Posts filed under 'Alaska'

1815: St. Peter the Aleut, the martyr of San Francisco

Add comment September 24th, 2017 Headsman

September 24 is the feast date in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Peter the Aleut.

As one might infer from his sobriquet, Peter the Aleut* — Chukagnak, to call him by the name of his birth — was a North American indigene whose canonization story features cultural collision all the way down.

Originally from Kodiak Island, Peter’s soul was won for Christ via the Russian Empire’s eastward expansion across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

Come the early 19th century the Russian-American Company that was Moscow’s chartered vehicle in the colonization game had pressed south seeking more favorable climes** with a fort in northern California supplying a network of outposts that stretched far south as Bodega Bay,† near the present-day San Francisco area.

Russia’s southerly excursions would collide with Spanish exploration pressing north: in their intersection lies the context for Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom.

The story in a nutshell is that a party of Alaskan natives in California under Russian colors was caught out hunting seals or otters by Spanish soldiers who took them captive. Peter and another Alaskan native convert called Ivan Kiglay were eventually left imprisoned together in a Spanish mission and ordered to convert to Catholicism on pain of death. When they refused, Peter was indeed slain — horribly tortured to death by having his extremities cut away while living, before finally being disemboweled.

Ivan Kiglay is the eyewitness source of this information, spared from sharing Peter’s chalice for unclear reasons. The blog OrthodoxHistory.org has done yeoman coverage of this controversial event or “event” and its overview post “Is the St. Peter the Aleut Story True?” is well worth exploring.‡ In 2011, the same site posted a rare English translation of the original Russian-language Ivan Kiglay deposition, excerpted (lightly tidied) below:

Missioners and the leader of the named above mission (whose name he does not remember) made a request to all the Kodiak dwellers to convert to the Catholic religion, to which they replied that they have already converted to a Christian religion on Kodiak, and they do not want to convert to any other religion. In a short time, Tarasov and other Kodiak dwellers [i.e., all the other Alaskans] were transferred to Saint Barbara. Though he (Kiglay Ivan) and wounded Chukagnak, were left in the mentioned mission, were kept with Indian criminals in the prison for several days, without food and water.

[One night] the chief of the mission brought the order to convert but they did not comply, despite the critical situation that they faced. On the sunrise of the next day a religious clerk came to the prison, accompanied by betrayed Indians, and called them out of the prison; Indians surrounded them, and by order started to cut (chop) Chukagnak’s fingers by articulations, from both hands and [after that] arms, and in the end cut his stomach (abdomen), by that time, he was already dead. That should have happened also to Kiglay, but at that time to the priest was brought a paper (he does not know from where and from whom). After reading that, [the priest] ordered to bury the body of the dead Chukagnak from Kasguiatskovo in the same place, and he [Kiglay] was sent back to prison.

Ivan Kiglay himself only delivered this information in 1819, four years after the alleged events, because he had ultimately to escape from a period of Spanish enslavement. In 1820 the Russian-American Company official Symeon Ivanovich Yanovsky forwarded the same report to a monastery in the motherland along with his endorsement of Ivan’s credibility (“He is not the type who could think up things”).

Unless you’re cocking an eyebrow at the convenient and mysterious last-second reprieve, there’s no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of the original deposition or of Yanovsky as interlocutor. However, there’s also no apparent corroboration of the incident known from Catholic records and the forced conversion backed by such an outlandish murder seems at odds with Spanish behavior on this particular frontier. A much later sentimental embroidery by Yanovsky from 1865 blurs the Peter story into outright hagiography. The documentary trail is so thin and questionable that everything about Peter the Aleut down to his actual existence has been hotly debated since.

Russia’s probes of California came to naught, of course — and Spain’s too for that matter, considering the Mexican War of Independence already in progress in this decade. All this land, and Alaska too, were marked for a different empire rising on the far side of the continent … and Russia’s Alaskan evangels would not in the end extend the Third Rome into the New World, but instead form the germ of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, St. Peter the Aleut is honored by Orthodox communities throughout the United States as the “martyr of San Francisco” (although this proximity for the martyrdom is also uncertain).


Shrine to Peter the Aleut in Kodiak, Alaska. (cc) image by Jesuit anthropologist Raymond Bucko, SJ.

* The descriptor “Aleut” was applied indiscriminately here, but by now it has the blessing of tradition. A more discriminating ethnography would reckon Peter and his Kodiak origins not an Aleut (from the Aleutian Islands) but an Alutiiq.

** Apart from the events narrated in this post, the Russian-American Company also dropped a fortress on Hawaii and even attempted an ill-considered takeover.

† Arriving there long before Alfred Hitchcock.

Our grim site does not pretend an opinion on whether and how religions ought to enshrine their saints … but for those curious about how St. Peter’s questionable historicity plays vis-a-vis his canonization, OrthodoxHistory.org has you covered.

