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Jerome Findlay Quidley III

Soon, bootlegging in small-town Alaska will never be the same

Jerome Findlay Quidley III

Jerome Findlay Quidley III — and that was exactly what he demanded everyone call him, right down to “the Third” — would allow no sobriquet. He was Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third, of the Portland Quidleys. Not Portland, Oregon, either. But the other Portland — Maine. Gem of the East Coast. Founded from a 1623 land grant and later named Machigonne. The name Portland came later, as did the city’s bird, the phoenix, and its motto Resurgam, “I will rise again,” which was not surprising considering the city’s icon was, after all, a phoenix.

Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was proud to be from Maine. He told everyone he was, and no one doubted he had been there. Maybe even raised there. But he was no longer in Maine. And if he loved Maine so much then why was he in Hootlani, which was as far away from the city of the phoenix as you could get and still speak English in 1903?

There was a problem.

Those in Hootlani who had spent their youth on the East Coast remarked that Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third did not speak like someone from the Pine Tree State. His cadence had far too much personality. Mainers were known for their flat speech in which, without inflexion, it was impossible to tell whether a Mainer was talking about the weather or telling you the chair you were sitting in had suddenly burst into flames. Further, no one had ever heard of any Quidleys of Portland, Maine or Oregon.

Not that this was important; after all, everyone in Hootlani was in Hootlani because there was a very good reason they were not welcome in the community from which they had come. Residents of Hootlani spoke little of those places, and no one, including Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third, talked about returning there either.

Hootlani was at the end of the earth, literally and figuratively. All that lay to the west was the Bering Sea. It was as far from anywhere as you could go and still be in America, and that was exactly the reason that Hootlani had acquired its unique population. It was still acquiring such residents for the simple fact that as long as there were collections of people called towns there would be places like Hootlani where the loose pieces of humanity can float like the steamship-tossed refuse that accumulates in the sloughs at every bend in the river.

Finally, and of very little importance, there was one aspect of the tales of Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third to which the residents of Hootlani paid no attention. Though he stated it over and over, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third kept saying that Portland, Maine, had originally been named Machigonne — possibly and probably for the local Indians — except for the fact that no matter how it was pronounced it sounded a lot like Michigan, a state that shared neither a border with Maine nor a common heritage, except that both were states in America and Alaska was not.

Suffice it to say, the supposed pedigree of Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was the least odious of his personal traits. He had a red-hot temper that he managed to keep under control morningly with copious amounts of whiskey. And he could not be trusted if there was more than a dollar on the gaming table. But other than the fact he had killed a man in a dispute, he was an amiable sort. After all, the man who he had killed was an Athabaskan, and God had made plenty of them. One less would not be missed, and the dead man had been both a drunkard and very slow with a sheath knife.

The Athabaskan had drawn first, so no one held Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third responsible for the death of the Indian, even though Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third’s weapon of choice had been a sawed-short, double-barreled shotgun with 10-gauge buck. The encounter had happened on the trail leading to Barnette’s Cache and, as there were no witnesses, all John Law could record was the reminiscence of the survivor, in this case Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third. As there were none to dispute his account of the incident, that version became the official one.

Though he would have been a disreputable figure in any genteel community in the lower states, among the scapegraces of Hootlani he was king. To be king and remain so he had two socially redeeming qualities — redeeming, that is, in Hootlani. First, no matter the amount or quality of the elixir he consumed, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third remained sober. This was a remarkable feat in a community that treated sobriety as an affliction. Further, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was able to avoid the contempt of his fellow Hootlaniers because of his second redeeming quality: He could close a deal.

Pile of bullets

In the Year of the Big Snow, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was the heartbeat of Hootlani because, like the Lord, he could both giveth and taketh away and still be well loved. That was because the giveth was quite large and the taketh away reasonably small. The giveth was in the form of wages, and everyone in Hootlani, directly or indirectly, was on Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third’s payroll. The residents of Hootlani were fortunate in that they had stumbled into the one industry in which individuals of their ilk could excel: bootlegging.

Hootlani — affectionately known as Hooch-lani or more frequently Hooch Lane by their dependent, dry neighbors — was whiskey central for a good 200 miles of the Noonan Trail, from Lotsaluck to Holy Mission, and from the Caribou River to the Bering Sea coast. Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was their only connection to the drink.

At the time, one of the realities of life in the northland was that liquor by any designation was illegal in Alaska. But being illegal did not mean it was unobtainable. It just made it expensive. So God-fearing residents from all over spent their Sundays in local churches of various denominations repenting sins and the intervening days consuming the elixir from Hootlani.

The larger communities of the Alaskan interior had no need for the services of Hootlani. Nome, Cordova, Juneau, Kodiak, and La Touche were all substantial enough that they could support an indigenous population of bootleggers. Most of these gentlemen were highly respected members of their communities. And wealthy. But for those who lived in places larger than a village but smaller than a town — and there were far more than a handful of them — bootlegging was the necessary conduit for the contraband.

