Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Murder, 126 Years Old

It may be the season for spookiness, but regardless of the season, visitors to the museum frequently ask if there is a resident ghost. And while I cannot tell you definitively if a spirit dwells in this old log building, I can tell you that there is plenty of cause for a haunting. And if this ghost were to appear, the date is fast approaching. For it was 126 years ago, on November 1, 1886, that magazin-resident Benjamin McIntyre was killed at his dining room table.

As gruesome as it is, this story also happens to be one of my favorite to tell, not only because it is gripping, but because the murder itself provides an incisive glimpse into the characters and livelihoods in Kodiak, less than 20 years after it became part of the U.S. Plus, during my recent research trip to the Alaska and Polar Regions Collection at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I was able to track down a few “new” trails of evidence. Yes, that’s me, a Kodiak history detective.
Benjamin McIntyre, General Agenct of the
Kodiak District of the Alaska Commercial
Company, P-683.

To begin, let me introduce the cast of characters.

Benjamin McIntyre was the General Agent for the Alaska Commercial Company’s Kodiak District. Hailing from Vermont, McIntyre was responsible for the operations of the wide-reaching trading enterprise. The AC Co. (as it was known), in many ways filled the shoes of the business enterprises of the Russian-American Company. The business funded sea otter hunting expeditions, traded and sold furs, operated general stores, functioned as a credit agency and bank, delivered the mail, and in general was the main American entity in what was still very much a Alutiiq/Russian town.  McIntyre lived in the magazin, had a wife and three children.

Peter Anderson was a trapper, hunter and fisherman from the River Don region of Russia. He owned a sloop. Anderson was the suspected murderer and described by Ivan Petroff (see below) as having “a red, course face almost hidden in beard and unkempt shock of black hair, joined almost without neck to an herculean body with immense breadth of shoulders.”   

Benjamin Woche was the Alaska Commercial Company storekeeper in Kaguyak (abandoned following the 1964 earthquake and tsunami). Mr. Woche first came to Kodiak in 1867 with the US Army, which established Fort Kodiak. By 1870, the Army had left Kodiak, but Woche stayed and married a local woman.   

Heywood Seton-Karr was a British mountaineer, explorer, and writer. He was in Kodiak at the time of the murder, awaiting the schooner Kodiak’s return voyage to San Francisco.

H.P. Cope was the storekeeper at Kodiak’s AC Co. general store. This Englishman became Kodiak’s first postmaster, took the 1910 census for the island, and has a street named after him today.

The Kodiak's Custom House in
the late 1800s. Kodiak Historical
Society, P 399-1.
Ivan Petroff was the assistant Collector of Customs in Kodiak. Petroff was responsible for undertaking the first census of Alaska in 1880 and also worked on the 1890 census. He was Russian, a journalist, and a counterfeiter of historic documents. He gathered and translated materials used by historian H.H. Bancroft in the early and foundational History of Alaska and was caught falsifying translations that were used in an international tribunal. To most historians of Alaska, Petroff is a source of utter frustration.

W.E. Roscoe was one of the earliest Baptist missionaries in the region. He and his family laid much of the groundwork for the creation of the Woody Island Baptist Mission. Roscoe was not present for the murder, but performed McIntyre’s last rights immediately following the shooting.

Efka Pestrikoff worked as a servant for the McIntyre family in the magazin. He was a local Alutiiq man. His daughter, Natalia, worked as a cook and housekeeper for the Erskine family within the same building several decades after the murder.

Recounting the Gruesome Deed

“He scowled at me and as he scowled I began to feel sick and faint,” McIntyre told Petroff about his first encounter with Peter Anderson, his assassin. After their first meeting, McIntyre reported feeling “out of sorts ever since.” Did McIntyre sense he had met his murderer? Or later, as Petroff wrote the account, was Petroff merely trying to make a good story better?

