Alaska Life

The tale of the Blue Parka Man, whose relentless prison escapes transformed a bandit into a legend

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.

In the spring of 1905, a shocking crime wave dominated gossip around Fairbanks. Breaks in the telegraph wire lines delayed the news spread, which finally reached Seattle that July when it was picked up by the Seattle Daily Times. Wrote Sam Wall, “Since the spring cleanup began here and the miners have been bringing gold dust to town, there have been no less than 15 hold-ups. The camp is simply terrorized by road agents. In order to bring dust to town safely miners and citizens have organized and invariably rode in armed parties.”

The highwaymen were masked to hide their identity. Many victims likely would have otherwise recognized their assailants, were perhaps on a first-name basis with them. The robbers were undoubtedly familiar enough with the comings and goings of area miners to waylay them effectively. One of the outlaws stood out from the rest in appearance, manner and frequency of robberies. He was notably muscled and unflappable for a bandit, relaxed and occasionally even friendly. As Wall noted, “One bandit, distinguished by wearing a blue parka, has operated continuously.” Many later histories of these events would label him the Blue Parka Bandit, but the press of the day called him the Blue Parka Man or, less frequently, the Lone Robber.

The future Fairbanks bandit had a background that remains cloudy to this day. Per multiple sources, Charles Hendrickson was born in 1863, almost certainly not in America. Alaskans familiar with him alternately described him as Danish, Norwegian or Swedish, though multiple census records identify him as Finnish. Compared to modern media depictions, gold rush-era Alaska towns could be surprisingly diverse, and Fairbanks at that time included several Chinese, Japanese and Black residents, in addition to immigrants from across the European continent.

Little is known about Hendrickson’s movements or activities before Fairbanks. Subsequent records suggest a wide range of possible years when he immigrated. Regardless, he showed up in Dawson around the peak of the Klondike gold rush, circa 1897-98. There, he had a positive reputation, at least until he was caught out, a scenario that would repeat. In 1898, the Northwest Mounted Police busted him robbing gold from sluice boxes, for which Hendrickson was sentenced to five years in jail. By the time of his release, the gold rush around Dawson had long since collapsed, and the far majority of stampeders had either retreated to their previous homes or followed rumors and news of strikes elsewhere. And around 1903, the hottest boomtown in Alaska or Canada was Fairbanks.

Despite his record, Hendrickson was quickly accepted around Fairbanks as a man of relatively high repute, for all that he was the sort of fellow everyone liked but didn’t know too well. For his 1980 book “Blue Parka Man,” Herschel Landru interviewed several longtime residents who had known and even interacted with Hendrickson. One such sourdough, Billy Gorbracht, described Hendrickson as “A blonde, good-natured, big fellow. Never knew a man was ever able to lift him off his feet and favored by all the dance hall girls. Many is the time have seen him dance the whole night through.” It is worth noting that, as documented in later photographs, Hendrickson was clearly dark-haired rather than blonde; such is the way of memories.

Gorbracht continued, “I never knew Hendrickson well, you might say. I don’t think any man ever did. Never knew a man to call him by his first name or any nickname that was usually tagged to most men. He was a loner, and yet I never knew a man who didn’t like him, and the girls, well, he was always a big favorite with them.”


Tom Gibson similarly noted, “He looked like a round-faced Swede, light complexioned, with light blue eyes. The fellow spoke with a slight accent — Swede, Norwegian, anyway some kind of Skwegeian. He was, I guess, about thirty-five or so, his hair very bushy. He was not tall like the slim Swede but above middle height and well set up like perhaps a fighter with those rippling muscles. I never knew one quite like him. He was always jovial, talked a streak as though he never had a care, and yet you felt you could never reach him.”

The springtime thaw of 1905 prompted renewed prospecting activity in the hills and creeks around Fairbanks, which in turn meant a renewed flow of gold into town. As most of the richer claims lay several miles north, many miners had to pass Cleary Summit on their way back to town. Atop those crags, anyone with ill intent and a firearm could identify vulnerable travelers with enough time to descend and relieve them of their valuables.

During that spring, upwards of 20 individuals or groups were robbed on the trails outside Fairbanks. The Blue Parka Man was likely not the only criminal active in the area, but he was the most prominent and easily the most colorful. While most of his criminal interactions included a heavy threat of violence, some of the anecdotes suggested a more complex character.

