(True Story)

   by Coleen Mielke 



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In 1899, a band of Chilkat Indians murdered a newlywed couple near Skagway, Alaska. Stateside newspapers latched onto the sensational story and embellished it with wild assumptions, unnecessary exaggerations and errors galore.

In an effort to write a more accurate account of this tragedy and its aftermath,
I've researched the Federal prosecuting attorney's case files, the defense attorney's case files, the McNeil Island Prison Archives and the U.S. Attorney General's Annual Reports from 1900-1905.


Bertram E. "Bert" Horton (age 27) and Florence "Flora" Oliver (age 18) were married in Eugene, Oregon on 2/27/1899. He was a butcher by trade and she was a devout member of the Episcopal Church. The newlyweds opted for a working honeymoon in Alaska, and arrived at Skagway on 3/7/1899. They quickly found jobs in a small eatery at the summit of the White Pass Trail, one of the infamous Klondike Gold Rush trails between Skagway and Lake Bennett. The summer was long and the work was hard. By October, the young couple decided to do some camping on Lynn Canal before they headed back to Oregon. I can only assume they had no idea how dangerous it was to camp in the middle of Chilkat territory. One week later, they were both dead.

Bert and Florence (nee Oliver) Horton

Jim Hanson, a 25 year old, Sitka born, Chilkat Tlingit Indian was one tough guy. His Indian name was "Qualth" and at the age of 16, he paddled a canoe from Sitka to the mouth of the Chilkat River (150 miles) to join his Kaagwaantaan relatives. The Kaagwaantaan's were part of the fiercely territorial Chilkat Tribe that controlled the trade routes into the Interior of Alaska and Canada.

Hanson was a fearless hunter and widely known as "the bear killer", a name he earned for killing bears armed only with his hunting knife. Court records also confirm his formidable reputation by listing him as "one of the most reckless, dangerous and fearless Indians in southeast Alaska".


In October of 1899 the Kaagwaantaan's were preparing for a potlatch. Jim Hanson's brother, wife and son set out by canoe, to notify the surrounding Indian camps about the upcoming festivities. When they didn't return after a few days, a search party gathered to find them; the group included Hanson and his wife Martha "Quiee", Jim and Johnny Kitchtoo (father and son), Mark and Dave Klanat (the sons of Chilkat Chief Donowak), Juch Klane, Jim Williams, James Quaniish, Paddy Unahootch, George "Goos" White, and Day Kanteen.

The first day out, the group searched along the shores of Chilkat Inlet and found nothing. On the second day, they set up a central camp on Sullivan Island and fanned out to look for signs of the missing family. They agreed to fire two signal shots (if they found any clues), then immediately report back to camp.

Kitchtoo and James Quaniish decided to search along the shore of the mainland, so they paddled their canoe across the channel and set out on foot. After walking for about 2 hours, they spotted some canoe wreckage that had washed ashore. Another 150 yards down the beach, they found the campsite of Bert and Florence Horton, the ill-fated newlyweds. The Indians asked the young couple if they had seen the missing Indian family. Bert described seeing a man, woman and child in a canoe a couple days earlier, but had no idea where they went.

Kitchtoo and Quaniish thought there was something suspicious about finding the canoe wreckage so close to the Horton's camp, so they fired two signal shots and took the broken canoe pieces back to the Indian camp. Paddy Unahootch immediately recognized the wreckage as part of a canoe he had recently painted for the missing family. Kitchtoo then told the group that the wreckage was found near the campsite of "two very nervous white people". The combination of those two details convinced Jim Hanson that the Horton's had killed his brother's family and therefore must die.

In the Chilkat culture, reprisal killings were not only justified, but they were the tradition. This "death for a death" running tally was taken quite literally. For example: The search party now believed that the Horton's had killed three Indians, therefor they (the Indians) had the right/responsibility to kill the two Horton's, plus one more person at a future date.

The search party paddled back across the channel towards the Horton's camp. Once on shore,
Martha Hanson, Paddy Unahootch and "Goos" White stayed with the canoe while the other 9 Indians walked towards the Horton's. As they approached,
Bert Horton came out of his tent and tried to wave the Indians off with his rifle, but they kept coming. Without hesitation, Jim Hanson took aim and shot Bert Horton in the head, killing him instantly. Mrs. Horton ran out of the tent, screaming for her husband, and Jim Kitchtoo shot her twice, once in the face and once through the upper chest. As she lay dying and begging for her life, the Indians circled around her and 17 year old Jim Williams reached down and slit her throat, nearly decapitating her. The savage revenge killings were over in seconds.

