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Frank Clancy

The following excerpt is from a manuscript I am preparing on the history of vice (saloonism, gambling and prostitution) in Skagway, Alaska, 1897 - 1918. As I prepare this manuscript for publication, I will post excerpts for others' information and review by knowledgeable people. I ask that you do not reprint or publish my text without my permission. Thank you.  If you have comments, please contact me at montdawn@msn.com.

Drawing prepared from a photograph in the Daily Alaskan, January 9, 1900.

Frank Clancy

Frank William Clancy was one of six Clancy brothers from Seattle, whose partnership (Clancy & Company) included saloons, gambling houses and dance halls in Seattle, Tacoma, Skagway, Dyea and Dawson. He was born in East Machias, Washington County, Maine on March 21, 1862 to Elizabeth and James Clancy, a laborer who later became a farmer. The Clancys had ten children spread out between 1854 and 1876, six of whom were boys; Frank was the third son. By 1880, Frank worked as a clerk in a store in East Machias, while his oldest brother, Thomas, traveled to Seattle with their uncle Thomas Clancy. The elder Thomas owned property along the waterfront while the younger Thomas worked as a store clerk. By 1885, the rest of the James Clancy family joined the two Thomases in Seattle, where they lived out the rest of their lives. At this time, Frank obtained work as a blacksmith.[i]

By 1887, Frank’s older brother Thomas had married and already become a saloon keeper, at which occupation Frank joined him. In the wake of the great fire of 1889, which burned over 25 city blocks of downtown Seattle, Thomas Clancy and a gambler from Chicago by the name of Pete Burns went into business together and opened the Mirror Saloon on Third Avenue South and Washington. In 1915, an article in the Seattle Daily Times would remember this variety theater as “a type of the gilt and walnut bars of that period.”[ii]

Pete Burns is credited with teaching three of the Clancy brothers, Thomas, Frank and Johnny, their saloon business, at which they became proficient. More importantly, Burns coached the brothers in how use city politics to further their business interest by buying influence with police, councilmen and mayoral and gubernatorial candidates. They were especially proficient at registering voters and campaigning at election time. In return, successful candidates passed bills in favor of the type of bawdy house run by Clancy and Burns at the Mirror. In league with Burns, the Clancys took on a powerful gambling cooperative known as the M & N combination, which tried to dominate politics in the First Ward of Seattle. The M & N bribed the sheriff’s department, whereas Clancy and Burns favored the city police. After the silver crash in 1893, however, the Clancys split with Burns and opened their own dance hall, The Mascot.[iii]

In the meantime, the Clancy brothers also made a considerable amount of money from racing horses, primarily in Seattle and Tacoma. They owned several winning racers, but the Rosa C. did well for them, especially in the early 1890’s.[iv]

The Mirror appears to have been the model for the type of establishment that Frank would establish when he went to Skagway in 1897, Clancy’s Music Hall. The Tacoma Daily News described it so: “Clancy and Burns, who are the autocrats of the First ward, are the owners of a large dance hall and gambling house, a hot-bed of vice and corruption. These men also derive an income from the Japanese women slaves to whose masters they rent the miserable little hovels in which the women drive their trade in obedience to the lash of the master, and who, when they manage to make their escape from bondage, are arrested by an accommodating police force upon trumped-up charges of larceny, robbery and the like, thrown into jail, convicted and imprisoned until willing to return to their old life of submission and obedience to their master. [New paragraph] To perpetuate or to annihilate this system of woman slavery and courtesan bondage is one of the real issues of the present Seattle campaign.”[v]

In June 1897, John Clancy was run over by an excursion train from the Seattle suburb of Kent in Olympia. His head was injured and his leg was so badly damaged that it had to be amputated.[vi] Perhaps to lift his spirits during his recovery, Frank took him to the Klondike upon the announcement of the discovery of gold in late July.

