Editor’s note: This story features two key characters whose names have varied spellings. The first is Ethan (or Ethen) Cunningham, and the second is William “Bill” Frank (or Franke). Most of the information for this story came from four sources: the book, “Alaska Odyssey: Gospel of the Wilderness,” by Hal Thornton; an Anchorage Daily Times article from Jan. 22, 1948; an occasionally inaccurate Dec. 4, 1997, letter (and accompanying documents) from Sara Cunningham Scott to the Kenai City Council; and the research of Kasilof historian Brent Johnson.
By Clark Fair
The night that Jimmy Minano raced up and issued his nearly breathless command, Hal Thornton was relaxing with Pappy and Jessie Belle Walker in Kenai.
“That Jeep!” said Minano, indicating Thornton’s vehicle. “Take me to the marshal! There’s been a murder!”
The date was Monday, Jan. 19, 1948, and the law officer was Marshal Allen Petersen. The murder, it was speculated, was the result of what Thornton called some “bad blood” between the killer and his victim. Now, some of that blood had been spilled and was “staining a snowbank where one of them lay — the victim of a point-blank gun blast.” Thornton and Minano sped toward the Petersen residence, which included the jail. Once he had learned the few facts available thus far, the stout, middle-aged marshal moved quickly into action. Turning to Thornton, he said, “You and Jimmy get a posse in order. Do you mind using your Jeep to gather up some men?”
Thornton didn’t mind. He headed for the home of Al and Jessie Munson, where Henning and Ruth Johnson were visiting. Al Munson and Henning Johnson joined the posse, as did Odman Kooly, and they all motored off toward the end of the road a short distance beyond the local cannery.
Then the posse, with rifles ready and flashlight beams dancing in the darkness, set off on foot up the trail along the river toward the old Windy Wagner cabin (off present-day Beaver Loop Road), where the killer was said to be holed up.
Despite all the possibilities posed by the accumulated manpower and firepower, the conclusion was rather anticlimactic: The accused, William “Bill” Frank, surrendered to the marshal, was taken into custody, and freely admitted to killing Ethan Cunningham after an argument. (Johnson and Munson were left to guard the prisoner while the marshal went to recover the body and inspect the crime scene.) The simplicity of this conclusion, however, belied the ensuing rampant speculation concerning Frank’s motive for murder.
According to Thornton, via Minano: “It was assumed that jealousy over one of the wives (as both men were married) caused Bill Frank to go to Ethen Cunningham’s cabin where he called the man to come outside.”
According to an employee of the Civil Aeronautics Administration office in Kenai, the dispute had something to do with dogs.
According to at least two commercial-fishing families from the area, Ethan Cunningham had been having an affair with Bill Frank’s wife. One person further speculated that, after the murder, Cunningham’s wife, Martha, pretended not to know the motive for the crime.
But three days after the arrest, Clinton W. Stein, the FBI agent in charge of the case, stated that no clear motive had yet been ascertained.
Here are the facts, including the contradictory ones: Ethan Cunningham was born “sometime in 1908” and raised in Penrose, Wyo. Mathematically, he must therefore have been 39 or 40 at the time of his death. According to the Times, he was 35. According to records provided by his niece, Sara Cunningham Scott, Ethan married Martha Esther Sievers of Sheboygan, Wis., in her hometown in the “early 1940s.” The newspaper, on the other hand, stated that the Cunninghams had been married for only two and a half years. Martha was born Jan. 24, 1916, in Sheboygan.
By the time they were married, he had apparently already started work on a Kenai River homestead approximately three miles upstream from the village of Kenai. After their marriage, Martha traveled north to join Ethan.
At the time of the shooting, said the newspaper, Ethan Cunningham “had been in the area for five years and held a fishing site at Salamatof Beach, according to Jack Triber, a local policeman who was personally acquainted with the dead man.”
The Times report states that Ethan at first had lived in a small cabin and then, between fishing seasons, built a larger one about 300 feet away for himself and Martha. At the time of the killing, 25-year-old trapper Bill Frank, his wife and his young daughter were residing in the smaller cabin, which they were renting from the Cunninghams.
Whatever the dispute concerned, the FBI said that Mrs. Frank “had warned the victim earlier in the evening that her husband had a rifle, a .32 Winchester Special, and was attempting to find Cunningham.”
A .32-caliber Winchester Special cartridge was most often used in the lever-action hunting rifle called the Winchester Model 94; its killing power is roughly equivalent to a more modern .30-30 Winchester. According to David Thornton, owner and operator of the Brown Bear Gun Shop and Museum in Kenai, the Model 94 has long been considered an excellent deer-hunting weapon, but is capable of stopping a moose or a bear.
Kenai residents living near the Cunningham homestead reported that at about 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 19 they heard three gunshots. When Cunningham’s body was recovered, authorities counted three bullet wounds. Although rumors at the time placed the wounds in the groin, the chest and the head, the autopsy report offered more precise locations: a shot into one of Cunningham’s hips, another in his abdomen and one behind his left ear.
The Cunninghams had had no children, and at some point after the shooting, Martha Cunningham moved to Anchorage and became a nurse. She was briefly remarried and then divorced, returning to her first married name. Eventually, she moved back to Sheboygan, where she died Feb. 25, 1973, from complications of breast cancer.
Before she died, however, Martha Cunningham made a gift to the city of Kenai that has kept alive her Alaska family name. In August 1971, she offered to donate a two-acre tract of her homestead land on the Kenai River to be used as a public park and to be named Cunningham Memorial Park. Council members unanimously voted to accept the offer. Today Cunningham Memorial Park is well-known for its fishing opportunities, less so for the violence that once took place.