorage officials name the park after a notorious bootlegger and convicted killer who abandoned his family in another country? The easy answer is that most residents simply didn’t know Marunenko’s checkered past. From 1940 to 1950, Anchorage grew from over 4,000 residents to more than 30,000, an eightfold increase. These newcomers knew Marunenko only as a colorful relic of the past, an easy source for stories from days gone by.
One Anchorage resident from this time recalled only that “the homesteader was of Russian heritage, and nobody could pronounce his last name." If the old-timers called the area Russian Jack’s woods or Russian Jack’s spring, then that was good enough for them. Russian Jack is not even the only Anchorage neighborhood named after a criminal (e.g., Spenard and Bootleggers Cove).
Many Anchorage landmarks gained their name casually, even lazily. In 2010, Julia O’Malley of the Anchorage Daily News explained how O’Malley Road was named after her grandfather. There was a petition for road improvements. Said Julia, “He [Doc O’Malley] was the first person to sign it. And then they named the road after him. That’s it.”
“Anchorage Man Dead After Quarrel; Jury Names ‘Russian Jack’ Marchin.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 22, 1937, 1, 8.
“Marchin Gets Two and Half Years.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 17, 1938, 1.
“Marchin is Held for the Grand Jury.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 30, 1937, 1.
“Officers Raid Still.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 2, 1923, 2.
O’Malley, Julia. “MLK Avenue: Too Long in Coming.” Anchorage Daily News, August 5, 2010, A3.
Parham, Bruce, and Walter Van Horn. “Marunenko, Jacob ‘Russian Jack.’” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, alaskahistory.org/biographies/marunenko-jacob-russian-jack/.
“Russian Jack Marchin Tells His Story.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 12, 1938, 1, 4.