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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fred Clayson, the Christmas Day Murders 1899, and Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland

We last read of Esther Clayson’s brother Fred in Skagway, Alaska as a new gold rush arrival from Portland in August 1897. Fred soon prospered as a risk-taking outfitter and head of F. H. Clayson and Company [pictured here in an advertisement in Skagway newspapers reprinted in Howard Clifford, The Skagway Story (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing, 1975), 44]. By the fall of 1899 he had saved some $40,000 by Esther’s estimate, enough to make him a millionaire in today’s dollars.

Fred was heading from Dawson, Yukon to Skagway in December 1899 via bicycle – a new fad for traveling on the iced trails – and disappeared on Christmas Day, December 25, 1899. The family hired a private detective, Philip Maguire, to assist the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with the investigation. The Oregonian interviewed Esther for a story on January 19, 1900 (“May Have Been Murdered” p. 8) when it became apparent that her missing brother had probably been murdered and featured this likeness of Fred.

Fred’s body and the bodies of two other men murdered with him were found in the Yukon River after spring thaws – Fred’s on May 30, 1900. George O’Brien was convicted for their murders by a Dawson, Yukon jury and he was hanged on August 31, 1901.

After a send-off funeral in Skagway by the Arctic Brotherhood, a Yukon/Alaska fraternal organization, Esther’s mother Annie brought Fred’s body back to Portland and buried him in the plot that would become the resting place of many in the family, including Esther, at Lone Fir Cemetery. Annie planted holly trees there to commemorate her youngest son’s death on Christmas Day. The holly trees still guard the family plot.

In Esther’s view, written in notes for an autobiography at Historical Collections & Archives at OHSU, “the short life of my brother was far more significant than his tragic death and more thrilling in its living realities than the detective stories founded upon his murder.” And there were and are many such detective stories. See, for example:
Henry Woodside, “The Great Yukon Murder Case,” Wide World Magazine 8 no 44 (December 1901): 154-162
Allan Curtis, “Christmas Day Murders,” Canadian West 13 (Fall 1988): 81-85 and 14 (Winter 1988): 126-133
Ed Ferrell, Frontier Justice: Alaska 1898: The Last American Frontier (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2007), 5-11.

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