Funter Bay History: Frozen Foot Johnson

March 13, 2014

One of Funter Bay’s colorful residents was an Alaskan entrepreneur named Edward “Frozen Foot” Johnson, who operated a moonshine still at his cabin from 1917-1922. The nickname originated from a bad case of frostbite in 1911.


Johnson is mentioned in the book Distant Justice; Policing the Alaskan Frontier, which introduces him as the proprietor of Nome’s Arctic Saloon around 1915. Court records from the time refer to it as the Arctic Billiard Parlor (or Parlors, Hall, or Room), and note that it was essentially a large back room off the Arctic Cigar Store in the Winsor or Windsor Building at 96 Front St. The building was owned by Johnson and the business licenses held by his partner A. C. Laird.  Frank J. Mielke sold the property to Mr. Johnson in June 1915 on an installment plan. Previously it had been known as the “Winsor Bath House” (operated by Fred Berg), and included a pool hall & cigar store known as “Daves Place” (per Kinky Bayers notes and court records). Johnson was also apparently known as “Rube” to some Nome residents, this could have been another nickname or a middle name, perhaps short for Reuben.

While alcohol was legal in Alaska before 1917, gambling was not, and Johnson was frequently in trouble with the authorities for what he called “fun and profit” at the Arctic Saloon. Johnson claimed the gambling law did not apply to him “on account of his being crippled so he could not get out and work”. His gambling activities were well known around Nome, at least one deputy threatened that he “would get him”, and complained about Johnson “ringing buzzers on him” (to warn gamblers that the cops were coming). Eventually a paid informant was used to spy on the card games and set up a bust at the Arctic. After several indictments, fines, failed appeals, and “harrasment” from law enforcement, Johnson declared that it was “Too bad for Nome”, sold the saloon, and moved to Juneau in 1917.

Johnson appeal

With Alaska’s liquor prohibition just beginning, Johnson found a new source of income in moonshine. Distant Justice author William R. Hunt states that Johnson operated a still at Funter Bay from 1917 to 1922, apparently without much trouble from the authorities. He would transport the moonshine by boat to Juneau’s “thirsty residents”. Other sources indicate that Johnson had a number of stills going, including one at Point Howard across Lynn Canal from Funter, and one at his house in Juneau. As mentioned before, remote sites like Funter were prized by bootleggers as a way to avoid notice and “launder” their supplies of grain and sugar through fox farming or other legitimate enterprises.

Johnson may have been under suspicion for some time, as one article notes that he “led prohibition officers on a merry chase around Juneau in the dry years”. A more serious brush with the law came in December of 1920, when his Gastineau Avenue house in Juneau caught fire. In the aftermath, a large still was revealed, and Johnson was arrested (per Kinky Bayers’ notes). The above article states that the still blew up and started the fire.  Another article mentioned that Gastineau Ave (aka “Swede Hill”) was becoming known as “Moonshine Mountain” after another still was found the following week. There seems to be no record of a conviction at this time, but the authorities kept a closer eye on Johnson over the next year.

In January of 1922, John B. Marshall, the Prohibition Director for Alaska, sent two agents to Funter Bay to investigate Johnson’s activities there. Agents J.W. Kirkland and W.C. Mayburn (Or McMayburn) found a two-story cabin at Funter Bay, equipped with a still and stocks of mash, sugar, and other moonshine ingredients.  Upon returning to Juneau with their report, the two agents were issued a warrant and sent back to Funter to bring in Frozen Foot. An article on January 23rd said that Johnson’s trial was set for the 25th.

The story takes another twist here. In fact there were apparently several stories told by the two federal agents to their superiors, none of which exactly matched. As the authorities put the pieces together, it emerged that Johnson was apprehended at Funter Bay, but bribed his way out of custody on the way to Juneau and vanished (Bribes of poorly-trained and underpaid prohibition agents were fairly common). A second expedition to Funter with different agents took revenge upon Johnson by seizing his still and burning his cabin to the ground. A grand jury later censured Director Marshall for “the unnecessary burning of the cabin”.

Unable to get his hands on Frozen Foot Johnson, Marshall turned on his agents with charges of perjury. James Wickersham, well known former judge and friend of John Marshall, was retained as special prosecutor for the government in July of 1922 (noted in his diary). The legal process dragged on through the summer. In September, Wickersham writes that “W.C. McMayburn… charged with perjury in connection with J.W. Kirkland & other crookedness with ‘Frozenfoot’ Johnson volunteered to tell the whole truth”. Mayburn/McMayburn struck a deal for immunity in return for testifying against Kirkland. Despite this, at Kirkland’s trial in October the jury failed to reach a verdict (Wickersham complained that there were “two or three bootlegging scamps on the jury”, and noted that the case looked “useless till ‘Frozenfoot’ Johnson is arrested and convicted” ). A second trial in November reached a “not guilty” verdict for Kirkland, as the jury decided that Mayburn’s testimony was unreliable. Prosecutor Wickersham wrote to US Attorney Shoup asking him to re-arrest Kirkland for perjury during the trials, but Shoup declined. As Mayburn had immunity, this left both former agents off the hook.

In the meantime Frozen Foot Johnson, the source of the scandal, managed to flee the state as law enforcement bickered over what to do with him. Albert Shoup claimed that Director John Marshall held up the warrant for Johnson to protect Mayburn’s testimony, but Marshall denied it and claimed it was Shoup who refused to arrest Johnson. Wickersham noted that even before Mayburn’s immunity deal, there was “trouble” between US Attorney Shoup & Prohibition Director Marshall, and that Wickersham had the role of middleman or peacemaker. After the case, the governor and other politicians questioned Shoup’s actions.

“Throughout hearings granted to Judge Thomas M. Reed and District Attorney Albert G Shoup, whose re-nominations in the first Alaskan judicial district were under fire, there were spread on the record frequent references to bootlegging, narcotic traffic, and other forms of vice; purported miscarriages of justice and ‘sour-dough’ nicknames such as frozen foot. … Delegate Sutherland charged Shoup had failed diligently to prosecute several liquor cases which had resulted in the failure to convict ‘Frozen Foot’ Johnson, whom he described as ‘the biggest bootlegger in Alaska.'”
From The Associated Press, “Conditions in Alaska”, The Anaconda Standard (Montana), 18 March 1926

Johnson seems to have escaped justice and eventually returned to the state, he was mentioned living in Sitka and having some “business” of undisclosed legitimacy in Petersburg with Ernie Carter (who later opened Ernie’s Bar in Sitka).

I’ve not been able to find much more detail on Frozen Foot Johnson, such as his origin or final fate. One newspaper claims that “Frozen Foot Johnson” died at the Sitka Pioneer’s Home in 1938 (meaning this could be his grave site), but other articles mention Frozen-Foot Johnson in Sitka in the 1940s. Several Ed Johnsons were at the Sitka Pioneer’s home around that time, so there could have been some confusion among reporters. Another Edward Johnson from Sitka was born in 1880, an Ed Johnson born about 1880 in Sweden was in Juneau in 1920, and an Ed Johnson born about 1881 in Sweden was in Nome in 1910 (per US census records).