Per one story, Hendrickson waylaid an unfortunate fortune hunter possessing less than 10 dollars. Once certain there was nothing more to be had, the outlaw handed back the money, then supposedly tossed over an extra half-dollar coin. As Alaska newspapers reported it, the bandit told his victim, “buy a drink for yourself at the next road house.” The prospector may have obtained more drinks with this story than he could have with 50 cents.

[Pillaged in its final days, the SS Al-Ki was one of the legendary vessels of the Klondike gold rush]

In the most recounted incident, the bandit stopped a group that included the Episcopal Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe. Hendrickson ordered everyone to surrender their bags, yet Rowe refused. Instead, the bishop scolded him for robbing a man of the cloth. In some versions of the story, the Blue Parka Man hesitated before handing everyone’s money to Rowe, a donation for his church. As Rowe told it, the outlaw only allowed the bishop to pass with all his belongings. Rowe’s biographer, Thomas Jenkins, claimed this was one of the clergyman’s favorite stories.

An aside, almost every post-contemporary account of the Blue Parka Man includes extensive quotes and some entire conversations from long-deceased individuals. For example, different authors have published different versions of the dialogue between Hendrickson and Rowe. This offers an opportunity for a critical lesson about history presentation. When the documentation is sparse, which can be common for true crime history and survival tales, some historians will create transitional material, what is sometimes called “creative history,” often taking the form of imagined dialogue. When executed correctly, most notably including an acknowledgment from the author, this can be a legitimate technique. However, many nonfiction writers who employ this method fail to indicate when they are being more artistic than factual. Thus, readers should be wary when history texts on long-ago events devolve into unsourced conversations.

Public fear regarding the highwayman attacks began to coalesce in May 1905, including some attempts to form a vigilance committee, to take the law into their own hands. The local marshal’s office, unsurprisingly, firmly discouraged such efforts. Still, area miners and bankers organized much of the traffic between the mining camps and town into weekly treasure trains, traveling as heavily armed groups that successfully scared off any potential robbers.

Residents worried the bandits would strike within Fairbanks itself, something that at least seemed possible when the highwaymen began to act more boldly as the summer progressed. On June 16, two miners were waylaid about 10 miles outside town. On June 24, four men were robbed near a roadhouse at Birch Hill, about two miles from city limits. By then, many residents believed that the robberies were the work of one man, and a reward of $1,000 — or $1,100, accounts vary — was offered for the capture of the bandit. After accounting for inflation, $1,000 in 1905 is roughly equivalent to $35,000 in 2024.

Per the Seattle Daily Times, saloonkeeper Albert White, also president of the Fairbanks Prospectors’ and Pioneers’ Association, wired a message to the U.S. Secretary of War. “Two hundred soldiers idle at Fort Gibbon. Gold dust to the value of $8,000,000 is without protection. Miners cannot use public highway without being held up.” The War Department responded that an investigation would be held.

By early July, accounts of the Blue Parka Man’s appearance were everywhere around Fairbanks. On July 11, Charles Hendrickson walked into the Northern Commercial Co. Suspicious, the clerk apologized to Hendrickson, saying he needed to retrieve some of the order from the warehouse, then alerted the authorities. Hendrickson waited for a while, then left. On his way down the road, he was quietly arrested by a party including Deputy Marshal George Dreibelbis.

The trial that July, on a charge of highway robbery, was a debacle. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported, “Hendrickson was given away by some of his countrymen on account of a breach of contract, which recalls the days of Robin Hood when the rich were to contribute involuntarily to the support of the poor. Hendrickson, it is charged in the information filed, entered into an agreement by which he was to have the moral support of some of his ‘friends’ in robbing the rich operators but he was not to molest the poorer men.”

While the robberies ceased after Hendrickson’s arrest, the authorities had no concrete evidence linking him to the crimes. As the prosecution offered one unreliable witness after another, the raucous crowd in attendance quickly shifted in favor of Hendrickson. The jury wasted little time in returning with a not-guilty verdict. Hendrickson remained in custody to await prosecution on other charges, imprisoned in the small, rickety log cabin jail behind the courthouse. There, he joined Paul Burkall, held on less dramatic dog theft charges.

