An Alaska murder and hanging: The Lituya Bay incident that inspired Jack London
Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
“It is a simple matter to see the obvious, to do the expected. The tendency of the individual life is to be static rather than dynamic, and this tendency is made into a propulsion by civilization, where the obvious only is seen, and the unexpected rarely happens. When the unexpected does happen, however, and when it is of sufficiently grave import, the unfit perish. They do not see what is not obvious, are unable to do the unexpected, are incapable of adjusting their well-grooved lives to other and strange grooves. In short, when they come to the end of their own groove, they die. On the other hand, there are those that make toward survival, the fit individuals who escape from the rule of the obvious and the expected and adjust their lives to no matter what strange grooves they may stray into, or into which they may be forced.”
Jack London first published these words in 1906, the opening to the short story “The Unexpected.” As with many across the country, the onset of the Klondike gold rush caused a severe case of gold fever. And like most other would-be prospectors, his brief experience in Alaska and Canada was disappointing, marked by disease and pain rather than fortunes found. While the fabled goldfields failed to meet expectations, he could never forget the scenery and culture, so vibrantly had they been burned into his mind.
Over the years, the “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang” author repeatedly pulled from his experiences and other tales of the North to fuel his writings. He collected newspaper clippings and hoarded stories of Alaska. In this way, “The Unexpected” is one of many. In a different way, it stands out. London claimed it was based on a true story of murder and frontier justice. Yet, the details were so shocking that some readers, including many Alaskans, accused London of fabricating the narrative entirely. But, unfortunately for those involved, there really was a murder during the cold 1899 winter at Lituya Bay and, ultimately, a hangman’s rope for the murderer.
Jack London photographed in 1916, shortly before his death. The most highly-paid and most widely read writer of his time, Jack London is still the most widely translated American writer. (AP Photo)
Lituya Bay, a seven-mile-long, two-mile-wide fjord roughly a hundred miles southeast of Yakutat, has a history of tragedies and disasters. In 1786, 21 French explorers died there, their ships torn apart by breakers in the narrow entrance to the bay. The expedition leader, Jean François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse, wrote, “Nothing remained for us but to quit with speed a country that had proved so fatal.” On July 9, 1958, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake caused a landslide that, in turn, created a megatsunami that killed two people on a fishing boat in the bay.
[‘It looks like the end of the world’: The Alaska earthquake that generated the largest tsunami in recorded history]
However, there was also gold at Lituya Bay, in the sands on the shore as at Nome. Though vastly overshadowed by gold rushes elsewhere, there were more or less consistent efforts at mining the beaches from 1888 to 1917. In 1899, those endeavors were run by the Lituya Bay Gold Placer Mining Co. That fall, the company left five people as property caretakers for the winter: husband and wife Hans and Hannah Nelson, Fragnalia Stefano, Sam Christianson, and Martin Severts.
The Nelsons lived away from the rest, on a creek near Lituya Bay, but everyone typically met in their cabin to eat. On Oct. 6, 1899, they had dinner as usual, though, after eating, Severts unaccountably and surprisingly left early while the rest continued to chat. London here suggests that the crew joked about his lost appetite. According to a 1906 Christianson account, “In a short time (Severts) returned and opening the door leveled a .45 Colt’s revolver at Stefano (Harkey) and shot him dead.” Severts swiveled his aim toward Christianson and fired. The shot went wide but ricocheted off a graniteware mug and grazed Christianson’s neck. “I was so stunned that I fell to the floor,” said Christianson.
Severts then targeted Hannah, but Hans grabbed his arm. As they wrestled, the gun went off, the shot hitting Severts in the leg. Per Christianson, “Mrs. Nelson then sprang at him and throwing a towel or dish cloth around his neck, choked him until Nelson overpowered him.”
A news article from the Seattle Daily Times published Oct. 28, 1906 with a picture of Hans and Hannah Nelson. The Nelsons were involved stopping and apprehending Martin Severts following a murder in Lituya Bay in 1899.
Hannah told the Seattle Times in 1906, “Tearing a roller towel from the wall, I wound it around Severts’ neck and pinioned him to the floor. At this he dropped the revolver, which he was trying to shoot my husband with, and indicated that he wanted to speak. I let him get up, and he told me to take the revolver, that he had done enough.”
Severts likely intended to steal the $800 of gold they had gathered, but the lack of clarity regarding his motivations confused Christianson and the Nelsons. Said Christianson, “We all did everything in our power to have Severts explain to us why he wished to kill us but he would never say. When asked if it was for the money they had ... his only reply was ‘may be.’ There was never a cross word among us and it was the most ‘unexpected’ thing in the world.”
