Anchorage’s first police chief murdered

Anchorage Chief of Police John “Jack” Sturgus was gunned down in 1921 in an alley behind the Hotel Anchorage, seen here off E Street.
Anchorage Chief of Police John “Jack” Sturgus was gunned down in 1921 in an alley behind the Hotel Anchorage, seen here off E Street.

In an effort to curb rampant crime in Anchorage in the early 1920s, the town’s newly formed city council officially created a police department in December 1920. The council then sifted through many applications, and settled on John “Jack” Sturgus as its first chief of police.

The council told him to crack down on gambling in the railroad town in February 1921. So Sturgus spent the next several weeks patrolling the streets and attempting to halt the proliferation of gambling, along with bootleg whiskey and ladies of the evening. But less than a month after taking the job, someone shot the chief in the chest with his own gun.

Oscar Anderson, Anchorage’s first butcher, passed the 60-year-old police chief on Fourth Avenue at around 9 p.m. on Feb. 20, 1921, according to inquest transcripts and news articles of the time. Anderson noted that the chief was heading up E Street.
A few moments later, the chief lay dying at the bottom of a flight of stairs behind the Kyvig Building, which housed the Anchorage Drug store and now is an alley next to the Anchorage Hotel.

Night watchman John McNutt, who patrolled the downtown area and stoked fires for local businesses, saw what he thought was a drunken man lying in the snow in an alley off E Street at 9:15 p.m. McNutt called out, but only heard groans.

Instead of investigating, McNutt decided to inform the chief. He turned and walked to a nearby newsstand that Sturgus often frequented during his rounds. Along the way, McNutt met Mrs. Baxter, who lived in an apartment above the drugstore. He told her about the fallen man.

Mrs. Baxter went to have a look and immediately recognized her longtime friend. She later testified that she knelt beside Sturgus, and while he drifted in and out of consciousness, he called out her nickname, “Ma.” She then rushed to the Baxter’s cigar store and cried for help.

Those who came to the chief’s aid noticed his .32 caliber Colt revolver lying near him in the snow. A bullet had pierced his woolen shirt at the left pocket. His Mackinaw coat and vest were thrown open. He was cold and in pain.

They carried the gravely injured man to nearby Richter’s Hotel and Bathhouse. After a brief examination, firefighters rushed Sturgus to the hospital in their new hose wagon. As Drs. Romig, Spalding and Cannon prepared for surgery to stem the bleeding from the bullet that had lodged near his spine, Sturgus complained about the bright lights and his hands being cold. But he remained silent on repeated questions from U.S. deputy marshals Clarence Mossman and Frank Hoffman as to the identity of his attacker.

Sturgus died at 10:50 p.m. “with his lips sealed and a mystery remaining to be unraveled by the long arm of the law.”
During the official inquest, people said they either “saw the flash of a gun” or “heard the report of a gun” the night of the shooting. But no one saw any suspicious characters.

The bullet taken from the body during autopsy matched the gun found at the scene. The coroner’s inquest, conducted by Judge Leopold David on Feb. 23, concluded that Sturgus came to his death at the hands of unknown parties.

People speculated about the motive for the shooting. Some suggested the chief was killed “while endeavoring to make an arrest or while watching in the rear of the drug store for some man under suspicion.”

Other suggested that Sturgus had been “murdered by members of an illicit liquor gang,” “in revenge” because of the “activity of the marshal’s office during the past week,” and while “watching for someone conveying moonshine liquor through the alley, and when attempting to halt them, met his death,” according the various articles in the Anchorage Daily Times.

Although the city offered a reward of $1,000 for information about its chief’s death, and council members pledged another $950, the murder has never been solved.

Sturgus is buried along the iron fence that faces Cordova Street in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. But some say his spirit still lingers in the alleyway where he was shot.