On Aug. 8, only a few hours from his second trial, Hendrickson escaped the jail. This was his first escape in a count whose necessity will become abundantly apparent. Like teenagers in a movie sneaking out for a party, Hendrickson and Burkall arranged the bedding on their bunks to resemble their sleeping bodies. The Blue Parka Man had fashioned a rudimentary saw out of an iron hoop and, over several days, diligently worked his way through the 14-inch-thick log foundation.

Hendrickson was spotted the next day, a new rifle in hand, headed north out of town but then disappeared for weeks without notice. A posse dispatched in his wake returned empty-handed. On Sept. 20, two masked men robbed a Cleary Creek claim of $2,000 in gold dust, perhaps the work of Hendrickson and one of his seemingly many friends. Shortly thereafter, a prospector found what was believed to be one of Hendrickson’s caches, near Nugget Creek. Two masks and the blue parka were found within the supplies but no cash or gold.

In October, Deputy Marshal Dreibelbis learned Hendrickson was hiding in the Birch Creek area, northeast of Fairbanks, near the confluence with Twelvemile Creek, between what is now the Steese National Conservation Areas. Late that month, Dreibelbis and Frank Wiseman, a deputy marshal based in Cleary City, departed on a manhunt.

The winter of 1905-06 was particularly nasty, and the weather was bitter cold as their dog team pulled through the heavy drifts. Hendrickson was cutting lumber for money along Birch Creek, and the deputy marshals discovered him at work, his rifle resting away against his sled. Caught unawares, the bandit surrendered peacefully. In his history of the Blue Parka Man, Landru suggests that Dreibelbis and Wiseman pressed their pace back to Fairbanks to tire the criminal, lessening his ability to escape. Burkall, who had quickly parted from Hendrickson after their escape, was apprehended in Dawson in January 1906.


Back in the Fairbanks jail, Hendrickson had a new roommate, horse thief Thomas Thornton. Though different in background and temperaments — the Finnish Hendrickson tended toward cold calculation while the English Thornton was prone to sudden violence — they shared one notable trait. Both had previously escaped that jail, Thornton with his first breakout a few weeks after Hendrickson. Whether in minutes or hours after meeting each other, they began to plot.

On Jan. 29, 1906, Hendrickson and Thornton were still awaiting trial in the Fairbanks jail. One of their guards, Pete Peterson, was serving breakfast when Thornton threw pepper in his eyes. Though blinded, Peterson held onto Thornton, who produced a knife and stabbed the guard twice, in his neck and chest. Hendrickson meanwhile knocked the other guard down, donned boots and a coat, then disappeared into the dark Alaska morning. Both men had been placed in leg irons, but Hendrickson was able to remove his in the cell. Thornton, unable to remove his irons, more slowly followed him out the door, each going in separate directions. This was for each their second escape.

[Alaska myths, Alaska realities and Alaska beer commercials]

The close reader will have by now developed a relatively negative opinion regarding the qualities of the Fairbanks jail and its jailers. Most Fairbanks residents held the same opinion; the authorities simply hadn’t yet remedied the situation. In all, there had been four escapes over the previous six months, and Dreibelbis had tried, unsuccessfully, to replace one of the guards. A grand jury report described the jail as “more of a dungeon than a house of detention, being able to accommodate 14 persons in three rooms only, and yet at times housing twice that number. It is wholly insufficient for the size of the Fairbanks district.” As the Seattle Daily Times opined, “The federal jail at Fairbanks is a disgrace to the government. It is an ordinary log cabin.”

Despite the apparent effort in planning, Hendrickson headed south on the Valdez Trail with only what he had been wearing during his escape. He was discovered 12 miles down the road, shivering uncontrollably from the cold in an empty cabin. In his biography of Hendrickson, Landru suggests the outlaw had either missed a rendezvous or been abandoned by co-conspirators, thus prompting his desperate and doomed trek south.

Thornton also headed south and survived on the lam until Feb. 26, when he was cornered inside his tent. As lawmen fired warning shots in the air, Thornton attempted to slit his own throat with a pocketknife. The marshals bandaged his throat and carried him to the Fairbanks hospital, where he spent three weeks until he was well enough to return to the jail.

