The surprising way Seattle used to deal with street harassment

Hobos, street harassers, pimps, young vagrants .... Seattle didn't take kindly to them in the early 20th century.

Crosscut archive image.

Prisoners of the Beacon Hill stockade work on the Jefferson Park golf course in 1915. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives)

Hobos, street harassers, pimps, young vagrants .... Seattle didn't take kindly to them in the early 20th century.

Seattle's chain gang and vagrancy enforcement focused on the thousands of men who came through the area in the late 19th- and 20th-centuries, most of them seasonal laborers and migrants looking for work.

A large percentage of this mostly male diaspora were young men and boys. Many youths hit the road looking for employment and adventure, among them two teenagers, Jack London and Carl Sandburg. Historians have documented the social make up of "Hobohemia" and tramp culture — and its various subcultures.

Many of the transients were boys in their mid-teens ("punks") and they often fell in with older men ("jockers") who both mentored and sometimes exploited them. This "jocker" and "punk" relationship, which often had a strong homosexual element, would later be studied by turn-of-the-century sociologists.

Also included in tramp culture were young runaways and male youths involved in prostitution — either by pimping out their girlfriends or engaging in sex acts themselves. In fact, punks often "commercialized themselves" and sold sex to other men during time spent settled in Skid Road areas. The vagrancy laws covered all of them and many arrests for homosexual behavior were prosecuted under vagrancy laws rather than sodomy laws, where it was harder to get a conviction.

Vice district messengers, scavengers, runners and newsboys were also arrested, not to mention underage frequenters of bars, brothels, opium parlors and gambling dens. Police raids would sweep Seattle's tenderloin district and round-up suspects who would be "vagged" to the gang. To be arrested as a vagrant had become a verb.

So, plenty of young men ended up on the chain gangs, and the belief of those who enforced the law was that the manual labor would do them good. It was character building to exercise one's muscles in the fresh air. Certainly, prisoners must have built up muscles dragging ankle chains up Yesler Hill. Fit young men found "loafing" needed to be taught a lesson in the work ethic, and many men were put on the gang merely because they were considered lazy and thus corrupting community values.

The Seattle P-I noted in 1889 that the chain gang discouraged "vagabondage." A quartet of "healthy, robust young fellows, who, if they really wanted to do an honest day's work, could easily get it, but have adopted by choice the life of vagabonds and social pariahs," they argued, and would benefit from their 20- and 30-day sentences to the chain gang.

Others saw such sentences as fitting, if not lenient, for young men who behaved improperly toward women. Even though Seattle was awash in prostitution, behavior toward 'proper' ladies had to be protected at all costs, especially as the city's middle class expanded. Two young men in Ballard were sentenced to the gang for getting a 16-year-old Ballard girl drunk on beer.

The Seattle Times defended a chain gang sentence for another young man who was arrested for "annoying a young woman on a Seattle street." The paper editorialized, "That penalty, too, may seem severe to some, but it does not to any man with a wife or daughter who is occasionally compelled to be upon the streets of this city alone. The offense of the 'masher' is akin to that of the rapist. There is only a difference in the quality of the nerve displayed. The penalty under the law is, unfortunately, too light."

In 1907, police chief Charles “Wappy” Wappenstein decided to crack down on men and boys who harassed proper ladies on the street — a bit ironic for a policeman who was later prosecuted and jailed for taking bribes from prostitution interests in the city. Wappy threatened to start a “second chain gang to be made up of dudes and brainless individuals who have the mashing habit.” He said, “It would be a joy to me to see a finely dressed young man…working alongside a hobo, chained together with irons….”

Add young "mashers" to the list of chain gang criminals.

Critics of the gangs and prison conditions worried, especially about their impact on the young. Severe punishment and the terrible jail, they thought, would traumatize young men and women for life. In its 1906 expose of the city "Bastile," the Times looked at its potential impact on the youths incarcerated there: "Instead of inflicting its cruelties on men who, perhaps, richly deserve them, it fastens upon younger men, novices in the battle against the law, and poor unfortunates led into crime through drink and drugs, and it herds them together down under the ground in a real hell of suffering and vice and filth, just as heartlessly and just as carelessly as one might dump a bucket of garbage into a tin can and slam down the lid."

The Seattle Star made the point that the chain gangs weren't just cruel to the young, but were creating the next generation of men without respect for the law or hope: "It's a terrible thing to contemplate, this truth that comes to us, that Seattle is in this matter making criminals perhaps out of young men who in a moment of thoughtlessness have violated a city ordinance, or a state law, not of very serious moment. Isn't it about time that we were providing employments for these young men in some other way?"

Jobs not jail is a slogan that resonates still.

As attitudes about the chain gangs shifted, reformers came up with a new way of handling the problem. With a new sanitary jail constructed, the city looked toward a more human system that included hard work, fresh air and a cleaner and more secure environment for prisoners.

