A Judge's Life

Opened for the world to read

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2005

James Wickersham came to Alaska more than a century ago, armed with legal training, political aspirations and the organizational skills and persistence to write things down every day. Now the folksy, pioneering judge's straight-talking musings - and their glimpse into frontier Alaska - are available on the Internet.

"You can see what he is going through," said Mary Anne Slemmons at the Alaska State Library in the State Office Building downtown after going through eight years worth of his diaries. She said she figured out how to read his handwriting while she was transcribing it to be posted on the Internet.

James Simard, a librarian working with Alaska's Digital Archive, puts on white gloves to read the actual books. With both the handwritten pages and the transcripts viewable online, he said the writings are a great addition to the library's Web site at http://vilda.alaska.edu.

The diaries detail the personal life of Wickersham, a man born in Illinois who came to Alaska as federal judge in 1900, for a district stretching from Eagle to Valdez. Later he was elected as Alaska's territorial delegate in Congress and practiced law in Juneau. His Juneau home is designated as a state historic site.

"He really said what he thought," said Gladi Kulp, the library's curator of collections. "He didn't really hold back."

The writings also document his opinions of the things that went on in his court. Slemmons cited a quote from May, 16, 1902, about one married couple who came before him. "Gave both parties my honest opinion of their vile actions and a divorce - although it is a shame to spoil two houses with them," Wickersham wrote.

Slemmons said she liked Wickersham's way with words. In a folksy manner, he referred to "getting my teeth dentistried," but he didn't hold back about the world around him.

"Love is blind, but the neighbors are not," Wickersham wrote in 1907.

Kulp said that every now and then, she gets the feeling Wickersham was writing for history.

Web links

• To find the James Wickersham diaries, visit http://vilda.alaska.edu to get to Alaska's Digital Archive. Type Wickersham diaries into the search box on the left side of the page to bring up diary entries.

Click on the desired diary to bring up its image. Click on the link next to HTML FULL TEXT to bring up the diary entries.

Wickersham's Fairbanks Miner can be reached by typing in Wickersham Miner for search.

In both cases, people can call up copies of the original documents or transcripts.

He was also around for momentous events and more serious history, going into Nome to clean up the mess created by a corrupt federal judge who defrauded Nome's first successful gold miners of their claims.

The most weather-beaten of the diaries covers Wickersham's 1903 Denali expedition. To pay for the trip, he put out the first issue of the Fairbanks Miner - "published occasionally," a notice explained, "by a stampeder who is waiting for the snow to melt and the ice to go out of the rivers."

Copies of the eight-page publication sold for $5. "If you don't like our style, fly your kite and produce your .30-.30," the newspaper explained above an editorial demanding that people stop killing moose.

The Miner issue, now available for free online, was entirely Wickersham's work, Simard said. One story tells of a character named Windy Jim and his dog Doughnuts. Windy Jim claimed that he once clung to Doughnuts' tail to get out of a log jam and on another adventure had to cut the tail off and make it into soup when no other food was available.

At least Doughnuts got to gnaw on the bone, the story said.

"He delighted in people and their stories," Simard said, noting that he wrote a reference in his diary to hearing of the dog-tail tale two months before the paper came out. "He had a love of the stories the old-timers told."

In that regard, Wickersham, who would later publish a bibliography of Alaska literature, was doing in the early 20th century what the online archive is doing at the beginning of the 21st, Simard noted.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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