Alaska Life

The enigmatic life and mysterious death of Matanuska Valley schoolteacher Zelda King

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.

Within the broader history of Alaska, Zelda King (1905-1936) is unmentioned and forgotten. In the lore of the Matanuska Valley, where she lived and worked for the last years of her life, she is a bit of trivia known by only the most diehard local historians. Her presence in the historical record is similarly scant and elusive. From birth to death, her existence is primarily documented when she intersects with men, most sensationally in the manner of her demise.

Zelda L. King was born to Arthur and Lois King in Mabton, Washington. In 1924, she earned a penmanship teaching certificate and, in 1925, completed her two-year certification as a teacher at what is now Eastern Washington University. From there, she taught in Mabton, Idaho, and Montana before moving north in the early 1930s.

In Alaska, she taught in Seward, then moved to the Matanuska Valley. She had been teaching there for about three years when the first Matanuska Colony settlers began arriving in the spring of 1935. That December, she wrote about the early colonists in a letter to a Missoula, Montana newspaper. She noted, “They are a very well contented lot here, and those who left were either ill or the type of person who would probably be dissatisfied anywhere.” Already a true Alaskan, her primary complaint was for road conditions, which she said were little more than “rutty mires” in summer and fall.

King was young and popular around the community, where she caught the eye of Alvah Pilkenton, an accountant for the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corp., which oversaw the colony. On May 23, 1936, they were married in his boss’s apartment at the Anchorage Hotel. She wore a white-flowered satin gown with a bouquet of sweet pea flowers and baby breath, observed by 15 friends from Palmer. Afterward, they celebrated at a Lake Spenard roadhouse dance. For reasons that will become clear, she will heretofore still be referred to by her maiden name.

She was born, taught, married, and, to give away the ending, died. She was a person, a woman of dreams and ambitions, failures and tragedies, but her historical record reflects almost nothing of the actual individual, just a few scattered facts traced across the American West. Apart from her death, this narrative offers the near entirety of her surviving documentation. Her personality and character are in this way lost, as they are for most people outside living memory.

It is generally easier to learn about the men of the past than the women, something every amateur family historian or genealogist quickly realizes. Apart from the technical difficulties, such as married name changes or calling wives by their husbands’ names, women have been less likely to achieve the sort of positions in life that encourage wider and deeper coverage. Ever-evolving societal brakes and barriers, glass ceilings, and prejudices, hindered and continue to impede such advancement. In this way, King is more enigma than actual person, in as far we can understand her today.


On Nov. 11, 1936, late that night after an eventful Armistice Day celebration, a single gunshot echoed in Palmer. A small group of locals rushed to the Pilkenton home at the edge of town. King was slumped dead upon the kitchen linoleum, one arm stretched outward as if to break her fall. Apart from bare feet, she was completely clothed. An intoxicated Pilkenton kneeled at her head.

Three days later, a coroner’s jury ruled King had killed herself. The direct cause of death was a .22 rifle shot to the heart, an awkward method at best for a woman of average to short height. These days, it is standard forensic practice to compare the length of the deceased’s arms versus that of the rifle from muzzle to trigger. When the arms are long enough to hold the rifle in position and reach the trigger, a suicide ruling may more confidently be reached. Shorter arms, as with many women or smaller men, complicate the findings. Those with shorter arms may still commit suicide with rifles via the assistance of rope, string, or other supportive device, but such instances are rare. And while King’s arm length is unknown, it is only the first aspect of doubt regarding the case.

During the autopsy, Dr. A. S. Walkowski found bits of nuts in both King’s teeth and stomach. Though described as intoxicated and despondent during the 15-minute coroner’s jury inquest, she had been apparently mid-snack when she decided to kill herself. Possible, if somewhat improbable.

Pilkenton, the husband of less than six months, told one story at the death scene and another at the initial inquest. There, he requested a private hearing to offer his new account of events. “Must all these people be here,” he asked. Walter Huntley, the first U.S. Commissioner of Palmer and later a member of the territorial legislature, agreed to this request and approved the suicide verdict.

