Former Spokane Police Chief John T. Sullivan is assassinated at his home on January 5, 1911.

  • By Daryl C. McClary and Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/08/2012
  • Essay 9996

On January 5, 1911, Captain John T. Sullivan (1862-1911), former Spokane Chief of Police, is shot in the back while sitting in his living room reading the evening newspaper. The assailant, lurking in the side yard outside the house, fires one bullet through the window and disappears in the darkness, leaving no clue as to his identity. Gravely wounded, Sullivan dies at Sacred Heart Hospital two days later. Law enforcement authorities throughout the Northwest make a concerted effort to identify and apprehend the assassin. No suspects or substantial leads will be uncovered, however, and the assassination of Captain Sullivan remains an unsolved mystery.

Many Enemies But No Suspect

John Timothy Sullivan was born in County Kerry, Ireland, in January 1862. He emigrated to America in 1880 with his older brother, Dennis, and they came to Spokane in August 1889. Sullivan joined the Spokane Police Department as a patrolman on January 8, 1890. He had a natural aptitude for police work and progressed rapidly through the ranks, being promoted to sergeant in 1899 and to captain in 1907. Mayor Nelson S. Pratt (1861-1937) appointed Sullivan to serve as acting Chief of Police on May 14, 1909, replacing Ren H. Rice.

In November 1909, Chief Sullivan's administration was sorely challenged by the Industrial Workers of the World's (IWW or Wobblies) month-long civil disobedience campaign in downtown Spokane. As a result of his strict enforcement of ordinances banning free speech and assembly, charges of misconduct, graft, and corruption were brought against him by The Spokane Press (a Scripps-owned newspaper that advocated suffrage, free speech, and labor causes) and IWW activists, seeking to have him removed from office. Cowed by allegations and lawsuits, and against the wishes of Mayor Pratt, the Spokane City Council voted to rescind Sullivan's appointment as police chief and requested his resignation. Reluctantly, Sullivan resigned on October 19, 1910, but retained his civil-service job and rank of captain with the police department. The following day, former Spokane County Sheriff William J. Doust (1857-1939) was appointed as Spokane's acting Chief of Police.

On September 11, 1900, Sullivan had married 18-year-old Anna Kathleen Mernaugh, a nurse at Sacred Heart Hospital. He had met his wife while visiting a colleague, Detective Sergeant Martin J. Burns, at the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. In 1910, the Sullivans lived in a one-and-a-half story bungalow at 1314 W Sinto Avenue with their 3-year-old daughter, Kathleen; two-month-old son, John Timothy Jr., and Anna's sister, Julia Mernaugh, age 23.

The Shooting

On Thursday evening, January 5, 1911, Captain Sullivan was sitting peacefully in his rocking chair by the fireside reading the evening newspaper. Anna and Julia had gone to the theater while he looked after the two children. At about 7:45 p.m. an assailant, lurking in the side yard outside the house, fired one shot through the window and disappeared into the darkness, leaving no clue as to his identity. The bullet passed through the back of the wooden chair and Sullivan's body and dropped onto the floor. Sullivan managed to telephone police headquarters and inform the desk sergeant of the shooting before collapsing. An ambulance was immediately dispatched to his address and rushed Captain Sullivan to the emergency room at Sacred Heart Hospital, 101 W Eighth Avenue.

The night was bitterly cold and the streets in Sullivan's neighborhood were nearly empty. Although neighbors claimed to have heard a gunshot, no one saw anybody or anything that looked suspicious. Chief Doust assigned every available police officer in Spokane to search for the gunman with orders to detain anyone who looked questionable. The IWW meeting hall on Front Avenue (now Trent Avenue) was placed under surveillance as several of its members had expressed animosity toward Sullivan for his harsh actions against them in the past.

On Friday, January 6, 1911, the Spokane City Council, at the urging of Mayor Pratt, authorized a $7,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Captain Sullivan's assailant. The Spokane Chamber of Commerce offered matching funds and Washington State Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933) induced the state legislature to donate $1,000, bringing the total bounty to $16,000.

At noon on Friday, Police Surgeon John H. O'Shea issued a statement to the newspapers regarding Captain Sullivan's condition. The bullet had struck Sullivan in the back, passed through his right lung and exited his chest. "Unless there is some outside infection, the patient will probably recover. The fact that the bullet was a steel-nose bullet was a lucky thing for Captain Sullivan. If it had been a soft-nose bullet, it would have carried pieces of dyed cloth into the body and would have made the chances of poisoning much greater. The steel-nose bullet made a clean wound," Dr. O'Shea said ("Fighting Chance for Sullivan," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 6, 1911, p. 1). Sullivan's right lung was congested, but the bleeding had stopped and he was resting comfortably.

