Alaska Life

‘Deadman’s Slough’ and the Fairbanks man who (eventually) got away with murder

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.

Many of Alaska’s modern place names represent a literal interpretation of the world around them. Anchorage is named so because it was an actual anchorage, a safe place to park your boats. Eagle is named for the area’s eagles. And Deadman’s Slough, a nickname for the Noyes Slough in Fairbanks, is an earned moniker given a nearby murder from that city’s early history.

Jacob Jaconi, known as Greek despite his Italian name, was one of many immigrants who joined the Klondike Gold Rush. Unlike most Klondike fortune hunters, he did not try his hand at gold mining but instead worked as a fisherman. By 1903, he had abandoned Canada for Alaska and established a fishing camp along the Chena River, about halfway between Chena and Fairbanks. His home was an unfinished log cabin covered by a tent.

And unlike most fortune hunters, Jaconi was successful. The 1904 season had been particularly kind. He had about $500 (roughly $15,500 in 2021 dollars) worth of fish stored up by October. On Oct. 28, he ventured into Fairbanks and deposited several gold nuggets, gold jewelry and some cash at a bank. This was the last time he was seen alive, at least by anyone willing to admit to it.

In the morning of Oct. 29, 1904, area inhabitants heard Jaconi’s dogs barking and two gunshots. Around midday, B. L. Jelich, one of Jaconi’s fishing partners, visited and discovered a chilling spectacle. The cabin was on fire. Through the door and laying in the heaviest burned portion of the dwelling were Jaconi’s remains. Jelich said he could by that time only identify what had been parts of a man. A doctor later determined that Jaconi had been killed by multiple strikes from an ax or cleaver.

Jelich left the scene as it was and informed the authorities. The following day, Deputy U. S. Marshal George Dreibelbis led a party to the camp. By then, the tent was long gone, along with everything else flammable inside the cabin. Jaconi’s bones were still smoldering. Dreibelbis’ party had to sift through the layer of ash on the floor to discover smaller pieces. Dogs had carried some of the bones 30 to 50 feet away.

On Nov. 5, Dreibelbis arrested Vuco “Charles” Perovich on an unrelated warrant around 45 miles farther downriver from Fairbanks. Perovich at first offered an alias, then pronounced his innocence in all matters of the criminal bent. From the beginning, this was a shaky stance. Not only did he have on his body several items previously belonging to Jaconi — including a gold watch and penknife — but he was wearing Jaconi’s clothes. Dreibelbis dragged Perovich back to Fairbanks, where the latter spent the winter of 1904-1905 in a cell waiting for trial.


Perovich was born in the small Balkan nation of Montenegro circa 1883. On April 6, 1903, he reached America and passed through Ellis Island. Per his intake documents, he was headed for Seattle to meet a cousin. From Seattle, he soon made his way north. By June, he was reportedly working in the Treadwell gold mines on Douglas Island. A month later, he was in Fairbanks with a restaurant job before trying his hand at mining again. Around Fairbanks, he was also known as Greek, almost certainly because few Alaskans at that time had likely ever heard of Montenegro.

Like most gold miners, he never found his fortune, which perhaps left him hungry for other easy gains. Perovich and Jaconi were acquaintances, and the former was well aware of the latter’s financial success. On Oct. 20, 1904, just eight days before the murder, Perovich and John Stratton stopped at Jaconi’s cabin on their way to Chena. According to Stratton’s later testimony, Perovich suggesting killing Jaconi for his money. Perovich said, “I will go and lick him with an ax” before disposing of the body by river or fire. “Me a greenhorn just out from the old country,” said Perovich. “They think a greenhorn won’t do anything.”

The trial finally began in late July 1905. For the newly established Fairbanks, this was one of its first sensations. The courthouse narrowly avoided becoming a circus. The lucky observers got seats. The less fortunate watched through windows. Those without any view of the proceedings waited nearby to hear shouted updates. Presiding over the case was district judge James Wickersham, later Alaska’s non-voting representative to Congress.

Perovich pleaded not guilty and denied the nature of the conversation with Stratton, even denying he knew Jaconi’s name. He had previously claimed that the clothes and other Jaconi property were obtained from two unidentified men on the trail in exchange for a gold nugget chain. After that story was riddled with holes, Perovich acknowledged the lie. He testified, “I scared they think I steal them some place.” In his newer version on events, he claimed to have bought the clothes and items from two also unidentified Swedes in exchange for less traceable gold nuggets.

The prosecution possessed a sizable amount of circumstantial evidence against Perovich but lacked any direct evidence. There was no witness or confession. The murder weapon was never recovered. Nor could the body be definitively identified as Jaconi. As defense attorney Leroy Tozier noted, the prosecution had only produced a corpus — Jaconi’s actual corpse — and not the corpus delicti — the concrete evidence of guilt.

