Books

Book review: 10 Southeast murders provide the framework for understanding Alaska history

“Forgotten Murders from Alaska’s Capital”

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By Betsy Longenbaugh; Epicenter Press, 2022; 135 pages; $16.95.

Author Betsy Longenbaugh, a lifelong Alaskan and former newspaper reporter, has applied her passions and tremendous research skills to investigate and share the stories of 10 murders that took place in Juneau or Douglas between 1902 and 1959. “Forgotten Murders from Alaska’s Capital” not only presents what can be known about the murders themselves but uncovers a great deal of Alaska’s social history at the time. That history, seldom pretty, becomes the real story of this fascinating book.

The 10 chapters, arranged chronologically, involve murders of passion, greed, revenge and mental instability. They were chosen, the author explains, from more than 80 she’s chronicled and are ones that resulted in arrests and closure.

Readers will encounter a familiar version of Alaska — a place that has always attracted what we sometimes refer to as “end-of-the-roaders,” individuals either fleeing from their pasts or searching for fresh opportunities, often outside of what is strictly lawful. This recognizable Alaska also, unfortunately, features considerable violence, much of it domestic or against women. Also notable in the stories is the stupidity of most of the murderers and the speed with which they were apprehended, tried and sentenced; this is perhaps a result of choosing stories that resolved rather than trailing into unsolved mysteries.

The earliest story, of a 1902 murder, takes place in what was then the city of Treadwell, the company town located at the Treadwell Mine in present-day Douglas. There, the mine superintendent shot and killed an unemployed miner on the town plaza, in full view of witnesses. This is, in large part, a story of power imbalances; the superintendent claimed “self-defense,” and the coroner’s inquest, based on a single eyewitness account, ruled that it was. Newspaper headlines at the time read “MacDonald Kills Insane Assailant” and “A Lunatic Attacks Supt. MacDonald.” Eleven years later, when MacDonald was living in Mexico, a Juneau grand jury indicted him for murder, based on considerable evidence that he’d repeatedly shot at close range an unarmed religious man protesting work on Sundays. After what appears to have been jury tampering, MacDonald was found “not guilty.”

Aside from the murder and trial details, this first chapter tells the larger story of the Treadwell Mine, which employed more than 1,000 men. In 1917, the mine collapsed and filled with water, bringing that historical era to an end.

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The second story, from 1914, features the murder of Lucy Shellhouse, a Tlingit woman who’d been educated at the Chemawa Boarding School in Oregon and worked as a housecleaner in Douglas. As she was leaving the Douglas movie theatre with a man friend, her former husband shot and killed both Shellhouse and her friend. When marshals went to the killer’s cabin to arrest him, he shot himself. The newspaper headline for this one was “Three Die in Douglas Tragedy.” In addition to the murder narrative, this chapter describes the lives of Alaska Natives at the time, including the education system at boarding schools.

Several of the murder stories take place in an underworld of gambling, scamming and prostitution. In 1919, a woman named Myra Schmidt was working “the line” in Juneau when she was found dead in her cabin. The place had been ransacked and her valuables stolen. The same day, a man known as Whiskey Jack was seen settling debts and buying new clothes, then boarding a boat for Skagway. When his luggage was searched, it was found to be full of Schmidt’s belongings. In a separate story from 1923, two women operating a Juneau “cigar store” — a universal euphemism for a brothel — were shot to death by a man who stole their money. Both stories provide background in the lives of sex workers and their clients during that tumultuous era.

One chillingly bizarre story concerns what the author calls “Alaska’s first serial killer.” In 1915, a man named Slompke was implicated in the disappearance of a married man who worked for the Treadwell Mine as an amalgamator. Investigations soon discovered that Slompke was associated with additional disappearances — mostly of single men with considerable assets — and that he ended up with the assets, as well as often assuming the names of his victims. Although no bodies were ever found, Slompke was convicted of murder. He escaped from a jail cell and was shot by a man who found him lurking outside his cabin. It’s thought that his victims numbered as many as a dozen — or more.

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The penultimate murder story, “The Death of a Remittance Woman,” dates from 1946 and is one more example of domestic violence. The Juneau couple involved, Guy and Marjorie Prince, were both children of well-to-do California families and known to be heavy drinkers. As Longenbaugh explains, “Remittance men and women are a phenomenon that is still apparent in Alaska today. Upset by irresponsible or embarrassing behavior, families pay an allowance to their troublesome relatives to live somewhere far away, and for many, Alaska is far enough.” In the Prince case, Guy strangled Marjorie, then called police to tell them he had and that “she needed killing.” Guy eventually served about 10 years.

The final story, from 1955, is that of the random murder in a state office of an employee, Elizabeth Cornell. In this case, the murderer believed the government was guilty of “graft and corruption” and set out to kill the commissioner of Alaska’s health department. When the commissioner wasn’t available, he shot and killed the woman who had greeted him at the door. This story provides some excellent backstory about the high rate of tuberculosis in Alaska — the murderer had been in a sanatorium — as well as the handling of mental health issues. The murderer was committed to the Morningside Hospital in Oregon, where mentally ill Alaskans were sent between 1904 and 1967. He was transferred to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute when it opened, and he died there.

Alaska’s history is packed with intriguing, if often disturbing, stories. One way to learn about our past is through the lives of little-known and infamous individuals and their unfortunate circumstances. “Forgotten Murders,” with its accompanying black-and-white photographs, can be a good place to begin — especially if we keep in mind that murders end innocent lives and affect families forever.

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Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

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