Skip to main Content

Alaska's rough-hewn pioneer judges, lawyers

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published April 30, 2017

The Biggest Damned Hat: Tales from Alaska's Territorial Lawyers and Judges

By Pamela Cravez; University of Alaska Press; 2017; 224 pages; $24.95

The 1982 Dire Straits song "Telegraph Road," which begins with the story of the arrival of people in an unbroken land and the establishment there of a new community, contains the line, "Then came the lawyers, then came the rules."

As we learn from "The Biggest Damned Hat," a newly published collection of stories about Alaska's pioneering lawyers, it's a lyric that could easily be applied to Gold Rush era Nome. It was, famously, three Scandinavians, collectively known as the Lucky Swedes, who launched the rush when they struck gold on Anvil Creek in 1898 in a place where courts were nonexistent. And it was an unscrupulous lawyer named Alexander McKenzie who took advantage of the shortage of laws in the territory to swindle them out of their claim and the wealth it generated for a good part of the 1900 mining season.

This is just one of the tales Pamela Cravez includes in this breezy, light-hearted and thoroughly entertaining account of how the legal profession evolved in Alaska during the territorial and early statehood periods, and of how Alaska evolved in part as a result of its lawyers.

McKenzie pulled his scam off with the collusion of Arthur Noyes, who was the first judge appointed to Nome. The racket was short-lived, but Noyes' involvement and the subsequent mess he made of his jurisdiction highlighted the need for judges and lawyers who would bring some semblance of order to Alaska.

George Grigsby grabbed fame

The judge who would start bringing that about was James Wickersham who also came north in 1900, appointed to the much sleepier posting in Eagle. Wickersham, Cravez writes, "settled in for a lifetime, drawn by a desire to serve and gain prominence among the small Alaskan community. He would never make much money, but instead leave his legacy in memoirs and law books."

Wickersham is a legendary figure in Alaska history, but Cravez spends more time with the lawyer who set the mold for territorial attorneys. George Grigsby, who reached Nome in 1902, became a famed criminal defender, known as much for his wit, his unorthodox courtroom shenanigans and his legendary alcohol tolerance as for his lawyering.

Grigsby would become a hero to many Alaska lawyers, and a bane to others, but his ability to make things up as he went along worked well in a remote territory where judges were often playing catch up in the trials they presided over, and juries were swayed more by an attorney's performance than by the actual rule of law. With a weak territorial legislature and the federal seat of power far away, the Alaska bar was mostly free to set its own standards, and as we discover from this book, for both good and bad that's mostly what it did, even into statehood.

"The lack of skilled judges and an abundance of unschooled lawyers made for a peculiar justice system," the author explains.

Cravez first came to Alaska in 1980 while still attending law school and in the intervening years has been a public defender, reporter, researcher and several other things, including oral historian. The seed of this book was planted soon after she came north when she started conducting interviews with old-time lawyers from the territorial days who were still around. Most knew Grigsby, and he's the fulcrum around whom many of the stories found here circulate.

Norman Banfield was one of her interviewees. Like many pioneer attorneys, he had no formal legal training. He arrived in Juneau for a National Weather Service job during the Depression, but soon was taken in by Bert Faulkner, another self-taught lawyer who wanted a partner he could form in his own image. Discussing the challenges of lawyering in Alaska, Banfield told Cravez that the outcome of a trial depended on "whatever the judge thought the law was and whatever the jury decided."

Cravez also pays her respects to female attorneys, who overcame sexism and gender restrictions to become successful in a male-dominated world. Several were drawn to the profession to fight corruption. Aline Beegler was inspired to pursue law after seeing Fairbanks founder E.T. Barnette escape justice for bank fraud. She was admitted to the bar in 1920 at age 53. Mildred Hermann went to law school so she could combat the influence of lawyers on the territorial legislature.

Linked to politics

Other attorneys were drawn by the lure of Alaska. John Hellenthal was born to a family of lawyers but held miners in high esteem. He was pugilistic in court and clung to Alaska's frontier mythos. George Folta was appointed to a judge's seat in the Southeast, where he worked with limited success at taming Alaska's freewheeling legal system and spent his off time hunting bears. He was as skilled as Grigsby at manipulating juries, but did so with such subtly that his influence was impossible to show on appeal.

Alaska's lawyers were deeply involved in politics from the start of the 20th century, and by its midpoint they comprised half of the territorial legislature. It's no surprise that a disproportionate number of them helped write the state constitution, and Cravez details how their influence brought about Alaska's system of judicial appointments that involves lawyers, the governor, the state senate and voters, giving a voice to all interested parties.

During Alaska's early days as a state, its lawyers continued to write their own rules, and this led to a showdown between the bar and the bench that takes up two chapters. The battle would bring the days of legal improvisation to a close.

These days, the practice of law on the Last Frontier has become almost indistinguishable from how they do it Outside. But it wasn't always that way. As Cravez writes near the end of this fun and informative book, "Lawyers who came to Alaska before statehood sought not a place rushing to catch up with the conventions they'd left, but a place offering something different. Alaska did not disappoint."

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic. 

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments