The Local History

by Logan Camporeale

#GreatFire1889

Spokane Daily Chronicle Tent After Great Fire

A few weeks ago a local history buff shared a fun idea. He proposed to live-tweet Spokane’s Great Fire of 1889. It was a brilliant thought, but unfortunately it surfaced just three days before the 128th anniversary of the tragic event. Knowing that time was working against us, I reached out to some potential partners and called for a meeting the next day to brainstorm and to do the work of writing the tweets. Fortunately, quite a few folks were compelled by the idea and a handful of us convened in the archives reading room at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, where I work as the Volunteer Coordinator. Creating the tweets was a blast and it was exciting to see the project come together on such short notice, so exciting that my former professor and fellow historian blogged about it.

Despite our rushed timeline to make the event happen, it was wildly successful. Before any of the tweets were even published, the event was featured on the front page, above-the-fold, in our local newspaper. (It must be expensive to advertise on the front page of the paper, eh?) The event only got more successful, drawing increased engagement and interest over the next 48 hours. (Including an additional newspaper article prompted by a #GreatFire1889 tweet.)

From an observational point of view, the #GreatFire1889 Tweet event was the most engaging social media interaction the museum has ever done. The tweets drew over thirty replies with a variety of different responses.

Some tweeters shared additional historical knowledge that they had on the fire. Some tweeters asked questions hoping to clarify historical details. And my favorite tweeters took on the persona of an individual living in early Spokane, and responded as if they were experiencing the Great Fire live.

These replies show the level and type of engagement that the event encouraged. It is important to recognize that people were experiencing a deeper level of interaction with these tweets. 

They weren’t just tapping like or retweet, or asking what time the galleries open, they were thinking critically about this historic event. Live-tweeting historic events reminds us that, when given the opportunity, the community has input to add to important discussions about the past.

But, most marketing folks and social media managers are interested in the numbers—like how many engagements were made and how many new followers gained? I have done my best to capture that data and I am happy to share it, with the the hope that it will inspire more institutions to live-tweet historic events—not only because it is fun and engaging, but because it drives interest to your institution, current exhibit, or collections. Below is a brief rundown of some of the numbers, and here is a spreadsheet with the data that twitter makes available.

Twitter data for all tweets posted by @NorthwestMuseum in 72 hours from 8/4/2017-8/7/2017:

  • Total impressions:  98,449
  • Total engagements:  4,026
  • Total replies: 38
  • Total likes: 686
  • Total retweets: 275
  • Total museum profile clicks from a Great Fire tweet: 453
  • Total new followers: Approximately 150
    (Twitter does not allow you to query how many new followers over a certain date range, so this was for August 1-8, 2017.)

For comparison, here are the numbers for all 41 tweets the museum tweeted during the entire month of July, 2017:

  • Total impressions: 43,501
  • Total engagements: 1,207
  • Total replies: 12
  • Total likes: 296
  • Total retweets: 95
  • Total museum profile clicks from all tweets: 58
  • Total new followers: 30

The @NorthwestMuseum is planning to live-tweet some other historic events, and I will continue to make observations and collect data that I look forward to sharing with you in the future. Shoutout and a big thank you to Tom McArthur, Anna Harbine, Jaymee Donelson, Katie Enders, Larry Cebula, and John Webster.

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The Path of Totality: Pulling Meeting Minutes Out of the Shadows

On Monday, August 21st, 2017 the moon will pass between the sun and the earth casting a wide shadow over parts of the contiguous United States for the first time in nearly four decades. This unusual event, a total solar eclipse, will only be visible from the path of totality—a seventy-mile wide strip of earth that arcs across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina.

Skywatchers and armchair astronomers in the Pacific Northwest and beyond will flock to central Oregon in hopes that mother nature will offer a clear sky to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event. Nearly all reservable lodging options within the path of totality, including campsites and home rentals, have been booked. Cities and towns have been planning for the influx of people, holding town meetings and brainstorming ideas to generate revenue from the visitors. Stores are planning to stock up on the necessities and farmers are considering turning fallow fields into fertile campgrounds that they hope to rent for hundreds, or possibly thousands of dollars per site.

This is not the first time that the Pacific Northwest has fallen in the path of totality. In 1979, a total solar eclipse swept across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota before proceeding into Canada. The event, billed as the country’s final total eclipse of the century, generated a “solar mania” comparable to today’s excitement. Taverns in the path created specialty drinks like the “Total Eclipse.” And the Seattle Science Center chartered a plane to fly above the Columbia Gorge for a champagne-enhanced view of the eclipse with no chance of pesky clouds getting in the way.

