Wappenstein, Charles W. (1853-1931)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 1/27/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8904
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Charles "Wappy" Wappenstein was a colorful character who was twice Seattle's chief of police (1906-1907 and 1910-1911) and served as a member of the Seattle police force for a much longer period. He performed security work for the Great Northern Railway and was head of security at Washington's first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, held from June 1 to October 6, 1909. His official tenures during the wild post-Gold Rush days, the mayorality of Hi Gill (1866-1919) -- including Gill's recall -- and the rise of the righteous Rev. Mark Matthews (1867-1940) made Wappy a central figure. In the early 1900s, he survived the best efforts of burglars, gamblers, several mayors, and political campaigns to eliminate him from the local scene. Called “Wappy” by friend and foe, he barely topped five feet in height, sported a full mustache (like a “somewhat disreputable walrus” according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer), and liked to wear pin-stripe suits and derby hats. Historian Murray Morgan described him as a “softspoken” man who exuded “considerable warmth” (Skid Road). With an obvious wart on his left cheek, Wappy’s squat figure became a memorable presence in burgeoning Seattle. 

From Ohio to Washington State  

In 1901, Washington, D.C., transplant William M. Meredith (1869-1901) was appointed Chief of Police by Seattle’s new mayor, “Honest” Tom Humes (d. 1905).  Meredith then sought young recruits for his force. Among those promising new officers was a rotund cop from Ohio named C. W. Wappenstein. Meredith had been nurturing a relaxed relationship with the denizens of Skid Road, ignoring rather than clamping down on some of the city’s more raucous post-Gold Rush entertainment.  Historian Gordon Newell put it this way: “It was more or less an unwritten law in the [police] department that the established businesses of the Tenderloin were to add a bit of butter and jam to the daily bread of the uniformed division.” In other words, Wappy may have eased into a style of policing that would become his hallmark.  On the other hand, Cincinnati was known as a corrupt city in the late 1800s, so Wappy could have received his street baptism in that working-man’s borough.

Although Wappy was hired as a plainclothes detective, an early reference states that he had been “chief of police of Cincinnati, Ohio.” Maybe, maybe not.  In 1898, he moved from rough-and-tumble Cincinnati to wide-open Seattle. In 1891, he had married Minnie Elizabeth Benn, who accompanied him to what they both probably envisioned as the untamed wilds of Puget Sound. Minnie and Wappy arrived with their two children, William, born in 1898, and Joan, born the following year.    

Both his detractors and boosters would admit that Wappy was an able policeman. His approach was low-key, but firm. In small-town Seattle, it was relatively easy to quickly learn where the action was and to know who controlled that action. After a few brief local introductions detective Wappy adapted well to his new surroundings.  Seattle’s famous Chinatown -- then concentrated at 3rd Avenue and Washington Street -- was a favorite target of police raids. The Chinese were considered by some white people to be interlopers, living at the edge of the law. Chinese gambling houses sometimes refused to bribe police for protection and their owners often built false doors and secret passageways to evade detection. Wappy and his partner, Sergeant M. T. Powers, invested time in discovering these mazes and, along the way, collected pin money for themselves and their boss.  

Threats and Violence

Chief Meredith and his minions had their way with the Chinese, but they ran into deep water when interfering with the promotions of theater owner John Considine (1868-1943).  A big man, about six feet tall, Considine first became manager of the People’s Theater, dedicated, as Murray Morgan put it, “to wine, women, and faro.”  After returning to Seattle in the wake of the Gold Rush, Considine prospered and was soon referred to as “The Statesman” and “The Boss Sport.”  Considine became a kind of emperor of Skid Road.  Curiously, Meredith and Considine had once been friends, even business partners, but with the arrest of a pickpocket friend of Considine’s (Wappy’s assignment), bad blood was everywhere. 

In fact, Wappy, Meredith’s man-on-the-street, arrested several of Considine’s friends.  The result of this tumult and personal enmity was a violent confrontation on  June 25, 1901, between Meredith and Considine in Guy’s Drug Store at 2nd Avenue and Yesler Way.  Both men fired guns, but Considine killed Meredith with three shots from a .38 pistol.  Found not guilty by a jury, Considine would later become one of the nation’s most famous showmen and a vaudeville kingman.  C. W. Wappenstein had been at the edge of Seattle’s most famous murder.  However, after his chief died, Mayor Humes fired Wappy.

Wappy’s police skills, however, were not neglected.  Hired by the Great Northern Railway as an investigator, he grew close to J. D. Farrell, the Great Northern's vice president. In 1906, Farrell backed Judge William Hickman Moore, a reform candidate for mayor.  When Moore won, in what may have been Seattle’s closest mayoralty race, Farrell asked for a favor: appoint C. W. Wappenstein as police chief.  Observers described Wappy’s term under Moore as one of the best police administrations in the city’s history.  From Wappy’s point of view it was one of the dullest. 

