“…it’s a grand old name.”

There are moments when the details of a person’s story don’t make complete sense. When, as a researcher, you know SOMETHING IS MISSING, and it drives you absolutely crazy. The details playing over and over in your mind, not adding up. Often for a genealogist, too many years have passed or not enough clues were left to find answers. It’s like hearing a clever riddle and never figuring out the answer. So the riddle lives in the back of your brain until one day…out of nowhere..BAM!

Josie’s riddle? Where was she getting her money? Josie was a commanding figure in her career. She definitely made more money than the average Black worker, but definitely less than the average Black male doctor. I do not have copies of her paychecks but logic dictates as a Black woman she would not have made as much money as a Black man with the same skills, or even less skills. And Josie appeared to me to have more financial responsibilities. She owned her own home, free from mortgage. She was raising five children: one daughter, two nieces and two nephews. All five of them went to college, GOOD colleges, Spellman, Howard, Meharry, Fisk and Morristown Seminary. She employed a live in servant for cooking and cleaning. Josie worked hard but she also donated much time and resources that would have been expensive. Philanthropy was not cheap. Not to minimize the amount of money she donated to Hubbard Hospital Club and the Day Home Club, because it was generous, however the biggest drain on her resources would have been the free clinic she ran out of her office. She dispensed not only care but medications, clothing and shoes to women and children: only women and children. Not a single Black male doctor I could locate in Nashville was doing as much philanthropic work as Dr. J.E. Wells. Where was Dr. Wells getting her money?

In January of 1918, before the year went to Hell in a hand basket, there were two snippets in the Nashville Globe, detailing the visit of Josie’s sister, Mary. Wait. What? I assumed her sister Mary had died, because by 1910, her daughter Carrie Louise Thomas was living with Eliza English (Josie and Mary’s mother) and Carrie moved to Nashville to live with Josie when Eliza did. My assumption was, this was because Mary had died. My mind was whirling! Why did Eliza and Josie raise Carrie? Where had Mary been all these years? What had she been doing?

The two Globe snippets were contradictory. One said “Mrs. Thomas” was visiting from Alaska and one said Arizona. There wasn’t much more information, just the length of the visit and the social celebration it became. I immediately tossed aside Alaska as the typo and started looking for Mary Thomas in Arizona. No success. Hours of searching. Hours of hating the common names of “Mary” and “Thomas.” So I set Mary aside for a bit. A year later, not an exaggeration, I went back to Mary. I again poured over search results for Mary Thomas’ in Arizona, because my brain kept saying “why would a Black woman move to Alaska in 1900?” Then one day, on a whim, I punched in her details and clarified the results to only show Alaska. Only two hits popped up and one of them was a Black woman who was born in Mississippi abt. 1879! I had found Mary!

Nashville Globe, 11 Jan 1918
Nashville Globe, 25 Jan 1918

This first breakthrough opened up a floodgate of information I wasn’t anticipating and at the same time unexpectedly answered the question “where was Josie getting her money?” The first record I located, the U.S. Federal Census enumerated in Wrangell, Alaska initially seemed off. Living with Mary were two young White women, both divorced and they were listed as being Mary’s servants, yet Mary’s occupation was listed as being a Laundress and the women, Mabel and Belle, were listed as waitresses. Why would a laundress need two servants? It was a quandary. I did a newspaper search and OH MY GOD, everything made sense. Mary was a madam not a laundress!

Daily Record-Miner, Juneau, AK 13 May 1910
Daily Record-Miner, Juneau, AK, 17 Mar 1910

Sometime between 1900 and 1905, most logically, Mary had moved to Alaska with her husband. He most likely worked in the fishing industry and she worked as a laundress. They left their young daughter Carrie Louise with her mother. However, Mary’s husband died. Mary initially tried to get by as a laundress, but realized there was more money to be made elsewhere. Mary converted her home into a “bawdy” house, at first in Petersburg and later opened another in Ketchikan. One house turned into two, into three. She invested her money well and purchased other properties around Ketchikan.

In 1910, while she owned her bawdy house in Petersburg she was targeted by an unethical unfair local attorney who charged and prosecuted her for selling liquor illegally out of her bawdy house, when other men around her were doing the same thing. The towns people, mostly men, rallied to her side! I’m sure the reason for that wasn’t just out of the kindness of their hearts, nor because of Mary’s kindness. Although Mary, or “Black Mary” as she is still known in local legend and lore in Ketchikan, AK, was a popular woman about town because of her kindness. She was known to be fair to the women she employed and “a kind soul to those in need.”(

Mary had an imposing form, barely 5 ft and over 250 lbs. She was known for being a “big woman,” which eventually contributed to her death in 1925. When she died she was found by a friend, Olaf Oleson, and the sheriff sitting slumped over in a chair. A memoir written by Dolly Arthur, one of her former “girls,” said Mary had a bundle of money lying in her lap when she was found, that she had been counting when she died. I suspect this to be legend. Her estate inventory listed only $100 in cash. So if she was counting money, it wasn’t that big of a wad!

When she died, her family was called. Alma is the one who went to Alaska to deal with her Aunt’s estate. Carrie Louise was listed as Mary’s heir, but she did not go to Alaska. Alma was the informant on Mary’s death certificate and Alma took care of the burial of her aunt’s remains. Perhaps there was tension or bitterness between Mary and her daughter? A sense of abandonment. We may never know this little bit of the story. However, Mary died a wealthy woman. She owned five properties in Alaska at the time of her death and all five were left to her daughter Carrie Louise.

Where was Josie getting her money? Is the riddle answered? It seems incredibly plausible and highly likely that Mary was sending her sister money: money for college tuition, money to back the free clinic, money to raise her daughter. These women were sisters, both described as being kind and charitable. They had the exact same start to life. They both got married, had daughters and then their husbands died leaving them alone and necessitating that they carve a new future for themselves with only their individual strength of character and tenacity. Josie’s contribution to society in general is perceived as better, when Mary’s was scandalous. Of course, was it possible one contribution couldn’t exist without the assistance of the other? Mary’s contribution to Josie’s story is incredible, whether it was with something tangible like cash or just the scandalous interest it adds!

Mary taught me a valuable lesson. Never assume. I assumed she was dead. Then I assumed she wouldn’t move to Alaska. Both of these assumptions but barriers up. I couldn’t find her because I blocked my own path! Here is the thing with a good story, every detail that emerges creates more questions. Like, did Nettie Napier and Mattie Scott (a ministers wife) know that the lady they were hosting in their house, their friend’s sister from Alaska was a prostitute? Surely not. What backstory was given? Was Josie nervous to have her sister visit? Did Josie ever visit Alaska? The missing details are what keep me searching. Solving the riddles.


The featured image is owned by Tongass Historical Society, the two houses pictured are #4 and #5 Creek St. in Ketchikan. Mary’s bawdy house was #5 and it is still standing!

2 thoughts on “Mary

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