Life on a Seattle chain gang

Not just a practice in the South, Seattle was its own biggest booster when it came to "cleaning up the city" through bands of "free" laborers.
Crosscut archive image.

A chain gang at a South Carolina convict camp in 1898.

Not just a practice in the South, Seattle was its own biggest booster when it came to "cleaning up the city" through bands of "free" laborers.

They were a familiar sight on Seattle streets, which they helped to build. They often worked six days a week — Sundays excepted. They built parks, sewers, roads and sidewalks. They filled potholes and dug the city out of winter snow and mudslides. They picked up the trash and cleared land. They worked along the waterfront to keep Elliott Bay, well, at bay. They helped rebuild post-fire Seattle. They even helped the city get ready for hosting a world's fair.

You could hear them coming a block away, from the "clank, clank, clank" of their shovels, picks and wheelbarrows. They were mocked and forced to live in cramped and cockroach-infested conditions. If they misbehaved, they could be punished with a diet of bread and water, confinement in the "black hole" or simply set standing in the street with a heavy ball and chain hanging from their necks. Sometimes, they were beaten by their guards. They worked in every kind of weather, their clothing often reduced to rags from exposure and hard labor.
Such was the life of Seattle's chain gang.
Most of us think of chain gangs as a Southern thing, a legacy of slavery. Our images of their cruelties come from movies like "Cool Hand Luke" with Paul Newman, or "I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" with Paul Muni. But for nearly 40 years, from the 1870s to shortly before World War I, chain gangs were a regular feature of our cityscape as well.
Seattle wasn't alone. Numerous towns across the West had them. In Washington, Tacoma, Everett, Olympia, Yakima, Walla Walla, Spokane, Pasco, Ellensburg and Colfax all had gangs at some point. They sprang up largely in response to national economic trends that produced a huge migrant population of homeless tramps that wandered America looking for work, and sometimes trouble.
After the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of men looked for work by following the new arteries of the country's trans-continental railway system. Driven by economic downturns, Western growth and demand for seasonal labor (everything from logging and fruit picking to mining and wheat harvesting), these itinerant workers ushered in the new Western frontier. Gone were old settlers, replaced by men who wanted not a homestead but a wage. Burgeoning cities like Seattle became a huge draw, a transit point for work and a winter refuge, and a magnet for crime they were ill equipped to deal with.
From the very beginning, the chain gang was a controversial feature of city life. Local reformers called it a "relic of a barbarous age" being acted out on the streets of a modern city that was supposed to be an example of progress. Weren't we a Christian city, some preached from the pulpits? Couldn't we do better, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer wondered, than play a part in scenes straight out of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables? Weren't we better than that?
Even though such questions were asked publicly early on, Seattle continued to run men out on the streets to work in chains. There were practical reasons, but the practice was also defended as moral. The very public nature of its horror, it was said, would serve the city by keeping the tramps away. One commentator compared it to the warning to pirates by putting their severed heads on city gates. Hobos, whose creative communication networks were extraordinary, developed a graffiti warning sign for towns with chain gangs: the chalked image of a boot with a chain attached scrawled on the side of boxcars.
In 1872, the Seattle council passed Ordinance 32 that outlined punishment for vagrants — the idle, dissolute, immoral, profligate, or the unemployed — by specifying that they could be put to work. The new law codified a practice that was already happening on a small scale. It provided fines and jail for vagrants, or hard labor for those who couldn't pay their fines. They could work it off. The next year, the Legislature passed its own, similar law to "remedy" vagrancy everywhere in the Washington Territory. It was a somewhat proactive measure — the railroads hadn't yet arrived in Seattle. Still, transient workers were already coming, by boat, wagon, on foot.
The city's fathers hoped that news of a chain gang would spread before the next big deluge of newcomers.
Over the next several decades, the chain gangs, which could number from a few prisoners to as many as 70 or 80 men, became a regular sight on Seattle streets. "To-do" lists for the miscreants included suggestions that they remove huge rocks from Cherry St., clean mudslides from "uptown sidewalks," dig gravel to grade Commercial Street (First Ave. South), beef up the Front Street bulkhead, excavate drainage ditches on the steep slopes of water-soaked Yesler Hill.
They worked on a new plank road to Ballard. They were used in the University District on an emergency basis to get the streets ready for the opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Seattle was a growing city and a mucky one, with frontier streets and incomplete urban infrastructure. The least the bums, drunks and loafers could do was spruce the place up.
Fed by the city's new railroad connections, the pace of growth in Seattle began to increase. In 1870, Seattle's population was 1,107. By 1890, it had grown to 42,837, more than 10 times that — with a huge boom yet to come. (By 1910 the city's population was more than 237,000.) In the 1880s, the city created a Chief of Police and segued to build a real urban police department. Law enforcement was challenged to deal with the laborers who floated through, and the hangers on who collected around the so called "restricted" — or "vice" — districts.
