Alaska Life

The curious case of Judson Lathrop: What would you do if your spouse returned after a 14-year absence?

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by Anchorage 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.

During the gold rush period of Alaska history, the late 19th and early 20th centuries, relatively few fortune hunters brought their families with them. While not desirable, this reality was largely understandable. The logistics, costs and lifestyle were challenging enough for one person to manage. Yet this meant that vast distances divided some families. In many cases, the travelers did not return, either succumbing to one of the many threats along the way or choosing to start a new life. That said, there is always an extreme case.

Judson Lathrop was one of those Alaska gold prospectors. For 14 long years, his family had no idea if he was alive, let alone successful. There were no letters, postcards, telegrams, passed-along messages or even rumors, just an absence of information. Then, in 1906, he suddenly resurfaced into his family’s life. The passage of time had been unkind. His mother and sister were dead. And his wife had long since divorced him and remarried, not that anyone could blame her.

Judson Ebenezer Lathrop, no relation to Fairbanks high school namesake Austin “Cap” Lathrop, was born in Minnesota on Nov. 9, 1862. He spent part of his youth at the Shattuck Military School of Faribault, Minnesota, then joined his father and uncles in their commercial endeavors, which included a string of trading posts and flour mills. His family was among the founders of Appleton, Minnesota — named after Appleton, Wisconsin — where they operated a bank and several stores.

He was a month shy of his 19th birthday when he married Berma Lee in 1881. Their union produced two daughters and a son. The far-flung and tenuous nature of the greater Lathrop family empire meant that Lathrop traveled extensively. Thus, the family grew accustomed to Lathrop’s extended absences.

In 1886, he joined his father for a lengthy stay in the South, where they made a series of ill-fated real estate investments. The historical record suggests that many of the younger Lathrop’s business ventures were failures. In addition, he drank away most of what little profits he earned. And his generally abandoned wife was left to fend for herself.

Sometime around 1892, he left his family to work at a mill. It was there that he heard the enticing news of gold strikes in Alaska. With $50 in his pocket, he left for Seattle without informing any of his relatives. By the time he arrived in the port town, he had spent all his cash, but some traveling companions loaned him enough for the boat ride north.

As with many prospectors, it is difficult to track Lathrop’s movements around Alaska. His initial destination was the Turnagain Arm. He landed there in 1896, part of the Cook Inlet gold rush that briefly made Hope and Sunrise two of the largest towns in Alaska. After that, he traveled to Skagway and perhaps journeyed into Canada as part of the larger Klondike gold rush. From there, he spent some time in Wrangell.

In 1899, he reached Ketchikan, where, contrary to the entirety of his personal history, he began to put down roots. Unlike most prospectors, Alaska had been kind to him. When he settled down, he had accumulated a sizable amount of capital and mining interests. He became a prominent man about town. He was a member of all the important fraternities and social groups. In 1906, he was elected to the city council, and reelected in 1907 and 1908.

Lathrop later claimed that the first inclinations of homesickness came after five years in Alaska. However, a bout of scurvy kept him from traveling. Finally, in 1906, he traveled back to the Midwest and met his family for the first time in 14 years.

His former wife had since improved her lot in life, mainly via the absence of Lathrop. Three years after he disappeared, she successfully secured a divorce on the grounds of desertion. Roughly two years after that, she remarried, this time to a wealthy rancher from Aberdeen, South Dakota. Upon Lathrop’s return, she made it evident that she preferred her second husband. Lathrop could hardly complain about the new husband since he had himself remarried in 1903.

His son and daughters were more open to a reconciliation. When they met, Lathrop accepted all the blame for his absence. He advised his daughters never to marry anyone who showed the slightest interest in alcohol, which is to say, never to marry someone like their father. He also promised to establish an annuity for his children to provide them with financial support for the rest of their lives.

The daughters, at least, were willing to talk publicly about the experience of meeting their long-lost father. On a surface level, the story of a prospector who returned wealthy after being considered dead for more than a decade was sensational. Thanks to lurid headlines like “Wins a Fortune But Loses Wife,” the tale spread rapidly across the country, yet another viral Alaska story.

Some newspapers charitably compared Lathrop to Enoch Arden, the hero of the eponymous 1864 narrative poem by Alfred Tennyson. In the poem, Arden is a fisherman stranded on a desert island for more than 10 years. Rescued by a passing boat, the now physically broken Arden returns home to find his wife married to his rival. Rather than upset her happy life, he keeps his identity secret and dies from a broken heart.

Once the Lathrop family reunion concluded, Judson returned to Ketchikan. He divorced his second wife in 1914. He worked in Alaska for a few more years before moving back to the Lower 48. By January 1920, he was living in Chicago, and it was there where he died on Aug. 24, 1920. He was buried in Appleton. It is uncertain whether he ever saw his children after that 1906 meeting.

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Key sources:

“‘Enoch Arden’ Returns.” Dubuque Daily Globe Journal, September 3, 1906, 6.

“Wealthy Klondiker Goes Home and Finds His Wife Married to Another Man.” Fairbanks Daily Times, August 31, 1906, 1.

“What the City Council Has Done.” [Ketchikan] Mining Journal, January 1907, 1.

“Wins Fortune, Loses Wife.” Sioux City Journal, August 22, 1906, 3.

David Reamer

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.