Killers, thieves and rogues

Uncover raucous regional history in ‘Scoundrels of the Salish Sea’

Luciano Marano
lmarano@ptleader.com
Posted 8/26/20

Yesteryear ain’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

And although it’s a pretty great place to live these days, the coast of the Salish Sea — that notoriously intricate …

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Killers, thieves and rogues

Uncover raucous regional history in ‘Scoundrels of the Salish Sea’

Posted

Yesteryear ain’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

And although it’s a pretty great place to live these days, the coast of the Salish Sea — that notoriously intricate network of waterways that includes the southwestern portion of British Columbia and the northwestern portion of Washington — boasts a history that’s brimming with colorful (often criminal) characters and hardscrabble, hard-luck times.

Tales of the good old days, these are not.

Of course, those are the kind of stories Carol Turner likes best.

The Port Angeles author, whose previous books include “The Trouble with Heather Holloway: A Colorado Mystery” and “Notorious San Juans: Wicked Tales from Ouray, San Juan and La Plata Counties,” recently gathered a bumper crop of such cases in her latest stranger-than-fiction offering “Scoundrels of the Salish Sea: Tales of Crime and Punishment in Washington State’s History,” now available from Arcadia Publishing.

Turner chatted recently with The Leader about her book, the darker side of regional history, and what the past can teach us about our own particularly historic moment.

* This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Leader: What inspired you to collect these stories? Did you begin with a few specific cases and then build the larger theme around them, or did you have the idea fully formed from the start?

CT: I didn’t want to write a “gunslingers of the Wild West” book, which are usually sketchy on facts and fairly predictable. I wanted stories that showed real people in trouble and give details about what their lives were like and how they got into the mess they got into. I wanted to reveal as much as possible about what it was really like to live then.

I like small details, like the three poodles stranded in the Packard for days and finally arousing the ire of the neighbor with their barking. Or Chief Swell of the Makah stopping at Old Dungeness to pick up potatoes to take to Neah Bay, one of his final acts. Or Chester Thompson buying photographic equipment that his father had to take back.

Leader: What’s your research process like?

CT: The [stories] all originated in old newspapers, which have been scanned by historical societies or other entities and posted online (I love those folks!). I began by first identifying every regional online historical newspaper archive I could find that supports keyword searches and allows you to download the story.

I then searched for stories that included keywords such as “murder.” I saved off a huge directory of hits, each of which might or might not become a story later. This process is very time-consuming and took quite a few months. Some of the scanned pages had a murky quality so I had a lot of “false” hits.

Some of the stories began to take shape as I got multiple hits from multiple online sources. A good clue as to what would make a good story was when I got sidetracked from my research and got lost in reading. As I worked, I began to categorize them into “yes,” “maybe,” and “no.”

Once I had finished gathering the newspaper articles, I then began to develop details on the stories that showed promise. This involved different keyword searches and a broader type of resource, such as state archives, ancestry records, corrections records, other newspaper databases, and so on. For me, this part is the most enjoyable — working like a history detective, hunting down clues about the people and events and trying to piece together the puzzle. By this time, I have an outline taking shape. Sometimes I had to drop a fascinating story because I couldn’t find the full arc of it. Also, my publisher gave me a word limit of 65,000 so I had a stopping point.

Once my research felt fairly complete, I began to read everything I had collected from all my sources and take notes. This was also very time-consuming. Some of the stories had many dozens of articles about them. At the end of the reading process, I had a very messy first draft. And only then did I begin to write.

Leader: You mentioned one of your favorite stories in the book took place in Port Townsend, and I can see why: Murder, jailbreak, missing fortune, and a mysterious ending — it’s got it all! What criteria did you use while researching to decide which cases would best fit in this collection?

CT: Some of it was whether I could find sufficient information, but I did leave out many stories that I could have fleshed out. There are a lot of good stories!

The story of Henry Sutton, which took place in Port Townsend and Port Angeles, was a particular favorite of mine, mostly because Sutton himself is such an interesting character. He was intelligent and educated enough to run a newspaper and a saloon, but also was a violent man, even for those times. Also, while researching Sutton, I was thrilled to find a lot of back history on him, in the Boston newspaper archives, the state archives in Bellingham, and in old census records. I discovered he grew up mostly fatherless in Manhattan’s Bowery district during the days of the “Gangs of New York.” There’s a good chance he might have been in the “Bowery Boys” gang, though he left New York at the age of 15. I could easily get involved trying to hunt down more details about his previous life and what happened to him.

Leader: We’re living in a time of great social unrest and ideal policing practices and how to discern trustworthy news sources are some of the most hotly discussed subjects. What can we learn from the stories you recount in the book about how far things have come — or not come — with respect to those issues?

CT: I approach the study of history with the understanding that traditional white society has always been racist and sexist. White men ran everything and women were the compliant toilers in the home. This has obviously changed a great deal, but many centuries of those embedded attitudes don’t just disappear overnight.

There were fascinating exceptions. James Swan and Makah Chief Swell enjoyed a very close friendship. I was delighted to find a Black newspaper editor in early Seattle, who, along with his wife, published Cayton’s Weekly and the Seattle Republican. Horace Cayton was the son of a slave and a white planation owner’s daughter. His wife, Susie Revels, was a writer and editor and the daughter of the first African-American United States senator, Hiram Revels.

In the case of newspapers, I’d say the quality back then was just as uneven as it is today. There was some really good reporting and plenty of garbage.

Leader: Generally, how would you describe the Salish Sea coast of yesteryear’s Jefferson County area? What sort of place was it according to your research?

CT: Life was difficult in many ways — plenty of dangers lurking everywhere.

The native tribes and the white pioneers were all tough people. But the ocean provided an abundance of food so if you had access, you could survive even in this wilderness. The main method of transportation was by canoe or boat, which was often treacherous but a lot easier than trying to hack your way through the dense forest. Some of the tribal canoes were enormous and could supposedly hold 100 people.

One charming aspect of that period was the abundance of little schooners chugging around the Salish Sea. They looked like larger versions of the Victoria Harbour ferries. Everyone seemed to be catching a schooner here and there. You could take a schooner from Port Townsend to Port Angeles and I believe to Neah Bay as well. I wish we had those now!

Leader: I think my own favorite story is “A Dangerous Obsession,” about the crimes of Chester Thompson, which I believe is just begging for a film adaptation. If you had to pick one story in the book to pitch to Hollywood, which do you think would make the best movie?

CT: I agree Chester is a fascinating character. I think I could picture a younger Timothy Olyphant playing Henry Sutton!

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