On this date in 1902, a hanging in Alaska capped a gold rush story fit for Jack London.
“A leetle favor … I gif my husky-dog, Diable, to de devil. De leetle favor? Firs’ you hang heem, an’ den you hang me.” Illustration from Jack London’s short story “Diable” (or “Batard”).
Actually, this tale is set not in London’s characteristic Klondike gold rush, but a subsequent one centered on remote Nome. There, in the words of the Rex Beach novel The Spoilers, “a frenzied horde of gold-seekers paused in their rush to the new El Dorado. They had come like a locust cloud, thousands strong, settling on the edge of the Smoky Sea, waiting the going of the ice that barred them from their Golden Fleece — from Nome the new, where men found fortune in a night.”
The victims in this case of mercenary arctic brutality were a party of four who set up prospecting camp on Unimak Island, in the Aleutians. Their impression that they were safely alone on this large territory was refuted with the inexorable cruelty of a slasher flick.
After being caught out by the elements in a secondary camp, the party returned to its unsecured main base to discover “that their tent had been torn down in their absence and their stores taken away.”
Here the ominous overture fades in, and by the time it hits crescendo the mysterious robbers will have visited a cold-blooded massacre on our quartet of prospectors.
“Suddenly a man, who had been hid by the tall coarse grass, jumped up several hundred yards away, and took aim with a rifle at Florence. He fired and Florence fell with a scream. ‘Con’ and I ran for the boat, jumped in, and Rooney started to shove her off. The next moment a shot came from somewhere in the cliff above our heads.
“Rooney grabbed hold of his right knee, cried ‘They’ve got me too,’ and sank into the surf. Con and I saw that there was no use trying to get away in the boat, and so took it on the run for the shelter of the cliffs. We hadn’t gone twenty steps when another shot rang out; Con threw up his hands and fell headlong upon the beach, stone dead, with a shot between the shoulders. I kept on running, hearing shot after shot fired at me and striking about me with dull thumps like pieces of heavy hail.”
That’s from the riveting account of the lone survivor, one Jackson, who managed to escape into the island’s interior and after tramping about for two weeks, near to starvation and in continual terror of his stalkers, was finally found at death’s door by a friendly hunter.
Jackson’s information was able to tip off an investigation that led to the capture of two suspects. By the time Fred Hardy and George Aston were nabbed, they had “taken possession of” a fishing village and “kept [the fishers] in a terrified state.” They also happened to have the late prospectors’ booty, including personal items like an inscribed watch.
Aston wisely turned on his confederate, saving his own neck at the cost of stretching Hardy’s.
Hardy, a veteran of America’s colonial adventure in the Philippines and a nephew (so he said) of department store magnate John Wanamaker, denied guilt all the way to the scaffold but got no help from appellate courts or from President Teddy Roosevelt. (Since Alaska was still a territory, executive clemency was up to the White House.) He was put to death “in an addition built to the ice-house on the lot opposite the jail” (according to Washington state’s Morning Olympian, Oct. 3, 1902) at Nome City itself.
It wasn’t actually the first execution in Alaska, or even American-run Alaska, but Hardy’s hanging was a significant milestone. Prior to 1900, the vast territory was next door to lawless, order enforced in the interior by miner’s meetings or not at all, while a smattering of coastal military and customs outposts projected vague federal authority. Data on executions from this period is sketchy and incomplete.
In 1900, with the Alaskan population booming from that locust cloud of gold-hunters, promulgation of a civil code set Alaska on the way to something resembling normal government. Hardy’s execution was the first under legal judicial authority — the first of eight in the first half of the 20th century. Alaska abolished capital punishment shortly before attaining statehood in 1959.
Part of the Themed Set: Americana.