The result was a stockade built on a city-owned tract on Beacon Hill on what is now Jefferson Park. Here, workers would be fed and housed in bunkhouses, given work clothes, humane hours and they would work without the ball and chain. They would also work discretely behind walls, so the gang's element of public humiliation was removed. By the fall of 1909, the stockade opened with 20 prisoners who worked on "grubbing" and clearing the property.

Seattle's mayor, John F. Miller, pitched the stockade to the public as a huge improvement over the chain gang. "Possibly the horrors of the chain gang and the old city jail might have deterred somebody from breaking ordinances, but I doubt it," he said. "Instead of being paraded on the streets in chains, we have made a long step in the direction of reform."  

Work camps, road crews and prison farms all embodied in a prison labor context the Teddy Roosevelt era values of "the strenuous life." Nothing was better than working and recreating outdoors, increasingly difficult for urban populations. In part, this was push back to charges from law-and-order advocates that such treatment was too lenient.

In a newspaper column called "Little Sermons of Everyday Life," William X. Young outlined his views, touting virtues we should all embrace. "If I were mayor of Seattle," he wrote, "I would ask the city council to pass an ordinance forcing every able-bodied man in Greater Seattle to get out for at least two weeks a year in the open and sleep on the ground, and if they don't do it I'd get 'em close to nature by putting them in the municipal stockade for a fortnight and make 'em clear off brush on Beacon Hill."

Prisoner labor, through some small but significant reforms, was being transformed from a barbarous evil to into a civic role model that all of Seattle should embrace — a healthy spartan existence of hard work. Such a regimen could reform us all. And certainly a city with the growth pains, crime and civil upheaval that Seattle had during this period was ripe for a moral cleansing.

The stockade workers were jokingly called the "lazy husbands" brigade. A number of those sentenced were guilty of abandonment and non-support of their families. It wasn't an entirely happy place — there were escapes. One was a black man named Cicero Jones who was in and out of jail and the gang over the years. Jones, "who a few months ago startled the citizens of Seattle by masquerading on the streets in women's attire," was later shot and killed by police during an alleged robbery.

It was not free of violence either. There were complaints about beatings by guards, reminiscent of the chain gang days.

It was hazardous for the police guards as well. In 1910, a prisoner named Ladovich, a thief who was apparently angry at being forced to work and had muttered threats, struck a “dastardly blow” with a mattock — a sharp tool used for clearing — to the head of stockade guard Mathias Rude, killing him.

In addition to land clearing, the inmates started a small farm and garden at the stockade and raised their own food. They ate better than the old chain gang. In 1910, they got Thanksgiving Day off and received their three square meals with no work required. The meals consisted of a breakfast of oatmeal, steak and potatoes, for lunch vegetable soup, suckling pig and apple pie, all topped by roast beef, mashed potatoes and rice pudding for supper. Sound like a far cry from the days of burnt soup, stale bread and shackles.

The chain gang continued for at least a couple of years after the stockade was operational, so it didn't replace the gang immediately. The gang was still going at least until 1911 when they were reported to have cleared a city-owned lot near city hall between 3rd and 4th Avenues and between Jefferson and Yesler because Mayor George Dilling, appointed after the recall of Hiram Gill, didn't like looking at the junky property from his office window.

The stockade continued until after World War I and the workers there helped build the city's first public golf course at Jefferson Park.

The stockade itself was condemned and demolished in 1919. By then the chain gang had disappeared from Seattle city streets.    

Eventurally, it came to seem impossible that such a progressive city as Seattle would ever have resorted to such medieval methods. The last vestige of the gang, however, hung on in the city statutes. Technically, it was still legal for the police to use chained labor until 1967 when the language authorizing the use of a ball and chain was finally and quietly removed during a "housecleaning" of city ordinances

Researching this series has been opened my eyes to how a rapidly growing frontier city wrestled and coped with growth, crime and unemployment. It is hard to look around the city now without seeing the back-breaking work of prisoner laborers who put in place some of our basic infrastructure.

The major challenges of law enforcement remain — as do bias, race, class and use of force. Fixing the problems of homelessness and street youth, of drugs, mental illness, family abuse and prostitution continue. We now have more humane means of coping with, if not solving, social challenges than simply attaching a ball and chain to them. Still, there's a long way to go.

Many of the century-old arguments about the chain gang, pro and con, and how to manage the city — what kinds of values we should hold — are still fresh in many ways. Hearing them again offers a way to measure our progress. That is the value of restoring the "clank, clank, clank" of the gang to civic memory.

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a four-part series about life on Seattle's chain gangs. Read parts one, two and three here Life on a Seattle chain gang, Life in an early Seattle jail and How women & socialists toppled Seattle chain gangs.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.