The Alaska Commercial Company store and wharf,
where the Tustumena docks today. Kodiak Historical
Society, P. 399-4.
Soon after arriving in Kodiak, Anderson asked McIntyre to outfit him for a sea otter hunting trip. This was not an uncommon request. The AC Co would supply sea otter hunters with necessary goods, including food and arms, on credit for their trapping and hunting expeditions. Often, the company would send Alutiiq sea otter hunters with the white vessel owners to hunt, as well. The hunters were expected to sell the captured pelts to the AC Co, thus paying off their debts and coming out at the end of the transaction with more goods or cash.  As he would with any sea otter hunter, McIntyre outfitted Anderson, who then departed.

However, Anderson returned empty handed. It wasn’t unheard of for trappers and hunters to return without pelts- in fact, I found several instances in Alaska Commercial Company ledgers from the 1870s and 1880s that some hunters ended the season in debt to the company.

Anderson went to McIntyre again, asking for traps, munitions, and other supplies so that he could spend the winter trapping. Giving Anderson the benefit of the doubt, McIntyre instructed the store to provide the requested materials. However, according to one account, Anderson “set the traps but failed to look after them and didn’t even go to take them up when the trapping season was over. He used up all the supplies but didn’t go hunting either.” Again, Anderson returned to Kodiak without a pelt to put down to pay off his debts to the company. Multiple accounts verify the fact that Anderson was either too lazy or negligent to hunt. Spiridon Stepanoff, Alutiiq Creole from Eagle Harbor recounted in an oral history recorded in 1969 that “he wouldn’t do nothing!”

Accounts vary if McIntyre outfitted Anderson for another voyage after the second failed attempt. He did return on his last hunting trip outfitted by the Alaska Commercial Company without a fur in sight, and his vessel had gained an eerie appearance. Two accounts provide this sinister image - one claimed Anderson’s sloop was rigged with black sails, another that his sails were made from blue drill cloth. Whatever the material, his dark-sailed vessel presented an unsettling image in St. Paul’s harbor.   Anderson demanded to be outfitted again, but this time McIntyre refused.

Anderson’s sloop was not alone in the harbor. The Alaska Commercial Company owned schooner Kodiak was making preparations to sail to San Francisco on November 2. It appears that McIntyre was planning on departing for the winter on the vessel. He was to join Heywood Seton-Karr on the journey, an English explorer who had recently attempted an ascent of Mount St. Elias. According to the daily cash record kept at the AC Co. store, on October 28, Seton-Karr purchased a “colosh basket and mats,” examples of Tlingit basketry. (This same cash record informs us that McIntyre was a smoker of pipe tobacco.)

In Spiridon Stepanoff’s telling of the story, McIntyre ordered the slaughtering of a cow. “Won’t you give me a little piece for my supper?” asked Anderson, to which McIntyre responded, “Ah! You! You’re not my man. You’re not working man. You don’t do nothing! You don’t get nothing from me! You get home!”

The window likely obliterated by Anderson's buckshot.
At 6 PM, a group gathered for dinner in the McIntyre home, the magazin. Customs Collector Ivan Petroff, storekeeper H.P Cope, explorer Seton-Karr, and Kaguyak storekeeper Benjamin Woche (in town awaiting instructions for the winter), gathered around the table, as Efka Pestrikoff, servant in the McIntyre home, was busy with household matters.  “Suddenly there came a loud explosion, a crashing and jingling of glass and something whizzed by my nose creating quite a current of air…. The station agent was groaning under the table and when I turned to my left I saw M—still sitting in his chair, with a pleasant smile lighting up his open honest features. But from under his chin on one side, the bright red blood came oozing out,” wrote Petroff.

“But he shot. Buckshot. Back, shot him, bang, bang, two shots,” recounted Stepanoff.

It was “a fiend who fired through the window with a breech-loading double barreled shotgun,” wrote Wesley Roscoe. “Mr. McEntyre (sic) was killed so suddenly that he did not move…he was just taking something to his mouth--- and his head did not even fall to the table.” Mr. Roscoe  arrived immediately after the shooting and performed McIntyre’s last rights.