The guard, Peterson, who had been widely expected to die from his wounds, happily survived. At his trial, Thornton tearfully testified, “For Mr. Peterson, the guard whom I attacked, I have the highest regard, and it was not with malice that I attacked him. He stood in the way of the liberty I so yearned for. He is a brave man and fought me like a brave man, and I have the greatest respect for him now. I was sorry I hurt him.”

Hendrickson and Thornton were each sentenced to 15 years in prison. On Sept. 25, 1906, they boarded the riverboat Lavelle Young, accompanied by two deputy marshals, the first step from Fairbanks to the McNeil Island Penitentiary near Tacoma, Washington. The paddle-wheeler made slow progress with mechanical issues and ice in the water. As the days dragged, wariness among the escorts inevitably ebbed, all while Hendrickson and Thornton prepared for another breakout.


Hendrickson removed the curtain rod from the window to their stateroom, sawed it into sections with available materials, and flattened the tube. From that, he fashioned both a key to their leg irons and a saw with which he cut a hole in the ceiling. On Oct. 7, they escaped to shore in the pitch-black evening. Together, they followed the trail toward Eagle and Canada beyond but separated when Thornton began to fall behind. At the first sign of pursuit, he surrendered peacefully. Hendrickson tried to force a boatman to carry him across the Yukon River, but the armed man instead captured the fugitive. Finally, after severe effort and delay, Deputy Marshal Wiseman delivered Hendrickson and Thornton to McNeil Island on Oct. 28.

Still, the story of the Blue Parka Man continued. Though the prison staff were, of course, well aware of Hendrickson’s extreme preference for freedom, the former highwayman managed to escape again that December, after less than two months imprisoned. This was his fourth escape, and he was recaptured before leaving the island.

As a problem inmate, he was soon transferred to Leavenworth Penitentiary in northeast Kansas. Other notable Alaska criminals of this era, including Vuco “Deadman’s Slough” Perovich and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, were likewise relocated from McNeil to Leavenworth. Almost nothing is known of his fifth escape attempt except that it was short-lived and occurred at Leavenworth.

His sixth escape was typically brazen. On Nov. 13, 1916, Hendrickson and two other convicts used a ladder they broke off a guard platform to scale the prison wall. They had also prepared a 40-foot rope to lower themselves on the other side. One of the trio was quickly captured, while the other two, Hendrickson and George Ebeling, jumped on a passing train. Three days later, they were caught in Topeka. In the aftermath, Leavenworth’s warden wrote, “Hendrickson and Ebeling were both known as bold, resourceful men and the almost universal expression is that if they could not successfully get away it is not worth while for any one else to try it.”

On Feb. 11, 1920, Charles Hendrickson was officially released from Leavenworth, perhaps his seventh and final escape. From there, he seemingly drifted out of notoriety. There is no indication that he returned to Alaska, not that he would have recognized the territory he had terrorized 15 years prior. The various gold rushes had long since faded, making the former highwayman something of a living anachronism. He may have mellowed over the last years of his confinement despite the escape attempt four years prior. He was then in his late 50s, after all. Yet, his natural intransigence toward authority and tendency toward the easy, criminal path suggests a personality incongruent with change. Sometimes people just are how they are, forever.

Key sources:

“Escaped Prisoner Caught in Dawson.” (Skagway) Daily Alaskan, February 8, 1906, 3.

“Fairbanks Prisoners Again Break Jail.” Seattle Daily Times, January 30, 1906, 10.

“Find Cache.” (Skagway) Daily Alaskan, October 20, 1905, 5.

“Hendrickson and Thornton Get Fifteen Years in Pen.” Fairbanks Daily Times, September 2, 1906, 5, 6.

Jenkins, Thomas. The Man of Alaska: Peter Trimble Rowe. New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1943.

Landru, Herschel C. The Blue Parka Man: Alaskan Gold Rush Bandit. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980.


“Millions in Gold Imperiled on Tanana Trails by Bandits.” Seattle Daily Times, July 16, 1905, 1, 2.

“The Northland.” Douglas Island News, July 26, 1905, 1.

“Robberies Have Ceased.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 21, 1905, 5.

“Say Highwayman Broke Contract.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1905, 3.

“Take Money.” (Skagway) Daily Alaskan, September 27, 1906, 1.

Wall, Sam. “Bands of Highwaymen Terrorize Miners at Fairbanks.” Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1905, 1.

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.