Yes indeed! There are a number of “barely believables” worthy of mention and will be covered in time throughout the pages of http://www.gustavus.org/. However, one comes to mind immediately that took place exactly 110 years ago this month (1898) in Lituya Bay. It involved a married couple, Edith & Hans Nelson who for fear of their lives took matters in their own hands---becoming judge, jury, and incredibly, hanging executioners.
To make a fascinating story short, Edith was a pampered handmaiden from England, and Hans was an immensely large & strong immigrant Swede carpenter. They met and married in Chicago and immediately set out to satisfy the adventuresome gold mining fever of Hans’ in Colorado, the Dakotas, Idaho, Oregon & British Columbia. In 1897 they were swept up in the rush to Alaska and found themselves without provisions or money in Dyea & Skaguay. Eventually, along with 3 other men, they were transported by Indians in 70’ Siwash canoes to Lituya Bay. Gold mining was their aim and all 5 were to be equal partners with Edith earning her “man’s share” by cooking for the lot (she had never cooked a day in her life prior to their adventure).
The party of 5 reportedly got along famously as a team, constructed a 3 room cabin and by working long, grueling hours managed to happily stow away about $8,000 in gold. All seemed well. Life in the wilderness was everything they expected and more. There was, however, a small problem they had not counted on. Summer flew by without attention to the calendar and their planned pickup was missed. Winter came on with a vengeance. Howling winds, relentless snow, and freezing waters blasting nonstop storm after storm.
What happened next is a tale that in the words of Robert Service “could make your blood run cold”! Without warning, Michael Dennin (the loveable, witty Irishman prone to sudden anger) came into the cabin where his 4 comrades were eating breakfast by candlelight. At each end of the table were Hans & Edith. Harky & Dutchy had their backs to the door. Dennin leveled his shotgun and shot “Harky” and “Dutchy” dead. Hans & Edith sat in stunned silence as the smell of gunpowder and a smoky haze filled the room. It was Edith that sprang into action when Dennin ejected the empty shells and it became clear that the calm reloading was intended to be the death of them too. A half-second behind Edith, Hans joined the fury in a wrestling, slugging, choking match as all three struggled for their lives.
In the end, Michael Dennin lay unconscious and wedged between Hans and the murderer, Edith (who was actually taking her husband’s blows) compelled Hans to stop his murderous rage. Still alive, Dennin was “lashed” hands and feet while Edith & Hans went outside to bury the dead. A fire was built to thaw the soil a few inches at a time, and was repeated over & over in near blizzard conditions until enough was dug that the two could be buried in a shallow grave.
Exhausted and chilled to the bone, Hans & Edith returned to their cabin to find Dennin awake and attempting to free himself. Hans begged Edith to let him shoot the monster and get it over with but Edith could not let him do it. What followed became a nightmare of guarding their inmate day and night. They took 4-hour watches and could not sleep. The strain of feeding and caring for the intimate needs of their hostage with the constant fear of his escape became too much to bear. Hans and Dennin would savagely glare at each other by the hour and Edith was on the verge of a breakdown. How could they possibly keep Dennin a prisoner for at least 4 more months before they could all be rescued and a trial conducted? Now even Hans was about to lose his sanity and Edith realized that Dennins’ continual ravings and wild promises needed to end. Food was running low and they could not leave the cabin to hunt or seek help (several Indians had stopped by but refused to get involved or take the inmate to a settlement)
Following law proceedings the best they could, Hans & Edith became the witnesses, the jury and the judge. The jury’s verdict was guilty. The judge (Edith) imposed the sentence. Dennin laughed defiantly when told he would hang in 3 days, but seemed to take comfort as Edith read the Bible to him. The murderer eventually confessed, with several Indians to witness his story and signature. To the question of “why?” Dennin reported he had not been to his old country for 15 years and aimed to go home to make his elderly mother comfortable for the rest of her days. His 1/5 portion of gold would not have been enough.
Edith put a fur cap on Dennins head (to keep him warm as it was freezing outside), and adjusted a rope around his neck. Last words were spoken and Edith failed at her first attempt to kick the barrel out from underneath him. Hans assisted, Edith Nelson completely broke down, and only the Indians remained to “solemnly watch the working of the white man’s law that compelled a man to dance upon the air”.
P.S. Sources and additional details will be posted on the Gustavus History site.