Alaska Life

‘A victim of his own depravity’: The explosive tale of a 1902 Skagway bank robbery

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.

On Sept. 15, 1902, a tall, powerfully built stranger walked into the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Skagway, appropriately garbed in dark clothes and with a slouch cap pulled low over his eyes. It was shortly before three in the afternoon, right before closing time. Locals took care of their business earlier in the day, avoiding the uncertain mood of an employee at the end of his shift, so the bank held only the stranger, a teller, and another employee placing deposits into the safe.

Without warning, the stranger thrust two sticks through the teller’s window. “Do you know what this is?” he asked. In a town built upon mining and mining overly-ambitious prospectors, the teller knew dynamite when he saw it. “Yes, that’s dynamite,” he replied. The stranger revealed as robber then declared, “Well, I want you to give me $20,000. Now be quick and give me $20,000 or I will blow up this building.”

In 1902, Skagway, the erstwhile portal to the Klondike, was much reduced from its gold rush heyday of 8,000 to 10,000 residents in the summer of 1898. Per a conveniently timed study concluded during the same month as the bank robbery, it was down to around 1,400 to 1,800 inhabitants. Still, the frontier town was at least the third largest settlement in Alaska after Nome and likely Juneau, ahead of Sitka and Wrangell. It was a smaller place nevertheless populated with hundreds of people who conducted varying forms of business and frequently required the use of banks.

Moreover, as with other Alaska settler towns, the local newspaper documented steamship passengers passing through, boarding, or departing at Skagway. The paper also listed every single resident at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. In other words, Skagway was decent sized for Alaska at the time but no longer the sort of place where a newcomer could disappear into a throng, given the aforementioned reduction in throng frequency. The smaller the town, the less private your actions, so residents certainly noticed the new face wandering about in September 1902.

When the stranger entered the Canadian Bank of Commerce, George Wallace was at the teller window while Charles Pooley worked in the tiny back room, loading cash and gold into the safe. The bank manager, Harry Lay, was away on vacation, and his temporary replacement had yet to arrive. Their absences may have saved their lives.

With the dynamite still in his left hand, the stranger revealed a pistol in his right and pointed it at Wallace. The teller hesitated as time slowed, staring at the gun barrel while the full extent of the threat grew within his mind. The moment passed, and Wallace spun away from the counter and sprinted for the back door. Over by the safe, Pooley heard the request for $20,000 — about $730,000 in 2024 dollars — and peeked out curiously toward the interaction. Around the same time, he saw the gun and heard a warning shouted by the passing Wallace. Pooley dove back behind the safe’s heavy door.


Wallace’s mad dash surprised the holdup man. In his preparation, the stranger had certainly imagined how the crime would proceed, what he thought would happen. Yet, he clearly did not expect the teller to turn and run. With his control of the situation fading, the bandit hurriedly fired his Colt revolver, three times at least. Two bullet holes were later found in the wall. Another shot, however, hit the dynamite.

Miners comprised a significant proportion of the Alaska workforce in 1902, but that did not mean they were all professional or that they all followed even the most basic safety protocols with something as obviously dangerous as dynamite. Earlier that year, James Lewis was working a claim a few miles from Skagway when he discovered his dynamite was frozen. So, he placed the dynamite on his lit stove to thaw. Though badly injured, he survived the subsequent explosion. Newspaper coverage helpfully noted the “stove was totally and the cabin partially wrecked.”

Back at the bank, the explosion blew an otherwise unharmed Wallace outside into the alley behind the building. From the cover of the heavy safe door, Pooley likewise escaped injury. The unfortunate innocent in this incident was attorney John G. Price, fresh from the post office and with $350 in hand to deposit at the bank. He opened the door right when the explosion occurred, the blast pressing him backward, stumbling until he could regain his footing. Flying glass peppered his face, tearing through his clothes and hat. The money was blown out of his hand. Though pained by his wounds and deafened by the sound, he survived.

As for the bank itself, the front-facing windows and side door were blown out, as were windows in some of the nearest other buildings. The interior was shredded, reduced to an almost unrecognizable heap that had once been furniture and plaster. Bits of wreckage rained down, inside and out, across the sidewalk and into the street, including hundreds of dollars in loose cash and a couple thousand dollars of gold dust, all formerly intended for the safe. The entire structure had shifted several inches, and the sides bulged outwards. Directly in front of the teller window, where the robber had been standing, was now a jagged hole.

Then there was the robber himself. Most of him was blown 10 feet away from the teller window, where he was left lying on his face. The majority of his fingers, as might be expected given the circumstances, had diverged from their owner and landed elsewhere. His body was, in turn, lacerated, fractured, burned and blackened. The first people on the scene turned him over and stared, horrified, into the robber’s empty, bloody sockets, his eyes also ripped away in the explosion. Shockingly, he was still breathing.

