Thomas Wiedemann, aka the Klondike Kid, writes about his life in nineteenth-century Seattle

  • By Lane Morgan
  • Posted 8/21/2020
  • Essay 21085
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Thomas Wiedemann (1879-1962) gained brief notoriety as the "Klondike Kid," after heading to the Yukon on the ill-fated and ineptly crewed steamship Eliza Anderson in 1897. He grew up in Seattle, where his father, Conrad Wiedemann, was a physical culture teacher for the German Turnverein group. Young Thomas headed north at 18, ignoring his parents' wishes that he enroll in college instead. The trip to Dawson City took nearly a year, including a winter spent iced-in near the mouth of the Yukon River. Wiedemann earned around $5,000 from his stake, which he blew on high living in San Francisco before returning to Seattle dead broke. In 1952, after reading the Seattle history Skid Road, he wrote Murray Morgan (1916-2000) a 24-page letter detailing his own experiences in nineteenth-century Seattle. Some excerpts: 

Icebound for Nine Months

Fifty-nine years ago, I was press dispatch boy for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer when Nelson was editor. I worked out of the Western Union Telegraph office which was then located on the ground floor of the Baily [sic] Building on Cherry Street, directly across the street from the old P.I. E. H. Brown was manager and Sylvester (Sy) was chief operator at the Western Union in those days. The old telegraph key and the Morse code of dots and dashes was used in those days. There were no direct wire service into the newspaper office and press dispatches had to be taken across the street and up a long flight of wooden stairs. Well I remember the night that the 20,000 words annual message to Congress, of President Grover Cleveland came over the wire and I had to deliver it in sections. My wages in those days was $18 per month -- ten hours a day, seven days a week, with one Sunday off per month.

It is really remarkable how your book [Skid Road] intertwines with my early life in Seattle, as you will note as I relate the many authentic facts, some made public, others for obvious and political reasons kept dark.

Even you mention of the great Klondike gold rush, the reference to the Steamer Portland and old side-wheeler Eliza Anderson tie in directly with my life. For just twenty-seven days after the Portland arrived in Seattle from Alaska with $800,000 in Klondike gold aboard and the first authentic word to the outside of the big gold strike, I left Seattle on the old Eliza Anderson for the Klondike by way of the Inside Passage, North Pacific Ocean, Bering Sea and 1800 miles up the Yukon River. This was on August 10, 1897. After being icebound in the lower Yukon at the Eskimo village of Nunabislogarth for nearly nine Arctic winter months, we finally reached our destination just thirteen days LESS THAN ONE YEAR after our departure from Seattle. Captain Tom Powers was the skipper of the Anderson. Denny Howard, proprietor of the Hotel Northern, Seattle's leading pioneer hotel, was purser.

Some years later I returned to Seattle as the somewhat famous KLONDIKE KID mentioned in one of Jack London's stories and in rhyme by Robert W. Service, famed bard of the Yukon. ...

Life on Skid Road

But let's get on with SKID ROAD! Prior to my editorial job on The Seattle Star, where I covered police and courts, besides writing feature copy in conjunction with Renfro the staff cartoonist and conducting the JOSH WISE features which was later syndicated by the N.E.A., I drove an ice wagon for the Diamond Ice & Cold Storage Company. My route was along the waterfront south of Union Street and the entire SKID ROAD district.

In those days many high class parlor houses of prostitution lined Washington Street. I served Lou Graham, the Queen of the Underworld who had been financed by a wealthy Chinaman of Seattle Chinatown and who owned the pretentious building and establishment of Lou Graham. I also served her greatest rival -- Ardian Livingston. Also served Lilla Young, Black Pattie and many other parlor houses. I delivered ice to Billy the Mugs famed long bar saloon, famed throughout the United States and where the bums and hobos from all over the nation at one time or another congregated, where beer was the main beverage at five cents a big mug, more of it being sold there daily than in all the other saloons combined on SKID ROAD. The place was run by Billy Belond. Under Billy the Mugs, on 2nd and Washington was The People's Theater, and it was there where I first met John and Tom Considine and many tough characters.

