The Local History

by Logan Camporeale

Tag: Social History

Thanksgiving in Spokane: A Tradition of Volunteerism

Volunteers will make 400 happy tomorrow

Tom’s Turkey Drive has been feeding Spokane’s less fortunate for the past seventeen Thanksgiving holidays. The food drive, a collaborative community effort, collected and distributed over 11,000 Thanksgiving meals in 2016. Countless business and individuals donated to the cause and over 7,000 volunteers gave their time. Participating in Tom’s Turkey Drive is a tradition for Spokanites, a tradition building on over 110 years of charity and volunteerism surrounding Turkey Day.  

Feeding the poor on Thanksgiving has been an annual tradition in Spokane since it’s early years. “The newsboys, messenger boys, poor women and children of the city, will eat turkey and cranberry sauce tomorrow,” The Spokane Press proclaimed in late November 1904. The Volunteers of America, a national organization with a Spokane chapter, took on the huge task of feeding the city’s needy. A large group of volunteers prepared endless stacks of meals, set tables and chairs in the banquet room of city hall, and fed nearly a thousand people a festive Thanksgiving dinner—and they did it every year.

Maud Booth, along with her husband, founded the Volunteers of America in 1896. The Spokane chapter, one of the first, opened that same year.

Much as it is today, the effort was a collaborative one. Local markets and stores donated meat, and the organizers encouraged community members to contribute. But not everyone was generous, and The Spokane Press, a worker’s newspaper, was critical of the greedy: “The cost of feeding 1000 poor will not exceed what one rich man of Spokane would expend in entertaining 50 of his friends at his house. Yet the rich man sits in his elegant home, bounteously provided for amid magnificent surroundings, and gives no thought to his less fortunate fellow man.”

Although the paper was critical of the overindulged, it also engaged in poor shaming. The paper referred to the poor as “street urchins,” a “hungry mob,” and the “lowliest walks of life.” The paper and it’s readership hated bosses and big business owners, but it also disdained folks surviving on the backs of donors.

The newspaper, however, is clear about its stance on those that volunteer:

“The Volunteers do it lovingly, cheerfully and without thanks in many cases. The busy world looks on, remarks it is a good thing, but lend no helping hand.
God Bless The Volunteers.
I wish that there were more of them.”


Let me take this opportunity to thank all of the wonderful volunteers with whom I have worked. You make the world a better place.

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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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