Alaska Life

How a foul-mouthed Juneau police chief illustrated the state of profanity in Alaska over a century ago

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Jacob T. Martin (circa 1847-1935) was born in Indiana but found his way to Alaska by 1885, where he worked as a gold rush-era steamboat pilot and lawman. By 1896, he was a deputy U.S. Marshal. In 1911, he was appointed city marshal and chief of police for Juneau. He was also a man of his time, which meant he knew his way around a choice word or two. And one particular incident illustrates the state of profanity in Alaska more than a century ago.

In March 1914, Chief Martin saw a need to arrest Juneau resident Charles Anderson. Many of the details are unclear, including the original crime, but at some point in the proceedings, the two exchanged heated volleys of curse words. Per Martin, Anderson then resisted arrest. Per Anderson, Martin beat Anderson into submission before properly arresting him. They filed complaints against each other, both claiming the single witness would prove their case.

Magistrate E. W. Petit heard the cases on the same day, a notably busy day for the small-town court. He found Anderson guilty of obscene language and resisting an officer, fining him $5 for the first offense and $10 for the second. After accounting for inflation, the combined $15 is roughly equivalent to $450 in 2023.

In some American towns of the time, profanity was a form of disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct. In others, there were explicit ordinances against vulgar language. And while arrests for obscene language were not an everyday occurrence in Alaska, they were still common enough to promote little fanfare.

In 1902, Steve Quin of Skagway was convicted of disorderly conduct after an extended, inebriated, and profane speech to passersby. The local newspaper noted, “It is said some of his periods were picturesque even if the accompanying gestures were somewhat grotesque.” He was fined $40. As he could not pay the fine, he worked it off with 25 days of labor as a courthouse gardener. Quin’s punishment was well within the standards of the time, even in Alaska. In 1903, Valdez passed an ordinance that made obscene language punishable by a $25 fine or 30 days in jail.

Nearly a decade later, the penalties for public profanity had increased. In 1910, William Rooney of Iditarod was fined $100, a massive sum for the time and roughly $3,000 in 2023. The following year, the Iditarod city council made such punishments the standard. Per their new ordinance, “Anyone found guilty of using obscene language on the streets ... will be frowned at severely by the city magistrate and fined not more than $100 and jailed not more than 90 days.”


In the same month Anderson was arrested in Juneau, August Snyder was arrested in Skagway for daring to use profanity in a post office. Snyder was fined $50 plus court costs with the option to spend 25 days in jail instead.

In 1916, a sailor from the steamship Prince Rupert was arrested in Juneau for public profanity. He was “slightly under the influence of liquor at the time,” and his shipmates could not calm him down. He was sentenced to 10 days in the city jail, which meant he missed the Prince Rupert’s departure and was stranded in Juneau until the steamer returned or he paid for passage aboard another ship. In 1917, William Streil of Fairbanks pleaded guilty to “using obscene language before a woman.” He was fined $20 plus costs.

In 1936, Harry Jones vulgarly insulted Earl Johnson in front of his wife and daughter on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage. Per Johnson, Jones “made uncomplimentary remarks to him and threatened him with his fist.” The police were summoned, and Jones spent a week in jail before a jury acquittal. There were many similar incidents across Alaska in the early 20th century. However prudish or quaint such charges might appear today, public profanity was once a relatively serious and regularly enforced crime.

The extent of cursing in Alaska society over a century ago is unknowable. Similarly, there is no complete list of historical naughty words. Some terms that were vulgar a century ago are now innocuous or simply forgotten. A “Shanny” was a fool. Other words have retained their vulgar punch. As always, the most shocking and profane slang tended to fall within a few categories, such as blasphemy, sexual references, and excrement. The classics never go out of style.

There were ways around outright profane speech. Words like “darn” and “heck” were in common use, softer and more acceptable variants of the bad words. And, of course, colorful metaphors could get the point across without relying on profanity. For example, it was not obscene to describe someone as “so ugly he could back a buzzard off a gut-wagon” or “slow as molasses in January.”

Some profanity was also reliant upon the context. During one 1919 trial for assault in Fairbanks, the defendant was asked if his victim had used any obscene language that prompted the fight, whether there were literal fighting words. The defendant replied, “Yes; he called me a German.” In the immediate aftermath of World War I, calling someone a German was, in some quarters, a dire insult. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner added, “They used to be that way up in Dawson in the early days (of the Klondike gold rush) when the Americans were so numerous there — the Americans got mad if you called them Canadian.”

As for Chief Martin’s trial, Petit found him not guilty of using foul language during the arrest of Anderson. Martin had almost certainly employed some unsavory epithets, but they were more or less considered understandable in the heat of the moment. However, to Martin’s great surprise, he was found guilty of “striking needless blows in making the arrest” and fined $10, about $300 in 2023.

Martin was already nearing the end of his term as chief and had decided not to seek a re-appointment. Insulted by the ruling, he immediately tendered his resignation. The Juneau City Council initially hesitated to accept it until Martin offered an overly dramatic speech.

Said Martin, “Gentlemen, before you vote on this I want to say a few words — I want to state that it is my earnest wish that you accept my resignation. The position in which I am placed, through the action of the Municipal court in imposing a fine upon me for doing what I conceived to be my duty has destroyed my usefulness as an officer and has made it impossible to longer serve the city in this capacity. You will certainly do me a favor by relieving me of the responsibility at once.”

After the fateful arrest and battery but before his resignation, Martin had one last piece of luck on the job. On March 14, 1914, he was walking around the freshly washed Juneau streets. There he noticed a glint and picked up a gold nugget. The Alaska Daily Empire, now the Juneau Empire, reported its value as $4.85. Without getting into the changing prices of gold, that much money is now the rough equivalent of $150.

Key sources:

“Capt. Martin Finds Nugget.” (Juneau) Alaska Empire, March 17, 1914, 6.

“Capt. Martin to Tender Resignation.” (Juneau) Alaska Empire, March 20, 1914, 1.

“City Council Grinds New Ordinances.” Iditarod Pioneer, May 27, 1911, 1.

“City Marshal Fined;--Prisoner Serving Time.” (Juneau) Alaska Empire, March 20, 1914, 1.

“Court Has Busy Day.” (Skagway) Daily Alaskan, May 30, 1902, 4.

Hughes, Geoffrey. Swearing: A Social History of Foul language, Oaths and Profanity in English. New York: Penguin, 1998.


Mencken, H. L. “American Profanity.” American Speech 19, no. 4 (1944): 241-249.

“Municipal Court Has Busy Time.” (Juneau) Alaska Daily Empire, March 17, 1914, 1.

“Obscene Talk Now Defined.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, April 5, 1919, 1.

“Rupert Fireman Arrested.” (Juneau) Alaska Daily Empire, December 5, 1916, 8.

“Wm. McBride is made City Marshal.” (Juneau) Alaska Empire, March 26, 1914, 2.

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.