The Local History

by Logan Camporeale

Category: Stories (page 2 of 2)

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.

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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Claud Akridge: Merchant Prince of Eureka Flat

Welcome to the first post on my new blog The Local History. The following story is an adapted version of an article that will be featured in the next issue of Nostalgia Magazine. I encourage you to explore the links to see the fantastic variety of digital content that is out there for the taking. 


Claud Akridge: Merchant Prince of Eureka Flat

Eureka Flat fields

Twelve to fifteen thousand years ago flood waters rushed through the valleys and riverbeds of northern Idaho and eastern Washington. The fierce current ripped across the land at speeds exceeding fifty miles an hour peeling soil, boulders, and trees from their resting place. As the waters slowed they deposited rich nutrients along the way. The catastrophic failure of a 2,000 foot ice dam on the Clark Fork River in northwestern Montana caused the floods. The ice dam had blocked the escape of millions of gallons of water that made up Glacial Lake Missoula. The dam thawed and froze dozens of times causing repeated flooding events of devastating proportions.

The water flowed downstream until it reached modern day Pasco. At this location the water began to back up in a narrow valley known as Wallula Gap. The water backed up so far that it formed yet another giant lake, Lake Lewis. This ice age body of water would have covered much of central Washington, stretching from Yakima to Walla Walla. It varied in depth depending on flow, but at times was around 800 feet deep.

Although the floods occurred thousands of years ago, they had a lasting impact on the geography we interact with every day. They formed the channeled scablands and famous Washington Palouse. We can thank the floods for that wonderful Washington wine and those delicious sweet onions. The floods are the source of the rich and fertile soil that has sent farmers and other settlers flocking to the region for the last 150 years.

One of those settlers, Claud May Akridge, heard of the wonderful wheat fields of eastern Washington from far across the country in Missouri. Claud was born in 1884 to a farmer named John Akridge and his wife Eliza. Claud grew up working the family farm with his father but he had high hopes for greater opportunities in the future.

Claud Akridge

Claud Akridge

In the early 1900s Claud had a string of hardships that may have caused him to seek out a new beginning. In June of 1907 two travelers stumbled upon a stranded buggy on the side of the road just outside of Fredonia, Kentucky. Inside they found Claud’s grandfather, Frank Akridge, dead to an apparent gunshot wound. The coroner determined that the fatal wound was caused by the accidental discharge of his .38 caliber pistol when it fell from his scabbard. Just two years later another accidental tragedy struck when Claud’s brother, Albert T. Akridge, plummeted 40 feet to his death while working in a coal mine. According to the local paper, another of Claud’s brothers “went down after him and came near losing his life also.”

Life was tough for working folks in Missouri but Claud was eager to move up the ladder. After he left his father’s house he married a woman named Emma and left farm labor behind. By 1910 Claud was working as a janitor at a local school house in Salt River, Missouri. This was a step in the right direction for Claud and his growing family but he had big dreams, dreams of the west. So in 1917 Claud set off from northeastern Missouri with his wife and son and settled in Eureka, Washington, a small town east of Pasco.

Eureka Flat is a stretch of land northwest of Wallula Gap that is noticeably different than the rest of the Palouse that surrounds it. Eureka Flat is, as its name suggests, remarkably flat. A reporter for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in the 1930’s described Eureka as a place where “magnificent distances penetrate wheat fields, and only wheat fields.” These photos from United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information give you a good idea of how flat it is there.

There are no hills in Eureka because they are completely covered with a thick layer of lightweight sediment that was deposited during the floods. But geologists are not confident that Eureka Flat was ever actually underwater due its elevation. Instead, they postulate that Eureka is so flat due to southeasterly winds that ripped through the Wallula Gap for thousands of years. The same winds that spin the wind turbines that dot the hills throughout the region. Those winds picked up soft dirt and suspended it in the air until the force diminished and the particles were deposited to the northwest forming Eureka Flat. (Here is a more detailed explanation for geology folks)

Those rich soil deposits attracted Claud and his family to Eureka. When he arrived in 1917 “the hamlet was paved with gold from $2 wheat” exclaimed a reporter from the U-B. Claud saw an opportunity to provide entertainment and products to his new wealthy neighbors. His entrepreneurial adventures began in 1918 when Claud became the proprietor of a pool hall. Just two years later he owned a cigar store as well. His empire was expanding quickly.NRA blue eagle.tif

Everything was going well until the onset of the Great Depression. In 1932, wheat prices plummeted to their lowest values since the early 1850s.  The once lucrative wheat trade that attracted Claud to the region was now suffering. This interesting 1933 advertisement run by the National Recovery Administration in the Spokesman Review suggests that the situation was not as grim in the “Inland Empire” as elsewhere in the country. The NRA was a New Deal agency created in 1933 to “revive industry and labor through rational planning.” Their primary tactic was to set floor prices by working with industries to sign regulatory codes. This advertisement was targeting those industries that had not yet signed on in Spokane. The program had some early successes but ultimately it failed and the depression dragged on.

The financial hardship forced Claud to consolidate his small empire but he continued to be the central figure in Eureka Flat. In 1938 he applied for a beer license so he could provide local farmers with the bubbly beverage they had been missing since the onset of Prohibition. His request was denied but Claud was still the “merchant prince of the hamlet.” He answered “to the title of mayor, postmaster, information bureau master, general clearinghouse for community news and a good fellow” explained a Union-Bulletin article from December, 1939. This photograph shows the “Eureka Store” on the right which likely belonged to Claud.

Claud was an astute observer of his community. In 1935 he was an integral lead in the hunt to recapture three hardened convicts that had tunneled forty to fifty feet with spoons and knives to escape from the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. One of the prisoners that Claud helped catch was a Spokane criminal notorious for his ability to escape prison walls. He will be the focus of a future blog post.

Leads to Capture

Like many Americans, Claud saw a path toward greater opportunity in the Pacific Northwest. He settled on land that had been destined to be prosperous for farmers since the floods and winds prepared the soil for agricultural use some ten thousand years ago. Unforeseen forces of market collapse severely stunted the growth of his empire but regardless of the circumstances, Claud remained determined to move up the social ladder until he died in 1945.

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