Book review: 'Compliments To The Bear'

“Compliments to the Bear: Adventures of an Alaska Prohibition Agent,” by Judith Ripley.

 

After many years partnering with her husband in the graphics and printing business in Juneau and raising three children, the author has finally found the time to transcribe the diaries Agent Warren S. Harding kept during the six years he was an Alaska Prohibition agent, part of the national alcohol prohibition law enacted in 1920.

Harding had a difficult time. Prohibition was not popular, although in 1918 alcohol had been banned in Alaska under the Bone Dry Law, which was regularly ignored in most towns. The intent of the law was to stop the supply and arrest and punish enough lawbreakers to make the ordinary populace behave. In Juneau he began as a town police officer, but in 1923 was appointed an agent, one of a handful that had to patrol the entire Territory, no matter what the weather or the distances involved.

This book details the hardships and rare triumphs Harding underwent, from difficult fellow agents to angry bootleggers and town drunks. The style is relaxed and very humorous at times, obviously written by a lifetime resident of Alaska. Harding’s diaries are frequently quoted, with background added if necessary.

On the humorous side, there was an encounter with two brown bears near Juneau, one of which attacked Harding, forcing him to play dead while the bear used its claws and ended with his friend shooting at the two bears, then sitting high on a tree limb. The town thought this hilarious; the title of the book is taken from a headline in the paper.

An early informer in Ketchikan, a heavy drinker, told an agent he would take him. under an alias, around to all the poolrooms, gambling joints, speakeasies, etc. The plan was to buy drinks, then be reimbursed for the cost plus $2 for each place where they were successful. Nothing happened, but next day the informer told Harding his plan was successful. He had told all the places he’d take the agent there so they could see him. No drinks were sold, but the informer collected $38.00 and all the booze he could carry.

Ketchikan was an important port because nearly all the commercial alcohol came in from Canada, which didn’t have prohibition and happily exported liquor.

It was also common for seized liquor to be taken by U.S. officials, including the agents.

The book continues with poor Harding and other agents being terribly bitten by the voracious mosquitos of the Interior while floating down rivers in the summer, long walks through the terrible winds and snow in the Interior winters, and human problems, from prostitutes to bootleggers a regular occurrence all over Alaska.

Sadly, the book ends with Harding, who never married, spending the last part of his life in the Sitka Pioneer’s Home, a lonely and withdrawn man.

The reader, who has become familiar with Warren and by now truly likes him, is left wishing someone could have become a great friend or even a wife in those last sad years. You’ll know why when you read the book.

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