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Photo album offers glimpse of 130-year-old Kodiak murder

  • Author: Anjuli Grantham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 12, 2015

KODIAK -- A tattered photo album arrived at the Baranov Museum in Kodiak earlier this year. Once it had been made of velvet, but only bits of the softness remained. The posed portraits were mainly taken in San Francisco. At first glance, none of the faces were familiar.

But then I saw him: Ivan Petroff, that devil of a historian himself.

I continued flipping through the album and gave a shriek at the face that looked up at me. It was Benjamin McIntyre, manager of the Alaska Commercial Company's Kodiak District who was murdered at his dining room table nearly 130 years ago.

Contained within the photo album were two individuals who had last been together in real life on Nov. 1, 1886, when Petroff sat to McIntyre's left as a dinner guest and, consequently, a witness to his murder.

McIntyre's murder reads like a real-life, Alaska history version of Clue -- complete with a counterfeiter, a businessman, a soldier, a missionary and an explorer. My investigation into the witnesses, the victim and the perpetrator exposes both the details of this gruesome deed and a look into Alaska when it was barely American. Only two years earlier, Alaska received its first limited civil service. Could this album provide new clues into a century-old mystery?

The counterfeiter

"I must get to the house as soon as possible and take some quinine," McIntyre purportedly remarked when he first saw Peter Anderson's sloop sail into the village of Kodiak. Petroff later interpreted McIntyre's nausea upon meeting his future killer as evidence of a sixth sense, a hunch that McIntyre should have trusted.

Right from the start, Petroff figured that Anderson was a good-for-nothing opium smuggler. The fact that he let company traps rust in the field and mistreated his dogs further indicated that this Russian immigrant with "a red, coarse face almost hidden in beard" and "an Herculean body" was most certainly a low-life.

But Petroff wasn't the most honest man, either. In 1886, Petroff was customs collector in Kodiak. He claimed to have first come to Alaska in service of the Russian-American Company. This claim, like much of what Petroff said of his life, does not bear scrutiny. Furthermore, the only reason historians have even looked closely at his biography is due to the irrefutable fact that Petroff was a first-rate counterfeiter. He was a storyteller with the visage of a bureaucrat, a skillful elaborator who fudged translations and embellished facts with invented details. He also was responsible for the first census of Alaska in 1880, wrote portions of the oft-cited history text "The History of Alaska" by Hubert Howe Bancroft, and was considered a major authority on the north.

But on Nov. 1, 1886, he was just a dinner guest, interrupted from playing with the dessert crumbs on his plate by a bang overhead. Petroff thought a lamp had exploded, but once he looked around, he saw that buckshot had shattered a window as it passed from outside the house and into the skull of the unfortunate McIntyre. He watched as blood poured from McIntyre's mouth, even though his fork was positioned to put dessert in it.

The soldier

Benjamin Woche fared much worse than Petroff. The station agent for Alaska Commercial Company's Kaguyak store was sitting opposite McIntyre and sustained bullet wounds to the face. He only survived because McIntyre's head bore the brunt of the spray. Woche was in Kodiak merely to receive orders for the approaching winter. You see, McIntyre was to sail the next day to San Francisco and from there on home to Vermont, not to return to Kodiak until the following spring. This last meal was McIntyre's send-off party.

Later in life, Woche seemed ill-disposed toward leaving the small village of Kaguyak on the southeast coast of Kodiak Island. In fact, he seemed ill-disposed toward many things and was given to complaining, especially about his wife and the poor pay he received from Alaska Commercial Company after decades of service. He was familiar with San Francisco, having enlisted in the Army at Alcatraz in 1867. He set sail with the Second Artillery's Battery G to establish Fort Kodiak within what had been recently known as Russian America.

His orders: to protect Kodiak Natives from the ravages of the new American wealth seekers and potential aggression from the Denaina or Chugach Alutiiq. Subtext: Treat this new American department as Indian country.

After two years, Fort Kodiak was decommissioned, and the personnel shipped back to San Francisco. But Woche stayed behind, having married the fetching Alexandra Larionova. He started working for Hutchinson Kohl and Co., which later became Alaska Commercial Company, and was sent to manage the trading post on the south end of Kodiak Island.

But now that he was injured by the assassin's bullet, he would not be heading back to Kaguyak. The closest doctor was in San Francisco. Twelve days at sea is what Woche had to endure with a buckshot- splintered jaw. He was given the stateroom in which McIntyre usually traveled. His former employer was stored with the rest of the schooner Kodiak's cargo.

The businessman

In addition to the funerary load, other provisions for the trip included cans of fruit, bacon and 168 pounds of "fresh beef," according to the store's register for the day. The fact that McIntyre traveled in the hold instead of in the stateroom might have been partially attributed to that very beef. In an oral history of Spiridon Stepanoff, later described by anthropologist Patricia Partnow, Stepanoff told the story of "Macintine," the American that was killed at his dinner table. According to Stepanoff, earlier on the day of his death, Macintine butchered a cow. He was from Vermont -- bovine country, indeed -- and likely intended to sell the beef in the store and feast on it during the trip to San Francisco. After the butchering commenced, Anderson asked Macintine for some of the meat. Macintine scoffed at this request, "You! You aren't a working man!" denying Anderson the meal.