The Indians went through the Horton's possessions and took a Winchester rifle, a double barrel shotgun, a watch, some money, and Mrs. Horton's jewelry. Next, they took down the Horton's tent and wrapped the bodies in it. They dug a hole behind some boulders, near the high water mark on the beach and put the tent wrapped bodies into it, weighing them down with stones an tree branches.
The Indians then made a pact, that if anyone in the group confessed to killing the Horton's, that the rest of the group would band together and tell the authorities that the confessor was the lone killer.

People back in Skagway were concerned when the young newlyweds didn't return from their camping trip. Hypothetical scenarios were tossed back and forth daily: maybe they flagged down a passing steamer; maybe they decided to go north in search of gold; maybe they wrecked their boat and were on foot; maybe they were killed by the Chilkats. Eventually, a search party was sent out to the Sullivan Island area, but no signs of the young couple were found.


Five months after the murders, Jim Hanson was back in Skagway and struggling with guilt, something he had never experienced before. He would later testify that the screams of the dying white woman tormented him daily; while he was hunting; while he was on the water; while he was on the trail and even in his dreams. Eighteen year old Florence Horton's violent death had changed the fearless Chilkat hunter forever.

Later that spring, in an effort to find peace, Hanson attended a Salvation Army church service in a village near Skagway. The sermon, given by an Indian missionary, affected him so strongly that he confessed to the congregation: "My soul has been blasted and blackened with murder because I killed two white people and I want everyone to pray for me so I can be a Christian and get forgiveness".

A few weeks later, Hanson noticed two ministers conducting daily street sermons in front of a saloon in Skagway. The rousing sermons of Salvation Army Adjutant Thomas James McGill and Reverend John Paulsell caught his attention and he found himself returning daily to listen to them. When Hanson confessed the murders to the ministers, they told him to turn himself in to U.S. Marshal Josias Tanner, which he did. Hanson gave the Marshal the details of the crime as well as the names of his 11 accomplices. Within a week, the authorities had arrested the accused, in their respective villages, and brought them back to the Skagway jail.

News of the arrests spread quickly and threat of violence grew between those that wanted to lynch the prisoners and others who came into town to rescue the prisoners. To calm the heated situation, Marshal Tanner brought in the Buffalo Soldiers from Company L 24th Infantry (who were stationed in Skagway) to guard the prison until the trial was over.

With the situation now under control, Marshal Tanner chartered a small steamer called the Alert and took Hanson and a posse of soldiers back to the scene of the crime where they unearthed the Horton's bodies and brought them back to Skagway for an inquest and burial.


Each of the 12 Indians were charged with (two counts) of 1st degree murder. Eleven of them pled not guilty and collectively swore that Jim Hanson was the lone killer. However, the prosecutor knew, from Hanson's confession, that he had five "hands on" accomplices in the murders. In order to convict them, the prosecutor needed some of the accused to testify against each other. To accomplish that, he offered to drop the murder charges against six of the least culpable, in exchange for their truthful testimony in court. Those that accepted the offer were: Martha "Quiee" Hanson, Johnny Kitchtoo age 14, Dave Klanat, James Quaniish, Paddy Unahootch and George "Goos" White.

That left six Indians on trial for first degree murder. Five of them: Jim Kitchtoo, Jim Williams, Day Kanteen, Mark Klanat and Juch Klane were represented by Colonel Frederick Duncan Kelsey, a prominent lawyer from Juneau. His $2,000 legal fee (which would be $54,000 by today's dollar value) was paid for with furs, Chilkat blankets, baskets, masks and drums that were donated by Indians all along the coast from Skagway to Juneau. Jim "Qualth" Hanson was the only one who did not ask for a lawyer, instead, he was represented in court by (ex-lawyer, turned minister) Rev. John Paulsell.


Hanson was the first to go on trial. He looked strong and dignified as he entered the packed courtroom in a bright blue Salvation Army uniform with a large metal badge pinned to his chest that read, "A Soldier of the Army of Jesus Christ".
He sat down and calmly confessed the details of the murder. On 5/28/1900 the grand jury quickly found him guilty of 1st degree murder.

Seventeen year old Jim Williams was the 2nd to go on trial. His trial took four days because his lawyer tried valiantly to convince the jury that Mrs. Horton was already dead when his client cut her throat. However, his efforts were in vain because members of the original search party, including Jim Hanson, testified that Mrs. Horton was very much alive and screaming when Williams slit her throat. The jury did not agree on a verdict for 1st degree murder (11 votes yes, 1 vote no), but they did agree to a guilty verdict for 2nd degree murder.

After the easy convictions of Hanson and Williams, the remaining four men: Jim Kitchtoo, Mark Klanat, Juch Klane and Day Kanteen pled guilty to 2nd degree murder rather than risk a 1st degree murder conviction at trial.