One exciting event under Wappy’s watch: a fire at Seattle’s Grand Opera House at 217 Cherry Street.  Although the blaze was extinguished quickly -- Seattle had ample experience dealing with downtown fires and several buildings had installed sprinkler systems -- some doubt lingered about the fire’s cause.  Police Chief Wappenstein made a personal inspection and concluded that a robbery might have been in progress before the mysterious blaze.  Perhaps, Wappy conjectured, it was a crime with inside help.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition  

After C. W. Wappenstein lost his job in 1907, and without missing a beat, he asked J. E. “Ed” Chilberg, the new president of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (1909), to appoint him chief of the A-Y-P Exposition security force.  Wappenstein’s application to the position was endorsed by Colonel Alden J. Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times.  Wappy’s hopes were almost dashed by fabled Seattle lawyer George F. Vanderveer (1875-1942), who averred that Wappy would find a way to steal A-Y-P funds. After the exposition closed, Chilberg wrote that Wappy did a first-rate job. Describing the chief’s method of enforcement as “simple,” his modus operandi was to arrest offenders, escort them from the exposition grounds, and tell them not to return.    

Wappy’s team also discovered that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of AYPE guests were entering the grounds through a manhole behind the Hoo-Hoo House near the Natural Amphitheatre. The Chief estimated that more than $100 a day -- a healthy sum in 1909 -- was lost due to gatecrashers.  The “secret,” partially constructed sewer tunnel extended one-quarter of a mile. Wappy’s men then found two more tunnels, one behind the Michigan Building and the other near the Great Northern Railway locomotive exhibit.  Guards arrested several young men emerging from the tunnels and Chief Wappenstein was declared a hero.  

Back on the Beat 

Moore was defeated in the next election by Hiram C. Gill, one of Seattle’s all-time controversial characters. Hi Gill chose Wappy to re-take the chief’s job.  Bitter about his restrained tenure under a “reform” mayor, Wappy was pleased to follow Gill’s orders in opening up the town. The apparent redemption of Hi Gill and his policies seemed to confirm that sin could and should be confined to a particular district, i.e. Skid Road.  Wappy’s first move after being re-appointed Chief of Police was to call a meeting of the city’s notable gamblers and brothel operators. The price of running these operations was straightforward: he and his minions were to be paid $10 per month per girl.  

After Wappy was sworn in he took stock of his domain. Gill was elected on a platform calling for a district that confined vice, allowing authorities a measure of control.  Control is exactly what Wappy liked. Crib houses such as the Midway and Paris re-opened. Saloons, gambling, and even Chinatown found new life.  Gill had anticipated that uptown vice would erode and move to Skid Road. That didn’t happen.  The better hotels continued to shelter the expensive trade, and comfortable gaming rooms stayed put.  In fact, a new corporation, the Hillside Improvement Company, sold stock on the Seattle market. The company’s purpose was to establish a model red-light district on Beacon Hill. It’s believed that Wappy invested in the new company.  Public reaction to Gill’s tolerance policy, and Police Chief Wappenstein’s role as enforcer, burbled to the top of this caldron.  At this point the Tenderloin was given the name “Wappyville.”  

Wappyville's Nemesis

One significant result of this hyperactivity was the appearance of a tall, lean Presbyterian preacher named Dr. Mark Allison Matthews. Gill felt Matthews’ ire but resisted and defended his policies. When Matthews learned that Chief of Police Wappenstein was the real enemy and allegedly controlled Seattle’s vice rackets, he demanded that Gill remove the chief. Gill refused. The mayor’s stubborn position set off what would become one of the most dramatic chapters in Seattle’s history: the recall campaign to oust Hi Gill.  Several writers believed that Wappy’s henchmen countered with a campaign to “trap” the minister. Death threats were thrown around, which caused Dr. Matthews, a man of peace, to purchase a brace of pearl-handed pistols.

In February 1911, Hiram Gill lost to reformer George W. Dilling (1869-1951). Analysis of the recall vote revealed that The Forces of Decency -- a new ad hoc political group -- had mustered enough votes to defeat Gill.  Most of the anti-Gill ballots came from women who had just achieved the right to vote in Washington state. However, it was noted that the first woman at the polls was 80-year-old Rebecca Hall, who cast her vote for Gill.  Dilling finished Gill’s term of office.

Of course Dilling fired Wappy. The new reform administration managed to reverse the Gill/Wappenstein policies to some extent. The exodus of hookers from Skid Road was apparently a sight to see: some of the girls sobbing as they waved to old customers. Several of the women, having some fun, also waved at onlooking gentlemen establishment figures whom they did not know, calling them by their first names. 