Further, as in the way of all things, a single transgression opens the door to many others. When fertile soil appears, weeds are the first to find root and will invite a wide range of relatives to blow in with the wind. Within a season the terrain will be so thick with vines and seed pods that grass cannot creep under the groundcover. On the human landscape, one sin invites the next, which initiates a third and a following one as well. Until the fences of civilization arrive, everyone is content with the aberrations in place.

Thus did illegal and unsavory ventures spring to full bloom in Hootlani. Prostitution was legal in the sense that there was no representative of law or order to declare it otherwise. Gambling was tolerated because everyone profited from it. Opium was available. And Hootlani had the only brothel between the Bering Sea and Barnette’s Cache 300 miles to the north. It was an open town that drew its clientele from the sea to the Yukon-Kuskokwim watershed and provided every illicit and illegal good and service that made life in the northland tolerable.

Whiskey barrel

As mentioned previously, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was a respected member of Hootlani because he could cut a deal. In the larger cities of the East he would have been known as a front. A front is a respectable-looking gentleman who gives every appearance of being honest and forthright but, in reality, is a disreputable scoundrel whose raison d’être is to distract the lush while his associates skin the man to the bone.

Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third looked the part of a man of breeding. He was an inch and a half over six feet, taller in boots, with white hair that was always in place. He was not too heavy or skinny and had no facial moles or blemishes. He was blessed with an avuncular smile that remained even when the wind was driving the temperature to 50 below, and he was quick to shake hands. He could read and write well, rare attributes in Alaska and nonexistent in Hootlani, and he knew how to keep books. Though everyone suspected that his ability to keep books was self-serving, there always seemed to be enough money to keep everyone pleased. Further, and just as important, as Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third spent his share and his skim in Hootlani, no one saw ill of his transgressions.

One of the sad facts of existence — and particularly loathsome to the denizens of Hootlani — was that there was no escape from the mind-numbing minutiae of life. Distance does not make tribute irrelevant. Taxes in some form will always be assessed, and the long arm of John Law has more than a boardinghouse reach. While almost all residents of Hootlani felt they were immune from the forces of civilization of the lower states, in fact they still had to earn a living, pay a bit to keep the mud wallow in town that passed for a road pass-overble, and someone had to care for the sick and demented who ended up on their collective doorstep.

The revenue source for these requirements of life was handled by Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third. It was the taketh away. Every transaction was skimmed with a small portion going to a civic coffer, and if Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third took a bit for himself on the side that was fine with everyone, because no one complained, and no one could take his place at the center of a very profitable web of iniquity.

For his part, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third made the arrangements with the steamship lines, freighters, and whaling vessels that plied the waters of the Bering Sea. Liquor had to come in, and those who were doing the bringing had to make certain that those who were doing the buying were reputable individuals. Rather, disreputable individuals who could be trusted to pay in gold and forget with whom they had been doing business.

On the flip side of the entrepreneurial system, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third inspired confidence in his buyers. Though his prices were high, a natural consequence of any commodity in Alaska, they were not so high as to deter sales. Once again, his connections in the Alaskan Interior were such that no one doubted his ability to supply the thirsty northland with the elixir it needed to keep the miners warm and husbands healthy and provide ministers a demon to squall against. On the trail he kept his books in his head for the simple reason that many Alaskan communities were blessed — or cursed, depending on one’s point of view — with representatives of John Law who would call such paperwork by another name: evidence.

A bag of coins

For Hootlani, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was more than a resident; he was an industry. Everyone in town was rewarded by his presence. It was called employment. It took a lot of warm bodies to move barrels, casks, crates, and cases from ship holds to the storage cabins in Hootlani. Then it took more bodies to sort the merchandise and prepare it for delivery. Dog teams had to be fed summer or winter, as did the operation’s three dray animals. Additionally, the plank sidewalks that made the loading of the dogs and horses easy were always in need of repair. Everything cost money, and that money came out of Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third’s pocket. He paid well, thus his popularity.

Hootlani had no bank, so the money that was spent in town simply sloshed from one business to the next. From common laborer to tavern, store, or brothel, men would spend as they were paid. Liquor came into Hootlani from one direction and money from the other. Everyone earned more than enough to eat and carouse. There were plenty of women to go around even when dogsled loads of miners came from nearby communities. Liquor was cheap and law and order absent. More than one resident said that after he died he did not pray to be taken to heaven but back to Hootlani.

There was every reason to believe that Hootlani’s good fortune would last a lifetime. Alaska might not have been chockfull of gold, but it was full of and filling with miners. They came and they went, and whenever and wherever they came and went they spent what they had freely.

Alas, in every incarnation of a Garden of Eden there is a serpent. In this case the serpent was territoryhood. As long as Alaska was linked to the lower states in name only, there was no reason to fear any disruption of the golden era of Hootlani. But territoryhood would create a raft of problems. Of these, law and order was the least odious. That was because law and order most often came in the form of men who could be convinced to respect local preferences. It was only a matter of price.

No, it was not law and order that frightened Hootlaniers right down to the stockings they did not own and thus could not wear. It was the awesome power of the church. Men of God attracted good people. Hootlani, after all, had been founded on the Rock of Gibraltar belief that “men will be men,” and as long as there were no good women, men would continue to be men, and there was profit in that intractable law of nature. But with men of God came good women, and soon thereafter there would be a substantial decline in the fortunes of Hootlani.