The spray of buckshot hit Woche, who “fell under the table, and then rushed out streaming with blood in torrents, for he was shot through the lower part of the head,” wrote Seton-Karr in his book, Shores and Alps of Alaska published in 1887.

In the chaos of the instant, no one saw the murderer, although there was an immediate suspect- Anderson. He had a violent reputation and terrified the townspeople. His boat was found ashore, untied, the next day, although he and his gun were missing. And everyone knew that McIntyre had refused to extend him further credit. The next day, Cope wrote to inform the San Francisco office of the murder. He wrote that they “were entirely at a loss to locate the” perpetrator, but it was generally thought to be “a man named Peter Anderson who arrived on a sloop of that name from Sitka last year. Today I think that our conclusion was a correct one, as the man has not been seen all day. A thorough search was made without success so far….The man was seen at the back of the dwelling house a few minutes before 6 pm but nothing was thought strange… The whole town is very much shocked and I think I can say that Mr. McIntyre has the respect of all who knew him both American and native.” A manhunt ensued, but Anderson was never seen again.

The next day, the injured Woche, the shaken Seton-Karr, and the corpse of McIntyre were loaded on the schooner Kodiak, which sailed for San Francisco. The surviving cash record shows that on board the Kodiak was food for the journey, purchased the day after the murder, including 168 pounds of fresh beef. This was quite possibly part of the same cow that McIntyre refused to surrender to Anderson the day before.  

But the story continues! In 1917, The Valdez Miner asserted “Bones of Kodiak Murderer Found.” The skeletal remains of a man with a shotgun were found near the town of Kodiak- the shot gun shells matched those that had been salvaged from the dining room following the murder. Many believed that the bones were all that were left of Peter Anderson.

Natalia Pestrikoff, the the left. P 368-1-2.
And McIntyre, what of his spirit? Natalia Pestrikoff, daughter of McIntyre’s servant Efka, worked for many years for the Erskine family. Her domain was the kitchen. She swore that the magazin was haunted, so much so that she refused to sleep within the Erskine’s home. For Natalia and other Kodiak residents, strange sounds within the magazin were certainly McIntyre’s ghost. One time, the errant sound was a moaning cow, but as Carolyn Erskine Andrews recounted, “Once more MacIntyre’s (sic) ghost was routed but he never remained peacefully away for long.”

While the lingering presence of McIntyre’s murdered spirit continues to be debated, there is a legacy that remains. Petroff wrote that “the window, which opened upon a narrow alley, was almost demolished, both frame and glass being shattered…” As carpenter Don Corwin restored the magazin’s historic windows, one was distinct from those around it- the one that Anderson’s buckshot had obliterated.

So is the magazin haunted? Just this weekend, someone left a note in a museum gallery, claiming they had seen a ghost as they left the bathroom. Was this a trick, the result of an overactive imagination, or McIntyre’s restless spirit? I can’t say for sure… but I must run, as I am the only one left in the magazin and the sun is dipping in the horizon…

Alaska Commercial Company Records, 1868-1913.  Rasmuson Library Alaska and Polar Regions Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Andrews, Carolyn Erskine. Faraway Island: Childhood in Alaska. Great Bay Press, 2000.

Jeffrey, Susan M. A Legacy Built to Last: Kodiak's Russian American Magazin. Kodiak Historical
Society, 2008.

Karr, Heywood Seton. Shores & Alps of Alaska. London: Sapson Low, Marston. Searle & Rivington, 1887.

Partnow, Patricia. "Alutiiq Ethnicity." PhD diss. University of Alaska Fairbanks, 1993.

Roscoe, Fred. From Humboldt to Kodiak, 1886-1895. Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1992.


  1. What an interesting story. In the book, "Ten years travel & sport in foreign lands: or Travels in the Eighties By Heywood Walter Seton-Karr", on page 207, Seton-Karr claims that Peter Anderson was perhaps an assumed name and the man suspected of murder was also known as "Ralph, the Russian".

  2. VERY interesting, I thoroughly enjoyed your research.