Caticorner from Billy the Mugs was John and Tom Clancy's saloon. These two were the REAL political bosses of SKID ROAD and no city or county public official could ever be elected from that district without their support. Then there was John Cort's Standard Theater, a block west. Upstairs was Seattle's largest public gambling house where the doors were never closed.

The First and Last Chance was another dump with a savory reputation. But among the toughest spots and which gave the police the most trouble were Quant's New Zealand Dance Hall and Frank Purcell's low dive on lower King Street. Also there was the infamous MIDWAY. Quant, who ran the New Zealand Dance Hall, was about as crooked as are some of our present Internal Revenue officers. His biggest revenue came from the boxes where the girls induced suckers, after they became somewhat intoxicated, to buy champagne at from five to ten dollars a bottle, according to the size of the "live ones" roll. This champagne was put up in regulation important champagne bottles. The contents were soda water highly charged with a solution which causes it to fizz and blow out the cork.

... In those days the police were more cooperative with police news reporters than they appear to be today. Many times it paid off in good detective word by some newsman, to the credit for the police department. Also it resulted in suppressing of crime news at times, for the benefit of the department. We police reporters were furnished with a police reporter badge and permit to carry a gun.

Dive Bars and Dead Bodies

Now let's visit Frank Purcell's place. Frank was a tough pox marked ex-prize fighter. His saloon, as were practically all on lower King Street, was built over the tide flats. He catered mostly to loggers. Very often the dead body of a logger would be found among the drift wood and sea weed in the vicinity of Frank's Place. Lord knows how many bodies were washed out into Elliott Bay and Puget Sound during high tide.

Frank's place had three back rooms. Two of these were doorless. The third had a locked door upon which was a sign STORE ROOM. In the latter room, the police finally discovered, was a trap door. Fastened on this trap door was a chair placed at the table opposite to where the girl entertaining the "Sucker" sat. After getting him drunk and robbing him, all the girls had to do was to pull a concealed lever and some rigging slinger or hooktender would be floating away with the tide. This trap door was hinged so that by the reverse of the lever it righted itself and the chair was ready for another "Easy mark." The girls always picked out the men who become intoxicated in front of the bar and made a display of their bank roll. Always it would have to be some logger who didn't come in with friends or in a gang, or whose friends, if he came in with them, had departed for some other joint.

The MIDWAY, located on 7th and King Street was a dollar whore-house. Here were girls (?) of every race and color, ranging in age from 17 to 70. The small cubicles they occupied bore the names of the city or country they came from. The Midway faced on 7th Avenue and was a flat roofed sprawling wooden building. King Street, which flanked it on the south, was so steep that at one point the street was level with the flat roof of the structure. One night a logger from Snohomish, who had been robbed in the joint, strode from King Street onto the roof where he placed several sticks of dynamite and wrecked the joint.

Then there was Dago Frank's place, which I also served. He called it the Idaho. It was a great hangout for the Italians of Skid Road and many fights with knives were recorded there. And I must not overlook the many Japanese "Sake Joints" on Skid Road. These were mostly located at Main and Jackson Streets. The bartenders were all good looking young Japanese women. These women mostly lived in a sort of exclusive section on upper Yesler Way, near the pretentious homes of Lou Graham and the more elite parlor house madams of Skid Road.

The husbands or "Boy-friends" of these Japanese female Sake-joint bartenders generally conducted barber shops on Skid Road where shaves were ten cents, haircuts 15 cents. They acted as "Steerers" to the Sake joints. Some also ran cheap eating places where meals were from 15 cents up. Three doughnuts and a cup of coffee cost five cents. A few had cheap lodging houses on Jackson and Main Streets where rooms were 20 to 35 cents a night.

Another prostitution joint and "Call House" was in the Pacific Block. This was run by Molly Rogers, wife of Baldy Rogers, one time chief of police, whose feud with the Reverend Nutting I will relate later.

Son of a Swordsman

After the Seattle Fire, in which Frey's Opera House was destroyed, the old Turner Hall on 4th and Jefferson was the only theater building for several years. This was known as Hanna's Opera House. It was a large wooden barn-like structure. The theater section was on street level. Gymnasium of Seattle Turnverein was on the lower floor, which was on the floor below street level.

