A recent news story based on a Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime Report stated that Alaska is the most dangerous place in the nation.
No one can dispute that crime is on the rise here. Doing something about it was the theme of the past election.
Violence Outside in recent weeks took over the news. Mailed bombs to prominent political people, and a hate-related massacre in a synagogue were terrible events that caught worldwide attention. A huge “invasion” of people headed for the U.S. southern border had people in an uproar.
What to do about it is tearing the populace apart. On the one hand, we want to severely punish offenders. On the other hand, our compassionate side argues that the offender may have mental problems and needs to be treated, not made to suffer.
The debate is not new. It has gone on for centuries, although the influence of the compassionate side has been gaining in attention during recent years.
More than public safety is involved. Criminal activity brings with it a severe financial burden, along with the emotional impact on society. Just look at the cost of providing police officers; the judicial system involving prosecutors, public defenders and judges along with juries and expert witnesses; jails to house those awaiting trial and those who have been sentenced; probation officers to check on those released; correction officers, halfway houses, and the parole board. That cost is staggering. And it does not include the cost of business and personal alarm systems, increased insurance premiums and the cost of treating injuries and repairing damage to property.
Alaska’s history is replete with examples of how crimes were handled.
There were fewer people when this bulge at the left-hand corner of the top of North America was purchased by the United States. The Army was in charge and had its hands full. Natives who lived here for centuries had learned to live with the Russians and weren’t happy to be told what to do by American Soldiers. After all, it was the Natives’ home and no one asked their permission to move in. Suddenly, they had to deal with men dressed in blue rather than brown—and who came from places where the original inhabitants were resisting and fighting back. In the end, numbers and bigger weapons won out.
When news of gold discoveries brought hordes of men to the northland after 1897, camps sprang up in the settlements. Criminal activity was handled by miners’ meetings. An accusation was made, the sides were heard and a majority decided. Judgment was swift and there was no appeal. An offender might be fined, flogged, banished or hanged.
When courts were established later, there were U.S. Marshals to keep the peace and federal judges to make decisions. When cities, and then the Territory were formed, they were able to handle some local matters, but federal courts remained responsible for major cases.
The first man legally hanged in Alaska was Fred Hardy, a sailor, who with another man, jumped ship in the Aleutians. They attacked three prospectors, killing two of them and robbing their belongings. Hardy’s companion died, but Hardy was caught and brought before Judge James Wickersham. With the survivor of the robbery testifying, and the watch of one of the victims found on Hardy’s person, he was found guilty. He was hanged on Nov. 19, 1902, in a shed attached to the Nome icehouse, across from the jail. Hardy professed his innocence until the end, but Wickersham’s papers say there was no doubt as to his guilt.
In an ironic twist, Hardy left his estate to a Red Cross worker who visited him in his cell while he was awaiting execution. The will, dated a day or two before he died, gave 375 acres of land in Michigan and another 1,500 acres in Tennessee, plus an unknown amount of money in a Logan, Ohio, bank to Mary E. Hart of Nome.
Alaska’s most notorious criminal in that era was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith, a confidence man who arrived in Dyea in 1897, only to be run out of that camp by order of a miners’ meeting.
He returned to Skagway the next spring with five lieutenants and opened a saloon as headquarters. His gang fleeced newcomers with such schemes as a fake telegraph office where new arrivals could wire word of their safe arrival to relatives back home for only $5. There were no wires leading from the office to carry those messages. More profitable were robberies of men on the trail or at the saloon.
A law-and-order committee was organized to deal with the crime wave. Their first meeting was disbanded when Smith showed up wielding a shotgun. He tried to access a second large meeting but was stopped on the wharf by Frank Reid. Both men fired simultaneously, Smith was killed instantly, and Reid was mortally wounded dying several days later. Smith’s funeral was attended by his girlfriend, the only mourner, and guards to ward off any threats from gang members.
Of major import in the early days, was the Nome claim-jumping scandal of 1901.
A North Dakota political operative fostered a plan to get rich at the expense of the discoverers who started the gold stampede to that area. Alexander McKenzie finagled the appointment of Arthur Noyes as judge in Nome and convinced C. L. Vawter to take the job of U.S. Marshal. McKenzie was named as gold commissioner. Men arriving too late to find claims were willing to take any chance to get in on the riches. Angered by claims that “foreigners” were working the richest claims, they agreed to cross-file claims on those creeks, not knowing that the original claims were filed by Jafet Lindberg, John Brynteson, and Eric Lindblom, who had become naturalized citizens.
When a claim was filed on contested land, the dispute went before Noyes. While the trial was pending, he appointed McKenzie to take over the mines and allowed gold to continue to be extracted. Vawter as marshal enforced the order. The gold was placed in a bank vault under McKenzie’s supervision.
That scheme fell apart when the “Three Lucky Swedes” hired an attorney who slipped past Vawter’s deputies and sailed to San Francisco where he filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals. That court acted to find both McKenzie and Noyes guilty. McKenzie was jailed and Noyes removed from the bench. McKenzie’s influence helped him get a parole for health reasons. He returned to North Dakota and ended up having a couple of cities named for him. Wickersham was assigned to take over temporarily for Noyes and settled the pending cases judiciously, giving the discoverers back their claims.
The question as to what can be done to reduce crime is a tough one.
If this writer had the answer, he would shout it from the rooftops. Instead, he can join readers in shaking of heads and wringing of hands. But an answer has to be found before we go broke or the gangsters take over.
Some legislators want to take away guns, but Chicago has the toughest gun laws in the country, and also has the highest murder rate. Some want to add more police, but don’t want to pay more in taxes. Some say a bullet is the cheapest deterrent, but that goes against our Constitution, both physically and literally.
Rodney King, a black man whose violent arrest by Los Angeles police caused riots in 1992, may have said it best. In an interview later, he pled, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all just get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? … It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not going to change anything. We’ll get, we’ll get our justice… Please, can we get along here? We call can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out.”