The Local History

by Logan Camporeale

Tag: Spokane (page 1 of 2)

Walter Lawson: Breaking Down Barriers, Upholding the Law

-Walter Lawson served the Spokane Police Department for eighteen years

When the 1900 United States Census was taken, there were 376 black residents in Spokane, making up slightly more than one percent of the city’s total population. One of those residents, Walter Lawson, moved to Spokane in 1894 where he became an officer for the Spokane Police Department.

Members of the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers at Ft. Keogh, Montana, 1890, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Before arriving in Spokane, Lawson completed five years in the United States Army. He enlisted for his term in 1886 and became a member of the 25th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit of black soldiers often referred to as the Buffalo Soldiers. During Lawson’s time in the service, the 25th Infantry was stationed in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Montana. They did not see much active combat but the regiment was involved in the Ghost Dance War, a months-long armed conflict that ended with the Wounded Knee Massacre.

After his service, Lawson settled in Spokane with his wife Millie and began work as a porter at downtown hotels. Hauling luggage was not as exciting as soldier life, but in 1899 his military experience paid off. He was hired as a special policeman with the Spokane Police Department.

Officer Walter Lawson soon after he was hired by the Spokane Police Department, c1900, courtesy of Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

In 1905, a terrible crime occurred in Spokane. An abusive husband shot his wife in the abdomen and knee, and left her to die. The woman bled on the floor for hours before crawling to a neighbors home seeking help. She was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital where she was treated for her wounds, but her attacker was still at large. Officer Lawson located the man the next morning and apprehended him. As Lawson made the arrest, a .38 caliber revolver fell from the suspect’s pocket. Lawson had his man, and the likely assault weapon.

Officer Lawson worked over eighteen years with the Spokane Police Department serving in various positions including as a stock policeman, a driver, and a patrolman. In 1917, while still working for the department, the well-liked officer, husband, and father passed away. Much of the city was devastated. The Police Chief and fellow officers lauded him as “one of the bravest officers who ever wore the blue or swung a nightstick.” Newspapers across the nation exclaimed Lawson’s death noting that the Pacific Coast was now without a single black police officer.

 This article was originally published in Nostalgia Magazine as part of my bi-monthly column “Heroes and Scoundrels.”

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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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#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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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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Mapping Segregation: Racially Restrictive Covenants in Spokane

The inclusion of racially restrictive covenants in property documents was widespread in Spokane. These covenants include a clause that reads something similar to: “No person of any race other than the White or Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with the owner or tenant.” In my last blog post I mentioned three specific additions that still have racially restrictive covenants on the books today. They were Comstock Park Second Addition, High Drive First Addition, and High Drive Second Addition all of which fall within the Comstock Neighborhood. At that stage in my research, it appeared that the covenants were an isolated phenomenon on the South Hill. I could not have been more wrong.

In the past few days I have uncovered thirty-seven more racially restrictive covenants that are still on the books in Spokane County. With the help of friend and archivist, Anna Harbine, we created a map to show just how pervasive this practice was in Spokane. In the process of mapping we discovered that there are racially restrictive covenants on the South Hill, Audobon neighborhood, Shadle Park, Spokane Valley, the “Y”, and northeast Spokane. Take a look at the map below and check if your addition still has these covenants on the books. After you click on an individual covenant area you can navigate to the covenant document itself.

I still have four more covenant areas to map and unfortunately, I think there are still a number of racially restrictive covenants that I have not yet found. I will continue to add these additions to the map as I find them, with the gracious help of another friend, Matt Wright.

Now that we know where most of the covenants are, we can start working on a plan to get them removed or amended. Would you support removing these covenants in your addition?

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