Gustave Priesner and Murder in McCarthy
On March 9, 1918, two horrific murders took place in the bustling mining town of McCarthy, Alaska. To this day neither crime has been solved. By all accounts very little effort was put forth in trying. The well-publicized case (back then) is rapidly approaching its 100th anniversary, but now few Alaskans know of it. The six McCarthy residents massacred by Louis Hastings on March 1, 1983, are probably most remembered.
After extensive research, I came to the logical conclusion that the culprit responsible for the 1918 killings was let off the hook by federal court officials. It appears to be an ‘under the table’ deal. In order for justice to finally be served for the two deceased and their descendants, this cold case needs to be reopened.
Graphic words paint an ugly picture through microfilmed newspaper accounts on the demise of Rose Levine-Silberg. The established town ‘prostitute’ was found bludgeoned to death in her combination McCarthy cabin / business called ‘Chili Con Carne Parlor.’ Her throat was slit ear to ear and her undressed body was reported to have other deep cuts and gashes. Screams were heard early that Saturday morning including gunshots, yet no one immediately went to investigate. Why would they? It was a seedy part of town where many folks did not wish to be seen. One gentleman in particular noticed something peculiar.
Joe Petrie, a local miner and owner of the Golden Saloon, had observed McCarthy Drug Store owner, Gustave Priesner, heading back from the red-light district around 5:00 a.m., March 9th. Before Joe could officially be interviewed by law enforcement he mysteriously died. Marshal, Joe Feister, who was slated to question Petrie didn’t arrive in town until the following day. It was assumed by locals that Joe Petrie was poisoned. The dead man’s stomach contents were scheduled to be removed and sent to Seattle. In a laboratory the material was to be analyzed for drugs or arsenic. This writer found no records indicating the testing was ever done. In fact, investigations of Silberg and Petrie’s deaths seemed to have ended before they began.
A Japanese man by the name S. Shimizu was quickly arrested for Rose’s killing. Charges against him were without merit. No records exist of him being convicted. The foreigner left for Japan soon after being released. Back in the day a prostitute’s death was something law enforcement officials saw little priority in investigating. In some areas of the world that policy hasn’t changed.
I was drawn to the event not because of the macabre and brutal killing. It was related to some unusual merchant tokens I’d purchased. Gustave Priesner offered several denominations of trade tokens for his McCarthy Drug Store. In 1973, a woman hiking in the Kennecott area sat down on some rocks to rest. A hole in the rubble beckoned curiosity. Placing her hand within, the woman pulled out a vintage leather pouch. Inside the deteriorating bag were several Priesner tokens stashed by who knows who? When I began studying the coin’s history the Silberg crime naturally surfaced. I spent countless hours on the internet, sending out e-mails and letters probing for more information. The more I dug, the more obvious it became Mr. Priesner got away with double murder.
I learned Gustave Priesner conveniently left town 7 days after the killings. He traveled to Fairbanks supposedly to arrange purchase of animal hides. Besides being a druggist, “Gus,” as he liked to be called, dabbled in furs and pelts. It took a businessman wearing many hats to remain financially afloat back then.
Gustave came to America in 1886 aboard the vessel FULDA. He was the only Priesner listed on the ship manifest. Ship records show he traveled light carrying 1 bag. The man was born March 1873 in Liegnitz – Silesia, Germany. This area is known as Poland now. Eventually settling in Seattle, Washington, the young immigrant became an accomplished actor. He participated in several German Society plays. The Seattle Times from 1904 through 1908 chronicled Gustave’s acting in 5 different shows—in one play as the main character, a mischievous fellow named ‘Schroeder.’ Gustave also worked during this time as a shipping clerk for Pacific Drug Company. He lived with Mathias and Helen Gerdsen at 3914 Angeline Street in Seattle. The Gerdsen’s were nationalized U.S. citizens from Germany.
In 1910, Gustave Priesner sailed for Alaska stopping in Valdez. A steamship register lists his occupation as druggist. Gustave was employed as a clerk at Cordova Drug before moving to McCarthy. He’d purchased the recently constructed McCarthy Drug Store from local businessman, Fred Cole. Exactly where Priesner garnered his pharmaceutical schooling remains a mystery. We can only assume he had training or learned enough as a drug store clerk to fool people. Perhaps savvy acting skills came in handy? Records indicate he was well educated speaking both German and English. Handwritten letters show exceptional grammar and handwriting skill.
