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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Murders, Gambling, and Suicides:
Crime in Seattle during the Depression

Murders, Gambling, and Suicides:
Crime in Seattle during the Depression

by Sarah Lawrence

Police Chief George Kimball of the Seattle Police Department, in 1931. Gambling, murders, and suicides were all part of the ways some Seattleites dealt with the Great Depression. For some, illegal activity proved a profitable way to survive during the crisis, while others found the crisis overwhelming. Click image to enlarge. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

In 1933, Professor Carl Murchison proposed in the American Weekly magazine that criminals were neither stupid nor depraved, but in fact embodied a different kind of intelligence that took advantage of their situation and sought prosperity and happiness in the most direct manner possible. During the Great Depression, crime flourished, and while many criminals found imprisonment and punishment, some found opportunity and even success. A closer look at the crime rate and crime stories of one city, Seattle, during 1932 and 1933 reveals the multifaceted way individuals reacted criminally to Seattle’s economic crisis and, in some ways, profited from it. Crime in Washington State had risen to record heights by the end of 1932, and by the end of the year, the parole board was facing its largest number of applicants in history.[2]  How police and reporters explained murders, robberies, suicides, and even a woman buried alive point to the ways Seattleites dealt with the Depression and understood crime, and may also point to the presence of organized crime in the city.

As unemployment continued to rise and the economic crisis deepened, even those with steady jobs felt extreme financial strain. Just after the New Year in 1933, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that “business reverses and unemployment led more persons in King County to end their lives [in 1932] than any other single cause.”[3] The total came to 190 suicides—classified as a crime—, fifty-eight of which were reported by Coroner W.J. Jones as “prompted by business reverses or unemployment.”[4] Although the article did not report the specifics of the suicides, it listed other potential causes, such as ill health, family troubles, love affairs, intoxication, and poverty. The Depression was a time of great struggle, which to some, had seemed unending and could not be escaped except by ending their own lives.

Along with the 190 successful suicides there were many more attempts. On the evening of November 30th of that same year, 41-year-old Mr. Pyle tried to end his life in the kitchen of his home. He turned on the gas and cut one of his wrists. A few minutes later his wife smelled the gas and found her husband, who police said was “despondent over financial troubles,” and brought him to the hospital.[5] It appears that Mr. Pyle had not carefully planned his suicide but rather came to the decision spontaneously in despair over his financial struggles. Another man by the name of William C. Fowler also attempted to settle his financial worries by ending his life with a gunshot to the head. Mr. Fowler, secretary treasurer of the Hofius Steel & Equipment Company, succeeded in his attempt, despite his family’s desperate effort to save his life after hearing the shot ring out from the bathroom. Fowler had been employed by the Hofius Company for over fifteen years, yet the stresses of the Great Depression had led to an abrupt and gruesome end to his life. Fowler had seen a friend die the year before him and had been in bad health ever since.[6] Suicides became a common occurrence in Seattle as a response to the Great Depression.

Financial troubles also added to an increase of robbery in Seattle during the 1930s. One such crime reported by the Seattle Times involved a railway mail clerk who had “opened and rifled four registered letters of cash” while at work.[7] The clerk, John L. Mitchell, was sentenced by Judge Jeremiah Noteren to serve fifteen months at McNeil Island federal penitentiary. Mitchell had pled guilty to his crime. With the economy at its bottom during the end of 1932, many people, like Mitchell, took money where they could. As Professor Murchison concluded in his army intelligence tests given to the inmates of penal institutions, this perhaps signified not depravity or desperation, but a keen intelligence and reading of where the most profit was to be found.[8]

Illegal gambling grew along with the Depression as an attempt by some people to improve their financial status, and interacted with organized crime in the city as an alternative source of revenue. On January 8, 1933, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported a triumph of the Seattle police, who had raided three different gambling places and managed to arrest twenty-two men in one night.[9] Previous raids had been made by “Mayor John F. Dore’s personal squad” but complaints had been increasing about the gambling joints and Chief Norton decided to act. It is not stated in the article, but the sudden change of police leadership in the raids might suggest that the gambling joints were a source of money for organized crime that, perhaps, could have been connected to the mayor. For example, everyone arrested was able to make bail, even those set at $100. Gambling joint owners Tom Lee and Sam Mah had their bail set at the highest limit, something very common to organized crime units. Other than this article, no other reports of organized crime were ever explicitly made in the Seattle Times or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which could point to either organized crime’s power at controlling the media as much as its weakness or lack of success.

One particularly unique crime—graverobbing and a woman buried alive—was reported on the first of December in 1932, when a man attempting a grave robbery unearthed a confused, yet alive, woman.[10] Grave robbing may have been a response to financial troubles, but burying a woman alive has no such simple explanation, and a reason was not reported by the newspaper nor, it seems, by the woman herself, though organized crime may have been involved. The unexplained nature of this crime could point to the police’s lack of evidence or, perhaps, to the explanation’s hushing up.