The Question of Hanley

Meanwhile, Detective Captain Martin J. Burns ordered his men to round up for questioning Sullivan's known enemies. Heading the list was S. J. Hanley, age 47, whom Sullivan had apprehended on the Howard Street Bridge for armed robbery on October 7, 1901. During the arrest, Hanley drew a revolver and fired several times at Sullivan, wounding him in the thigh. Hanley was convicted of attempted murder on January 7, 1902, and sentenced to serve 12 years at the Washington State Penitentiary.

He was a model prisoner and in 1908, penitentiary officials recommended him for early release. Captain Sullivan and other police officers strongly objected to granting Hanley parole and the state Board of Prison Terms and Paroles rejected his application. When Hanley learned his parole had been turned down, he blamed Sullivan and told fellow inmates he intended to "get even" some day. In January 1910, another application for parole was quietly approved and Hanley was released. There were reports of the ex-convict being seen in the Spokane area, however, none of the sightings were confirmed. Those who knew Hanley said back-shooting wasn't his style and in any event, he had gone to California.

The Death of Captain Sullivan

At 2:10 a.m. on Saturday, January 7, 1911, Captain Sullivan suffered a sudden relapse. He complained that he couldn't breathe and Dr. O'Shea was unable to alleviate the condition. Sullivan slipped into unconsciousness and died at 2:29 a.m. His brother, Dennis, was at his bedside, but his wife, Anna, had gone home to care for their two small children and get some rest. An autopsy revealed the immediate cause of death was an embolism (a blood clot) in the right pulmonary artery.

Captain Sullivan's body was removed to the James D. Buchanan Undertaking Parlors, 310 W Riverside Avenue, for burial preparation. On Sunday afternoon, January 8, family and friends held a wake for Captain Sullivan in the parlor his home on Sinto Avenue. At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, January 9, 1911, a solemn requiem mass was celebrated for the repose of Sullivan's soul by Very Reverend Aloysisus Verhagen at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, 1115 W Riverside, in Spokane. After the service, his casket was placed in a horse-drawn hearse and taken to Greenwood Cemetery (now Greenwood Memorial Terrace), 211 N Government Way. Mayor Pratt requested businesses along the route be closed while the funeral procession was passing, as a token of respect. Hundreds of spectators lined the streets to watch the half-mile-long cortege march by. Captain Sullivan was buried in Elks Rest, a portion of Greenwood Cemetery owned by Elks Lodge No. 228 of Spokane.

In recognition of Captain Sullivan's service to the city of Spokane, the police pension commission, composed of Mayor Pratt and the city council, voted an annuity of $10 per month for his widow. The Chamber of Commerce went a step further and raised $10,800 through private contributions and established a trust fund for the Sullivan family.

Theories and Speculations

The prevailing theory was that Captain Sullivan had been assassinated by a professional who needed only one shot to kill his victim. The only clue the Spokane Police had was the bullet, identified as a copper-jacketed, 100-grain, .32.20 caliber WCF (Winchester Center Fire), chosen for its ability to pass through obstacles. This ammunition, considered powerful in its day, could be used in a Winchester lever-action rifle as well as certain Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers.

The Spokane police put the Wobblies high on the list of the murder-for-hire scenario as they had been agitating on the streets of Spokane since the Spokane Free Speech Movement had begun in November 1909. Spokane police detained several IWW activists and investigated their activities, but made no headway. Then there was the criminal underworld which could have put out a contract on Captain Sullivan for vengeance. Throughout his 20-years with the Spokane Police Department, Sullivan had worked diligently to curb prostitution and gambling. He had been a strict enforcer of the laws and encouraged evildoers, ne'er-do-wells, and vagrants to leave the city or be jailed.

Dennis T. Sullivan believed his brother, John, was killed because he was incorruptible and knew too much. In December 1910, a grand jury had been impaneled to investigate graft and corruption in Spokane city government and "certain persons" were likely concerned about Captain Sullivan's testimony. Dennis Sullivan believed these people would have stopped at nothing to keep his brother off the witness stand.

Captain Sullivan had his own opinion about who was responsible. While convalescing in the hospital, he asked that a reporter from the Associated Press wire service be admitted to his room. In a weak voice, Sullivan said: "I desire to make this statement. I attribute this shooting wholly and absolutely to The Spokane Press and Fred C. Robertson (attorney for the newspaper). They have hounded and slandered me for years and did all in their power to make me enemies. They alone are responsible for this affair. I forgive the man who shot me; I forgive everyone who ever did me wrong" ("Ex-Spokane Police Chief Shot in Home," Olympia Record, January 6, 1911).

In the world of law enforcement, an attack against one officer is considered an attack against all and lawmen throughout the Northwest made a concerted effort to identify and apprehend the assassin. However, after weeks of investigation, police had no substantial leads or viable suspects.

Postcript: Case Closed?

A tantalizing postscript came in 1924. A woman named Florence Miller shot and killed her husband, Victor Claude Miller, on September 3, 1924, in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In the subsequent investigation, she claimed that her husband had bragged to her about killing several people -- including a police chief in Spokane.

