AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918. Parts One and Two introduced a thuggish, controlling storekeeper named Alexander “Paddy” Ryan and William “Bible Bill” Dawson, another storekeeper and a masterful manipulator of the residents of Kenai. Part Three showed how they wove themselves into the fabric of the community—and into occasional conflict with each other.
A BUSY, CRAZY TIME
The years of 1907 and 1908 were mostly unkind to Alex Ryan.
On June 10, 1907, he broke his oath not to drink alcohol and was expelled from the Kenai village Temperance Society. And although he didn’t know it, he also began that November his final winter as both a mail carrier and deputy marshal.
On the bright side, he did manage to get married.
According to a 1991 series by Tom Kizzia in the Anchorage Daily News, the 40-something Ryan was in Kenai in 1907 to “petition” for permission to marry the 15-year-old cousin of church song-leader Alexis Ivanov. According to storekeeper William Dawson, Ryan’s young bride — who became known as Barbra Ryan — was the daughter of the village chief.
The 1910 U.S. Census for Kenai listed Barbra Ryan as a village resident, born in 1892, married for three years and living with her father. No husband was listed.
There was a good reason for the omission.
When the census was taken in Washington at the McNeil Island federal penitentiary, Alex Ryan was counted as an inmate. He was listed as age 45, a prison carpenter, and single.
Ryan was released from prison on July 30 — about five months prior to his scheduled discharge date — for good behavior. It is unclear when Ryan actually returned to Kenai, but Dawson said that Ryan returned home penniless and learned that his wife had died and his cabin had been stripped of most of its furnishings.
Dawson delightedly supplied these details to the Dolan sisters — schoolteachers in Kenai from 1911 to 1914 — because, they said, he was so proud of himself for orchestrating the entire affair.
It is important to note here that in their memoir the Dolans never recounted an uncivil encounter with Alex Ryan. In fact, more than once they referred to Ryan as “a fine intelligent citizen” or the like. Nevertheless, if Dawson’s braggadocios version of events held even a kernel of truth, his actions far exceeded what the Dolans called “one of his meanest pieces of rascality.”
One of his friends, Dawson told the sisters, had “coveted Alex’s wife” and had forced Ryan out of the village for a while. Dawson then had crafted a plan to remove Ryan from the scene for a more extended period.
“What better way than to accuse him of theft?” the Dolans wrote. “One of Bible Bill’s cronies planted a pair of dirty overalls and a cast-off shirt, belonging to some renegade white companion … in Alex’s cabin. His cronies were willing to testify Alex had stolen these clothes.”
Ryan had gone to trial — Dawson related “with great glee” — and been found guilty. He was sent away to McNeil Island prison for three years.
Well, not quite.
Although Dawson’s account failed to gibe with prison records, it did gain traction in the village. After the shootings in 1918, the Seward Gateway newspaper, using details supplied by two white Kenai residents, claimed that Ryan had served prison time for what was “said by some to have been a trumped-up charge” of grand larceny.
While it is possible that Ryan, in 1908, was actually accused of and stood trial for grand larceny, it was “willful and malicious destruction of personal property” for which he was convicted and imprisoned.
What is thus far lost to history is whether some false larceny charge — if it occurred at all — might have prompted Ryan to a destructive action resulting in his incarceration.
What is a matter of record is that Peter F. “Frenchy” Vian, a friend and future business partner with Bill Dawson, was the complaining witness at Ryan’s grand jury trial.
Dawson, the Dolans said, believed himself immensely clever for setting all of this into motion. But Ryan, they attested, “didn’t let this injustice embitter him. The life he led afterward vindicated him.”
A vindicated life for Alex Ryan is a doubtful conclusion. This story was far from over, and the Dolans were not on hand to witness its tragic conclusion.
They also did not part company with “Bible Bill” on the best of terms.
In November 1913, Alice Dolan and her now-married sister, Willietta Kuppler, were battling a severe measles outbreak among the Native residents of Kenai. In order to sustain their quarantining efforts, they attempted to close all public places of business, including Dawson’s saloon.
When he tore down their closure notices, U.S. Commissioner George W. Kuppler (Willietta’s husband and a former mining partner of Dawson) had Dawson arrested.
Six months later, as Dolan and the Kupplers were preparing to leave the state, George Kuppler himself was arrested, jailed and hauled away to trial. The charge of misappropriation of funds, relating to a fine he had apparently collected while presiding over a 1911 burglary case against Alex Ryan, was quickly dismissed by a Valdez grand jury.
A HOT-HEADED MAN
In August 1908 — 10 years before he was involved in two killings in Kenai — Cleveland L. Magill was arrested near his hometown of Dayton, Washington, for what an area newspaper called “the statutory charge of criminal intimacy with Ruth Heter, the 17-year-old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Heter.”
Cleve Magill, 23, and Ruth Heter, said the article, “had been going together for some time” when Ruth’s father filed charges against Magill and demanded that the two lovebirds stop seeing each other. The case was settled out of court.
Three years later, Magill was arrested again for further involvement with the Heter family. According to a June 10, 1911, article entitled “Cleve Magill Goes Gunning,” Magill was apprehended for chasing down and attempting to shoot Ruth Heter’s brother Dwight.
Apparently, said the paper, Magill’s ardor for Ruth had not waned, and when she returned to town “the flame (of passion) brightened in him.” Magill attempted to contact Ruth through Dwight’s wife, which incensed Dwight, who smacked Magill around in front of a Dayton hotel. Magill then located a pistol and “threatened to shoot anyone who interfered with him” as he sought vengeance on Dwight.
While the record of Cleve Magill, who was born in Dayton on Halloween 1884, may indicate a propensity for irrationality and a willingness to employ violence to solve his problems, he did not let those qualities stop him from career advancement.
In the fall of 1915, when he was 30, Magill moved to Alaska to become a teacher and chief administrator at the Kenai School. By November, one month after his 31st birthday, he was named U.S. Commissioner for the village.
In Kenai, Magill took little time to launch a letter-writing campaign to the territorial governor concerning problems with the school. In July 1916, he wrote to complain that the monthly salary originally promised to his two other teachers had been slashed nearly 17 percent.
The original salary, he argued, was “not unreasonable … owing to our isolation in winter, the class of people here and the immoral and inharmonious condition of the place.”
Magill was not complaining about the constituency of his school. In fact, he appeared to have few problems with his students or their families. Instead, as he intimated throughout his official correspondence, Kenai’s main problems were a disreputable collection of white men, their abuse of alcohol and their lawless tendencies.
“Experience last year,” he wrote, “has taught us that the majority of the white men living here are not to be trusted in any way.”
Battles had been waged for years over the control of alcohol — from Alex Ryan’s brewing of vodka to the opening and then forced closure of a saloon in the village, from the Russian priests’ formation of a Temperance Society to the drunken behavior of Ryan’s crowd and, later, of Bill Dawson’s.