Individual institutions eventually caught on to the increasing crime rate in Seattle and began to develop new strategies of fighting it. On March 4, 1932 a bank robbery occurred at the People’s North End Bank in Seattle, led by a female bandit and two men who left with $5,000. The bank then equipped its buildings with tear gas, as reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.[11] Learning their lesson, the bank installed a battery of “seven bronze nozzles, inconspicuously built in over the doors and vault and under the cage windows” to ensure that another robbery could not occur in their bank again. The bank manager, Mr. R. J. Davis even invited guests to witness the demonstration of the tear gas but unfortunately, everyone had to evacuate the building within seconds.

Crimes of passion found a growing popularity during the Great Depression and even made their way into the entertainment world. Police records, at the end of 1932, indicated that there was an “average of at least one suicide attempt a day over love affairs,” but love affairs also caused murders.[12] John T. Bibeau’s convicted murder of Alfred T. Elliot became a very famous case in the Seattle area, as a crime of passion between Bibeau and Mrs. Elliot. Bibeau had allowed Mr. Elliot to handle some of his finances which reporters suggest might have also been a motive for Mr. Elliot’s murder but both Bibeau and Mrs. Elliot admitted to the romance and its role in the murder. Crimes of passion were much more publicized as the murder is less the fault of one person but more a situation gone terribly wrong with multiple characters and no winners. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer dedicated four columns to this case, which seemed to be a very popular one in the media.[13]

Seattle police breaking up gambling machines, undated. Gambling was one way that Seattle residents sought to make a living, and was part of an informal and semi-illegal economy that thrived during 1920s Prohibition and the Depression. Click image to enlarge. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry)

One of the most shocking and exciting crimes reported during 1933 was the murder of Captain Johan E. Miller, who had been found stuffed into a canvas sea bag in Lake Union on June 1, 1933. Miller had been stabbed in the abdomen with a butcher’s knife, robbed of his money, watch, and ring, and “thrust into the weighted sea bag and thrown into the lake while still alive.”[14] He had been missing for over four months and was discovered by four youths on a boat ride on the lake. Captain Miller was reported to be a hard-working sailor with a family, not someone easily tied to trouble. His murder was so bizarre that police and investigators could not find the killer or settle on one plausible motive. The motive came down to two theories that had become very popular in criminal explanation during the Great Depression: robbery or revenge. Because there was no explanation of why Miller was stabbed and with such a huge knife, investigators believed that it could have been an act of revenge. The other theory, robbery, is also well supported, as Miller was robbed of his watch and ring. Police officers also learned that the day Miller went missing he had picked up two checks “totaling $400 for payment in piloting services.”[15] The fact that he had also been tied into a weighted bag and dumped into Lake Union suggests that the murder was one of revenge and could also explain the horrific manner in which his body was disposed. The report of Miller’s murder was a popular one as well. Unfortunately, Detective Lieutenant Ernest Yoris was never able to solve Captain Miller’s “fiendish [murder]” due to a lack of evidence.[16]

Crime is present in every society and at every time, but major historical events can lead to a change in crime and can indicate the impact of those events on specific lives and geographical locations. Not every city in the United States experienced the same types of crime at the same rates. In analyzing the crime of a city during a time of great stress, we can gain insight into the mood and structure of the city and its functioning of culture, social structure, geography, and economy. Seattle was a city that tended toward personal destruction and, perhaps, obscured the presence of organized crime. Crime in Seattle represented the desperation of some individuals as well as people’s attempts to prosper through illegal channels. Crime could pay, and when it did, it paid fairly well.

 Copyright (c) 2010, Sarah Lawrence
HSTAA 105, Winter 2010

[1] Carl Murchison, “Criminals are more intelligent than honest people,” (1933, January 1) The American Weekly, 5.
[2] Associated Press. (1932, December 1). “Parole board session to set record.” The Seattle Times, 11.
[3] “190 suicides total for year.” (1933, January 2). The Seattle Post -Intelligencer, 2.
[4] “190 suicides total for year.” (1933, January 2). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2.
[5] “Wife saves man trying suicide.”(1932, December 1). The Seattle Times, 11.
[6] “Son finds W.C. Fowler dying of pistol shot.” (1932, December 3). The Seattle Times, 1.
[7] “Railway clerk is given 15 years for rifling mail.” (1932, December 1). The Seattle Times, 11.
[8] Murchison, “Criminals are more intelligent than honest people.” (1933, January 1). The American Weekly, 5.
[9] “22 arrested as Chief Norton leads raiders.” (1933, January 8). The Seattle Post Intelligencer, 51.
[10] “Ghouls save woman found buried alive.” (1932, December 1). The Seattle Times, 7.
[11] “Bank equipped with tear gas.” (1933, December 9). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 3.
[12] “190 suicides total for year.” (1933, January 2). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2.
[13] Bermann, R.B. (1933, January 15). “Bibeau jurors in deadlock on life term or death.”
The Seattle Post Intelligencer, 1,3.
[14] “Man slain found on Lake Union!” (1933, June 2). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1.
[15] “Man slain found on Lake Union!” (1933, June 2). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1.
[16] Man slain found on Lake Union!, (1933, June 2). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5.