Frank Clancy was one of the first people to locate a lot after Frank Reid began surveying the townsite on August 5, 1897, claiming lot 1, Block 6 at the southwest corner of Seventh and State on August 10, 1897.[vii] This location would be where he would build first Clancy’s Saloon and his infamous opera house. So prominent did Frank Clancy become in the fledgling community’s affairs that he became one of its first city council members in December 1897, he survived the purging of the city council after the Soapy Smith affair in July 1898, and he was the only member to be re-elected in December 1898. When Skagway incorporated in July 1899, he was elected as one of its first official city councilmen, and he remained a power in the community until he left in 1900.[viii]

Frank opened his Skagway place – the Clancy Saloon and Music Hall – in the late summer or fall of 1897, at what would become the southwest corner of Seventh and State avenues. The place was such a local landmark that other businesses referred to Clancy’s when giving their location in newspaper advertisements. Examples include the Skaguay Bazaar, which advertised on February 2, 1898 that it was located on “Trail just above Clancy’s.” Gordon, McKee and Noyes, real estate agents, were in the office north of Clancy’s. C. N. Noyes also sold tobacco from the red door above Clancy’s. The Princess Hotel and Saloon was to be found opposite Clancy’s. Eventually, Frank would also own the Mirror Saloon (named after his brother Tom Clancy’s and Pete Burns’ place in Seattle), the Grotto Hotel and Saloon, Reception Saloon, Clancy’s Café, Jeff Smith’s Parlors, and the Skagway Oyster Parlors.

In a promotion piece dated January 9, 1900, the Skagway Daily Alaskan raved:

Frank William Clancy is one of our pioneers. During his term as Councilman he entered upon his third year as one of Skagway’s leading citizens and popular [missing]. He came here from Seattle, where he and his brothers had long been in business and are well-known. He always took a keen interest in public affairs, and his conduct as a Councilman proved his disposition to and capacity for public affairs. His restaurant was a popular resort until recently, when he leased it to devote more attention to his theatre, the only theatrical venture that has lived long in the city. The one whose management has proved most acceptable to the public.[ix]

Clancy was not one to eschew mixing politics and business; Pete Burns had taught him well. Certainly in 1898 he could arguably be considered one of the most influential citizens of the community.

There is no remaining physical description of Clancy’s biggest and most important business, Clancy’s Music Hall and Club Rooms. However, a photograph of Skagway taken in December 1898 or January 1899 makes it clear that the building was one of the largest in the town. The first floor occupied the entire lot at the southwest corner of Seventh and State avenues, and portions of it rise to a second story. Standard advertisements in the newspapers pandered liquors and cigars. A special advertisement on December 31, 1897 boasted music and dancing every evening, with clubrooms in connection. Entertainments were too risqué to advertise in the newspaper and were probably announced with posters and broadbills. Once or twice a month, the music house would be open to “families,” for which Clancy would engage famous acts, including such hits as Jno. A. Flynn’s London Gaiety Girls, who had “a worldwide reputation for the production of catchy up-to-date burlesques.”[x]

In the meantime, Frank’s brother John partnered with a man named Billings in Dyea to run the Potlatch Hotel. It had a dance hall and concert hall in connection, and advertised between February and August 1898 in the Dyea Trail as being part of Clancy & Co. Frank also used the Clancy & Co. logo at the Clancy Music Hall, indicating the interest all of the Clancy brothers in their combined operations. This Clancy & Company designation probably indicates that Tom, and perhaps even Charles, James and George, had some financial interests in the Alaska enterprises.[xi]

Clancy’s Music Hall thrived during the heyday of the gold rush, but as the boom passed, it underwent a transformation. A few weeks after auctioneer Frank T. Keelar opened his store next door to the Board of Trade Saloon on Sixth Avenue in November 1898, he advertised an auction of the entire contents of Clancy’s Music Hall. It was to include “Bed Room Suites, First Class Bedding, Stoves, Bed-Linen, Blankets, Comforts, Stools, Lamps, Chairs, Tables, Crockery, two cash registers, piano, Fire-Proof Safe, Roulette Wheel.”[xii] These items provide a provocative clue to the types of entertainments that took place on the rest of the month. Should anyone think that these furnishings and linens were provided merely for the sake of the imported acts, consider the advertisements of Clancy’s successor, the Simons Theatrical Company, in March 1900. “Clancy’s will be run in a first class manner, devoid of any coarse or suggestive features,” with “an entire change of program weekly (possibly twice a week). The admission will be 25 cents (within the reach of all) and no free list, to keep a certain element out and from intermingling with the class of patronage that the new management wish to cater to…everything brisk, clean and as legitimate as possible.” [xiii] The implication was clear. The scandalous days at Clancy’s no longer existed. Only clean, family fare would remain.

