Seattle’s first black cop meets a killer over checkers
Horace Cayton was an African-American sociologist born in Seattle in 1903. His father was born a slave; his mother was the daughter of the first black U.S. Congressman. This is an excerpt from his autobiography, The Long Old Road, published in 1963.
I was the first Negro ever to be appointed a deputy in our rough-and-tumble city.
Men on the force were not so much prejudiced against Negroes as surprised and confused to find one suddenly in their midst. They were accustomed to Negroes as bootblacks or as suspects, but to ride a prowl car with one was a new experience. They looked upon me as an unfortunate experiment that should and would fail, or at least they were not going out of their way to help it succeed. I was more nervous about the whole thing than they but I attended to my duties as best I could. There was no training program, and as none of them gave me a hint about what to do. I had to pick up the trade as best I could.
My first assignment was in the fingerprint room, where each prisoner was printed and mugged soon after he was arrested. My boss was a man named Rosenfelds, who at first acted the martyr for having been given a Negro assistant. But when he found that I could type and saw how quickly I learned to take prints, he became quite friendly. I was fascinated with the work, because we processed every individual who was arrested. The prisoners, incidentally, paid no attention to my being a Negro.
After I had worked in the fingerprint room for about a year, there was a break at the jail, and we worked around the clock for three days. We got most of the prisoners back, but as a result of the break, Captain Bunker from Walla Walla State Penitentiary was brought in as a the new jail superintendent.
Bunker was an enormous man and very curiously constructed. He was about six feet tall and weighed nearly three hundred pounds but in spite of his bulk he was agile as a cat. About 50 years old, he had the strength and endurance of a much younger man.
Above his massive torso was perched a very small, round head, which made him resemble a bale of hay with a pumpkin sitting on top. His arms were long, and his feet were very large. But the most unusual part of him was his stomach, which started midway, where his chest would have been, and seemed to extend to his knees. He would sometimes use it as a battering ram, to push people around.
He had the reputation of being a tough prison man and had started out as a hangman.
I was coming back from lunch one day and he came out of his office and motioned for me to go in.
As I sat across the table from him, his piercing, cold eyes penetrated me. “You’re colored, aren’t you, Cayton?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Can’t you tell?”
“Just answer the questions,” he said, hard and cold. “I heard that you go to school.”
“Tell me about it.”
“What is there to tell? I’m majoring in sociology.”
“Do you study about crime?” he asked.
“Yes, I do take one course in criminology.”
“I’d like to see some of your books,” he said. “Maybe they might want a speech. I’d be glad to talk to the students.”
He relaxed and became confidential.
“As a matter of fact, I like colored people,” he said. “Of course, the only ones I’ve known have been prisoners, but they make good prisoners after you break them a little. I hung one colored fellow in Walla Walla, gave him a nice hanging. I kept the rope under my desk and greased it with talcum powder. Didn’t even burn his skin. But I’ve never known a colored deputy.”
“I do my work,” I said.
“I’ll transfer you to the cell block, then you can study your books at night,” he said.
I was annoyed, but knew I had made a good although rather puzzling friend. I didn’t like what he stood for, and his cool brutality dismayed me, yet there was a childlike innocence about this ex-hangman. Soon everyone in the jail was aware that I was his pet, although he barked orders at me like anyone else.
As I made my rounds, I began to be aware of Klondike, a Negro prisoner who was in a cell by himself. The others were kept in tanks, a group of cells connected to a dayroom. But Klondike was by himself, and since he never seemed to sleep I began to talk to him occasionally in order to stay awake myself.
I knew about Klondike. He was a drug addict who had been convicted of murder and would probably hang. A dangerous man. But in spite of this, one night I stopped and smoked a cigarette with him. He was middle-aged, brown-skinned, short, stocky, physically a powerful man. But he was one of the most soft-spoken, gentle-looking men I have ever seen and he looked strangely like our Baptist minister.
I offered him a cigarette, and he thanked me, neither humbly nor arrogantly. The man had great dignity. Every night about three or four o’clock, when the hours grew intolerably long, I would stop by his cell to smoke and talk. He told me all about himself, how he had gone to Alaska to mine gold, which was where he had gotten his nickname. After that he had come back to the States and worked as a longshoreman and a sailor. He bought himself a little house; then, just when everything seemed to be going well, someone on the waterfront talked him into walking some dope off a ship. Step by step he had been introduced to morphine and soon became a heavy user.
One night when he was broke, he tried to get some morphine from the man who had made him an addict, and was refused. He went away but came back later, taped the man’s mouth shut, and tied him to a chair, cutting him thirty times before he finally died. He then walked to the police station and gave himself up.
Weeks went by, and Klondike and I became more and more friendly. Finally, against all the rules, I let him out of his cell at night so we could play checkers in the corridor where no one from the front office could see us. I even used to bring coffee and sandwiches from the kitchen.
