According to the Good Book, Cain slew his brother, Abel, committing the first murder in the history of mankind. Unfortunately, it’s been going on ever since.
Statistics show that the number of criminal acts and the extent of violence have been growing. What used to be a misdemeanor warranting some jail time now hardly even rates consideration by busy prosecutors. Police even have to prioritize response based on the immediacy of a threat as evidenced recently by the delayed response to a plea for help at a daycare center.
Experts all across the nation are studying the problem, seeking a solution. Mental problems, social issues, drug use, lack of education, lack of employment opportunities—all sorts of causes of crime are considered.
Whatever the reason for increased crime, people are faced with buying additional insurance and installing security systems in hopes of protecting their property.
This writer does not have an answer. He can only shake his head and sympathize with those who have suffered losses, praying all the while that respect for each other’s life and property might return.
But that’s about modern times. Let’s look at how things were in Alaska’s past.
Between Oct. 18, 1867, when Gen. Jefferson C. Davis was put in charge of the new possession and passage of the Organic Act of 1884, the Army, the Navy and then the Revenue Service were responsible for law enforcement. They were mostly concerned with keeping the populace under control, watching out for smugglers and collecting taxes. The Act provided for a governor, federal courts and U.S. Marshals.
The Gold Rush following the discovery on a tributary of the Klondike River in August of 1896 brought an influx of people. It was to be a full year before the stampede began in earnest, but people hoping to find their fortunes came by the tens of thousands each month. Most of those were disappointed to find the creeks already staked. The luckless were forced to work for wages—when they could find a job. That led to thievery by desperate men. The wealth found by the lucky ones contributed to the formation of Skagway’s notorious Soapy Smith gang bent on robbing the suckers.
Confidence-man Soapy was brought to justice after a year of pillage, shot dead on a pier as he arrived to confront a citizen’s meeting making plans to end his thievery. Ironically, he died just four days after riding as grand marshal in Skagway’s Fourth of July Parade. Frank Reid, the man who shot him, was gravely wounded in the confrontation, succumbing after 12 days in extreme agony.
Skagway was an incorporated city and soon was able to attain some order. The Northwest Mounted Police ruled with an iron grip in the Canadian area. Not so the case for the outlying camps along the Yukon downriver from the goldfields at Dawson and in the American portion.
Miners in the camps quickly adopted their own rules.
Whenever a problem occurred, a mining meeting was called. The assemblage decided how to settle arguments. A dispute over claim ownership or financial matters was adjudicated on the spot. If found guilty, punishment ranged from buying a round of drinks for all present to banishment from the camp or, in the extreme, hanging. Later, lawyers arrived on the scene and argued that those decisions should have no standing; the federal courts, however, ruled that they were valid.
When Congress revised the Organic Act to create three judicial districts for Alaska, Judge James Wickersham was appointed in 1900 as judge for the Third District. Juneau was the seat of the First District and Nome of the Second.
Alfred Noyes, judge of the Second Division, was involved in one of the worst scandals of the period. He was removed from the bench after being convicted of involvement in a huge claim-jumping scandal. Alexander McKenzie, a political figure from North Dakota, had himself appointed as gold commissioner. Schemers cross-filed on rich claims, claiming that the owners were ineligible because they were foreigners or some other real or imagined cause. Judge Noyes ordered the mines put under control of the commissioner until the matter was settled. Enforcement of the court’s order was up to the marshal, an accomplice in the scheme.
After some violence, the legal miners were able to obtain a hearing by the Appeals Court in San Francisco, quickly resulting in McKenzie’s imprisonment and Noyes’ removal from office. McKenzie received a release based on health reasons, sprinted from the prison to the railroad depot and boarded a train to North Dakota. He returned to his former political activities and was even honored by having two cities named for him.
Wickersham was temporarily assigned to Nome to clean up the mess created by the claim-jumping and went through the docket in short order. While there he also handled a homicide case involving a Navy deserter who, with another man, ambushed and killed two of three prospectors on an Aleutian Island. Based on testimony by the survivor, Fred Hardy was convicted and sentenced, becoming the first man to be legally hung in Alaska.
After Alaska became a Territory in 1912, it was given authority to make local laws but did not have police powers outside of incorporated cities. It was not until 1941 that the Territorial Highway Patrol was created to enforce traffic laws. Violators were taken before a U.S. Commissioner for adjudication. Four years later its officers were deputized as Special U.S. Deputy Marshals, and in 1948 the Alaska Territorial Police received authority as peace officers to enforce the laws outside of cities. In 1953 the Legislature extended police service throughout the Territory. Upon Statehood in 1959, the law enforcement agency became the Alaska State Police and in1967, Alaska State Troopers.
Prior to Statehood, cities had jails for people convicted of misdemeanors. In Anchorage, the city jail was in the basement of City Hall on Fourth Avenue. The federal jail holding persons awaiting trial was in a frame building on Third Avenue, behind the Federal Building courthouse. Before Statehood, prisoners convicted in district court were sent to McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington State.
In Territorial Days, Anchorage operated a prison farm on Tudor Road where persons convicted of vagrancy and/or public intoxication were held when sentenced for that crime.
Terms usually were for 30 days. During that time they tended gardens that produced vegetables and cared for chickens and cows that provided eggs and milk to help with their upkeep. The prison farm was closed following challenges that such punishment was “cruel and unusual.”
Also now considered unacceptable was the decision by Gov. Walter J. Hickel that prisoners who rioted and heavily damaged the Third Avenue Jail would “just have to live with it” because they were responsible for the damage. The State was ordered to make repairs.
Another early practice found to be no longer acceptable was the “blue ticket” given to people with no real ties to Alaska and repeatedly arrested for vagrancy. Rather than send them back Outside, local officials were ordered to take care of them.
Over the years there have been all types of crime.
Early on, a person could be arrested just because someone accused them of being insane. A judge had to rule on the question of sanity, based on testimony from witnesses and a doctor. One edition of the Alaska Citizen newspaper published in Fairbanks in 1913 had two front-page stories involving “crazy” people. One woman was convicted after a man complained that she had been pestering him in a manner that today would be called “stalking.” Another woman was returned to Fairbanks from Morningside Hospital in Portland, Ore., after being determined to have been cured.
The frequency of such charges led to a common joke that “there are three sides to Alaska—Inside, Outside and Morningside.”
Among the most memorable crimes is that of serial killer Frank Christian Hansen, convicted of killing four women but believed to have taken the lives of at least 17. A baker who was also a hunter, he owned an airplane said to have been purchased with money fraudulently collected from an insurance policy. Between 1971 and 1983 he kidnapped and sexually assaulted women, many of whom were prostitutes, then flew or drove them to various sites where they were killed and buried. A map was found at his home that had about 30 X marks, some turning out to be where victims’ bodies were found. He was sentenced to prison for more than 400 years without chance of parole. He died in 2014 at age 75 after being taken from prison to an Anchorage hospital.
Criminal justice is a complicated matter, with many viewpoints on causes and possible solutions.
The old ways are no longer acceptable, but modern methods have stemmed neither the flood nor the increasing violence.
Several millennia ago, Moses came down from the mountaintop with tablets bearing 10 simple rules. They seemed to work until the periods at the end of each were replaced with semi-colons and phrases such as “except when” or “provided that” added to preface various restrictions. Sociologists, though, may dispute that layman’s thought.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.