Bags of opium wash up on Vashon Island in the spring of 1895.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 3/19/2002
  • Essay 3732

In the spring of 1895, J. E. Mace, a resident of Vashon Island, finds a bag of opium on the beach and reports it to the authorities. Weeks later he finds another one, but this time he falls under suspicion. Government officials surreptitiously investigate the man and his family, but eventually determine that Mace is just some average guy who happened to stumble across a couple of bags of dope.

What’s This?

J. E. Mace often spent his Sundays combing the beaches of Vashon Island for lumber and other items of use. One Sunday, early in the spring of 1895, he came across a heavy canvas sack that he thought he could use as a potato sack. Looking inside he found 80 small tin cans wrapped in oiled paper.

Mace took his pocket knife and popped the lids on one of the cans, and found it filled with a yellowish-brown paste. He hid the bag under a log, and took the opened can to a neighbor, John Hopkins, hoping the man might know what kind of putty it was.

Hopkins, who had done much traveling in the world, knew right away what the can contained: opium. Mace vaguely knew that there was a law against such things, but knew little of the details. So, he retrieved the sack and showed it to Asa Start, another friend and neighbor. The two men buried the sack on Start’s property, and made a map so they could find it again. The next morning, Mace gave the map to his wife and went to Seattle to determine from the authorities what he should do.

Mysterious Strangers

Meanwhile, two strangers were seen on the island, supposedly looking to buy property. But, when talking to farmers, they would turn the conversation to smugglers and dope-runners. They showed up at the Hopkins resident while Mace was off the island. Hopkins told the men of Mace’s find.

The men went to Mace’s home, and talked with his wife. Telling her that they were police officers investigating a dope smuggling ring, they asked her about Mace’s discovery. She knew nothing of it, but did show them the map.

Mace came home and heard his wife's story, believing that the two visitors were indeed policemen. He returned to Seattle, hoping to receive a claim from the Customs Office. He was told that no officers had visited the island, but that he and Start might come under suspicion, so it was best that he not discuss the matter with anyone.

One More Time

Mace returned home in a less than happy mood, and immediately fell back into his daily routine. Three weeks later on another beach combing expedition, he found another sack, identical to the first. It too was filled with dope. He immediately hid this one, just as he had done before, but told no one.

Not to be fooled again, the next morning Mace personally took the sack to the Customs Office in Seattle and turned it in for a reward. Needless to say, the officials were highly skeptical of Mace’s claims, and refused to pay him. Mace took them to court, where a judge ruled in his favor to the tune of $175, good money for a simple farmer in those days.

Months later, two hunters and their bird dogs stopped by Mace’s home, and talked to his son Ed. One of the hunters mentioned that the cap he was wearing was “a damned nuisance” in the brush, and wondered if he could borrow Ed’s instead. The younger Mace handed it over. It wasn’t until later, that he found out the two men were government agents, hoping that the scent from Ed’s cap would lead their dogs to a big smuggler’s cache. It didn’t.

The Mace family was never bothered again.


Roland Carey, Van Olinda’s History of Vashon-Maury Island (Seattle: Alderbrook Publishing Co., 1985), pp. 42-44.

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