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Keyword searchable newspapers are a useful source to understand how Pacific Northwesterners engaged with the last total solar eclipse, but they can be hard to come by. In fact, there does not seem to be any freely-accessible keyword-searchable Washington State newspapers from 1979. Not even a subscription service at Newspapers.com has anything. (Although it did provide some local details, the clipping above came from the Associated Press in a newspaper out of San Bernardino, California.) Fortunately there is another keyword-searchable collection that can help use to fill in the gaps and provide a more nuanced local perspective when newspapers are not doing the job.

The Minutes and Meeting Records Collection at the Washington State Archives, Digital Archives is made up of official accounts of meetings conducted by over two hundred local government agencies from the 1850s to the present. They are a running record of the most important business conducted by an agency. The records are completely keyword searchable and they provide a different window into the challenges of the eclipse in 1979. Instead of city councils and boards of commissioners laboring over how to accommodate an influx of visitors, as might have been expected, a keyword search for just the word “eclipse,” and then a handy date sort, shows that it was school districts that were talking about the event.

Unlike this year’s eclipse, the one in 1979 occurred in February well before children got out of school for the summer, and in the middle of winter when camping trips and others vacations were not as appealing. Instead of concerns about inundated cities and public lands, the records show that at least five school districts in Washington State had educators and administrators that were worried about the possibility of students damaging their eyes while trying to watch the solar eclipse on their way to school. The concerns were raised in public meetings, and in Vancouver School District an ophthalmologist was consulted to guide an action plan. Most school districts instructed teachers to educate their students about the risks of looking at the sun and agreed upon different start times to ensure that students were not walking to school when the event occurred—a practical local-level response to the eclipse, but not the one that was expected.

This is not an earth-shattering discovery shedding light on the long duree history of human responses to eclipses, but it is an interesting bit that fills in our understanding of how communities reacted to previous eclipse events. It also shows us how a simple change in the circumstances of these two events—the time of year—vastly changed the local response.

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Using keyword searches of the Minutes and Meeting Records are an effective way to unpack local perspectives on national issues, and they certainly are not limited to the eclipse. For example, while trying to understand local impacts of forced relocation, searching the collection for the word “Japanese,” and then sorting it by date, revealed an organized effort to prevent displaced Japanese from resettling in their communities during World War II. The Grant County Commissioners were even in favor of the construction of a “concentration camp” within the county to imprison those who were relocated.

Similarly, a researcher interested in the AIDS epidemic in Washington State would be handedly rewarded from a simple keyword search for the word “homosexual.” The query revealed that in the 1980s agencies like the Snohomish County Health District were actively engaged with the challenges their community faced with the spread of HIV. It was such a pressing issue that an “AIDS Update” was a recurring agenda item at their meetings.

As pajama-bound historians we often rely too heavily on keyword-searchable newspapers to understand local impacts of national events, even when keyword-searchable minutes and meeting records from local government agencies are readily available. As more states and local governments put their minutes online and make them keyword searchable, a deep chest of immensely valuable local history sources will become easily accessible to historians trying to understand local impacts of national events. Let the keyword searches begin.

 

Eclipse image courtesy of Temple University Libraries.

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Myrtle Tipton: “I Never Did Any Homework”

One hundred years ago, growing up on a farm in Eastern Washington was demanding, even for young children. Being the youngest of nine siblings was hard work, and Myrtle Tipton knew that. Since she could remember she had been working the land, doing the tasks often reserved for men — and doing them well. “I never did any homework, and don't know how. From the time I was old enough to do anything I did the work of a boy on the farm, driving the horses and doing the chores.”

Mughsot of Myrtle Tipton

Photo of Myrtle Tipton, Washington State Archives

In rural America young ladies were trained by their mother to care for the home — but not all girls were interested in housework (and not all homes had mothers). “I never cooked a meat in my life, but know lots more about horses, plows and farmwork,” Myrtle said. A life of hard labor on the windy Palouse left her preferring to dress in men’s clothes. “I like to wear men’s clothing, for it is more comfortable than dresses.” She explained her decisions with a smile — like confessing to a girlish prank — as if there was no social stigma reserved for girls who liked to dress as boys.

When she was sixteen years old — or maybe eighteen years old, the details are unclear, as is often the case with this sort of thing — she stole a team of three horses from a Coeur d’Alene Indian that employed her father. She made off with the horses and headed to the small town of St. John, Washington where she sold her plundered goods. She tried to maintain a low profile after the crime but authorities quickly caught up with her, and newspapers ran her name in the headlines.

“I read in the papers all about them looking for me, but I did not try to get away when the constable came after me: they had guns and handcuffs. They pulled the guns on me and tried to make me throw up my hands. I wouldn’t do it, and bluffed them both out.”