My father, Captain Conrad Wiedemann, was physical culture instructor of the turnverein. Father was champion swordsman of the world until defeated by Jaguarina (Queen of Swords) in San Diego, in 1883. Father also instructed General John Pershing in swordsmanship. ... We lived in the rear of the gymnasium in the Turner Hall. This was directly across the street from pioneer Henry I. Yesler's home and estate. Our families were great friends. The Yesler estate comprised an entire block bounded by Third and Fourth Avenues and James and Jefferson Streets. The Yeslers had a tame bear which roamed at will on the Yesler estate. My sisters and I often played with this bear.

Then came the time when the bear became wild and had to be chained. One day when Wolf, the well known Seattle soda manufacturer of those days was delivering his wares at the Yesler home, the bear broke loose. He chased Wolf up a tree.

Yesler told my father that evening that he was going to have the bear shot. This was at the time when the Divine Sarah Bernhart [sic] was booked for the Opera House. Father informed Sarah's publicity man. He arranged with Yesler for the bear. The bear was taken out to the wooded gulch where the Madison cable car wended its way to Lake Washington. Here, in the presence of newspapermen, members of Bernhart's company and photographers, the bewildered animal was turned loose, and the Divine Sarah Bernhart shot it. It was a great publicity stunt. ...

From our apartments in the rear of the gymnasium a private back stairway led up the theater lobby. The door at the head of these stairs was always kept locked to prevent theater patrons from getting down into the gymnasium. Only we had the key.  ... I will tell you of the plays and celebrities of the nineties ... Of course my favorite ones were the Primrose and West Minstrels and the Lew Docksteader [sic] Minstrels. I remember Bert Williams and many of the others as if I saw them today. A pleasing feature of these minstrel shows was the parade which preceded each performance. Dressed in linen dusters, a high silk hat as head gear and sporting a cane; the entire company, headed by the minstrel band paraded through the business district, usually followed by every kid in town. Then just prior to the performance, the band played in front of the Opera House.

The favorite stock company which played many weeks of continuous engagements was the Noble Stock Company (Milton and Dolly Noble). They staged such popular plays of the days as "The Villian Still Persued Her," "He Done Her Wrong," "The Still Alarm," "The Midnight Express," "The Baggage Car Ahead" and many more too numerous to mention.

"I Can Still See the Great Mark Twain"

I can still see the great Mark Twain in my mind's eye, as dressed in light linen suit and Panama Hat; one leg flung across the end of a table, he kept us laughing with his humorous stories. I can still picture Maxine Elliott and Nat Goodwin in "When We Were Twenty-One." Can see Frederick Ward, Emma Euch, Adelina Patti, Sarah Bernhardt, the Drews, and many others. Still see before me the renouned magician -- Herman the Great. The renowned mind reader Tyndell; the two great extravaganzas with the elaborate stage settings of "The Devil's Auction" and "The Black Crook." The great play -- "The Bottom of the Sea," where to secure a real effect, the stage, full width and from floor to top was covered with a green screen of mosquito netting. ... In fact, I could go on with pages of the good old dramas of those days and how well I still remember Joe Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle, Sandow the strong man etc etc.

But now about Detective Cudihee's election as sheriff, which you mention in your book. Believe this or not -- My father and the husbands of two of my sisters were to a great extent responsible for Cudihee's election.

In those days the German vote was a big factor in Seattle and King County elections. For while most of the saloons, night spots and restaurants on the Skid Road, south of Yesler Way were owned and operated by Irish and Italians, this was not the case north of that district. Most of the saloons and night spots, as well as restaurants and bakeries, were owned and operated by Germans. My father, as the head of the Seattle Turners (athletic) and special writer for the Deutcher Zietung (The German Newspaper) had considerable vote getting prestige. Charlie Hebler, my sister Alvina's husband, conducted the largest saloon on Pike Street (one of the most popular gathering places for Germans). Max Hippe, husband of my sister Adelina, was an officer and prominent member of the Seattle Liederkranz (German singing society). The Sons of Herman, the Singer Bund, and the German Benevolant Society. Cudihee needed the German vote. They were delivered to him by this trio and as a result Adelina's husband -- Max Hippe was made deputy sheriff under Cudihee -- simple as that!  ....

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