Lake City’s Murder Mystery Unearthed Bones Bring Coeur D’Alene’s Violent Past To Light
Mysteries lie buried in the rocky walls of Wilson’s drugstore basement, under the green turf of McEuen Field, and under the former Coeur d’Alene Visitor’s Center.
In the 1880s, when Coeur d’Alene was just a babe, it was hardly innocent. Murder and mayhem reigned in the rough and tumble town - the gateway to nearby gold and silver mines.
Soldiers stationed at Fort Sherman - near what is now North Idaho College - disappeared regularly and were assumed to be deserters until turn-of-the-century workers uncovered possible clues to their disappearance.
As the city grew, excavations along Sherman Avenue, near Tubbs Hill and along Northwest Boulevard unearthed the bones of men - soldiers or others who did not survive those violent times.
Fred Prim, the newest owner of Wilson’s Variety Store, is reminded of their demise when he descends into the downtown store’s rocky basement and feels a cold shiver down his spine.
Rumors that men were buried there link the store to Coeur d’Alene’s mysterious past.
“You can’t explain it,” Prim said, standing in the dark tunnel-like basement. “It’s a feeling in the back of the neck. … It’s not like someone’s going to hurt you, but someone’s watching you.”
Fort Sherman’s soldiers often disappeared and were listed as deserters, though no one knew for sure, according to historians and old newspaper articles.
“To shoot someone wasn’t uncommon,” said Coeur d’Alene police Lt. Ron Hotchkiss, who’s researching a book on the history of the police department.
“I don’t think they even called them murders,” he said. “If they (soldiers) were causing problems, one of the locals probably drilled them and got rid of them.”
The facts of what occurred at Wilson’s are hazy, at best. Trying to piece together the story is as challenging as reconstructing the mess of bones workers found scattered about their downtown construction sites.
As the Prim family understands it, five skeletons were found in the drugstore’s basement, behind a door that leads to an aged tunnel.
At one time, they’ve been told, the site at Fourth Street and Sherman Avenue was the infamous Fatty Carroll’s cathouse and gambling hall. That misinformation was promoted in Coeur d’Alene’s Centennial poster, which claimed that eight bodies were found at the site when Carroll’s saloon was demolished to build the First National Bank Building.
“There were a lot of stories,” said Robert Singletary, local historian. “First it was two skeletons, then it was six skeletons. … A lot of it fits more into lore.”
Singletary has found no evidence that a Carroll’s saloon sat on the corner of Fourth and Sherman.
A shady establishment run by Carroll was located at the foot of Tubbs Hill in the early 1880s. Skeletons were found there around the turn of the century during the construction of log yards for the Coeur d’Alene Lumber company.
A Dec. 12, 1903, newspaper article mentioned that two skeletons were found at the lumberyards, and other skeletal remains were found in a box on the block where Wilson’s Variety Store now stands.
The news article was written because workers back then had discovered seven skeletons “scattered around promiscuously” where they were grading property for a car barn serving the electric train between Spokane and Coeur d’Alene.
The bones were buried a foot or two underground without coffins or boxes.
The car barn once was the location of Coeur d’Alene’s oldest saloon - “one of the most notorious dives” in town, according to news articles. It belonged to Ed O’Reilly, who was run out of town in about 1890.
Businesses such as O’Reilly and Carroll’s were common in Coeur d’Alene in those days.
In addition to rowdy soldiers based at Fort Sherman, the town was frequented by fortune-seekers who stopped in Coeur d’Alene as they waited for a steamboat ride up the river to Kingston and the Coeur d’Alene Mining District.
The early town was basically a tent city. Some of the first permanent buildings were saloons, gambling halls and brothels.
“My worst trouble was with soldiers at Fort Sherman” who got drunk for entertainment, Warren Baldwin, the town’s first marshal, told Coeur d’Alene High School reporters in a 1937 interview. “Yes, those soldiers were a bad lot.”
One shallow grave was discovered where the electric train lines crossed Mullan Road, next to the Fort Sherman reservation - near today’s City Park and Memorial Field.
“At one time in the history of the town, people had a habit of quietly disappearing, that is, a person would vanish and no one would trouble themselves about it in the least,” a 1903 Coeur d’Alene Press article said.
The ranks were so reduced at Fort Sherman that once it didn’t have enough men to play morning reveille. The men tended to disappear after payday.
Rumors of bones at Fatty Carroll’s Riverside Hotel in Huetter - west of town along the Spokane River - also survived the years. Some guessed they were the bones of Fatty himself and his henchman, “a huge, half-breed Indian who had arms as large as most men’s legs,” according to an account published by Major Clement Wilkins, an amateur historian who came to Coeur d’Alene in 1901.
Apparently, no one was very interested in investigating the origin of the mysterious bones.
Rather than secure the bones from O’Reilly’s lot as murder evidence, the locals put them on display in saloons and other businesses, The Spokane Review reported.
“These gruesome relics may, perhaps, be all that remains of an old friend who fell victim to the murderous hand of the assassin,” the article surmised.
Very few facts about the bones survive to this day.
“Usually there’s some basic element of truth in some of these things, but over the years people elaborate on them,” said Jim McLeod, a North Idaho College English instructor and folklore buff. “There’s nothing better than a good murder mystery, is there?”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color) Graphic: Skeletons in Coeur d’Alene’s closet