Her courageous display had little impact. Myrtle was arrested and placed in the Whitman County Jail while she awaited trial. She speculated her fate while she passed the time. “You can’t send me to the reform school; I’m too old for that. The only place you can send me is the penitentiary. Send me as quick as possible; I am lonesome in this old jail.”

Walla Walla Penitentiary circa 1900

Walla Walla Penitentiary circa 1900, Washington State Archives

She got her wish on November, 1905 when she was convicted of bringing stolen property into Washington State and was sentenced to two years in the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. After stealing from her father’s employer, he was not eager to defend her. But after six months in prison, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the largest women’s organizations in the world, began advocating for Myrtle — using their political sway to demand a pardon from the governor.

The Temperance Union, along with churches in Walla Walla, drafted a petition arguing that Myrtle’s “bringing up consisted in being worked as a farm-hand without a mother’s training or a father’s proper counsel.” The petitioners alleged that she only stole the horses as a “means of getting away from a life of monotonous drudgery.” And that “a young girl has now as her daily companions women of the lowest type, hardened criminals, whose close association will result in her becoming an incorrigible and a woman of the streets.” The petition was circulated among parishioners and page after page of signatures were collected.

Signatures from Pardon

Signatures from Myrtle Tipton's Pardon Case File, Washington State Archives

The Temperance Union arranged for Myrtle to be placed in a school should she be pardoned, and they corresponded with the governor to assure him that they had a plan. The Good Shepherd School of Spokane “is not an Academy but a home where wayward girls are taught habits of virtue and industry to make them useful members of society, they only go to school part of the day, while the rest of the time they are taught plain and fine serving housework etc.” Myrtle sent a signed statement to the governor confirming that she would remain at the school for a full three years.

The governor denied Myrtle’s request for pardon and consequently she spent the next year in prison. While incarcerated she continued to dress in men’s clothes, on one occasion even fooling a guard to thinking that a man had snuck into the women’s ward. Her behavior was not bolstering her case for a pardon.

However, in June of 1907, after serving over three-quarters of her prison term, the governor extended a pardon to Myrtle. Instead of heading to the Home of the Good Shepherd as originally planned, she married a man nearly twice her age only three weeks after she was released from the penitentiary. Perhaps the marriage was a condition of the release, but whatever the case, after the marriage Myrtle's historical trail goes dim.

Cross-dressing, especially female to male, was rather common in the American West. But the reasons why an individual like Myrtle Tipton cross-dressed are often unclear. Maybe they cross-dressed to gain access to something generally reserved for men. Maybe they cross-dressed because men’s clothes were more comfortable for hard labor. Maybe they cross-dressed because at that moment they identified as male. Or maybe they cross-dressed because they liked how it felt to wear men’s clothes.

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For more about cross-dressing in the American West, take a look at Peter Boag’s Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past.

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Jimmy Arnston: Bad Boy Bandit

Mugshot of Jimmy Arnston

Mugshot of Jimmy Arnston. Photo credit: Washington State Archives.

This is the first in a series of stories about a slippery criminal who caught my attention.

On a cold morning in December 1931 a train sped across central Washington carrying passengers from Portland to Spokane. Sheriff George G. Miles of Spokane County was on the train escorting a wanted convict back to Spokane to stand trial. The monotony of the central Washington landscape may have lulled the Sheriff into inattention. The convict, Jimmy Arnston, quickly picked the lock on his handcuffs and dove through a window of the moving train. The conductor abruptly stopped the train. Sheriff Miles and a bounty hunter jumped from the train car and gave pursuit. Firing shots as they ran, chasing the convict over snowy hills. He was apprehended and the journey to Spokane continued. Arnston later recalled that “it didn’t take any nerve to jump off.”

Jimmy Arnston was wanted in Spokane for the brazen robbery of the Blumauer-Frank Wholesale Drug company. In September of 1931, Arnston led a gang of robbers who broke into the drug company building, bound and gagged the night watchman, and stole narcotics. According to the Spokesman-Review, the drugs were “worth $15,000 at bootleg prices.”  

It was not Arnston’s first brush with the law. A few months earlier, Spokane Police warned the public that the most skilled gang of “safe cracksmen” in the Northwest was headed to town for the Fourth of July. Police Chief Wesley H. Turner explained that “with the noise of fireworks, the sound of a safe being blown would attract little attention. The temptation will probably be too much for the gang to overlook.” He continued, “if they don’t pick Spokane for their holiday, some other city of the district probably will get a visit from them.”

Newspaper headline about arrival of Arnston's gang.