What was it that was so scandalous about Clancy’s Music Hall and Club Rooms? The only conceivable answer is that prostitution was an open and active part of the entertainment at the dancehall, and calls up images of the accusations made of The Mirror in its heyday, with its “women slavery” and “courtesan bondage.” Deposition from a 1902 case of prostitution in a dancehall in Douglas, Alaska offers a much more detailed description of how the dancehalls and variety theaters in Alaska operated. The male customer entered through the saloon, where he purchased liquor, usually whiskey. There he was usually approached by a woman, who expected him to buy her a drink, which seldom had much, if any alcohol in it. The woman would receive a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the drink, somewhere between ten and twenty-five percent. As long as he continued to buy her drinks through the evening, she would partner him on the dance floor in the next room, and provide companionship if he chose to gamble. To titillate him and other men, she would laugh at his raunchy jokes, allow him to swear and smoke in her presence, and let him touch her in public, such as put his arm around her waist. A free stage show for men and these disrespectable women required the audience taking seats on the dance floor. Curtained boxes on the second floor could be purchased where more privacy was available for men and their consorts during and after the show.[xiv]

In addition, women rented rooms above and adjacent to the dance floor and performance stage. These rooms often cost five dollars week rent, not including board and was taken from the woman’s percentages. At six cents per drink (the standard cost of a whiskey at the time was a quarter), a woman would have to get men to buy her a dozen drinks an evening just to pay the rent.[xv] Obviously, if she wanted to eat, buy clothing, and had other people, such as children, to support, she relied on prostitution to provide that income.

And because the owner of the dancehall or saloon was merely renting out rooms, was not acting as a madam or procurer, and avowed not to know what happened in the privacy of the women’s rooms, he could not be said to be keeping a house of prostitution.

There can be little doubt that the selling of liquor were the primary sources of income for Frank and John Clancy in Skagway. That Frank was prominent in Skagway’s politics is also firmly established.

Politics, 1897 – 1898

Much of the politics of the Klondike gold rush era can find a whisper of a truth in the legend of Soapy Smith. While Smith’s legend purports that he was king of Skagway in the winter of 1897-1898, the true leaders of the town were the city council selected by the hundred or so citizens that convened on December 4, 1897. This group of men originally met on October 9, 1897 to figure out what to do about the fact that Bernard Moore had filed a claim for 160 acres of the town, including most of the lots claimed by the merchants then meeting. At that meeting, they hired a lawyer and began a lawsuit that took over a decade to settle. This group of citizens, which later styled themselves the Committee of 101, named for citizens groups throughout the west of the time, was nothing more or less than a community action group faced with organizing themselves into a society in the absence of territorial law that gave the right to incorporate.[xvi]

On the December 4, 1897 meeting, the new city council was charged with “originat[ing] measures for the material and moral welfare of the town”[xvii] This city council appeared to be a diverse group of merchants, but three of them owned saloons. While Chairman Charles Sperry was known as the owner of a warehouse on the Skagway Improvement Company Wharf (later the Alaska Southern Wharf Company), next to Moore’s Wharf, he also operated an unknown saloon. Councilman Frank Clancy owned Clancy’s Music Hall and Saloon as well as the building that would later house Jeff Smith’s Parlors, operated by the renowned Soapy Smith. Councilman J. Henry Foster owned the Grotto Saloon. The remaining four councilmen were staunch citizens: Frank E. Burns was the agent for the Alaska Steamship Company; J. Allan Hornsby was editor of the Daily Alaskan and an originator of the Committee; and I. D. Spencer was proprietor of an outfitters and general mercantile company.[xviii] Only the seventh member, merchant W. F. Lokowitz, could not be identified as to specific occupation.

In the wake of Smith’s shooting on July 8, 1898, the Committee of 101 decided that the council had been lax in its duties regarding that part of its mission. It called for the resignation of all council members. The council met at 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning, July 11. Allan Hornsby had been deported from Skagway as being associated with Smith and thus an undesirable citizen. The remaining members were Chairman Charles Sperry, I. D. Spencer, W. F. Lokowitz, Ed Foster and Frank E. Burns. Spencer did not attend, and all present councilmen but Chairman Sperry immediately submitted their resignations. By the following Saturday, Spencer had resigned, as had Allan Hornsby by proxy.[xix]

Although Chairman Sperry had led the larger committee that amassed the night of July 8 to try to find a way to get back J. D. Stewart’s gold, he did not enjoy enough popular support to retain his seat on the city council. Only Frank Clancy was re-elected to his post in the special election that followed. Clancy was out of town in Dawson during the entire incident appeared immune from the happenings of the event, despite the fact that he was Smith’s landlord. Perhaps more importantly, though, Clancy owned several businesses in Skagway, and was related to a powerful vice and political family in Seattle.[xx] He was not to be crossed.

