AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918. Part One introduced a thuggish, controlling storekeeper named Alexander “Paddy” Ryan. Part Two centered on William “Bible Bill” Dawson, a trapper, a storekeeper and a masterful manipulator, who drew the ire of schoolteachers Willietta and Alice Dolan.
When the 1900 U.S. Census was enumerated, William Dawson, 54 and a widower, was lodging in Kasilof and almost certainly settled in Kenai shortly thereafter. By the time the Dolan sisters arrived in 1911, he had firmly established himself as a deceitful, disruptive force in the village.
“The Clenched Fist,” the Dolans’ teaching memoir, summed up Dawson’s tactics: “If he wished to injure someone for a fancied slight or coveted something that belonged to him, (Bible Bill) worked in devious ways to arouse the wrath of his followers against his enemy. They, then, did his evil work. He appeared not to be involved in the affair, but he was the instigator of all the ‘dirty work’ of Kenai. It was inconceivable to believe that any man so dehumanized could exist.”
Dawson was manager of a trading post, where goods were sold and where the village mail arrived and was parceled out to residents. One day, when they walked to the trading post to collect their mail, the Dolans were followed by a crippled malamute named Choni, a friendly village dog fond of the sisters and the scraps they fed him.
At the sight of Dawson, Choni bared his teeth and growled.
Dawson growled back in his own way and announced his hatred for the dog. He had once tried to kill it with an axe, he said, but had succeeded only in wounding one of its back feet. He swore to the sisters he would finish the job someday. “And no one will know it was me who done it,” he promised.
To the Dolans, Dawson’s nickname, “Bible Bill,” was a sort of sad joke. “We knew him for the villain he was,” they said.
DEVILS IN THE DETAILS
It is difficult to say when Alex Ryan and Bill Dawson first encountered each other, whether they liked each other initially, and just how much of a role Dawson played in sending Ryan to prison in 1908.
After being terminated by the Alaska Commercial Company in about 1895, Ryan split his time between the villages of Kenai and Knik, where he had once managed another store and had helped execute a Copper River Native man.
As a U.S. special deputy marshal, he roamed the Cook Inlet region, reporting on mining and trapping, among other activities. And as a white American male, he used the power of his race, his U.S. citizenship and his personal connections to line his own pockets.
Ryan’s major adversary early on had been Kenai parish priest, Alexander Yaroshevich, who was responsible for the church’s promotion of sobriety and the development of a Temperance Society to combat alcoholism in the village. Ryan, until he lost his job, had been illegally brewing and selling alcohol in the back of the ACC store.
The priest, until he was transferred to Juneau, was succeeding socially while hurting Ryan fiscally. So Ryan had found new ways to make a buck and sow discord.
In the summer of 1897, upon returning to the village from travels elsewhere in the parish, the new Russian priest, Father John Bortnovsky, wrote: “I found that Kenai was visited by the notorious (Ryan) on his trip from Knik to Seldovia. He unmercifully beat Paul Wilson and threatened to kill both Wilson brothers if they would not leave Kenai.”
Despite such behavior, in 1902 Ryan was awarded a federal Star Service contract to haul the winter mail once a month from the Coal Bay post office in Homer (where it was dropped off by steamship) to the post office in Kenai.
For this monthly journey up and down the Cook Inlet shoreline between November and April, Ryan earned an annual salary of $900 (more than $26,000 in today’s economy).
William Dawson, meanwhile, was hobnobbing with the other white men in Kenai and appeared to be making a good impression.
In March 1901, Kansas native Hans P. Nielsen, superintendent of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Kenai, wrote to his friends and neighbors back in Lincoln County to let them know about life on the Kenai:
“We white men got up a big Christmas dinner … in my cabin as I had the most room and the best stove,” he wrote. He concocted important-sounding titles for the 12 men in attendance, including the “Hon. Wm. Dawson, mayor of Kusiloff” and “Count P.F. Vian, mayor of (the nearby Native village) Skitook with an eye to Kenai.”
A few years later, Vian, known widely as “Frenchy,” would become co-owner of a Kenai trading post with Dawson. Vian also would become an area game warden, and in 1909 when a group of Kenai residents petitioned the governor about alleged abuses by Vian, Dawson wrote personally to the governor to defend his friend and business partner.
As part of his defense, Dawson asserted that, in addition to smearing Vian, the petitioners had had several ignoble goals: degrading Kenai’s school system, closing the Agricultural Station, and seeking the release from prison of Alex Ryan.
Dawson and Ryan were clearly at odds sometimes.
In May 1903, an article entitled “Accused of Manslaughter” appeared in the (Valdez) Alaska Prospector, announcing that a steamship had just arrived in town from Kenai bearing special deputy marshal William Dawson, who was escorting a prisoner named Alex Ryan to a grand jury trial.
According to the article, Ryan had been arrested for attempting to kill a cannery agent. He had become incensed when he saw Charles W. Gompertz, agent for the Pacific Packing and Navigation Company, loading poles used for fishing onto one of the company boats. Mistakenly believing that Gompertz was stealing his poles, Ryan began shooting at him with a .30-30 rifle.
Fortunately, none of his shots struck Gompertz. Oddly, this incident cost Ryan neither his job delivering the mail nor his position as a law-enforcement officer.
In August, three delegates from Kenai were named to participate in the election of a delegate from Alaska to the U.S. Congress. Two of those delegates were Alex R. Ryan and William N. Dawson.