Exerting control in Old Kenai — Part 6

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

A headline about the killings in Kenai, from the Seward Gateway on April 12, 1918. (Image courtesy Clark Fair)

A headline about the killings in Kenai, from the Seward Gateway on April 12, 1918. (Image courtesy Clark Fair)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth installment in a series about two killings that occurred in Kenai on April 8, 1918. Parts One through Four introduced three manipulative men — Alexander “Paddy” Ryan, William “Bible Bill” Dawson and Cleveland Magill — and demonstrated how the three men wove themselves into the fabric of Kenai and into conflict with each other. Part Five introduced a fourth man, Charles Coach, a Cook Inlet trapper who, on that fateful April day, would kill one of the other three.

Ballots and bullets

Cleveland Magill liked to be in control. Convinced that his actions were necessary to restore order and decency in Kenai, he justified his plan to rig a school board election and thereby exclude what he saw as the village’s undesirable, immoral elements.

William Dawson, one of the aforementioned undesirable elements, according to Magill, also liked to be in control.

Magill was in Dawson’s way, impeding his control of alcohol sales in the village and the management of the village school. Although it appears that Dawson may have been out of town on the day of the shootings — perhaps conveniently, given his reputation — he seemed, as usual, to have set into motion a series of unfortunate events.

Then there was Alexander Ryan, who had been in and out of control in Kenai for 20 years. Ryan had once had the run of Kenai — supplying illegal booze, acting as judge and jury while wreaking terror — until Russian priests fouled things up. Now Magill was in his way, so Ryan set out to disrupt the principal’s plans on the day of the school board election.

That day was Monday, April 8, 1918, the final day that Ryan and Magill would ever draw breath.

Magill knocked off early that afternoon from his school duties and began setting up for the election inside the schoolhouse. He started by personally hand-picking people to offer nominations for the board. As assistant postmaster for the village, he called upon the postmaster to nominate a chairman. The postmaster chose Magill, who then chose two other like-minded people to be on a three-person election committee. Those two men, in turn, chose Magill to be the committee’s third member.

Magill then called for nominations for school board officers and produced a ballot box and some ready-made ballots and began accepting votes. A few residents who came to vote that afternoon protested Magill’s machinations, but, with only minor hiccups in his plan, Magill proceeded to have his way.

Alex Ryan was more than a hiccup. He walked into the schoolhouse at about 3:30, despite having been warned earlier by Magill to stay away. Ryan demanded to vote. Magill refused.

Magill claimed Ryan had no right to vote since he was a former felon. Ryan called Magill a liar and probably came toward Magill with his fists raised.

From beneath his coat, Magill drew a pistol. He fired twice. The first shot penetrated the schoolhouse ceiling. The second shot pierced Ryan’s skull.

Rumors and disinformation spread quickly afterwards.

Some said Magill shot Ryan four times, with a killing shot through the heart. Some said Magill threatened everyone in the schoolhouse, while others claimed he calmly informed onlookers that he was prepared to “take care of” any of Ryan’s friends who might seek revenge.

The facts seemed to depend upon whose side each narrator of the story supported. The results, however, were the same: One man was dead. Another was soon to die. And the election continued with Ryan’s body left on the floor where it fell. Eventually someone covered the body with a sheet and moved it off to one side.

The election concluded, as scheduled, at 5:15.

The ballot box was sealed with the ballots inside. A short time later Magill — perhaps after a stop at the post office — headed for Dawson’s store.

Inside the store, according to an anti-Magill article in a Juneau paper more than a month later, Magill “was threatening the proprietor (in this case, Bill Dawson’s visiting brother Robert) if he discussed the killing.” A pro-Magill story published about the same time asserted that Magill asked Robert Dawson not to start “an uproar” and assured him that he had asked the postmaster to notify the authorities because he intended to surrender.

A pro-Ryan story in the Seward Gateway said Magill entered the store armed with two guns, then held out his hand to Dawson and said, “You and I are friends, and this need not effect (sic) our relationship.”

It was at this moment that Charles Coach, who was armed, spoke up from the back of the store. He ordered Magill to raise his hands.

Whether or not this command constituted informing Magill he was under arrest is debatable. Some swore that, although Ryan’s friends had urged ambushing Magill from a distance, Coach had argued against such action and had volunteered to apprehend the principal.

Alex Shadura, a longtime Kenai resident who was a young boy at the time of the shootings, said many years later that Ryan’s friends had drawn straws to see who would arrest Magill. Coach had drawn the shortest straw.

Regardless, it was generally agreed later that Magill did begin to raise his hands before suddenly reaching (or appearing to reach) for a gun. Coach fired once, striking Magill in the shoulder, and again, sending a bullet into his forehead above the left eye. The slug traveled through Magill’s brain and exited behind his right ear.

In one version of the story, Magill is said to have exclaimed between shots, “Don’t shoot anymore! You’ve got me, Charlie!” But Coach, “afraid to take chances,” fired again and finished him.

The pro-Ryan newspaper story added: Immediately after killing Magill, Coach turned to Robert Dawson and said, “Here I am. Tell the boys what I did and that I am ready to go and submit to arrest if that is required.”


A portion of the documentation during the probate hearings concerning the estate of Alexander Ryan. (Image courtesy Clark Fair)

A portion of the documentation during the probate hearings concerning the estate of Alexander Ryan. (Image courtesy Clark Fair)

Part of the grave marker for Cleveland L. Magill. (Photo courtesy Clark Fair)

Part of the grave marker for Cleveland L. Magill. (Photo courtesy Clark Fair)

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