Arnston missed the holiday in Spokane - but returned a few months later for the drug company robbery. Spokane was a favorite target of Jimmy and his gang. Detectives had identified them as the main suspects in multiple other Spokane burglaries including those of the J.C. Penny Store, Garden Dance Palace, the Kilmer & Sons Hardware Store, and the Garrett, Stewart, and Sommer Store. Police had arrested Jimmy in the Garden Dance Palace case in February 1931. He was charged with holding up a merchant policeman while his gang made off with $1100. Authorities were shocked when a Spokane jury acquitted Arnston of burglary and robbery on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

When the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad came into town with Arnston in the custody of Sherriff Miles, authorities had their man. Now they just needed a conviction. Arnston’s trial began promptly in early January 1932. The prosecution's star witness, the night watchman of the drug company, testified that he was certain it was Jimmy Arnston who stole the drugs and threatened his life. He identified Jimmy in the courtroom and exclaimed “that is the man who held the gun on me, sitting over there with the black hair. I know him by his size, his voice and his eyes.”

In a dramatic piece of testimony, the watchman told the court that Arnston had threatened to kill him while holding a gun to his head. Once the robbers had pilfered the drugs, “they tied my hands with tape and put a gag in my mouth and then tied a handkerchief over my face. They laid me down on the floor and tied my feet,” explained the watchman.

The testimony was damning but Arnston’s attorney waged the best defense he could. His lawyer was a straight shooter with the jury. He told them “we are not going to try to prove that these men are angels, their records show differently.” He explained that Jimmy had come to Spokane in September for just one reason, to support his wife, Helen Harlowe, who was facing a vagrancy charge in the city. Although he was in town the night of the robbery, the defense argued he could not have been involved in the robbery because on that very evening he was busy getting drunk at Liberty Lake. According to Arnston, him and a few friends had three gallons of alcohol which left them too drunk to move and certainly too drunk to commit robbery.

Despite his compelling alibi, on January 6, 1932 Jimmy Arnston was convicted of robbery and burglary in Spokane County Superior Court. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison and immediately sought an appeal to the Supreme Court. While awaiting his appeal, Jimmy was held at the Spokane County Jail.

Arnston, a popular figure with police throughout the Northwest, was also appealing a conviction for burglary in Snohomish County. Sheriff Miles placed Arnston in the most secure cell block of the jail. The prisoner was not happy with his accommodations. Using a three-inch piece of a hacksaw blade he sawed his way through his cell bars and was cutting through the outer walls when a deputy sheriff discovered him. “Arnston had woven a rope from mattress cloth to help him in his daring try for freedom,” explained the local newspaper.

Photo of the Oregon Boot

Oregon Boot. Photo credit: University of Washington Digital Collections.

The Sheriff was understandably frustrated. He placed Jimmy in the cell adjoining the jailor’s office and locked an Oregon Boot on him, a strange and inhumane prisoner restraint. A modern version of the ball and chain, the boot was a heavy iron collar that locked around a prisoner's ankle. The boot had extreme physical consequences for those who wore it for any extended period of time. The constant weight of the boot caused permanent damage to prisoners hips and knees while the metal collar rubbed their skin raw. Due to the health problems it caused, Oregon discontinued the boot for long term use in 1878. The Oregon Boot had fallen out of favor by the 1930s and was used primarily for transporting prisoners. It seems Jimmy was a special exception.

Newspaper headline about Arnston's move to the penitentiary.

On February 18, 1932 his Snohomish appeal was denied and Arnston was transported to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to serve six years. Sheriff Miles was relieved to see Jimmy go. Now the “bad boy bandit” was someone else’s problem.

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Maud Johnson: Queen of Fakers

Maud Mugshot c. 1910Maud Johnson was the greatest woman swindler of the early 20th century. She was a check forger, injury feigner, and compulsive liar. She scammed thousands of dollars from businesses and infant railroad companies to finance her "girl road shows and motion pictures" in the Pacific Northwest. Midway through her criminal career Maud had earned the title Queen of Fakers from newspaper reporters and claim agents across the West. In 1913, her criminal exploits and ability to slip away from authorities landed her a starring role in an escaped prisoner catalog,  "Wanted: Escaped Prisoners from the Washington State Penitentiary, Walla Walla."

Last November, while interning at the Washington State Digital Archives, I found Maud lurking on page 95 of that escaped prisoner catalog. I have spent the last year digging through newspapers and requesting public records to understand how Maud ended up in the catalog and what happened to her after she appeared in it. In July, I had the privilege of recording a podcast about Maud's story with Sound Effect on KNKX Public Radio in Seattle. Here it is:

KNKX Public Radio, Sound Effect Podcast: Episode 86, Queen of Fakers

 

Special Thanks to Allie Ferguson and the folks at KNKX for doing a wonderful job producing this piece. Also, thanks to Spokane Public Radio for allowing us to record an interview in their rad new building. Maud would be proud. 

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