Damage from the 1958 Lituya Bay megatsunami can be seen in this aerial photograph of Lituya Bay, Alaska as the lighter areas at the shore where trees have been stripped away. The red arrow shows the location of the landslide, and the yellow arrow shows the location of the high point of the wave sweeping over the headland. (D.J. Miller / USGS / Public Domain)
The Nelsons buried Stefano in a shallow grave the next day, but that was the least of their concerns. Until they could rid themselves of the responsibility, they had trapped themselves with a murderer. With the winter season begun, ship traffic past the bay diminished, and no visitors were expected until the spring. They tried signaling passing ships, but none stopped. As the stress of the situation climbed, they paid local Tlingits to watch Severts, but after around 10 days, they passed him back.
The Nelsons and Christianson conferred and agreed their best remaining option was to execute Severts, an extralegal choice that accelerated his most likely fate. Several accounts, including the 1906 version by Hannah Nelson, claim Severts requested hanging. Per one version of the story, Severts was hanged on the beach on Oct. 26, 1899. In early 1900, the Nelsons traveled to Juneau, where they turned themselves in to authorities but were quickly exonerated for the execution.
Around the same time, the news quickly began to spread. In May, the first newspaper accounts of the murder and hanging were published. As the tale traveled, the details evolved, partly due to desires for more sensational retellings. On Oct. 14, 1900, the San Francisco Examiner published an especially lurid version of the story in its Sunday magazine supplement. The article was titled “Woman Hangs a Man and the Law Upholds Her.” In 1900, this type of crude grasp for the reader’s attention was called yellow journalism, what might be called clickbait today.
The Examiner article was riddled with inaccuracies. For example, it claimed two men died instead of one and gave Severts’ name as Michael Dennin. Most notably, the anonymous author claimed Hannah Nelson led Severts to his execution with a rifle at his back, then placed the noose around his neck. Per her later account, she “took no part” in the hanging. The idea of a female executioner sold more newspapers. Unfortunately, many historians have since credulously accepted the Examiner article as accurate.
The Examiner article was also the direct inspiration for Jack London’s “The Unexpected,” as he himself admitted. London’s story also features two deaths and names the murderer Michael Dennin. Most of the other names were changed. Hannah, Stefano, and Christianson became Edith, Harkey, and Dutchy, respectively. For an unknown reason, Hans Nelson remained Hans Nelson. He also made a few other alterations to increase tension, like increasing the $800 at stake to $8,000. Hans also savagely beats Severts/Dennin, a “Beserker rage” that frightens Hannah/Edith.
Though London exaggerated aspects, some core of the story remained true. However, a critical Seattle Post-Intelligencer article accused him of lying, that his claim of historical accuracy was a shallow attempt to sell more copies. “Not a single Alaskan can be found who knows that the incidents happened,” declared the article. “Men familiar with all of the West Alaska coast, who have mined and tramped and paddled along the stretch from Yakutat to Lituya bay, have never even heard of such a thing.”
If the Post-Intelligencer was operating in good faith, they merely found a poor, nonrepresentative sample of Alaskans. Regardless of intentions, they clearly and quickly heard from many Alaskans more in the know. The next day, the newspaper printed a retraction on its front page. The article stated, “Substantially all the details of the story have been corroborated by persons who assert that they are familiar with the facts. They say that Jack London has embellished somewhat, and has drawn upon his vivid imagination for suitable local color, but that in the main his powerful story is a true one.”
Alaskans today are well familiar with the core lesson here. Some Alaska stories are so rich, strange, and unique that, without suitable documentation, they defy belief and are mistaken for fiction.
“Declare London’s Story Authentic.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 29, 1906, 1, 9.
Fradkin, Philip L. Wildest Alaska; Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.
“Hanged at His Own Request.” [Juneau] Alaska Record-Miner, May 5, 1900, 1.
“Heroine of Jack London’s Tale in City.” Seattle Times, October 27, 1906, 1.
Hunt, William R. Distant Justice: Policing the Alaskan Frontier. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.
“Jack London’s Story.” [Sitka] Alaskan, October 13, 1906, 1.
“London’s Story is Not Credited.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 28, 1906, 1, 4.
“Woman Hangs a Man and the Law Upholds Her.” San Francisco Examiner, Sunday Examiner Magazine, October 14, 1900.