Thus, it came to pass that the devil incarnate came to Hootlani one afternoon in late spring of the Year of the Big Snow. He came in the form of a fat man wearing gray canvas trousers, a black-and-red wool work shirt, and a pair of worn boots that had been, at one time, black. He carried a small pack on his back and walked with a mighty staff that was almost as tall as his five-four frame. The only thing that marked him as different from any of the other hundreds of visitors who passed through Hootlani was that he wore a crucifix about his neck. It was a working man’s crucifix, not one of gold or silver. Here was a man to do business.

News of the arrival of the peripatetic friar made it down the only street of Hootlani faster than the gait of the cleric. Civilization came to Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third as he was working the books — in both senses of the term — in the back of the Black Betty Tavern. The tavern, it should be noted, was not named for or owned by a negress named Betty or a woman named Betty Black. It was so named because of two steamship nameplates that had washed ashore years ago and miles apart. One had been on the Black something and the other had been a nameplate that ended with etty. Shingled together with a “B” they became Black Betty, and thus was the tavern named.

A bible and church

Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third rued the day a man of God would appear in Hootlani. The Day of Judgment had arrived, and he had not yet arranged his ecclesiastic ducks in a row. He was thus caught in a badly leaking, flat-bottomed boat on a rising tide.

“You can call me Father Albert,” said the portly man as he stretched his massive right hand toward Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third. “I am here to do the Lord’s work.”

Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was a man who appreciated the power of authority. But his appreciation for that higher authority ended with Judge James Wickersham in Nome, 400 miles away, the closest man of authority who affected the entrepreneurial enterprises of Hootlani. The less Judge James Wickersham knew of the existence of Hootlani, much less its people, the more Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third liked it. It was not that he had any grudge against the judge personally. It was the professional side of the man that worried the Hootlani merchant. Wickersham could not be bought; therefore, he was suspect and most certainly not welcome in Hootlani.

Mixing singular with plural, a man of God was a different kettle of fish. Here was a viper in the Garden of Eden. That was because men of God were the most insidious of villains. They violated what was known as the 10-80-10 rule, the statistical foundation upon which the fortunes of Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third and Hootlani rested.

The 10-80-10 rule is both historically and geographically universal. Succinctly stated, it is the breakdown of society’s makeup. Ten percent of all people will never lie, cheat, or steal even if it is in their personal interest. Ten percent of the people will lie, cheat, and steal at every opportunity that presents itself and do, in fact, go seeking opportunities to lie, cheat, and steal. The remaining 80 percent have a flexible value system.

Here was a viper in the Garden of Eden. That was because men of God were the most insidious of villains.

When it came to the 10-80-10 rule, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third was in the adjustable 80. He did not lie, cheat, or steal on a regular basis. He had a solid customer base because he sold a quality product at a fair price and never forced anyone to drink his liquor. All he wanted to do was be the person who made the elixir available to those who had the cash and the inclination to imbibe.

The problem with those on the path of righteousness was that there was no such thing as a small transgression. Every sin regardless of size was a stumbling block to salvation, and any single stumble could be fatal to one’s eternal well-being. Clearing the road of all impediments was thus the role of the clergy.

Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third saw Father Albert for exactly what he was: a harbinger. Being a student of history, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third could see the future because he knew the past. Father Albert was the precursor of the new age. You cannot defeat a man who will not quit, and Father Albert was clearly a man for whom failure was anathema. He would find an abandoned cabin and refurbish both it and the souls of enough residents of Hootlani to carry him through the winter. If he could survive that first winter, he would be in Hootlani until the second coming of Christ.

Generally speaking, communities go through four stages of development. First come the pioneers, and there are no rules except those the pioneers make. Then comes the colonial period where the sons and daughters of the pioneers make money the old way but find “things are changing.” They are followed by the settlers who bring the old rules from the old country, or, in the case of Alaska, the lower states. Finally, there are the urbanizers who make the frontier just like every place else. In Father Albert, Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third realized the settlers were knocking on the front door of Hootlani.

It was time to leave.

There were still a good two dozen months left before the scythe of civilization would raze all that Hootlani was. But it gave Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third two years to make the transition he always knew was in the offing, the transubstantiation from bootlegging kingpin to respected member of some society not in Alaska and most certainly not in Portland, Maine. San Francisco, perhaps, a city warm by Hootlani standards and just wicked enough for Jerome Findlay Quidley the Third and his money to be welcomed. Just like the phoenix of the Portland of his purported ancestry, he would resurgam and come back to life. Unlike the fate of his cohorts in Hootlani, who could not read the tea leaves, he would defy the adage of the ages that “you cannot take it with you.”

He would.

To San Francisco.

The clock was ticking.

Steven Levi headshotSteven is a freelance writer in Alaska. He has more than 80 books available on Amazon and specializes in impossible crimes. An impossible crime is one where the detectives have to solve how the crime was committed before they can go after the perpetrators. In The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound, a Greyhound bus disappears off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mensa Alaska | Joined 1986