The stranger was quickly moved into a hospital, but he died just over an hour later without ever regaining consciousness. Per the attending doctor, the bank robber strangled upon his blood, not that he had long to live given the extensive skull fractures. As the Skagway newspaper, the Daily Alaskan, told it, “The victim of his own depravity is lying in Peoples’ undertaking room, mangled and burned almost beyond recognition.”

The furious and immediate investigation spent its energy quickly without notable results. While the stranger had been seen about town for several days before the robbery, no one knew his name. No one remembered him as a steamship passenger, and he had not lodged in a hotel or boarding house. His personal effects included some ribbon, a silver dollar, a pocketknife, a gold watch, and a somewhat damaged pistol. There were no identifying letters, documents, or other papers.

He was about 35 years old when he died. Contrary to the manner of his demise, the Daily Alaskan noted that he “had the appearance of a man who had had money.” His teeth were gold-capped and well cared for. His hands were clean and showed no signs of recent hard labor. Per witness accounts, he spoke English perfectly. However, no one recognized his description as it made the rounds in Alaska and western Canada.

During his time in town, he drank, ate, gambled, and sold a gold nugget chain. He bought the revolver and bullets used in the robbery but stole the dynamite from the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad. He was present about town, recognizable but forgettable until the end. His identity remained a mystery, as did the manner by which he intended to escape isolated Skagway. The scant belongings were auctioned off a few weeks later.

Neither the unfortunate Price nor the bank lost any of the money or gold scattered in the explosion. Every bit of Price’s lost $350 was returned to him, and the bank managed to gather its currency as well, though some of the bills were notably singed. As for the gold, Canadian Bank of Commerce accountant L. M. de Gex arrived shortly after the explosion, as he was already on his way to Skagway to temporarily relieve the vacationing manager. De Gex had the debris gathered and run through sluice boxes. Per William White, another bank employee who later oversaw the Whitehorse branch, de Gex wound up with an extra ounce of gold, the accumulation of grains lost through the floorboards over the years.

For all the colorful trappings of this story, including gold and a mysterious identity, its most interesting aspect is the aftermath, particularly the macabre delight in the outlaw’s death. News of the failed robbery was published as far away as New York City, understandable given how the showdown went down. Yet, those proper and decorous northern settlers took a morbid delight beyond the details, all but wallowing in the gruesome fallout.

The attempted robbery happened on a Monday. By Wednesday at the latest, photographer Harrie C. Barley had pictures of the wrecked bank and bank robber available for view and purchase at his studio. The local doctor and de Gex removed the robber’s remains from his coffin, refilling it with dust and broken bricks. White, then at the bank’s Whitehorse branch, recalled de Gex charging him and others “50 cents for a 25 cent drink of whisky” to see one of the robber’s thumbs preserved in a bottle of alcohol. That same thumb was soon displayed in a glass-covered cigar box in the billiard room of a Whitehorse hotel.

When White was transferred to the Skagway branch in 1907, he tracked down the robber’s remains, which were decaying in a rotten sack tossed in a woodshed. White had most of the bones haphazardly cremated, an emphasis here on most. Per White, another doctor “picked out one or two (bones) of interest to him.” White kept the skull, which stayed at the bank through 1910, when the branch was closed. White then gifted it to dentist Louis Scott Keller, who placed it on his mantle before regifting it to Skagway tour guide Martin Itjen. According to some Skagway histories, Itjen displayed the skull for many years before it was lost to history.

• • •

Key sources:

“Bank Is Wrecked by Dynamiter.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, September 16, 1902, 1, 6.

Clifford, Howard. The Skagway Story. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1997.

“Counted Up.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, September 19, 1902, 4.


“Dynamiter Has Not Been Identified.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, September 17, 1902, 1.

“Dynamiter Was Desperate Criminal.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, September 18, 1902, 1, 6.

Heslop, Madison. “‘I Want $20,000 or I Will Blow Up the Building’” Juneau Empire, July 11, 2017.

“The Northland.” Douglas Island News, April 30, 1902, 4.

Sanders, T. D., editor. William White: Writing Home to Dorset from the Yukon, 1898. Ottery St. Mary, Great Britain: Self-published, 1990.

Untitled article. [Whitehorse, Canada] Weekly Star, September 20, 1902, 1.

“Will Sell.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, October 29, 1902, 1.

“Wrecked by a Desperado.” [Whitehorse, Canada] Weekly Star, September 20, 1902, 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.