It was recognized throughout McCarthy that Rose Levine-Silberg and Gustave Priesner were a couple. They didn’t hide the fact. Why Gus would kill his girlfriend is unclear, other than the lady was robbed of a substantial amount of cash. Her room was in disarray from an individual or individuals seeking something in particular. Ms. Silberg’s wallet was empty. Money sometimes drives people to perform senseless acts. Time has not changed things!
After he left McCarthy, Gustave Priesner was arrested April 1st in Fairbanks, not for the murder of Rose Silberg, but for being an illegal alien in this country. World War I was underway and those of German nationality without proper papers were being rounded up and sent to internment camps. When Priesner was detained it was disclosed he had considerable money on him; supposedly $20,000. Of course dealing in furs it was expected a buyer would use cash or gold instead of writing a check.
Several Alaskan newspapers erroneously reported that Gustave Priesner escaped custody, heading north to Russia. He was supposedly never seen again. I put holes in that story some 25 years ago. Gustave was extradited from Fairbanks to a German POW camp near Salt Lake City, Utah. The infamous place is called Fort Douglas. Gustave Priesner was assigned prisoner number 1140. Much thanks to Ray K. Cunningham Jr., of the University of Illinois for supplying this information. Ray is the foremost expert on Fort Douglas and early German prisoners of war.
I sent for Gustave’s Fort Douglas records from the National Archives, and was rewarded with a plethora of tantalizing data. Hundreds of documents on the prisoner, including copies of actual letters of correspondence came to light. Paperwork proved Gus Priesner was as brilliant a businessman behind bars as he was out.
Archive records show the Department of Justice allowed him to keep receipts from the sale of his business to the new owner, Ben Jackson. These funds went into his Bank of Cordova account. He was then able to make draws, transferring needed money to his prison account. At his incarceration Gus had $3,843.06. This number is officially recorded within the Alien Property Custodian Report. If the man was indeed captured in Fairbanks with $20,000, where did the balance of those funds go? Transaction records show Gustave loaned other German inmates small amounts of money with interest. Some of the loans were for as little as forty cents. There are records of nearly one-hundred loan transactions.
Perhaps most important was Gustave’s two prison photographs; the only surviving pictures of the man taken outside McCarthy. One photo I.D. shows a well-groomed individual evidently in good health. This photo would’ve been snapped before his attending a court trial on the government’s behalf. Gus Priesner is signed at bottom.
What’s extremely interesting are papers showing Gustave Priesner being temporarily paroled November 3, 1919. A Salt Lake City newspaper reports he was taken to Seattle under escort, to act as government witness in a fraudulent stock selling case. Documents show he obtained money to purchase ‘nice clothing’ for the trial. Priesner was re-interned at Fort Douglas seven days later. Court records had him testifying against George F. Rowe in this case. Mr. Rowe was being tried on defrauding stockholders out of a considerable amount of money; $400,000 to be exact.
Gustave Priesner was paroled April 8, 1920, by special agent for the Department of Justice, Lave Gershon. No evidence of Priesner being further detained for the 1918 McCarthy murderers was uncovered. My hunch being the feds worked out a plea bargain in return for his testimony. They desperately needed his side of the embezzlement story. A handwritten letter Gustave wrote to the adjutant general of the Department of Justice before being released mentioned he had mining interests in Mexico. Gus indicated in this letter he wanted out of the U.S. as soon as possible to travel there.
The last tidbits of information on the druggist were border crossings between Eagle Pass, Texas and Mexico. This was in the early 1920s. The reason for such trips is listed as morphine sales. It seems likely Gustave rekindled his pharmaceutical business in Mexico. Gustave married a Mexican national, Adela Riveroll Guadalajara, on April 11, 1926. She died February 11, 1961. No death records for Gustave were located. That stirs up many possibilities.
I’m sure with additional sleuthing there’s more information yet to be uncovered regarding this man. I’d like to know how he died. Shady characters like Gustave Priesner are known to encounter tragic deaths themselves.
Instead of me doing all the digging, I believe our federal government should be hot on Gustave Priesner’s trail. Regardless that the man’s no longer breathing, descendants of Rose Levine-Silberg and Joe Petrie still deserve to know the truth!
On a side note: Additional tragedy related to the McCarthy Drug Store occurred on November 6, 1940. Store owner and McCarthy postmaster Ben Jackson was away on business. Because of a stove malfunction his part log home caught fire with wife Ora inside. She was tragically killed. A good portion of McCarthy burned to the ground including the infamous drug store.
Michael and his wife Joleen can be found in Lake Havasu City, Arizona when not traveling in their RV. Michael does freelance writing when not exploring the desert. Alaska will always be their true home!