Museum hosts lecture on Juneau murders before 1960

    Juneau-Douglas City Museum

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Death as a headline was the title of the presentation by two veteran crime reporters.

    Edward Schoenfeld has covered criminal trials for 30 years.  Betsy Longenbaugh is also a former newspaper reporter who covered crime in Juneau and Sitka.  They received a grant to help them research the murders.

    He explained that crime and murders reflect value in the community and also give a sense of the history of a community, "You won't see them in pretty photo books.  You can learn a lot about a community."

    They searched hundreds of papers of newspapers, examined territorial court records, and reviewed death certificates during the research.

    Two of the editors of the Juneau Empire later became territorial governors.  Longenbaugh said there were no bylines on articles so they didn't know who wrote the newspaper articles.  They were very political in nature.

    "They were really the voice of that particular newspaper.  There were four local newspapers two in Douglas and two in Juneau."  She explained it was not uncommon to see a democratic and a republican newspaper in the same market during these years.

    There were also very few photos in the newspapers with no photos of either murder victims or murder defendants.  It was not unusual to have a newspaper article begin with the words, rumor has it.

    There were nine murders between 1900-1909.  At the time Juneau had 1,900 residents.  Skagway had 3,000 residents due to the Klondike gold rush.  Nome was Alaska's largest city with 20,000 residents, again due to gold.

    Bert Horton and his wife were murdered during a camping trip at Berner's Bay in October, 1899.  A confrontation with Chilkat Indians led to the couple being shot.  The Indians were looking for white people that had killed some of their tribe.  Six Indians were charged with the murders.  All were convicted, one was executed, and most got lengthy prison sentences.

    In 1902 N.C. Jones protested the Treadwell mine having workers mine on Sunday.  He was shot to death during a struggle with the mine Superintendent.  The original grand jury found it was self-defense. There were no charges filed for 10 years.  The Superintendent was indicted for murder and extradited from Mexico.  He voluntarily returned to Juneau, received a heroes welcome, went on trial, and was acquitted.  

    In 1909, Charles Damer a local bartender was shot and killed by a suspect known as slim and the peanut king, Robert Stroud,   He was convicted of manslaughter at the age of 19.  He received 11 years in prison.   During his time in prison, he killed a guard and was sentenced to death.  An effort was made in Juneau to have the sentence commuted to life in prison.  The effort was led by his mother.  The order was later approved by the President.  He later became known as the Birdman of Alcatraz.  Actor Burt Lancaster portrayed Stroud in the movie and reportedly told the prison warden after a conversation with Stroud, that he was the creepiest person he had ever met.  He died in prison in 1963.

    1910-1919 was the deadliest decade with 25 murders.  Mary Dewar was allegedly poisoned by her daughter but was acquitted at trial.  In 1912 Jeannie Bachia was shot to death and a man with her was shot and injured by her husband, who committed suicide.     Longenbaugh said there were numerous cases of domestic violence and a lot of people shot, but who also survived the injury.

    Self-defense was also a very common defense in those days.

    Emile Senecal and Lucy Shellhouse were murdered outside a Douglas restaurant in 1914.  The culprit was Shellhouse' husband, Ed Hunsacher, who killed himself when approached by police.

    In 1914 T. Kajita was beaten to death at the Sitka Cannery.  Two Japanese men were charged, one was acquitted, and one sentenced to a 20-year sentence for manslaughter.  Again self-defense was claimed.

    In 1916 Jennie Klein, was murdered in Douglas.  The Douglas Opera House at the time was known as a bordello.  Neighbors found the victim had been hit in the head by a miner's hammer and the residence ransacked.  Prostitutes at the time were considered wealthy and theft was thought to be the motive in the incident.  Her husband was later charged with white slavery and received one year and one day in jail.

    In 1916 John Day was shot to death in Thane.  His wife Olga Anderson had left Day.  They met on the street and had a two-hour conversation.  Anderson pulled out a gun during a confrontation with Day, and shot him to death.  She was cleared of the shooting.  She claimed she was being strangled when she fired the shot.

    The first serial murder case in Alaska occurred in 1916.  Edward Krause was convicted of killing J.O. Plunkett.  He was known as a hunting and fishing guide, taking them out on trips and then returning alone.   He also impersonated a U.S. Marshall and made an arrest at the A.J Mine.  William Christie was taken from the mine and never seen alive again.  James Plunkett went on a boat with Krause and never returned again.    Krause tried to flee by taking a ship to Seattle but was recognized and was arrested.  He had the identifications of eight different missing men when police searched him.

    He was hung for the murder of Plunkett.  He escaped jail, got away in a small boat, and made his way to a small island near Petersburg.  A homesteader who owed Krauss $1,000 shot and killed Krause when he arrived on his property.

