Alaska Life

Anchorage John Doe burials: A floating corpse, a Spanish sailor and a McDonald’s mystery

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.

The crew of a salmon cannery tender bound for Knik were the first to notice the body. The corpse bobbed in the water as the steamship passed the western shore of Fire Island. Those aboard gathered along the railing to gawk at the gruesome diversion. When they arrived at their destination, they notified the U.S. Marshal’s office in Anchorage, which gathered the body that afternoon.

As indicated by the advanced state of decomposition, the individual had been in the water for at least five weeks. The examining doctor could only identify the corpse as male and around 5 feet 7 inches in height. Due to the decay, the face could not be recognized, nor could age be determined. The only thing in his pockets was a small pocket mirror. On Sept. 30, 1916, the unknown man was buried in what is now called the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, its first anonymous resident.

[In Anchorage’s downtown cemetery, every grave marker has a story to tell]

Every headstone and marker in the cemetery is a story. Some are epic, sweeping tales. The artist Sydney Laurence. Actor Ray Mala. Exotic dancer and contortionist Miss Wiggles. Others are tragedies, like Robert “Bobbie” Patterson and Scheiber Elliott. In 1925, the 15-year-old best friends drowned near the mouth of Ship Creek. They were buried next to each other in a joint memorial. And others still are mysteries, eternally unsolved.

Back in 1916, the Alaska settler towns, Anchorage very much included, were heavy with transients. Though the frequency of arrivals and departures in Alaska had significantly declined from the gold rush heyday, new faces remained common. And old faces had a habit of vanishing, either lost, relocated, or otherwise departed from the local scene. The first known serial killer in Alaska, Edward Krause, survived as long as he did by preying on newer arrivals without spouses or children, people whose disappearance was least likely to provoke comment.

Most missing Alaskans fell lower in the economic spectrum. Alaska newspapers tended to track the comings and goings of more notable or wealthier locals. In this way, the unidentified floating body was a further mystery. He was well dressed, and while some rougher prospectors in the area were missing, none possessed anything like a nice suit. No one claimed the body, and his identity remains a mystery more than a century later and will likely remain so. His marker, overgrown with grass, simply reads: “John Doe Died 1916.”


The cemetery’s master burial list includes 28 John, Jane, or Baby Does. In addition, there are 133 unknown burials. The two categories are mainly the result of divergent data entry. Per cemetery director Robert “Rob” Jones, the primary difference is that the Does are far more likely to have grave markers.

The number of anonymous deceased with listed burial dates increased dramatically after World War II. This makes sense in some ways as Anchorage rapidly expanded during and after the war. However, this happenstance might also be explained by poor pre-war record keeping.

[‘Here Lies Lucky and Always Will Lie’: Anchorage’s grumpiest grocer and more stories from the cemetery]

The San Patrick, a Liberian-registered, 10,000-ton converted T-2 freighter with a load of grain and cattle feed, departed Vancouver, British Columbia for Yokohama, Japan on Dec. 9, 1964. As it reached the Aleutian Islands, it encountered a severe storm. Amid the 30-foot-high waves, the tanker lost its way and was passing near rocky Ulak Island, in the far western Aleutians. On Dec. 17, at 10:44 p.m., its last message sounded, “Very grounded and very bad condition. Lifeboat no possible. Urgent about five minutes, stop. Only with helicopter possible rescue. Please send necessary helicopter.” The message repeated for a few minutes then ceased at 10:59.

Three days later, a Navy helicopter finally sighted the remnants of the ship. Three days after that, the first crewmember was spotted, on the beach at Ulak Island. A St. Christopher medal and a watch were the only personal effects on his body. The Navy dispatched a fleet tug to recover the corpse. Two other bodies were sighted but not recovered given their location on remote cliffs. According to one source, most of the 32 sailors aboard were Spanish. All perished in the wreck. The unidentified sailor wound up in Anchorage and was buried at the cemetery on Jan. 27, 1965, thousands of miles from home, in a city he likely never visited while alive.

Perhaps the greatest mystery in Anchorage history also ended with a John Doe burial at the cemetery. On Aug. 23, 1989, a naked bearded man seemed to appear out of nowhere in front of the McDonald’s on Mountain View Drive. Observers stared, laughed, yelled, and rushed to call the police, but the man ignored them. He paused, considered the three flagpoles outside, and then clambered up the tallest. If it happened today, there would be several videos on YouTube, and the incident would be better remembered.

Officer Fred Jones was the first responder on the scene. In 2015, he told the Anchorage Press, “I saw him come around to the left side of McDonald’s, walk right up to the flagpole and shinny up it like a squirrel. I’ve never seen anything like it. Naked, and right up the pole like nobody’s business. It was rather impressive.”

Thirty feet in the air, the nude man fiddled with the eagle at the top of the pole. Then he stretched out his arms and pushed off the pole with his legs as if he intended to fly away. He was declared dead at Humana Hospital, now Alaska Regional.

He was around six feet three inches tall, 185 pounds, white, and somewhere around his early 30s. He had no tattoos, birthmarks, or noticeable scars. The autopsy failed to find any drugs in his system. If he had ever worn clothes, that day or prior, no one could find them. His fingerprints and description were passed around Alaska and the Pacific Northwest without any response. He was buried on Sept. 11, 1989. His simple marker — John Doe 1989-1989 — also seems to suggest he existed briefly after appearing out of nowhere.

In 2015, the unidentified man was exhumed. An Oregon woman believed he was her long-lost brother, but the DNA failed to match. Doe was buried again, in a new spot since his previous location had since been used for a time capsule.

His grave is near the path dividing the southernmost section of the cemetery from the columbarium wall, where the urns are housed. While the 1989 John Doe might be forgotten, someone likely still knows the identity of two urns left on the grounds without identification. For lack of a better option, both were placed in the columbarium, two more Does for the cemetery, and another story waiting to be told.

Key sources:

“Body Spotted on Beach.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 24, 1964, 1.

Enge, Marilee. “Man Leaps Head-First From Flagpole.” Anchorage Daily News, August 24, 1989, D1, D3.

“Floater Sighted Near Fire Island.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 28, 1916, 10.

“Graveside Rites Held for Victim of Shipwreck.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 28, 1965, 1.

Jones, Rob. Email. September 6, 2023.


McKinney, Debra. “Doe on Arrival.” Anchorage Press, August 10, 2016.

McKinney, Debra. “Unearthing the Truth.” Anchorage Press, July 10, 2015.

“Remains of Man Can’t Be Identified.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 30, 1916, 7.

“San Patrick Mystery Being Probed.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 31, 1964, 1, 2.

Toomey, Sheila. “Leaper Buried; Mystery Goes to the Grave.” Anchorage Daily News, September 12, 1989, A1, A10.

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.