On 6/27/1900, the day of sentencing, the courtroom was packed with the prisoners families. Judge Melville C. Brown asked Jim Hanson, "Have you any reason to offer why this sentence, for first degree murder, which the law prescribes, should not be pronounced against you?" Hanson took a deep, resigned  breath and said, "Brother, you must do your duty. I want to die for my crime that my people may live, that they may see what religion can do, even for one so wicked as me. Let them see how a Christian can die and maybe they will take warning and not drink so much, but will become soldiers in God's Army as I have. I am ready to die. You can take my body and do as you like with it, but my soul belongs to God and you can't hurt that."

The courtroom was silent as Judge Brown sentenced Jim Hanson to death by hanging within 30 days. The once potent Kaagwaantaan (wolf clan) warrior gently nodded his head and smiled, as if to say thank you.

The Federal prosecutor was quoted as saying: "At the end of Hanson's speech...murderer and desperado as I knew him to have been, I felt admiration for him. His physical courage had often been put to the test and had never failed or been questioned, but his moral courage in the courtroom, was sublime. I have never seen anything approaching it."

One by one, the rest of the Indians were sentenced: Jim Williams was sentenced to 50 years, Jim Kitchtoo to 50 years, Day Kanteen to 30 years, Mark Klanat to 20 years and Juch Klane to 22 years.


Hanson remained in Alaska waiting to be hung, while the other 5 prisoners were sent to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington. The morning of their departure, dozens of relatives were on the Skagway Wharf, watching in total silence as the prisoners were loaded onto the steamer. As the ship pulled away from the wharf, the prisoners began a loud rhythmic death chant and their wives and children collapsed with audible grief; their first signs of emotion during the entire trial.


Judge Melvin Brown was never comfortable with the death sentence that Jim Hanson received in his courtroom. He felt that Hanson should have received some degree of leniency for voluntarily confessing to the murders and naming his accomplices, so he asked Governor John Green Brady to postpone Hanson's hanging until he and the Attorney General could write a letter to the President, asking for Hanson's death sentence to be commuted to life in prison, and the Governor agreed.

In a petition addressed to the President of the United States, Attorney General Herbert Griggs wrote: "The circumstances of this case are most extraordinary and deserve a special chapter in the annals of remarkable cases. It is a case in which the prisoner conceived and executed a brutal and savage murder on peaceable and inoffensive people. Then, without the probability of detection, or accusation of wrong doing, and months after the murders had gone undetected, the prisoner voluntarily, by his own confession and admission of facts, submitted himself to the judge of a court. The prisoner, who is an Alaskan Indian, is now under sentence of death for the crime of murder and application is being made to have his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life."

Attached to Mr. Griggs petition, was a letter written by the judge who sentenced Jim Hanson to death, it read: "His entire conduct, during the trials, convinced me of the honesty of his confession and the purity of his motives that induced it.
That he was moved and controlled by a high religious fervor, there can be no doubt. In the last act of this drama, when I reluctantly passed the sentence of death upon him, in answer to the usual question, why sentence should not now be pronounced upon him, he said: 'My brother, I have done my duty, now you do yours'. Such rare fortitude I have never before witnessed. Jim Hanson's confession and his complete cooperation with the courts, were responsible for bringing punishment to additional perpetrators of this brutal crime. In all human probability it would never have been revealed or known, but for him. There was never a moment that he entertained the slightest hope for immunity. Without any sort of question, Hanson, at the time he gave his confession, had no hope or expectation other than that he would be executed for his crime. Therefore, in addition to being influenced by the disinterested conduct of Hanson, I am moved from a sense of public policy to recommend the interposition of executive clemency and that his sentence be commuted from death to imprisonment for life."

The petition for a commuted sentence, was signed by Attorney General Herbert Griggs, Judge Melville C. Brown, U.S. Marshal Josias M. Tanner, District Attorney Robert A. Friedrich and a long list of Skagway clergy, physicians, lawyers and merchants. On 11/14/1900, President William McKinley commuted Jim Hanson's sentence from death by hanging, to life in prison.


six Chilkat Indians were taken to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary to serve their sentences. Jim Hanson continued his zealous religious mission by ministering to fellow inmates and counseling the terminally ill. He was credited by prison officials, with converting hundreds of prisoners to the Christian faith.


At the turn of the century, Alaska Native prisoners were arriving at McNeil Island Prison in perfect health, but contracted tuberculosis within a very short time. Ninety percent of those that developed tuberculosis died within 5 years or less.

Some authorities thought the illness was due to prison overcrowding and lobbied for a new Federal Prison to be built in Alaska. Other authorities thought that the Natives already had a dormant case of tuberculosis when they left Alaska and the climate change in Washington activated the disease. Prison Warden Halligan said, "To sentence an Alaska Native to serve time on McNeil Island, means that he has received a death sentence, no matter what his crime was".