After so many false leads, Spokane police were skeptical. However, an Alabama police chief located a friend of Miller's who said in a sworn statement that Miller had told him he had worked in Spokane on the railroads around the time of the assassination. Miller told him he was wanted in Spokane for killing several Italians and that he had also killed a Spokane policeman and "got by with it" ("Clears Mystery").

The friend also claimed that Miller was always on the lookout for strangers from Spokane.

No specific motive was established, beyond the vague hint that he might have held a grudge against Spokane police. Yet the Spokane captain of detectives said he was satisfied that this statement established the identity of the murderer "beyond doubt" ("Clears Mystery"). Because the suspect was dead, there was no possibility of arrest or trial. Nor was there any further investigation. His wife pled self-defense and was acquitted.

The case remains officially unsolved. Yet if Miller was the assassin, his wife had already doled out a form of justice.

Sources: "Ex-Spokane Police Chief Shot in Home," Olympia Record, January 6, 1911, p. 1; "Sullivan Has Chance to Recover from His Wound," Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 6, 1911, p. 1; "Fighting Chance for Sullivan," Ibid., January 6, 1911, p. 1; "I Will Get Well," Ibid., January 6, 1911, p. 7; "Man Who Fired Shot Still Free," Ibid., January 6, 1911, p. 7; "Bullet First Hit Window," Ibid., January 6, 1911, p. 7; "Sullivan Picked Up Missile," Ibid., January 6, 1911, p. 8; "Police Furnish with Description of the Man," Ibid., January 7, 1911, p. 1; "Get Army of Police," Ibid., January 7, 1911, p. 1; "His Last Journey," Ibid., January 7, 1911, p. 1; "Erect a Monument," Ibid., January 7, 1911, p. 6; "Bullet Is Important Clue," Ibid., January 7, 1911, p. 6; "Hold No Inquest on Captain Sullivan," Ibid., January 7, 1911, p. 6; "Business in City Suspended for a Time," Ibid., January 9, 1911, p. 1; ""Hanley Not Guilty," Ibid., January 10, 1911, p. 3; "Police Disprove Alibi of Womik, Arrested in Sullivan Case," Ibid., January 11, 1911, p. 1; "To Succeed Sullivan," Ibid., January 11, 1911, p. 1; "Sullivan's Old Enemy Was Seen in Spokane," Ibid., January 12, 1911, p. 1; "Boost the Reward," Ibid., January 13, 1911, p. 1; "Man Strongly Resembling Hanley Arrested at Colfax," Ibid., January 14, 1911, p. 1; "Mrs. Sullivan Has Spokane's Gift," Ibid., January 18, 1911, p. 7; "Captain Sullivan, Victim of assassin, Dies at 2:29 A.M.," The Spokesman-Review, January 7, 1911, p. 1; "Fingerprint Men on Sullivan Case," Ibid., January 6, 1911, p. 6; "Asks All Businesses to Stop During Funeral," Ibid., January 8, 1911, p. 1; "Sullivan Funeral at 10:30 Tomorrow," Ibid., January 8, 1911, p. 8; "Start $10,000 Sullivan Fund," Ibid., January 8, 1911, p.8; "Civic Bodies Escort Remains of Sullivan This Morning," Ibid., January 9, 1911, p. 1; "Says Assassin Was Paid to Murder Brother, Captain Sullivan," Ibid., January 9, 1911, p. 5; "McIntyre Saw Man Who Did Shooting," Ibid., January 9, 1911, p. 5; "Grief Overcasts Police Station," Ibid., January 9, 1911, p. 5; "Chamber of Commerce to Raise $10,000 for Widow by Tomorrow," Ibid., January 9, 1911, p. 5; "Many Visit Home of dead Officer," Ibid., January 9, 1911, p. 5; "Died Martyr to Duty," Ibid., January 9, 1911, p. 6; "Assassins Bullet Kills Sullivan," Ibid., January 10, 1911, p. 1; "Sullivan Long on Police Force," Ibid., January 10, 1911, p. 1; "Hay Eulogizes Sullivan," Ibid., January 13, 1911, p. 7; "Police Believe Hanley Far Away," Ibid., January 13, 1911, p. 6; "Sullivan fund Closes," Ibid., January4, 1911, p. 7; "Mrs. Sullivan Shuns Publicity," Ibid., January 28, 1911, p. 6; "Prepares Statue of Sullivan," Ibid., January 29, 1911, p. 6; Online encyclopedia of Washington State History, "IWW formally begins Spokane free-speech fight on November 2, 1909" (by Ross Rieder and the History Link Staff), (accessed June 21, 2011); Find A Grave website (search on John Timothy Sullivan) accessed July 2, 2011 (; "Clears Mystery, Sullivan Murder," Spokane Daily Chronicle, October 8, 1924, p. 1; "Slain by Own Wife In South," Spokane Press, September 23, 1924; "Identity of Murderer is Now Certain," Spokane Press, October 8, 1924.

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