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Conklin, Mary Ann (1821-1873) aka Mother Damnable

HistoryLink.org Essay 1934 : Printer-Friendly Format

Mary Ann Conklin ran Seattle's first hotel, the Felker House, at Main Street and 1st Avenue S. Her profane vocabulary and fiery temper earned her the moniker "Mother Damnable" which later transmuted into "Madame Damnable" when she diversified the hotel business by adding a brothel on the upper floor. She died in 1873. Felker House burned to the to ground in the Great Fire of 1889.

She was born Mary Ann Boyer in 1821 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In 1851, she met and perhaps married Captain David W. "Bull" Conklin. Captain Conklin commanded a whaling ship in the waters of Russian America, that is, Alaska. In 1853, the couple had a falling out and David the captain unceremoniously dropped Mary Ann his wife in Port Townsend, and sailed away to Alaska. She moved to the tiny village of Seattle and began to manage Felker House.

The house itself was transported to Seattle by Captain Leonard Felker of the brig Franklin Adams. It was a pre-fabricated building, which he brought in the hold of his ship. He purchased land from David S. "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873) at 1st Avenue S and Jackson Street, known as Maynard's Point, and erected his building on that site. It was a two-story frame house, "the first hard-finished construction on Elliott Bay with milled clapboard sides, an imported southern pine floor, and lath-and-plaster walls and ceilings" (Dorpat).

How Mary Ann Conklin hooked up with Captain Felker is unknown, but she quickly became the boss of Felker's hostelry. Apparently she ran an efficient business, with clean sheets, good food, and a no-nonsense attitude toward guests. Her salty language, which she likely learned at sea with her mate "Bull" Conklin, became legendary, not only in Seattle but among West Coast travelers. It was said that her profanity was equally colorful in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, and German. Mother Conklin's reputation grew and the Felker establishment became known as "The Conklin House," or "Mother Damnable's."

Conklin also purveyed meeting rooms, presumably in competition with Yesler's Hall. She charged the Territorial government $25 for the use of one of her rooms as a "court room" and $10 for rooms occupied by jurors. One rather officious prosecuting attorney made the mistake of asking for a receipt. She hollered, "There's your receipt" and flung in his direction a few sticks of stove wood.

In later years she earned the name "Madame Damnable" because, according to Seattle historian Bill Speidel, she ran a brothel in the upstairs of her hotel.

Mary Ann Conklin died in 1873. She was buried in the Seattle Cemetery, the city's first municipal cemetery, located at the site of the future Denny Park. In 1884, these graves were removed to other cemeteries and the site was made into a park.

When it came time to remove the coffin of Mary Conklin, it took about a half a dozen men to raise the coffin. When the lid was removed, it was found that her body had somehow "turned to stone" with all features intact.

Mary Ann Conklin's hotel burned to the ground in the Great Seattle fire of 1889.

Sources:
Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1931); Paul Dorpat, Seattle Then & Now, Vol. 3 (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1989); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Cemetery" (by Laura Angotti), http://www.Historylink.org. Also see: Thomas W. Prosch, "A Chronological History of Seattle From 1850 to 1897," typescript dated 1900-1901, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Library, Seattle; Clarence Bagley, History of King County, Washington (Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929); Robert L. Ferguson, The Pioneers of Lake View (Bellevue, WA: Thistle Press, 1995); Nard Jones, Northwest Narratives (Seattle: Puget Sound Bank, 1961).


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Felker House, first finished lumber house built in Seattle, King Street one half block W of Commercial Street (1st Avenue), Seattle, ca. 1868



Misdated (and later replaced) tombstone of Mary Ann Conklin (1821-1873) at Lake View Cemetery, November 2000
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long


 
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