Exerting control in Old Kenai — Part 5

The fifth installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918

  • Monday, February 8, 2021 9:41pm
  • Life
This is the official signature of Kenai School principal Cleveland L. Magill when he was serving as a U.S. Commissioner.

This is the official signature of Kenai School principal Cleveland L. Magill when he was serving as a U.S. Commissioner.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918. Parts One through Four introduced two manipulative storekeepers named Alexander “Paddy” Ryan and William “Bible Bill” Dawson, demonstrated how the two men wove themselves into the fabric of the community and into conflict with each other, and discussed the arrival of a third man, Cleveland Magill, a schoolteacher with a propensity for violence.

In late December 1916, Cleveland Magill — teacher, principal and U.S. Commissioner in Kenai — wrote to the territorial governor about “five ex-cons” who were living in Kenai. Although he did not identify any member of this criminal element by name, he called them the “seducers” of Kenai’s regular residents. He also claimed they were trying to take over the school — purportedly in order to exert more control within the community.

Magill proposed that “the reliable and responsible citizens” of Kenai be allowed to elect a more permanent school board to keep the baser elements of the community at bay. And he warned of dire consequences if Kenai were not somehow cleaned up.

His letters were rife with references to the need for more decency and morality, for sound education and discipline, for adequate law enforcement.

“As it stands,” he wrote, “I’m pretty much alone in this matter. Being the only representative of the law within one hundred miles, everything falls upon my shoulders. It is quite a strain, but all I care to know is that I will be sustained by your office, of course providing that I am right, in my efforts to better and build up this community.”

The governor praised Magill’s attempts to instill a higher level of morality, admitted that territorial finances currently did not allow him to provide Kenai with a deputy marshal, and asserted that Magill should avoid going beyond the law to accomplish his aims.

Perhaps for Magill, his efforts against the disreputable whites and his letter-writing campaign to the governor were more than a mere power play on his part. Perhaps he really did have in mind the good of the families involved in his feud. It is possible that he saw himself as the voice of those who could not speak for themselves.

After all, prior to 1915 Alaska Natives had had no clear path to citizenship and thus no real say in how they were governed. The Alaska Territorial Legislature that year made Native rights only tenuously more concrete when it passed the Native Citizenship Act.

The act granted the right to apply for citizenship in the territory to any Alaska Native who could obtain a certificate of endorsement from “at least five white citizens” and demonstrate that he or she had “sever(ed) all tribal relationships, a total abandonment of any tribal customs or relationships.”

Abandoning generations-old customs to accept the white man’s ways was hardly enticing for most.

Meanwhile, problems continued at the school. Conflicting versions exist concerning the root of these problems, but the bottom line was this: Teachers were not completing their contracts. Since just before Magill’s arrival, teachers had been resigning after only one year on the job. Then, during the 1917-18 term, two teachers resigned in mid-year, forcing Magill to scramble for replacements.

Poor or late remuneration may have been part of the problem, but Magill intimated that some fault may also have lain in his own prickly personality.

In a 1917 letter to the governor, he suggested that the resigning teachers may have felt “that I had neglected to tell them anything regarding my personal character and that ‘I am no gentleman.’”

Still, Magill placed the lion’s share of the blame on a “scandal here of two years ago” and on “the very party who perpetrated this scandal, W.N. Dawson.” He asserted that Dawson, about 70 years old at the time, “had been a frequent visitor” to the home of his female teachers in “an effort to ruin our school.”

“Dawson,” he added, “is assisted by one . Ryan. These men are not only enemies to the school, but to everything lawful and decent.”

If Dawson, then a storekeeper for the Cook Inlet Commercial Company, and Ryan, an area fisherman, were indeed in cahoots — and if, indeed, Dawson had truly conspired back in 1908 to send Ryan to prison — they must have mended any personal rancor and pledged to unite against Magill.


One of the characters in this story who played a small but vital role — and who has been difficult to understand, due to a paucity of information — was Charles Coach.

Coach was responsible for one of the dead bodies placed side by side in a Kenai cabin after the shootings of April 8, 1918. That afternoon he shot one of them. Witnesses to the killing claimed Coach had acted in self-defense.

Most, if not all, of those witnesses were friends of William Dawson.

Considerable speculation has revolved around Coach’s role and his personal connections to witnesses and to those who died that day. Some have even pondered whether Coach had the right to do what witnesses claimed he had attempted to do — perform an arrest.

Some argued that Coach “was authorized to arrest” the man he shot, while others asserted that he was not a citizen of the United States and therefore had no legal right to arrest anyone.

“Charles Coach” was almost certainly an Americanized version of the name this man was born with.

According to U.S. Census records, Coach was born in Austria in 1881 to German-speaking parents who had also been born in Austria. Perhaps he had been born Karl Koch or Karl Kotz, or something similar; thus far, no definitive records have emerged to confirm his original identity.

In March 1916, Coach had visited Seward and soon appeared in two small articles in the Seward Gateway. In one he related a funny story about longtime Kenai and Tustumena resident Charles “Windy” Wagner. In the other he reported on a quartz vein being developed by Ray Curtis into a gold mine on upper Tustumena Lake.

The latter story stated that Coach had last been in Seward in 1911 and had been in the Kenai district since then.

Census records also indicate that he immigrated to the United States in 1909 and by the time he was nearly 40 years old he had still not been naturalized. After the killings, Coach was described variously with phrases such as “an old time trapper” and “a crippled trapper, but a powerful man.”

The two Kenai men who first mushed all the way to Seward to report the 1918 shootings told U.S. Deputy Marshal Isaac Evans that Coach would have accompanied them to town if not for his unspecified physical handicap, which they claimed prevented him from riding on a dogsled.

Some articles, depending usually upon the slant of the witnesses, varied the number of shots Coach had fired. A Seward Gateway article of April 12, for instance, said Coach shot his victim four times; most stories insisted on two. Some said Coach was waiting for his victim; others said he followed his victim to the place he killed him.

In late April, a coroner’s jury in Seldovia exonerated Coach and even recommended a commendation because he had eliminated an oppressive presence in Kenai. Although Coach himself requested a hearing before a grand jury in Valdez, the Seldovia jury termed the shooting a “justifiable homicide.”

Of course, the victim’s friends and family saw things differently.

An article the following month in the victim’s hometown paper said Coach had impersonated an officer. It called the shooting nothing more than “premeditated murder.”


This headline about the killings in Kenai appeared in the Cordova Daily Times four days after the incident.

This headline about the killings in Kenai appeared in the Cordova Daily Times four days after the incident.

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