AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918. Part One introduced Alexander “Paddy” Ryan, a thuggish storekeeper who came to Kenai in 1888 and enforced his will through fear and violence. Only the Russian priest, Alexander Yaroshevich, had thus far been willing to consistently stand up to Ryan.
On April 22, 1895, while Father Yaroshevich was organizing the construction of a new Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai, Alex Ryan accosted a group of Natives hauling logs from the Kenai River up to the building site. He halted their work and commanded them to go out in their bikarkas to hunt furs for him, instead. When the workers refused, he stormed off to retrieve his pistol.
A short time later, he broke into a church service, waving his pistol and swearing at and threatening those in attendance. Alexis Ivanov, the church song-leader, helped to disarm Ryan and then rushed outside to shoot Ryan’s bullets harmlessly into the air and toss away his gun.
According to at least one source, when Ryan charged into the church Yaroshevich exclaimed, “What you are pointing at me, that is what you are going to finish with!”
Apocryphal, perhaps, but the story was widely believed.
This incident — called “the Ryan Affair” in a 1974 anthropological paper entitled “The Native, Russian and American Experiences of the Kenai Peninsula” — finally began to turn the tide against Ryan. Assisted by the priest, a group of Kenai residents submitted to District Judge Warren Truitt a petition asking that Ryan be punished.
Although the judge himself took no legal action, pressure from the public and the church prompted Ryan’s employer, the Alaska Commercial Company, to dismiss Ryan from his post.
The tone of and details from the petition were damning, starting with the opening line: “We, the undersigned people of Kenai, hereby respectfully petition Your Excellency for protection under law from the incredible oppression of the local Americans, and especially of the storekeeper of the Alaska Commercial Co., Alec Ryan.”
The petition stated that — particularly in winter when Kenai was isolated because of ice in the inlet and an absence of roads anywhere on the peninsula — Ryan and his comrades became “autocratic masters, even tyrants; and they do not give any rest to us and our families neither day nor night.”
Kenai residents complained of Ryan’s “drinking parties,” accompanied by quarrels, fights and occasional gunplay. “In fear,” the petitioner averred, “the people hide themselves wherever they can.”
They claimed that Ryan had tried to convince them that Father Yaroshevich was not on their side. The priest, he said, wanted them to be his “slaves” and should therefore be ignored. Instead, “we should listen only to Ryan because he is the chief, the governor, the judge and everything here.”
“The American Government,” Ryan informed them, “will not listen to us because, since the transfer of Alaska by the Russian Government to America, we have been deserted by the Russians and are not accepted by the Americans under the protection of laws.”
The petition labeled Ryan “an evil-doer and an unpunished murderer.” It asked the judge to “punish this criminal and to prohibit him forever to live in Alaska, as he is an impossible man.”
As a consequence of Judge Truitt’s inaction, however, Ryan stayed in and around Kenai. The following year, a weary Father Yaroshevich was granted a transfer to Juneau.
After they arrived in early August 1911 to teach in the village school, it took little time for sisters Alice and Willietta Dolan, both in their early 30s, to meet the man they considered the main source of Kenai’s woes.
It was not Alexander Ryan.
In “The Clenched Fist,” a 1948 memoir about their three years in Kenai, Willietta said, “While we were young and naïve, we were not so credulous as to believe everyone ‘exuded sweetness and light.’ We knew human nature was the same the world over. Even here, the good and the bad were found…. If I were to designate the meanest character I ever met, I should name ‘Old Bible Bill.’”
Bible Bill, they said, had boasted that he had read the Bible from cover to cover 15 times. Someone else had given him the nickname many years before, he told them, but in Kenai they were the only ones he had revealed it to. It was their little secret.
The sisters called him “a consummate hypocrite.”
“He had read (the Bible) so often,” they wrote, “but had missed the whole spirit of the book.”
“I am as innocent as a little child,” Bill was fond of saying.
To fully appreciate the venom the sisters directed toward Bill, it must be understood that, although they could be critical on other topics, they were generally benevolent and kind. In their entire memoir they had few unkind words to say about anyone else, but they devoted several long passages to Bill’s despicable actions and character.
More than anyone or anything else in Kenai, “Bible Bill” raised their bile.
William N. “Bible Bill” Dawson was the middle child of seven in a Missouri farming family. Born in November 1846, Dawson was married with two young daughters by 1870. Ten years later, he was remarried but still living in the same rural county in Missouri. According to a genealogy report, Dawson and his second wife had three children, none of whom survived past age 5.
From 1880 to 1900, most details about Dawson’s life are fuzzy, but a few things are clear: At some point he came north to Alaska. He ventured into money-making schemes, primarily mining, trapping and trophy hunting. And much of his earliest Alaska activity was centered on Skilak Lake.
A map created by homesteader Hjalmar “Andy” Anderson depicting the adventures of his family and friends on Skilak Lake between 1922 and 1937 contains two connections to Dawson’s prior presence on the lake. On Skilak’s southern shore is a “Dawson Peninsula.” To the east is a “Dawson Bay.” Writings from this time period sometimes refer to these locations as “Dawson Point” and “Dawson Cove.”
While traveling on the Kenai Peninsula in 1898, British big game hunter John Tatchell Studley met Dawson and gleaned from him information about hunting moose and Dall sheep. When Studley recounted his Alaska adventure in a hunting memoir called “Journal of a Sporting Nomad,” he described meeting Dawson and visiting his “shack” somewhere on the south shore of the lake.
He said Dawson had spent months hunting moose and sheep, “bringing out the trophies for the sake of the money he could make by selling them.” He also said that Dawson, probably in the winter of 1897-98, had lost to frostbite all the toes on one foot.
“He hobbled about like a man walking on peg-legs,” wrote the Dolan sisters.
Since his favorite topic was himself, they said, he was only too eager to explain: “(O)ne winter day I was making the rounds of my trap lines. My toes got froze. They froze bad. Then they began to fester. I was alone in my cabin. I amputated them with a cold chisel. Would you like to see the job I done?”
The Dolans demurred.