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1939: Nelson Charles

Add comment November 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Nelson Charles hanged for stabbing his mother-in-law to death in a drunken altercation.

Charles, an indigenous man and World War I veteran, was described by a retired U.S. Marshal who knew him as ” quiet, peaceful and polite person and I have never known him to even have an argument or get into trouble of any kind” — that is, when not drinking. Alas, both he and the victim, 58-year-old Cecilia Johnson, had an affinity for the stuff.

Though Charles committed this murder in “Indian Town” of segregated Ketchikan, Alaska, he hanged in the territorial capital of Juneau.

This was Juneau’s very first execution (previous Alaskan executions had occurred in Nome, Sitka, and Fairbanks), and the improvised gallows arrangement tucked into a stairwell pit under the outside staircase of the town prison is something to read about. One can do that in this here article of the Alaska Justice Forum.

The University of Alaska Anchorage also has a very moving essay written by the then-21-year-old cub reporter who was one of the dozen official witnesses:

Men have been stricken with fatal diseases and we have known they would die. We have held our buddies in our arms at the front and watched the last breaths spend themselves. But even then there had been hope, and when not hope, the awareness that death might stay away awhile. But none of that now; nothing less than a miracle could save this fellow and there are no miracles in this life. Soon he would be a stone.

From under his vest the marshal brought out the black hood. With the deputy standing on the other side, assisting him, he began to draw the thing onto the man’s head. I had not felt too bad until the priest had appeared in his long, black robes; I had seen those robes and tears had come. Nothing like tears came now, but still I hated the black, hated the hood. Take it easy now, you fool, I thought to myself. Look away for a few seconds. So I dropped my eyes and looked into the pit; then up again. They were having trouble with the hood. It was too small. Halfway on, its edge caught onto the man’s right ear.

“Fix my ear,” he said quietly. His last words. Like a small boy who is about to be punished and, with a half-sob, begs his parent to be careful not to break the toy in his pocket.

Read the rest of it here.

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1898: Doc Tanner, Copper River gold rusher

Add comment January 3rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1898, an ornery gold prospector became the victim of an Alaskan miner’s court … and a great gold rush scam.

This is a tragic sidelight of the great Klondike gold rush, a mania set off in summer of 1898.

As legions of America’s many unemployed set out in hopes of striking it rich in the frigid north, interest in the vast and underexplored interior of next-door Alaska naturally followed. After all, there had been gold finds in Alaska before.

The putative reasons justifying the spread of the Klondike fever to Copper River were some combination of these:

  • That the Copper River promised a shortcut into the Klondike easier than the route over Canadian soil;
  • That the Copper River itself had gold — and that it could be prospected under less extreme climate, and exempt from 20 percent royalties that Canada imposed on Klondike gold

Passenger steamers, whose operators were later suspected of flogging interest in this route as the “All-American trail,” brought several thousand bonanza-seekers from west coast cities to the tent-city port of Valdez, Alaska. From there, miners could tromp over a treacherous mountain-and-glacier path to the unspeakable riches of the Copper River.

“It was one of the greatest hoaxes in Alaska’s history,” write Jim and Nancy Lethcoe. “The prospectors arrived to find a glacier trail twice as long and steep as reported.”

An estimated two hundred people died, slipping off glaciers or frozen to death on the mountain or, as we’ll see, by acts of violence. By the summer of 1898, there was another rush — 3,000 or so busted prospectors pouring out of Copper River country back for Valdez. The U.S. government had to show up with provisions to avert mass starvation.

“Last winter papers of the country contained stories of the fabulous riches of the Copper river country, Alaska, the accessibility of the gold-laden land, cheapness of transportation, and in other ways lauded to the skies the country in which one had but to scrape the earth to secure a fortune,” ran a bitter report in the Aug. 27, 1898 Jackson (Mich.) Daily Citizen. The occasion was the empty-handed return of one of that city’s native sons, A.A. Jankowsky, from the Alaskan interior. “These stories, published in good faith, no doubt, had the effect of arousing in the minds of the more adventurous a desire to search for gold in the far-away land. Last spring there was a perfect exodus to the Copper river.”

Boston Journal, Jan. 7, 1898

Baltimore Sun, Sept. 6, 1898

Jankowsky, like many others, survived the treacherous journey into the interior only to find the Copper River region entirely destitute of gold. After supporting himself for a bit running a canteen, he joined a veritable stampede of thousands of duped prospectors fleeing back from the interior to Valdez. By his telling to the Citizen, “All along the trail were seen immense stores of provisions, representing in many instances, the savings of many years of prospectors, which were abandoned. Some of these contained cards marked, ‘Boys, help yourselves, I’ve gone home!’ Some of the men in their eagerness to get out had left their tents standing, containing clothing, bedding, stoves, firearms and everything else.”

