Almanac: School progress won’t be shot down

Editor’s note: This is the final of a three-part story about the early days of the Kenai School, and the upheaval under the quick-tempered Principal Cleve Magill. The first installment of this story can be read here. The second installment can be read here.

By Brent Johnson

For the Redoubt Reporter

Controversy may have been swirling around the Kenai School Board election of Monday, April 8, 1918, but the law required an election to be held, and so it was, with not even a death stopping it.

The shooting of a prospective voter didn’t even highlight a letter sent April 10, 1918, from school officials describing the events to Alaska Territorial Gov. John Franklin Alexander Strong.

The senders instead led with a description of the machinations of Principal Cleave Magill, whom they considered to be thwarting due process with his alleged interference in the election.

They write that notice of the upcoming school board election, held annually as required by school law, was notarized and posted March 29, with Magill’s acknowledgement of the legality of the notices. The election was to be held at the school after school let out.

At about 2:25 p.m., while some classes were still in session, the authors say, Magill orchestrated a session for the public to nominate candidates — but the “public” in attendance were people Magill invited.

“When the children were dismissed voters poured in from the door at the back of the room, where they had gained entrance from Mr. Magill’s private office. The public were not given notice of this convention, for the purpose of nominating candidates, with the exception, apparently, of those who came in through Magill’s office.

“Mr. (Herman Singer, Kenai postmaster and treasurer of the school board) called the meeting to order and asked that a chairman be elected, and he nominated Mr. Magill. Mr. Magill appointed two Russians to act on the election board, and they were to choose the third member. They chose Mr. Magill. The election board had been named on the election notices posted by the clerk, but they were not allowed the opportunity to act in that capacity. The judge of the election board was obliged to teach school until 2:45 p.m., while Mr. Magill dismissed his pupils and went electioneering.

“The chairman then made a few remarks and among them said the purpose of this meeting was to elect a school board and to do so in a legal manner in every way. He then stated that the posting of the notices was done illegally, (but) when ‘called’ by the Notary who witnessed them, admitted they were legal and in due form.”

Magill called for nominations for officers of the school board. The office of treasurer got one name, clerk garnered three names and director got one. Then Magill distributed ballots, in a manner called into question by the letter writers.

“Directly after the nominations were in, Mr. Magill walked to his office and returned bringing law books, necessary papers, the ballot box and ballots already prepared. When the voting commenced these ballots were handed (to) the voter by Mr. Magill; Mr. Magill giving the name of the voter to the two clerks, who wrote it down. The voter folded the ballot, handed it back to Mr. Magill, who dropped it in the ballot box. The voter made no mark on the ballot to show he had voted or to designate he had read same. There was no voting booth or place designated where he could do so, should he wish.

“As the entire affair to all appearances seemed so prearranged, there was some protest from some voters, who refused to vote at an election so held and left the room without voting. We the undersigned, two trustees of the school, were of those who refused to vote and left the building.”

Alexander “Paddy” Ryan and a Mr. Sandell, meanwhile, arrived at the school to vote. Magill, 33 at the time, allegedly told Ryan he couldn’t vote because he was a convict — Ryan had been sentenced Nov. 24, 1908, for “willful and malicious destruction of personal property” in Alaska’s Third Judicial Division, an area including Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. Ryan began serving jail time Dec. 22, 1908, and got out five months early, on July 30, 1910. Ryan called Magill a liar, and may have charged Magill with his fists flying. Magill apparently pulled a pistol from under his coat and shot him. Amazingly, the election continued with Ryan’s body lying in the doorway.

“Mr. Ryan was shot at about 3:30 by Mr. Magill, who was armed. His body laid in the doorway for some time, voters entering from the rear. It was finally drawn to one side, although the election continued. The polls were closed at about 5:15.

