Mrs. Mary E. Thomas

…aka…Black Mary…aka…Territorial Temptress

Josie’s baby sister, Mary English Thomas, was an absolute surprise to find and has been surprising me with the depth of her life ever since. Two women, sisters, with so many alike aspects to their life, but with SUCH glaring difference as well. Some people might look at the two and see Josie, the doctor, as being the better sister, the sister who made responsible choices. The successful sister. Whereas viewing Mary, the madam, as the dark sheep or the failure. I disagree on every level. These two were incredible. They were survivors, innovators and humanitarians.  They jumped every hurdle society threw their way and helped anyone lucky enough to cross their paths. They both, in their own ways, improved the world they lived in during their too brief sojourns on this planet. Mary, her story, demands a more in-depth post. 

Yellow Fever was a bitch and she tore through the South without discrimination showing her victims no mercy. Mary English was born in August of 1878 in the midst of one of the worst Yellow Fever epidemics to hit her hometown, Holly Springs, MS. Born with death all around her, like being born in the middle of a battle. Her parents, Berry and Eliza English, had a house full of children at the time, Mary being the youngest. Her father was a carpenter, and her mother took care of the home and her children, which in itself is an unusual occurrence for a newly freed Black woman in Mississippi. So many freed women worked outside of the home in serving positions or most commonly in agriculture. Eliza would have been doing her best to keep her children safe from disease and having a newborn to boot would have been stress inducing.

Berry’s occupation as a carpenter allowed for him to afford to give his children a good education. Rust College was within walking distance of the English home. It is unknown if Mary, like her sister Josie, attended college, but she was definitely educated. She was able to read and to write and she was obviously an innovative and sharp thinking businesswoman.

Mary and Josie both got married about the same time, mid to late 1890’s. The difference is Mary’s husband is a complete mystery. No marriage certificate can be located and no census record for she and her family can be found in 1900. Mary gave birth to two children during her brief marriage. Only one child, a daughter, Carrie Louise Thomas, survived. Records show Carrie Louise was born in 1898 in Mississippi and that by 1910 she was living with her grandmother in Holly Springs, MS. At the same time, Mary was living in Wrangell, AK, a widowed woman working as a laundress, or at least that’s what she reported to the census enumerator. From these facts we can assume that Mary left Carrie Louise with her mother and moved to Alaska. The questions are plenty.  Why did the Thomas’ move to Alaska? Is it possible they went for work?  The Alaskan Gold Rush was in full swing by this point (1896-1904.) Newspapers all over the country espoused the amazing riches just waiting to be found lying along the riverbed.  Did Mr. and Mrs. Thomas head to Alaska hoping to strike gold? Or perhaps Mary heard of opportunity and went to Alaska on her own. That fits her scrappy personality. At this moment, we do not know for certain why she moved to Alaska or exactly when. But we know she did, and we know she struck it rich, but not with gold.

Map Source:

The first time we find Mary living in Alaska was the Wrangell/Petersburg area, which just happened to be a supply depot along the Skagway/Dyea Route to the Yukon. Miners would buy supplies they needed, as well as get their fill of gambling, women and booze before heading up the Stikine River to the Klondike. Wrangell was otherwise a fishing and timber community that was comprised, in great part , of men. 

Wrangell, AK, c.1897 (source wikipedia) This is very close, if not the exact view that Mary would have had of Wrangell.

Whatever the circumstances were that lead to Mary ending up in Alaska, without her husband, we may never know. But we can piece together the details of what became her life as a widow. She lived in a small one room home. Newspaper reports indicated she was running a laundry, but quickly realized that she could make more money offering another service to the vast amount of fisherman who called Wrangell/Petersburg home. Mary scrapped the laundry business, enlarged her home and set aside one room to be used to entertain the local fisherman. From laundry to “bawdy house” in the blink of an eye. Refreshments and music and an overall good time were provided.  Mary was known for being fair to the women she employed, paying them a decent wage. They called her “Momma” and she called them “her girls.” She was known as being kind and charitable, helping people in her community who needed it. One man in particular was a blind man who could play piano, Mary had someone pick him up every day so he could come play piano at her house and make a little money. It’s interesting the common desire these sisters, Josie and Mary, had to help others. 