After outfitting Anderson for several hunting trips and getting few pelts in return, McIntyre had offered Anderson a job working in the warehouse to pay back the money he owed for the hunting provisions. Anderson refused the work. McIntyre seemed ill-inclined to feed the man who already owed the store money. Perhaps it was the refused beef that drove Anderson over the edge. Or, the fact that without money and without the opportunity to secure more store credit, he was in a desperate situation. Perhaps Anderson thought a change in management was in order.

The explorer

Heyward Seton-Karr was relieved when the Kodiak arrived in the village. He'd sketched the wharf and the picturesque Russian Orthodox Church, sketches that today are in the Alaska Historical Library in Juneau. He was ready to return to the continental U.S. and from there to his British homeland. Alaska had been quite the adventure. He had come to scale 18,008-foot Mount Saint Elias, and his failure did not prevent him for publishing his travel journal, "Shores and Alps of Alaska."

He found Kodiak a "comparatively civilised place" and his host, McIntyre, "exceedingly popular with everyone." His training in the British military proved useful the night of the murder, when he treated Woche's bullet wounds.

The missionary

The Rev. W.E. Roscoe rushed to the company house. Roscoe administered McIntyre's last rites according to his Baptist training. Kodiak had presented a challenge for the Roscoe family since arriving a few months earlier. They were the first Protestant missionaries in the solidly Orthodox community. The Rev. Sheldon Jackson had dispatched Roscoe; his wife, Ida; and their baby boy to Kodiak with instructions to start a school. It was the first American school in Kodiak. McIntyre had been very helpful, letting the fledgling institution occupy an unused company building. The school opened just a few weeks earlier, with Petroff serving as translator since the children did not speak much English and the teacher did not speak Russian or Alutiiq.

After administering the rites, Roscoe and Petroff joined the manhunt. There was but one suspect, Anderson. They found his skiff on shore and rowed to his sloop. Although the owner wasn't on board, there was a line of powder that connected a lit lamp to containers of gunpowder. It seemed as though Anderson intended to blow up his vessel, but the lamp never sparked the ignition. For what purpose he would demolish his own craft was not known.

In another version of the Alutiiq story of Macintine, Anderson was a hired henchman. Perhaps he planned to start a blaze on his boat in order to set the schooner Kodiak, moored close by, afire. Perhaps this is a story of corporate sabotage.

Petroff and Roscoe ran to the house of the woman with whom Anderson stayed, and she claimed to have not seen him. However, a villager had seen him lurking in the alley behind McIntyre's house soon before the murder. Roscoe offered a monetary reward for information on the suspect's whereabouts. A boy pointed toward Pillar Mountain, pocketing the money. Later, another claimed to see him through his spyglass. Roscoe wrote, "We have searched every hiding place in town and have searched the adjacent country as well as possible without success … As there is no boat or bidarka missing, the man has not left the island." What became of Anderson is unknown. One legend is that he was but a spirit to begin with. When he passed by, no one could see him or sense his presence. He seemed to evaporate into Kodiak's winter.

The remaining mystery

It is unlikely that anyone in Kodiak knew that Nov. 1 was the Day of the Dead. Yet la calavera -- the skeleton of Mexican satire and art -- was to make an appearance in Kodiak. Skeletal remains were found some 30 years later, overlooking the town of Kodiak. The rusted shotgun clutched in the bony hand contained shells that matched those collected from the dining room floor. Many presumed it was Peter Anderson and that he had died by his own hand.

Yet, in a letter that storekeeper H.P. Cope wrote to the directors if the Alaska Commercial Company, informing them of the murder, he asserted that, "It is my opinion that we shall not see Peter Anderson alive." Moreover, soon after the Kodiak arrived in San Francisco, Emma Petroff wrote a worried letter to her husband.

She said that a ship had been dispatched north to aid in the manhunt, but, "If the man is found we do not think he will ever get here, or to Sitka alive -- because the (company) will avoid having a trial if they possibly can." Could Anderson have been apprehended and killed by vigilantes?

More pressing, could the curly-haired woman with large eyes, in the portrait slot to the left of Petroff, be his dear wife, Emma? Could perhaps these other unknown faces be other witnesses -- Woche, Seton-Karr, Roscoe, villagers who searched for Anderson or stayed put in their homes, sensing it was none of their business?

Here, within this photo album, could be the very individuals whom I know so well by name and by deed, but not at all by face or by voice. For Alaskan historians, the mysteries we research are rarely solved.

Historian Anjuli Grantham is curator of the Baranov Museum and a member of the Kodiak Historical Society.