Our date’s principal, Doc Tanner, at least had the comfort of never experiencing this disappointment ubiquitous to his fellow-adventurers.

The Kentucky native joined a party bound for Copper River that sailed from Seattle on November 20. Each had “grub-staked” $250 up-front with the understanding that they would be discharged from their ship with six months’ provisions … but when they were let out, they received only three months’ worth.

Oddly, Tanner seems to have been the only one incensed by this. When the leaders of the expedition refused to provide him an itemized account, Tanner turned into the cantankerous black sheep of the party as they drug their undersized packs over the dangerous Valdez glacier.

Matters came to such a pass that as dark fell on January 2, several of the other prospectors met in a tent to discuss turning Tanner out of the party full stop. Overhearing them, the enraged Tanner burst into the tent with the cool action hero words, “I’m here for business now,” then started firing. He killed two of the men; a third only owed his life to a lamp’s timely extinguishing during the affray. (1898 newspaper reporting also indicated that the tragedy redoubled for one of the victims, William Call: his wife upon hearing news of the murder fell into madness and was committed to an asylum, and lost the family’s indebted farm.)

Tanner immediately gave himself up to other miners of the camp and at dawn the next day faced an extra-legal drumhead tribunal that judged him guilty of murder and promptly hanged him.

As for Valdez, more orderly development of the trail from that port into the Alaskan interior ensued. Though cold comfort to men shot in their tents, hanged by miners, or fallen into glacial crevasses, that route eventually became part of the present-day Richardson Highway, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

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1921: Mailo Segura, a Montenegrin in Alaska

1 comment April 15th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

At noon on this day in 1921, Mailo Segura was hanged in Fairbanks, Alaska.

In 1918 he had murdered a miner, J.E. “George” Riley, near the gold rush town of Flat, in a dispute over money. His was the second execution in Fairbanks history.

George Riley was in charge of the mining operations along Orter Creek near Flat. Segura was a lumberjack and, together with some other men, had sold $300 worth of cordwood to Riley on credit.

In early 1918, Segura confronted Riley with the bill and demanded to be paid. By then, the bill had been outstanding for two years. Riley, however, refused to pay. He said he wasn’t going to hand over any money until Segura either brought his wood-chopping partners along with him to collect the sum in person, or brought a statement from his partners authorizing Segura to take the full amount.

As witnesses at his trial later testified, Segura was furious with Riley and said he would kill him if Riley didn’t give him the $300. On March 2, he withdrew his life savings of $1,800 from his bank account and later that day went looking for the deadbeat.

Segura found his quarry at the mining claim and waited patiently, assisting with the mining work so he wouldn’t look suspicious.

When all the other miners had gone inside the boiler house, Segura shot Riley in the back without warning. The miners heard the shots — there were three, any one of which would have been fatal — and ran outside to find their employer lying stone dead on the ground and Segura running away.

It didn’t take much effort to catch him. Once he was surrounded, Segura raised his hands in surrender and shouted, “Me no kill no more.”

Seeing as how Mailo Segura had repeatedly threatened Riley’s life and then shot the unarmed man from behind, his claim of self-defense didn’t go very far at his trial. He was convicted of first-degree murder on July 18 and was supposed to be hanged on October 8, but Segura put his $1,800 life savings to use filing appeals, and thereby prolonged his life by three years.

When his time came, he was terrified and unable to walk to his death. The authorities had to strap him to a board to keep him upright while they fastened the noose around his neck.

A matter of minor interest: Mailo Segura hailed from halfway around the world in the tiny Balkan kingdom of Montenegro; he might be the only Montenegrin ever executed in North America. (Montenegrins were then and still are today a sizable minority in Alaska.) In spite of his European descent, in trial documents he was referred to as “black,” and possible racial prejudice on the part of the jury was an issue in his appeals.

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1950: Eugene LaMoore, the last hanged in Alaska

2 comments April 14th, 2013 Melissa S. Green

Thanks to Melissa S. Green for giving Executed Today permission to reprint this summary of Alaska’s last execution. It appeared as a section of Green’s longer history of the death penalty in the state, first published here.

For the first (proper, juridical) execution in Alaska, see here. -ed.


Austin Nelson and Eugene LaMoore, both black, were separately convicted and executed for the same crime, the December 1946 murder of a 52-year-old (white) Juneau storekeeper named Jim Ellen. Ellen’s store had also been robbed. Ellen had immigrated to the U.S. from Greece as a boy in 1909. He was a World War I veteran who held memberships in the American Legion and the Juneau Elks Lodge.