It makes sense that scandal ensued. Some of the local “better class of citizens” went on a frenzy and tried to have business’ like Mary’s shut down. Starting in 1909 Mary was arrested and prosecuted by the Federal Government for selling alcohol illegally out of her bawdy house. It makes me laugh every time I think “THATS what she was getting prosecuted for selling!!” Apparently it was illegal to sell alcohol without a license and it was nearly impossible for a woman to obtain a license. So Mary improvised. As best as I can gather, she had a Asian employee who worked for her and he sold the alcohol. But still, without a license. Mary lived on the outskirts of town and was said to cause no problem to the authorities. However in November of 1909 Mary was arrested and fined $1,000 or 500 days in jail in Petersburg. Mary refused to pay the fine and was hauled off to jail. Mary and her lawyers appealed the verdict and over the next few months her case was heard in the Federal courts in Alaska.

Mary stood up for herself, of course. But she also had good people in her corner. The men in town showed up in a big way. One, they liked Mary and two…ummmm…do I have to say it? Her trial was reported in newspapers on a daily basis and reported as far away as Washington. Journalist saw the unfairness of the attack on Mary, when others running similar establishments were left unchecked. The prosecuting attorney, Mr. John Boyce was boldly called out for his hypocrisy.

Regardless of the support Mary garnered from the community, she lost her appeal. She did not stay in Wrangell. After losing and having to pay her fine, which she did pay in cash (today the equivalent of her $1,000 fine would be over $30,000), as well as her defense and court fees, Mary moved to Ketchikan to start over. She purchased another home, in the “red light” district of Ketchikan, #5 Creek St. She enlarged #5 Creek Street, called it the Star and had a dance floor with a large inlay wooden star installed. And Mary made money, lots and lots of money.

Photo courtesy of David and Laura Givens

In 1918, Mary visited Josie in Nashville for two weeks. Josie and her friends hosted teas and parties to celebrate Mary. Josies friends were the wives of doctors, ministers and businessmen. They were the same “better class of citizens” that pushed Mary out of Wrangell, but they wouldn’t have guessed what Mary’s far off life consisted of. Nor would they have known that it was probably Mary, with her constant flow of cash, who was funding many of Josies philanthropic endeavors. This visit may have been the last time Josie and Mary hugged. Mary returned home to Ketchikan and Josie died just a little over a year later.

Mary owned the Star for about ten years before she sold it to Thelma Baker in 1924. Mary wasn’t in the best of health at the time, suffering from high blood pressure.  The stress of the continuous scandal from owning the type of business she did became exhausting. It was a constant struggle especially as temprance was heavily advocated by women all over the country.

Mary was lucky, she had made money and she invested it wisely in real estate. She purchased multiple properties in Alaska and even invested in property in California. She had a comfortable home, diamond jewelry and a secure retirement.

On “about” May 6th, Mary English Thomas died. The exact date of death is
unknown as she was alone when she died. She was found by a friend Olaf Olson, 35 year old fisherman/handy man, and the local sheriff. Olson became alarmed that Mary wasn’t answering her door. He looked around in town for her, but had no luck. Worried, Olaf got the sheriff and together they entered her home. Mary was sitting in her chair, lifeless. Local legend has it she was found with a roll of money in her lap.

Mary’s death certificate indicated she died of natural causes and her physician guessed her cause of death was her high blood pressure.  Mary was 5ft 4 in, weighing 200 lbs. Her niece, Alma Givens, not her daughter, traveled to Alaska and took care of her aunts’ burial.  I think it wildly appropriate that Alma’s grandson David Wells Givens was the first family member to travel to Alaska and visit Mary’s grave. At least the first in a very long time.

David Wells Givens, courtesy of Laura Givens

Mary’s journey has an intoxicating allure that Josie’s does not. Both had strong, hard working…barrier leaping personalities and lives. But Mary lived in a way Josie didn’t. She was full of spunk and she answered to no one. Josie was “forgetful of self, she gave her life for others.” Mary lived her life generously, but for herself and fully. Imagine how it would feel to live your life and make your decisions for no one but yourself? Brave. Intoxicating. Mary was able to experience uninhibited freedom in a way that was and IS simply unheard of. Yet still, most people would consider Josie the successful sister. Mary’s story is such a good lesson to everyone. Live your life when, where and how you want to. Be brave. Be intoxicating.