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Whitman shines light on a 'dark chapter' of Alaska history

Posted: October 26, 2013 - 11:07pm
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“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

— Rudyard Kipling

Historian and storyteller are generally understood to be two different things: serious researcher versus imaginative tale-spinner. But local librarian Mark Whitman embodies both roles in equal measure, reuniting the terms’ shared etymology in presentations that combine meticulous historical research with an engaging narrative.

In his talks, Whitman brings history to life by focusing on the idiosyncratic and fascinating dynamics of human personality and interaction. His historical profiles, which he has shared with Juneau audiences through presentations at the Alaska State Museum and Juneau-Douglas City Museum over the years, have included in-depth studies of Richard “Dick” Willoughby and Chew Chung Thui “China Joe.” On Friday he introduced a standing-room-only crowd at the state museum to his most recent subject, the Birch brothers, three ne’er-do-wells who arrived in Douglas in 1886.

Accompanied by music from the Beat Bros. (Bob Banghart on fiddle and Jack Fontanella on banjo), Whitman addressed his audience dressed in period attire, whiskey bottle at his side. Following an exploration of that commodity’s important role in Western expansion, not just in Alaska but everywhere, Whitman set the stage for his characters with historical photos of the familiar streets of downtown Douglas.

Douglas was a pretty rough place in the late 1880s, Whitman said, full of saloons and “female boarding houses” where men would gather to spend the money they’d earned at the Treadwell mine, which opened in the early 1880s. Into this mix came the three Birch brothers, Slim, Kid and Bob. Bar owners, liquor smugglers and gamblers, the brothers were among the roughest of the rough at that time.

“The boys had a shadow side that was dark for even Douglas,” Whitman said during Friday’s presentation.

Slim Birch was particularly bad news. Missing a pinky finger on his right hand, and with a scar on his nose, Slim stared out at the Alaska State Museum audience from a historical photo as if daring them to judge him.

Slim and his brothers opened a saloon in downtown Douglas, right near where the old washeteria now stands, and were in and out of trouble with the law from the beginning. Finally, after a bad bar brawl in which he bit off part of someone’s nose, Slim was convicted for the crime of “mayhem” and sentenced to three years at San Quentin. But before he could be sent down to California, four masked men broke him out of the jail in Juneau and he fled to Admiralty Island, where he holed up in a cabin near Bear Creek.

The man who went after him was U.S. Deputy Marshal William C. Watts — the person Whitman considers to be the heart of the Birch brothers story — the counterbalance to their darkness, and the embodiment of Douglas residents’ desire to make their streets safe.

In Whitman’s narrative, Watts comes across as colorfully as his villains — smashing barrels of smuggled liquor in the snows of the Chilkoot Pass, following a fugitive out a window of the courthouse in Juneau before the breaking glass had even hit the ground and, ultimately, lying in the snow outside the cabin on Admiralty Island after finding Slim Birch’s hiding place, mortally wounded and turning the snow red around him.

Watts’ death and a desire to honor his memory is one of the reasons Whitman pursued the topic in the first place, he said.

“I have been driven to share this story with you so the sacrifice of this man won’t be forgotten,” he said.

This desire was reinforced by the fact that Watts’ murderers served no time for the crime. When Slim Birch was finally brought to trial, with partner in crime Hiram Schell, the jury found them not guilty: the marshals had failed to identify themselves properly when they approached the Bear Creek cabin, they said.

“Three years for a fight and not a day for a murder,” Whitman said.

The historical photos Whitman selected to accompany his talk sometimes juxtaposed historical scenes of Douglas with their modern counterparts, reminding those in the audience that these events took place on the streets we now walk, and not so long ago.

In a previous Empire interview in 2010, Whitman said, “Layer over layer, like sedimentary rock, history has happened.”

Thanks to Whitman, some of those layers have been revealed for us to see. These are our stories, he reminded his audience. It is up to us to remember them.

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