The mix of growth and frontier transition popularized the term so familiar in Seattle that it was applied to these urban neighborhoods everywhere, Skid Road or Skid Row.
While the city's growth spurt attracted entrepreneurs and began growing a substantial middle class, it also was a wide-open city of gamblers, saloon keepers, madams and pimps, and urban castaways of all kinds. Seasonal migrants were part of the lifeblood of the economy — this is where they spent those hard-earned wages. But, how to deal with the flood of migrants, the bums, brawlers and boozers? In the 1870s and '80s a "tramp scare" swept the country as people feared the wandering criminals, hobos, the homeless and other footloose characters.
Seattle had other problems that added to the burden of law enforcement. In 1882, angry citizens lynched three men in what is now Pioneer Square. Two were dragged from a courtroom where they had been arraigned, the third taken from the city jail and hanged alongside them. It was a shameful display of vigilante violence that tested the city's commitment to law and order.
In 1886, driven by rage at an economic downturn and an influx of Chinese workers, a mob physically expelled a number of Chinese residents by forcing them onto a boat. A riot ensued and Federal troops were ordered in to get the city under control. Seattle was a town not yet softened by civilization, a place where rough justice was often meted out, and the threat of mob rule roiled. That same year Seattle eliminated the town marshall and elected its first police chief.
Fed up with troublemakers, in 1888 police chief J.C. Mitchell asked the city council for a new ordinance to formalize a chain gang that would be a punishment itself, not simply a way to work off fines. "We are going to inaugurate a system of giving every suspicious character twenty-four hours to leave town, and if he don't leave he will go into the chain gang," Mitchell announced. "We sent to Boston today for 24 additional sets of shackles, and every prisoner will wear shackles and work the chain gang. There will be no partiality and no pets. Every man will have to wear the 'jewelry.'" The system would be kept in place, said Mitchell, until "the hard cases who are now infesting the town are all driven out, or set to work on the streets." The year was 1888.
In the 1890s, Seattle began to formalize the use of prison labor for major local public projects. The Board of Public Works under engineer R.H. Thomson sought permission from the city council to use prisoners to do city work. In 1897, the city council agreed. Not all prisoners were put to work — that was at the discretion of a judge. Some sat and rotted in the city's increasingly awful, unhealthy jail. Women prisoners were exempted from the gang, but had their own single cell.
Vagrancy was the most common offense that resulted in a chain gang sentence. It was also sometimes a place to stash men while they were being investigated for more serious crimes. A conviction might bring a vagrant 63 days on the gang, a $100 fine, and the condition that they leave town immediately after serving their sentence.
Shortly thereafter, a new vagrancy ordinance greatly expanded the definition of who could be jailed and put to work under such laws.Vagrants now included, according to Seattle law: runaways, pilferers, confidence men, drunkards, "common nightwalkers," lewd, wanton and lascivious persons; common “railers,” brawlers; persons chronically unemployed, fortune tellers, fake beggars, people who "habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill-fame, gaming, saloons or tippling shops," the homeless and people "not giving a good account of themselves," known thieves, burglars or pickpockets, or people having been convicted of other crimes in the state, city or county, etc. Vagrancy became a kind of catchall for anyone who looked funny, smelled bad or raised suspicions.
Crosscut archive image.Thus the gang consisted of an assortment of hardened criminals, wife beaters, deadbeats, drunks, hobos, con men, panhandlers and suspects. Reading through years of newspaper police reports, a sampling of the cast of characters on the gang included men like Joe Young, a fake and apparently insane street evangelist; "Mysterious Kid" Preston (at left), a suspected Alaska highwayman; F. A. Mason, a well-dressed man of aristocratic airs who was reputedly "King of the Hoboes;" E. A. Dillon, a fast wagon driver who refused to pay his fine; J.L. Martin, a "rather intelligent Italian" convicted of soliciting sex for his wife and living off her earnings; Jack Kelly, caught smoking opium in a lodging house; Joe Mitchell, a gypsy fortune teller;  M. Gonda, described as the "worst Japanese outlaw" the Seattle police had ever had to deal with and so on.
On one day in 1887, the four members of the city's chain gang were described by the P-I as "one Indian, one half breed, one old chronic drunk and a young fellow who was caught making love to a maiden of the forest and arrested for vagrancy."
Despite the range of folks who served on the chain gang, from felons to fornicators, it was designed to be a hardship on all of them. It was tough work, often accompanied by lousy food, filthy accommodations, risk of disease and extreme brutality. The officers who ran Seattle's jail and chain gang meant serious, and sometimes deadly, business.
NEXT UP: Race, beatings and a "castle" or horrors.
Photo of John "Mysterious Kid" Preston courtesy of Washington State Archives.



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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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