“Mr. Magill made the remark after the shooting that he was prepared to take care of any of Mr. Ryan’s friends who might come. Mr. Magill made the statement in the school on Friday (before the election on Monday) that there would be ‘hot time’ in Kenai on Monday. He made the statement on Sunday he would on the least provocation fire the two present teachers and have new teachers next year, and also listed two or three men he would shoot on the first opportunity they gave him,” the letter states.

The clerk of the school board, one of the clerks of the election board and the notary public who drew up the notice of the election were warned by Magill and one of his friends to stay away from the election and have no part in it, the letter writers state. Further, Magill had previously stated that he had authority from the governor to disregard the law, if necessary, and appoint the school board, and that any of his actions would be backed by the governor and Judge Brown’s court, the letter states.

After the shooting, the letter states that there was no attempt made to apprehend or disarm Magill, although there were about 15 men in the room at the time of the shooting.

After the election was over, Magill went to Dawson’s store, Bob and William Dawson being central to the faction that disliked Magill. Here Magill attempted to placate his enemies by saying that he had asked the postmaster to contact the marshal and that he intended to give himself up. We should note that the postmaster was Herman Singer — who ran the pre-election nomination meeting at Magill’s invitation — hence Magill’s statement may not have inspired trust.

Charles Coats, who was a friend of Ryan’s, came in through the back of the store and ordered Magill to put up his hands. Witnesses say Magill raised his hands part way and then reached for his gun. Coats shot him, using two bullets, one through the body and one through the head.

Coats was arraigned in Seldovia before Justice of the Peace and U.S. Commissioner Ralph V. Anderson. He heard from witnesses and the jury decided that Coats should be exonerated. But Coats wished to go before the grand jury in Valdez, “So as to be completely exonerated, thereby preventing any further trouble in the future.” No details of the proceedings there have been found.

The faction supporting Magill seems to have evaporated. And while evidence against him seems plain enough, some question may arise about the impartiality of the jury regarding Coats’ action. Witnesses in the Seldovia court were R.W. Dawson, George Miller, S. Lindgren, Charles West and six others whose names are not legible. The jurors were E. Boutwell (clerk of the school board), Pete Kalnig, Edwin Edelman, Carl L. Johnson and two others with illegible names.

Paddy Ryan is listed as a fisherman in Kenai in Polk’s 1915-16 directory. He was buried in Kenai. Magill was buried by some of his friends in Kenai on April 14. An Anchorage mortician arrived later, exhumed his body and sent it to relatives in Dayton, Washington.

Magill had been a schoolteacher at least since 1910. His brother, Fred, who was a gas boat engineer, had gone to Juneau, and in 1912 married Sarah I. Haynes, a schoolteacher. They had two children and were in Juneau as late as 1930. Magill’s father died in 1916, which might have been among numerous things upsetting his mental stability.

Probate court regarding Magill’s estate closed in November 1923. He died leaving behind personal belongings and almost $700 in a Juneau bank. Claims against his estate amounted to $1,156, the largest being $630 from H.S. Young (Hartley Young owned a store in Kenai) and $271 from Mrs. Boutwell.

Back at the school, the administrators were unsure of the validity of the election, and sought the governor’s direction.

“Please advise what action is necessary to secure the new board for next year, as the ballot box with the votes, which were cast as above stated, was sealed promptly at the death of Mr. Magill, at about 6:15 on the 8th, will any further action be necessary. This ballot box was sealed to protect whatever papers it contained. The remaining papers were in Mr. Magill’s office, which was sealed until proper authorities arrived,” the letter states.

“We are practically newcomers in the community and the above evidence has been gathered by us. We have secured nothing which has any bearing on previous feuds and all are facts which happened since our coming here. This is no muckraking evidence.”

The letter is signed by H.N. Steele and Herbert M. Pratt. It is countersigned by E. Boutwell, clerk of the school board, and Edwin Edelman, director of the school.

On April 9 the school board (probably Singer, Boutwell and Edelman) met and appointed Nelson Steele as principal and instructed him to take Magill’s classes for the remainder of the term. Via letter, the governor instructed the school board to hold a new election. This one involved no violence.

Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.

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