After he was tried, convicted and sentenced to be hanged, I stopped letting Klondike out of his cell for a while. He kidded me about it one night. I’m the same fellow,” he said. “Just because I got sentenced don’t mean I want to start anything.”
After a week or so I started taking Klondike out again.
We never spoke about his crime or his sentence. I wanted to, but his natural dignity prevented me. I was curious to know how a man felt who had killed another in cold blood. How it felt, knowing that you had to die on a certain day. By this time his appeal had been turned down, and the governor also had refused to honor his plea for executive clemency.
Nothing happened, that is nothing until the week before he was to be executed. There is an odd belief among prisoners that any man about to be hanged will start feeling the rope as his time grows shorter. A sure sign of this is that he will begin to scratch his neck.
I had just made a very good move, and Klondike was trying to figure out how to counter it. He was studying the board intently; I was watching him just as closely. In addition to helping keep myself awake, I had another secret reason for letting Klondike out of his cell and playing checkers with him. I was taking abnormal psychology and I had thought that perhaps I might write my term paper on him. An actual case study of a man who was going to be hanged; I figured it would be a sensation, a sure-fire A. With this in mind, I had been watching Klondike more closely than I had the game. But he was so intent on beating me, which he usually did, that he hadn’t noticed.
Now I had him in a tight corner, and he didn’t want to lose. Suddenly, as he thought he had found a way out, his hand moved slowly to his neck and started to scratch. Slowly and methodically he scratched his neck on both sides, then he began to caress it. I watched, fascinated. There was the sign. Up until now he had given no indication either by word or expression that he realized that in a week he would be hanged.
He looked up, a half-smile on his face, about to say, “Well, I got out of that one.” I was so fascinated by his preoccupation with his neck that I couldn’t look away—even though I realized he had caught me staring at him. Puzzled, he glanced down to see what I was looking at and then he realized what he had been doing.
Slowly his expression changed. He had been smiling, happy, when he first looked up from the board. Now his facial muscles began to tighten; his lips drew back, baring his white teeth, and his nostrils seemed to widen. He no longer looked like a Baptist preacher but exactly like a man who had tied somebody in a chair and cut him thirty times before he died.
He started to get to his feet; I automatically rose with him. We stood staring into each other’s eyes, not four feet apart. I don’t know how I looked, but Klondike’s face was a picture of cold fury and hatred. It is difficult to describe the quality of his voice when he spoke. It was still soft but no longer gentle. It was shot through with hostility, hate, and the threat to kill.
“It really itched, copper.”
Klondike had never called me copper before. At first it had been guard, and later, when we got to know each other better, Cayton. But now I had challenged his manhood, intimating that he was afraid to die. I was on the other side now. I wasn’t even a Negro like him; I was the law.
I had the sudden realization that there had never been any real friendship between Klondike and myself. I was the law; he was the convicted prisoner awaiting execution. I understood emotionally, perhaps for the first time, that Klondike was a brutal murderer, a killer who had shown no remorse or gilt over his crime. I was afraid of Klondike as a man; I was afraid of him as a prisoner.
Sometimes, not from courage but out of a strange inner necessity, we act in spite of our fears. I don’t know if it was my being the youngest deputy on the force and the only Negro who had ever been thus appointed which caused me to muster some inner strength, strength I certainly did not feel. I had known for some time that most of my fellow deputies had wanted me to fail; they still said I was too young and that I would favor Negro prisoners over white.
Then I heard a voice – firm and steady and unbelievably calm. My own. “Back into your cell, Klondike.”
We stood facing each other. The seconds passed. The tension was intolerable. It was a sheer contest of wills, as intense as physical combat.
Suddenly, I acted. I didn’t think it out, it was impulsive. I took one slow step forward, my face not a foot from his. “Back in your cell, Klondike.”
He stood the tension for at least 10 seconds then stepped back. Step by step we moved, he backward and I forward until we had covered the five or six feet to his cell. I locked him in, gathered up the checkers and left without a word.
For the next few nights I avoided Klondike, using another route to make my rounds. On about the fifth evening, I made a point of walking past his cell; it was he who broke the ice.
“Got a cigarette, Cayton?” he called.
I was anxious to make up for my callow curiosity and the stupid insensibility I had shown toward this man who was about to face death.
We smoked together in silence for a while, then he spoke.
“I want you to know,” he said. “It really itched.”
Editor’s note: Klondike was likely L.E. Mosley, a 45-year-old man charged with killing a Japanese tailor in Tacoma in the early 1920s, according to a Seattle Times story at the time. He was hanged, however, for his role in killing a police officer during the jail break noted above.
We don’t know who Captain Bunker would have been referring to, however, when he described greasing a rope to hang a black man. During his time at Walla Walla, no black men were hanged, according to state records.
A former official at the Washington State Department of Corrections said that if the hanging took place after 1904, then there is likely a good record of it. If the hanging took place before, it might have been an extrajudicial lynching. Given that Bunker moved to Washington state in 1904, it is more likely that he would not have been telling the truth, although why he would have lied is unclear.
Reprinted with permission.