Indictments and Excitements  

A grand jury investigated alleged vice under former mayor Gill and after listening to testimony of local gamblers and madams, indicted C. W. Wappenstein and two others, Clarence Gerald and Gideon Tupper. One other indictment came as a surprise: Colonel Alden J. Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times.  Blethen had been a defender of Hiram Gill’s policies and especially liked the no-nonsense Chief of Police.  Blethen editorially railed against the reformers in his newspaper: “Gill will not kneel in the dust.  Chief Wappenstein will not kiss the royal feet.”  In fact, Wappy had assigned a police officer named Jack Marquett to Blethen as a personal bodyguard (Marquett later became a successful Prohibition bootlegger). The Colonel beat the rap but Wappy went to the state penitentiary at Walla Walla. Just before Christmas, 1913, Wappy was granted a conditional pardon by Governor Ernest Lister.

While Wappy had languished in stir, Hiram Gill was preparing to run for office once more -- his fourth run for the mayor’s seat. In 1918, he lost to another reformer, Ole Hanson.  Gill died in the worldwide influenza epidemic that year. C. W. Wappenstein, who had tended Gill’s dirty work -- for a price -- died in Seattle on July 27, 1931.

His Influence and Legacies

Wappy’s police activities penetrated many city realms.  For example, a peculiar sidebar to the closing of Skid Road brothels was that young people looking for fun now rode the cable cars to Madison and Leschi parks, throwing bottles, singing, and generally disturbing residents.  Wappy was forced to padlock the Leschi Park Pavilion when dances got out of control. Lakeside neighbors described the ruckus as “conducive to the ruin of young women.” Wappy may have been quietly pleased to see that his and Gill’s policy of confining vice to a single district (Skid Road) had probably been a better solution.

Wappy also played an inadvertent role in the sad demise of West Seattle’s Luna Park, Seattle’s brief fling with her version of Coney Island.  During Gill’s first administration journalists wrote critically about Sunday night dances at the park, which attracted a young, playful set.  However, W. W. Powers, manager of Luna Park, was a shareholder in the Wappenstein-inspired Hillside Improvement Company on Beacon Hill, where a 500-room brothel was constructed. The scandal and bad press reverberated.  Within a year Luna Park was dismantled except for the Natatorium (swimming pool) which hung on until 1931 -- curiously, the year that Wappy died.

Always A Cop

Nine police chiefs succeeded Wappy before his death in 1931. A number of them were subject to political manipulation, accusations, and controversy similar to Wappy’s gauntlet. During Seattle’s wild post-Klondike days and amidst the confusion and crime associated with Prohibition, Charles W. Wappenstein was generally considered a tough, albeit corrupt, cop. 

In H. A. Chadwick’s 1906 leather-bound book, Men Behind the Seattle Spirit, a volume of cartoons from the Argus, there is a distinguished drawing of Wappy, handsomely dressed in his blues, full mustache on parade, with a large star-shaped badge on his chest.  The caption reads:

“Yes, this is the chief of police, and he and Mayor Moore are making the criminals take to the tall timber, just as they look in the picture.  Mr. Wappenstein is one of the ablest officers in the country.”


Gordon Newell, Totem Tales of Old Seattle (Seattle, Superior Publishing Company, 1956); Murray Morgan, Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (New York, The Viking Press, 1951); Dr. Ezra P. Giboney and Agnes M. Potter, The Life of Mark A. Matthews (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948); Men Behind the Seattle Spirit ed. by H. A. Chadwick (The Argus Cartoons, Seattle, 1906); James R. Warren, King County and its Queen City, Seattle (Woodland Hills, California, 1981); Sidney Warren, Farthest Frontier: The Pacific Northwest (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1949); C. H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs, 1852-1924, Vol. 1 (Chicago and Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924); Paul Dorpat, Seattle: Now & Then (Tartu Publications, Seattle, 1984); Henry Broderick, Early Seattle Profiles by ‘HB’ (Dogwood Press, Seattle, 1959); HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington Sate History,  "Hiram C. Gill" (by David Wilma), "Thousands are found to have sneaked into A-Y-P Exposition through a sewer tunnel," (by Phil Dougherty),  "Luna Park -- Coney Island of the West," (by Alan J. Stein),   "Fire burns Seattle’s Grand House," (by Eric L. Flom), "John Edward Chilberg" (by Junius Rochester), www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 2009);, "Mayor of Seattle Ousted by Women," Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1911; "Charles W. Wappenstein," Brasfield-Brassfield Genealogies, 2009; Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy, "Chasing the Wolves of Sin," The Seattle Times, March 3, 1996 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/special/centennial/march/vices.html); "Chief of Police," Seattle Municipal Archives website accessed January 2009 (http://www.seattle.gov/CityArchives/Facts/police.htm).

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