Austin Nelson, a 24-year-old who did odd jobs around Juneau, was arrested for the murder after a check written by him to Jim Ellen was found on the store counter following the robbery/murder. He was represented at trial by Henry Roden and Joseph A. McLean. Nelson was convicted on circumstantial evidence, including that of a witness who reported seeing him in the victim’s store on the night of the murder. No one witnessed the actual murder, nor was a murder weapon found, not even the straight-edged razor witnesses testified that Nelson had once owned. Nelson lacked money to pay for an appeal and there was no provision for a public attorney in post-conviction proceedings, His execution was set for July 1, 1947.

Eugene LaMoore, a 42-year-old fisherman with a Tlingit wife and two children, was originally an alibi witness at Nelson’s trial. He testified that he had spent much of the evening with Nelson on the night of the murder, including along the avenue where the victim’s store was located. LaMoore’s credibility with the jury was apparently eroded when he initially denied a felony robbery conviction of twenty years before. Although LaMoore returned to the stand the following day to correct his testimony, he was arrested by U.S. Marshal William Mahoney on a charge of perjury and held on a bond of $10,000 — a high bond in 1947 — which LaMoore could not pay. He was held in a cell in the federal jail, shackled in leg irons and, later, in a ball and chain. He was repeatedly questioned by the local FBI agent and other local law enforcement authorities about the murder of Jim Ellen. Shortly before Nelson’s scheduled execution, Nelson was brought to visit LaMoore in his cell. According to later testimony by LaMoore, Nelson pled with LaMoore to help save his life.

On July 1, 1947, the date of Nelson’s scheduled execution, LaMoore signed a typed confession stating that he had participated in a robbery of Jim Ellen’s store with Austin Nelson and that Nelson had killed Ellen during the robbery.

LaMoore was charged with first degree murder. Nelson’s execution was delayed because he was now considered a material witness against LaMoore.

LaMoore was represented at trial by Henry Roden and Joseph A. McLean, the same court-appointed attorneys who had represented Nelson. The only significant evidence offered at trial to suggest LaMoore’s involvement in the murder was the typed confession he had signed while in jail. At trial, LaMoore retracted the confession, stating it had been made on the advice of a prominent Juneau attorney, Herbert W. Faulkner, who had been persuaded by Deputy Marshal Walter Hellan to come and talk with him (LaMoore had had no lawyer at the time).

LaMoore testified that Faulkner agreed to advise him, though Faulkner denied having done anything except typing up what LaMoore wanted to say in the confession. LaMoore also stated that the confession had been prompted by a desire — especially after Nelson’s visit to his cell — to delay Nelson’s execution. Despite his retraction and the lack of other significant evidence, LaMoore was convicted by the jury and sentenced to death.

Nelson, who had been kept alive during LaMoore’s trial but was never called to testify, was executed on March 1, 1948, a month after LaMoore’s trial ended. LaMoore was executed on April 14, 1950 after an unsuccessful appeal. He reportedly took 13 minutes to die.

His was the last execution to be held in Alaska.

Sources:

Lerman, Averil. (1994). “Death’s double standard: Territorial Alaska’s experience with capital punishment showed race and money mattered.” We Alaskans [Sunday magazine of the Anchorage Daily News], May 1, 1994.

Lerman, Averill. (1998). “Capital Punishment in Territorial Alaska: The Last Three Executions.” Frame of Reference [Alaska Humanities Forum] 9(1): 6-9, 16-19, April 1998.

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1929: Constantine Beaver, Alaskan native

Add comment September 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1929, Alaskan native Constantine Beaver hanged in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Described as a “woodsman”, Beaver shot his friend Egnatty Necketta during a drunken altercation the previous December.

Neither Beaver himself nor the several witnesses spoke or understood English, so much of the trial was conducted via interpreters. The jury, in finding him guilty, availed an option to remain silent as to the penalty, punting the decision to the judge — who went with hanging. Several jurors then protested, too late, that they hadn’t understood that was a possible outcome of their silent penalty decision.

In pre-statehood Alaska under federal governance, it was U.S. President Herbert Hoover 4,000 miles away in Washington who would have the final say in this affair — riding high, as it happened, at the very moment of the stock market peak right before the economic meltdown that would define his presidency.

Hoover said no.

Hopeful throughout the greater part of the night that a stay of execution would arrive Beaver bore himself with fortitude when informed that he must die. His only wish was that the intervening time might speed by so that his mental agony might be ended.

When Beaver reached the death chamber he broke into a tribal chant which continued until the floor opened beneath him.

It was “the saddest affair I’ve had to witness,” said a U.S. deputy who was present at the execution. And it was the last hanging ever conducted in Fairbanks.

Of possible interest: American Indian Executions in Historical Context” by David V. Baker, a lengthy pdf.

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1902: Fred Hardy, the first hanged in Alaska

5 comments September 19th, 2011 Headsman

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 Spoilers is available free online in both text and audio book forms. The clip above is from a 1914 cinematic adaptation.)

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.

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