The Local History

by Logan Camporeale

Tag: Washington State

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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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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Restrictive Covenants: Lasting Remnants of Segregation in Spokane

Does your neighborhood have rules that prevent people of color from buying or renting a home on your block? Most of us would say “no” without hesitation. But are you sure?

In my most recent blog post, I featured a fascinating publication from 1968 called Race and Violence in Washington State: A Commissioned Report. The report featured some interesting maps that showed how the Black population was concentrated in certain areas of Spokane. You can see that there are two parts of town where the vast majority of Spokane’s Black population lived, downtown and the East Central Neighborhood. It may seem as if these were the two neighborhoods that Black people choose to settle in, but to some extent that choice was already made for them.

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Looking at the map, you may notice that within city limits there were only two population “dots” south of what appears to be 10th Avenue. That means that in 1960 only around twenty Blacks lived on the South Hill. Furthermore there were no Blacks living south of about 20th Avenue. This was not because Black people were not interested in living on the South Hill but rather because neighborhoods on the Hill actually prevented Blacks from buying or renting homes in their neighborhoods.

When some South Hill neighborhoods were platted, restrictive covenants were set in place preventing residents from parking trailers or building unattractive outbuildings in their front yard. Mixed in with these harmless building restrictions were bold and clearly stated rules that explicitly prohibited Blacks and other non-whites from purchasing or renting homes within the neighborhood. For example, the restrictive covenants for the Comstock Park Second Addition, High Drive First Addition, and the High Drive Second Addition written in 1953 assert that “no race or nationality other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race or nationality employed by an owner or tenant.”

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Scan of Restrictive Covenant filed with the Spokane County Auditor for the Comstock Park Second Addition. Credit: Eastern Region Branch, Washington State Archives.

Those exact covenants were authorized by Spokane’s very own William Hutchinson Cowles Jr., publisher of the Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle for 25 years and owner of significant property across the city. Cowles was not alone, many real estate developers included these racially motivated restrictive covenants in order to ensure that many cities, including Spokane, would remain segregated. Upper-middle class white folks were attracted to these neighborhoods because they would not have to live near Blacks, Asians, Indians or any other people of color whose presence in a neighborhood would “lower property values.”

These particular covenants were written in 1953, five years after the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional for states to enforce these restrictive covenants, in Shelley v Kraemer. The Court determined that the covenants themselves were not unconstitutional, however for a state to enforce the terms of the covenant would be a violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Even though these restrictive covenants could not be enforced after 1948, Spokane real estate developers like Cowles continued to include them in the restrictive covenants they drafted.

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Portrait of William H. Cowles Jr. in 1962. Cowles was the publisher of the Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle from 1946-1970. He was also a prominent land owner. Photo Credit: Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington State Historical Society, Spokane, Washington, L87-1.1327-62, Charles Libby.

 

A simple Google search for “Spokane restrictive covenants” turns up two interesting results. One is a Google Book result for a recent book by Dwayne A. Mack called Black Spokane: The Civil Rights Struggle in the Inland Northwest. He discusses restrictive covenants in Spokane among other Civil Rights Issues. I am planning to pick it up at the library. The second is a Spokesman-Review article by Jim Kershner from May of 1997. It is an overview of the history of segregation in Spokane. Near the end of the article there is an interview with Carl Maxey, a Black Spokane Civil Rights Attorney, who discusses the impact of the decision in Shelley v. Kraemer. In talking about segregationists, he said that the Court’s decision gave Blacks a “foothold to blast their legal foundations out from under them.”

Even though these covenants cannot be enforced many of them are still on the books in Spokane neighborhoods. With some help from a local archivist and good friend, Allie Honican, I tracked down three Spokane additions that still have restrictive covenants barring non-whites from owning or renting homes in their neighborhoods. They are Comstock Park Second Addition, High Drive First Addition, and High Drive Second Addition all of which fall within the Comstock Neighborhood. I am going to email a link to this blog post to the neighborhood council chairperson for the Comstock Neighborhood Council to make them aware of the issue. Also, if you live in one of these neighborhoods please reach out to the neighborhood council and other residents to make them aware of this glaring remnant of the racist covenants that perpetuated segregation in our communities.

Let's work together to make Spokane more inclusive.

 

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Race and Violence in Washington State: A Commissioned Report

Occasionally I will post briefly about an interesting document, publication, or historical record that is available digitally. Let us start with this fascinating state commission on the status of race and violence in Washington State in the late 1960s.


Race and Violence in Washington State: A Commissioned Report

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On Friday the archivist at my work, Anna Harbine, strolled out of the depths of the stacks with a thin little book in her hand and a proud grin on her face. She plopped the book down on my desk and I was instantly fascinated. The book, Race and Violence in Washington State, was a commissioned report by the state of Washington in 1968. Just quickly paging through the book it was surprising how similar many of the problems, findings, and recommendations cited in the report were to some of the situations we are facing today. The sections on police-community relationships are particularly poignant as the Spokane City Council attempts to steer the future of the Spokane Police Department. 

The publication also includes some interesting maps that show where the Black community was concentrated in Spokane, Tacoma, Seattle, and Washington State in 1960s. Look at this one from Spokane:

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The book is widely available in public libraries and I found it available digitally from an interesting repository called the Digital Mayoral Archives. The repository “seeks to capture the breadth of stories and perspectives that have shaped municipal leadership throughout” the history of the city of Indianapolis. Somehow this Washington gem found its way into their collection. Thank you for that, we appreciate it.

Look for a more in depth blog post on this publication from Anna Harbine in the near future.

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