Throughout the trial, the defense attempted to expand upon this weakness. As Tozier stated in his closing, “And until this prisoner tells you he is guilty, unless a message comes from the dead you will never have been convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Though the jury debated for hours, they were ultimately not swayed by Tozier’s argument. At 3:30 in the morning, they sent for the judge; they had found Perovich guilty. Judge Wickersham, in turn, sentenced Perovich to be hanged.

But this was not the end, only the beginning of a long lengthy new phase of Perovich’s life. Tozier appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which heard the case in 1906 and upheld both conviction and sentence. Perovich’s hanging was duly set in Fairbanks for Aug. 14, 1906. Then Tozier appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt and Alaska Gov. Wilford Hoggatt. Two weeks before the execution, Hoggatt obliged, gifting a writ of reprieve that stayed the execution into the following year to allow the Roosevelt time to act if so inclined.

Roosevelt declined to intervene, but Perovich’s new attorney, John Dillon, continued the battle on numerous fronts. His machinations delayed the hanging until 1909, when President William Howard Taft surprisingly commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

In May 1911, Perovich was transferred from the McNeil Island Penitentiary near Tacoma, Washington, to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas. Murderous inclinations and haphazard coverup aside, Perovich was an intelligent man. He spent his time in Leavenworth as a model prisoner, learning languages and studying the intricacies of the law. He also made violins by hand and trained mice with scraps from his meals.

In 1921, Perovich again requested a presidential pardon but was declined. Four years later, he applied to the Kansas district court for his release. He declared, “There is not now nor has there ever been any legal commitment or paper upon which your petitioner could be legally deprived of his liberty and confined and imprisoned.” On this point, the Leavenworth warden allowed that he technically had no specific order for Perovich’s imprisonment.

Perovich also argued that Taft’s commutation had occurred without his request or consent. He declared that life imprisonment was worse than death and that he would have preferred the noose. Obviously, this was easier for him to say in 1925 than in 1909.

Judge John Pollock appointed Topeka lawyer George McDermott to represent Perovich for this challenge. McDermott did not typically handle criminal cases. Many decades later, it is impossible to decide whether he cared little for facts, was persuaded by a charismatic murderer or if the case specifics had indeed been lost to time. Regardless, he submitted a memorandum to Pollack that summarized the case with many details altered in ways that made Perovich a more sympathetic character.

McDermott claimed that Perovich did not understand English and was thus confused by the arrest and trial details. In reality, Perovich both understood and spoke English. Apart from the quality of his fluency, the Fairbanks court also provided a translator. McDermott omitted that Perovich was arrested wearing Jaconi’s clothes and suggested the bones were actually from dogs.

Faced with this version of events, Judge Pollock ignored precedent and ordered Perovich’s summary release from prison. While various factions of the government from Kansas to Alaska fumed at and fought back against this turn of events, Perovich moved to Rochester, New York, and, of all things, opened a barbershop.

Perovich’s argument that he would not have consented to Taft’s commutation raised a legal question that had not been settled to that point. Could a convict in Perovich’s circumstances refuse a life sentence substitution for a death sentence? In May 1927, the Supreme Court firmly established the president’s ability to commute a death sentence without regard for the convict’s feelings. Perovich readied himself for a likely return to prison, but President Calvin Coolidge ended the long struggle with a pardon on July 25, 1927.

Thanks to McDermott and Coolidge, Perovich enjoyed a long life. He married, had children, and opened a roofing business. He even became a naturalized American citizen in 1948. On March 1, 1976, he died of natural causes, more than 71 years after Jaconi’s unnatural end.


Apart from Perovich’s adventure within the criminal justice system, there was one other twist in the case. After the initial trials, Jaconi’s remains were thought to be lost or possibly abandoned with little concern for their disposition. Then, in 1932, a laborer discovered a box of bones in a shed adjoining the Fairbanks courthouse. The leading theory at the time, though never proven, was that these were Jaconi’s bones, stored in case of further need by the court. Another theory was that the remnants were the victims of the never-apprehended Blueberry Tommy Johnson. Nothing was ever proven, nor is it clear what happened to the bones after their discovery. This turn of events prompts two questions that will never be answered. What happened to Jaconi’s remains, and why were the bones more or less tossed into a shed to be forgotten?

Key sources:

“Bones Two Persons in Box.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, April 23, 1932, 1.

“Free from Long Term, Perovich is a Happy Man—Eleven years in Prison.” [Leavenworth, Kansas] Chronicle, November 13, 1925, 1.

Naske, Claus-M. “The Case of Vuco Perovich.” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 78, no. ½ (1987): 2-9.

“New Clue Uncovered in Mystery.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, April 22, 1932, 1.

Records and Briefs of the United States Supreme Court. Transcript of Record, No. 405. Vuko Perovich vs. the United States. October 1906.

“Prison Chatter and Local Gossip.” Leavenworth New Era, May 10, 1918, 4.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.