Dissatisfaction with the verdict was rife in Palmer. Gossip spread that Pilkenton had killed his wife or that a jealous man shot her while the accountant was away at work. As the first violent death in the celebrated Matanuska Colony, the death also received national coverage. In seeming response, Assistant United States Attorney Warren Taylor, another future legislator, promised to reopen the case on Nov. 23 but reneged the following day, stating his faith in the coroner’s jury.

Shortly thereafter, Third Division District Attorney Joseph Kehoe initiated his own investigation. In early January 1937, he concluded there was enough evidence to convene a grand jury charging the husband with manslaughter. As soon as Pilkenton heard, he ran and jumped off the bridge into the Matanuska River. The current washed him onto a sheet of ice, where he sat for 30 minutes in 20-degree weather before being recovered.

From that promising change, the story turned and entered its depressing denouement. After nine months in the Valdez jail, Pilkenton was released after the grand jury declined to indict him. When a grand jury refuses to indict, the proceedings are not released to the public, so the nature of the evidence and defense are unknown. In 1955, an Alaska grand jury similarly declined to indict musher Charley Cannon for the murder of his wife, after Cannon had confessed, reenacted the crime, and led authorities on a tour of the murder site.

[He reenacted his wife’s killing in 1955 and confessed — but a grand jury refused to indict him]

Alvah Pilkenton continued to live and continued to leave a trail in the historical record. Notably, he did not seem to return to Palmer, primarily residing in Eska and Anchorage for the rest of his Alaska tenure. He saw service in World War II and was working in Anchorage as a civilian accountant for the Air Force when he died in 1954. He did not remarry and is buried in Anchorage’s Angelus Memorial Park Cemetery.

Zelda King’s parents, Arthur and Lois, tragically outlived their daughter. The three are buried at her hometown Mabton Cemetery.

With no indictment, the charges evaporated, which means there was officially no crime. Thus, King is not even a statistic, not that crime statistics were kept in 1930s Alaska. At the very best, she was small-town gossip in Palmer, an incident passed over by historians of the Matanuska Colony and thus below a footnote, forgotten almost entirely.

The story of Zelda King is limited by the tendencies of history, all the more so given her tragic demise. Yet, she may also be a lesson. The dire present for women in Alaska — intimate partner violence, rape, murder, and disappearances — is a direct continuation of the past, a reality that has willfully been allowed to endure. For if the past is the same as the present, it is a choice not to alter the context.

• • •

Key sources:

“180 to Complete Normal Course.” [Spokane, Washington] Spokesman-Review, May 22, 1925, 7.

“6-Month Bride Shot Herself at Palmer.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, November 14, 1936, 5.

“Alaskan Briefs.” Petersburg Press, January 15, 1937, 2.

“Base Accountant A. Pilkenton Dies.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 11, 1954, 11.


Blakaj, Flamur, Flamur Dylhasi, Ditor Haliti, Ilir Kukaj, and Driton Krasniqi. “An Unusual Method of Suicide by Rifle Using a Supportive Device and String to Pull the Trigger—A Case Report.” Forensic Science International: Reports 2 (2020): 10048.

“Closes Probe in Death of Palmer Bride.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 23, 1936, 1, 8.

“Grand Jury Frees Alvah Pilkenton.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 20, 1937, 1.

“Inquiry Into Woman’s Death is Abandoned.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, November 24, 1936, 7.

“Miss Zelda King Becomes Bride of Alvah Pilkenton.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 25, 1936, 4.

“Penmanship Teachers Get Awards.” [Spokane, Washington] Spokesman-Review, June 27, 1924, 10.

“Teacher Tells of Matanuska Circumstances.” [Missoula, Montana] Missoulian, December 8, 1935, 4.

“Woman’s Death to be Probed Further.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, November 23, 1936, 2.

“Zelda Pilkington Dies from Gun Wound.” Matanuska Valley Pioneer, November 1, 1936, 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.