By 1905, 4½ years after arriving at McNeil Island, Jim Hanson was in the final stages of tuberculosis. Unknown to him, 250 people from Alaska and the McNeil Island Prison system, had signed a petition asking President Theodore Roosevelt to pardon Hanson so that he could return to Alaska to die. Unfortunately, on 8/13/1905, one day after the request was sent, Jim Hanson lost his battle with tuberculosis. He was buried on the prison farm.

Later that fall, tuberculosis was so rampant among the Alaska Native prisoners, that they quarantined them in a small, antiquated and unsanitary brick building behind the prison. It had no medical staff and was immediately overcrowded.

A Washington reporter visited this "tuberculosis ward" and reported the following conditions:
"The sight is pitiful to the extreme. In a room (large enough to house five), sit fourteen Indians waiting to die. Once robust and healthy, they now sit hollow-chested, coughing, sunken eyed and hopeless. They are outcasts among outcasts. In spite of their sentences for murder, rape and manslaughter, the Indians are model prisoners."


The following McNeil Island Prison mug shot photos are of the men
who were convicted of murdering Bert and Florence Horton in 1899.
All 6 men were strong and healthy when they arrived at McNeil Island. Five of them
were dead (from tuberculosis) within 5 years.

JIM "QUALTH" HANSON (age abt. 25)  Born in Sitka, Alaska


Arrested 3/13/1900 in Skagway, Alaska

Convicted of 1st Degree Murder 5/28/1900
Sentenced to hang 6/27/1900
Sentence commuted to life in prison by President McKinley  11/14/1900

Arrived at McNeil Island Prison 2/5/1901

Died 8/13/1905 of tuberculosis, 4 years after arriving at prison

JIM KITCHTOO (age abt. 45)  Born in Klukwan, Alaska


Arrested 3/14/1900 at Pyramid Harbor, Alaska
Convicted of 2nd degree murder 5/28/1900
Sentenced to 50 years in prison 6/27/1900

Arrived at McNeil Island Prison 7/6/1900

Died (11/19/1905) OF Tuberculosis 5 years after arriving at prison

Survived by wife and children at Klukwan, Alaska
JIM WILLIAMS  (age abt. 17)   Born at Chilkat Inlet, Alaska


Arrested 3/14/1900 at Haines Mission, Alaska
Convicted of 2nd degree murder  5/28/1900
Sentenced to 50 years in prison 6/27/1900

Arrived at McNeil Island Prison 7/6/1900

Died (5/8/1902) of tuberculosis 2 years after arriving at prison


DAY  KANTEEN   age 25  Born in Klukwan, Alaska

Arrested in April of 1900 at Haines Mission, Alaska
Convicted of 2nd degree murder 5/28/1900
Sentenced to 30 years in prison 6/27/1900

Arrived at McNeil Island Prison 7/6/1900
Transferred to San Quentin Prison 10/19/1900

Died 11/11/1903 of tuberculosis  3 years after arriving at prison

Survived by wife at Klukwan, Alaska

MARK  KLANAT  age 36  Born at Chilkat Inlet, Alaska

Arrested 3/14/1900 at Chilkat Inlet, Alaska

Convicted of 2nd degree murder  5/28/1900
Sentenced to 20 years in prison 6/27/1900

Arrived at McNeil Island Prison 7/6/1900

Died (3/3/1904) of tuberculosis 4 years after arriving at prison

Belonged to Sitka Tribe and was the son of
Chilkat Chief (Donowak 1815-1904)

Survived by wife and 4 children at Chilkat, Alaska

Children: Charlie, John, David and Louisa Klanat
JUCK   KLANE   age 25  Born in Juneau

Arrested 3/14/1900 at Haines Mission, Alaska

Convicted of 2nd degree murder  5/28/1900

Sentenced to 22 years at McNeil Island Prison

Arrived at McNeil Island Prison 7/6/1900


Juck Klane was the last one (of the original 6 convicted) to still be alive in 1910, although he had contracted tuberculosis several years earlier. Officials credit his "longevity" to the fact that he had an outdoor job, piloting the prison boat to and from McNeil Island.

He was in the final stages of tuberculosis when his sentence was commuted to "time served" by President Taft on 6/14/1910. He was given a ticket back to Alaska on the SS Dolphin 6/17/1910

Court records list Jim Hanson's Tlingit name as Qualth, however other sources list his Indian name as KEBETH. Both Qualth and Kebeth are, no doubt phonetic spellings.

McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary Photo Identification Records 1875-1923 National Archives.

I found a variety of surname spellings, so this report uses the spelling from legal documents.

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