    There were 11 murders between 1920-1929.  In 1920 Billie Woodworth, a celebrity and entertainer was killed in a boat fire onboard the Sea breeze, near Prince of Wales Island.  The ship sunk to the ground and there was no physical evidence or body.  One of his employees was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  A second employee on the boat was never located.  A cook on a passing ship noticed the fire and they located the suspect on a row boat near the scene.

    In 1923, two women, Hilda Weiss and Billy Mason were murdered in Ketchikan at a cigar store.  Both were shot and Weiss was beaten badly and strangled.  Six people were arrested including the captain of a ship.  Five of them were released.  A boxer, and school instructor, Paul Johnson was arrested.  They found a pair of shoes with blood on them in his hotel room and $100 in cash.  Other rolls of coins used by the ship crew at the store were also found.  The suspect had beaten a murder charge in Canada where he had been accused of killing his father-in-law.  Johnson was convicted of the two murders and was sentenced to two life terms in prison.

    In 1923 William Prentice, King of the Rum Runners in Alaska was shot to death at Harry's Grill.  He had a confrontation with a barber who fired five shots at Prentice.  William Lott claimed it was self-defense.  His attorney challenged the jury which included Alaska Natives and women.  Lott was found not guilty.

    There were four murders in the 1930s.   Luke Brown was murdered during a stabbing in 1930.  The Alaska Native and boxer was only 18.   He had an argument on April 26 with Dave Thomas.  The crime occurred outside the City Cafe.   Thomas received a six-year prison sentence.  He claimed he felt threatened by Brown.

    Eva Lawrence, was a prostitute killed in 1933.   Alcohol poisoning was the suspected cause of death originally.  She had invited two men to stay in her room.  Authorities later determined she had been strangled.  Paul Johnson and Albert Doc Matthews claimed the victim was combative and they had only tried to settle her down.  Matthews was found not guilty and Johnson was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

    Leroy Vestal was the youngest soldier from Juneau during World War I.  He was murdered in 1933.  It's believed he was 16 or 17 when he joined the military.  A female bakery worker employed at George Brothers was involved in a relationship with Vestal.   She shot Vestal and then turned the gun on herself after she invited him to her room. 

    11 murders were reported between 1940-1949.  Clarence Campbell was robbed and stabbed to death in 1945.  It was a lengthy investigation and there was no quick arrest which worried Juneau.  His body was found in a ditch.  He was a reliable construction worker who hadn't shown up for work.  He did most of his work in Hoonah.  He was known to carry cash and show people his billfold.  It was believed he possessed $1,600 in cash at the time of the murder.  Two black men who paid $50 cash for a steam ship trip home were arrested but quickly released.  A second man was robbed and stabbed but survived.  He identified George Harrison Meeks as his attacker.  Authorities said Meeks possessed $1,600 in $100 bills.  He was convicted and sentenced to life.  He won an appeal, was convicted again at the second trial, and sentenced to life.

    Marjorie Ellis Prince was strangled to death in her home in 1946.   Her husband Guy Prince confessed that he strangled her with her nylons and turned himself in.  He told police that his wife disgusted him.  He originally claimed he had come to visit his wife, and chased after a suspect he found inside the home that had escaped out the back door.  He admitted guilt to manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.  Prince had a history of mental illness.

    Storekeeper Jim Ellen was found dead on the floor of his store with his neck slashed in 1946.  He wrote a check to Austin Nelson who told police that he had left the check as collateral for a loan.  Nelson claimed to have been with a friend at the time of the murder.   The friend admitted to lying at the trial and charged with perjury.  Both black men became the last men hung in Juneau by the Territorial Government.  Two years before statehood Alaska outlawed the death penalty.  

    There were six murders in the 1950s.  Elizabeth Cornell was killed by Lester Mangle in 1955.  Mangle pulled out a sawed-off shotgun at the health department and shot Cornell.  He was found incompetent and treated for mental illness in St. Joseph, Missouri.  He was acquitted by means of insanity at his trial.  He was diagnosed as being paranoid but did know the difference between right and wrong, his doctors claimed.  He was later sent to Morningside Hospital.

    Maybelle Benson was shot to death in her home in 1956.   She was the mother of eight children.  Her boyfriend, Harry Gilbrecht, found her at a bar, brought her home and killed her.  He entered a plea of guilty to second-degree murder and received a life sentence.

    April is National Poetry Month.  April 17, from 5 to 7 pm, poets will share new winter crops.

    On May 3, the first Friday opening reception is for the summer exhibit on what it's like to live in Juneau during the winter.   It is called 'The Rhythm of winter, what we do in the cold and dark.'

    The museum is always in need of volunteers.

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