When Frank Clancy’s brother, James, died of pneumonia in March 1900, Frank left Skagway, selling his music hall to the Simons Theatrical Company. Frank and James shared four other brothers, most of whom had been involved in similar businesses in Seattle and Tacoma.[xxi] Apparently, Skagway’s waning population and the loss of his brother persuaded Frank to join the rest of his family in Seattle. But by that time, Alaska had begun reforming vice, and perhaps Frank foresaw more than the loss of family. The times, they were a’changing in Alaska.

[i] 1870 Census, East Machias, Washington County, Maine, roll M593_562, p. 211A; 1880 Census, East Machias, Washington County, Maine, Roll 490, Film 1254490, p. 308C; 1880 Census, Seattle, King County, Washington, Roll 1396, Film 1255396, p. 257B; Washington Territorial Census Rolls, 1857-1892, Olympia Washington: Washington State Archives. 1885, Seattle.

[ii] Quote in SDT, December 14, 1915; Washington Territorial Census Rolls, 1857-1892, Olympia Washington: Washington State Archives. 1885, Seattle; Washington Territorial Census Rolls, 1857-1892, Olympia Washington: Washington State Archives. 1887, Seattle.; http://content.lib.washington.edu/extras/seattle-fire.html, The Great Seattle Fire (accessed January 14, 2012);

[iii] TDN, March 2, 8-10, October 17, November 5, 1892; TDC, October 27, 1892; SDT, January 4, 1903; SDT, May 5, 1904. A fanciful poem by William Devere published in the TDN, April 8, 1892 about the Orleans Club in Jimtown, Colorado near Leadville lists a number of infamous gamblers at the betting tables. They include Big Ed Burns, Soapy Smith and Pete Burns. The poet calls this a heterogeneous gang, but Jeff Smith uses this poem as evidence that Pete Burns was a member of Soapy Smith’s gang. I disagree with Smith, and interpret the poem as a fanciful allegory ( Smith, Alias Soapy, p. 211). The Seattle newspapers indicate that Burns was in Seattle during this time period and Devere was simply making a statement about gamblers in general.

[iv] MO, April 10, May 17, 1891; TDN, June 5 - 12, 1891.

[v] TDN, March 2, 1892.

[vi] MO, June 29, 1897.

[vii] Alaska State Archives, RG 202, City of Skagway Historical Records, Volume 19, Lot Locations 1897-1989, p 8.

[viii] SN November 25, 1897, February 11, 1898; June 17, 1898; December 9, 1898; DA September 7, 1899; September 9, 1899; March 24, 1900; March 28, 1900; April 20, 1901; March 9, 1902; NARA RG 21, U. S. Commissioner’s Records, Vol. I (OS569), April 22, 1898.

[ix] DA, January 9, 1900.

[x] The Daily Alaskan, March 1, 1900, “A Gala Night,” page 4.

[xi] Frank Norris, Compiled listing of advertisements from the Dyea Trail, 1897-1898, Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, on file. Note that Jeff Smith claims “Clancy & Co. included Soapy Smith (Smith, Alias Soapy, p. 523), but he provides no solid evidence supporting this fanciful interpretation. At the best, Smith leased space from Frank Clancy.

[xii] The Skaguay News, “Local News,” October 14, 1898, page 2; November 25, 1898, “Auction Extraordinary,” page 2.

[xiii] The Daily Alaskan, April 20, 1900, "Monday Next Simons’ Sappho Co.," page 1.

[xiv] Archives – Pacific Alaska Region, Record Group 21, U. S. District Courts, First Division, Juneau Criminal Case Files, 1900-1911, Box 9, File 340 “B (1)” U. S. vs. Sam Guis and J. J. Penglas; Steele, Forty Years, page 296.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Spude, Legend of Soapy, pp. ___.

[xvii]Quote in SN, December 31, 1897, p. 8; NARA, RG 49, Brief for Moore, p. 11.

[xviii] SN Nov 5, 1897; Aug 26, 1898; Nov 5, 1897; Dec 31 1897.

[xix] DA, July 11, 1898; August 3, 1898; SN July 15, 1898.

[xx] Clinton, Business Directory, p. 79; SN June 16, 1898; DA August 3, 1898;

[xxi] The Daily Alaskan, March 24, 1900, “Death of James Clancy,” page 4.

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