In earlier days, the press was far more circumspect in the way that it covered political affairs than it is today. Reporters would cover the political scene without delving into the personal antics and the intimate dealings of prominent political figures.
Times have changed, of course, and today, every aspect of a politician’s life seems to be open to scrutiny. Women? Bribery? Drunkenness? It’s all fair game. Former president Bill Clinton could attest to that fact.
So when the outrageous behaviour of a prominent diplomat and public figure in Dawson City was exposed during the gold rush, he really had to provoke the newspaper to get himself placed under the media microscope.
During the height of the gold rush, the majority of the population of Dawson City and the gold fields were American. The Fourth of July was as big a celebration as the Queen’s birthday.
It is not surprising that the United States established a consulate in the heart of Dawson City.
A consul, according to the dictionary, is defined as “an official appointed by the government of a country to look after its business interests in a foreign city, and to assist citizens of that country living there.”
Consular offices are usually only placed in cities of importance, which reflects the prominence of Dawson City during the gold rush.
Despite the importance of the representative of the United States, and the reticence of the press a century ago to pry into the personal affairs of such an individual, the American-owned Klondike Nugget newspaper chose to report on the incident of the drunken diplomat.
The story began with Thomas Fawcett, the gold commissioner, whom the Klondike Nugget vilified rightly, or wrongly, for his involvement in corrupt actions related to the staking of claims on Dominion Creek, 80 kilometres from Dawson City.
The Nugget hounded Fawcett even after he was demoted. When he finally left Dawson City in the spring of 1899, a farewell dinner was organized, and US Consul J.C. McCook attended, even eulogizing the exiting Fawcett, much to the disgust of the Klondike Nugget.
McCook responded to a tart editorial published by the Nugget on March 22, 1899, commenting on the article point by point. The little American rag replied by attacking the consul in very eloquent prose, concluding that “The Colonel (McCook) is a gentleman and a judge of whiskey, but some kind friend ought to whisper in his ear that writing letters is not his forte, but his weakness”
A further response was received from McCook by the Nugget and published on April 1, to which the Nugget responded by calling McCook a buffoon and a “fun-maker,” and criticizing the grammar in the consul’s letter.
The Nugget clarified in its April 5 edition that the April 1 article was not a joke, and followed in the April 8 edition with an Arthur Buel cartoon that depicted the consul as a barefoot schoolboy tearfully completing his first grammar lesson, which was a letter to the editor of the Nugget.
A few days later, the pot of controversy was stirred some more. Sporting a front page cartoon of the consul drunkenly dancing on a flag-draped coffin labelled “US Dignity,” the little newspaper also published a notice that McCook had brought suit against the newspaper for damage to his reputation.
The gloves were now off. The Nugget, hesitant to publish anything about an official’s private life, was incensed by McCook’s behaviour at the Phoenix dance hall on April 6. McCook arrived at the Phoenix at 3 in the morning in a drunken state with none other than Diamond Tooth Gertie Lovejoy on his arm. Inside the Phoenix, he continued to drink.
At one point, the patriotic McCook was brawling with a Canadian patron. They almost crashed through a front window, and later tumbled to the dance hall floor where a less-than-sober porter attempted to separate them. McCook then pinned a small American flag to the seat of his pants, and before a shocked crowd, challenged Pete, the night porter, to kick him where the flag was attached.
Eventually, sometime between 7 and 8 in the morning, he was escorted from the rear of the premises into Paradise Alley, where a very tipsy consul unsuccessfully tried to enter one of the back street “cigar stores.”
Next, on hands and knees, he entered the Rochester Hotel, where his request for whiskey was refused. After a half an hour, he stumbled out the door, and on his hands and knees, made his way back to the consulate across the street from the Rochester.
McCook stated his version of events in a letter to Washington claiming he was framed by an anarchist editor. He had not crawled on hands and knees, he claimed, he had merely slipped on the ice and quickly returned to his feet.
That might have been the end of it, but he reported the loss of his watch and chain to Sam Steele of the Mounted Police. Steele was able to recover the watch from the bookkeeper at the Phoenix, who had kindly held it in safekeeping. The watch chain was never recovered.
In a scathing editorial, titled, Eagle’s Drooped Wings, the Nugget stated that the consul had brought shame on his flag and his country and should step down from his position.
McCook retaliated by filing a charge of defamatory libel against the Nugget, which responded April 19 with a cartoon of a still drunken, pointy-eared, consul lying amongst the garbage on the Yukon River ice, awaiting spring break-up.
In subsequent issues, the Nugget continued to campaign for McCook’s removal from office.
The libel case went before a judge and jury and was gleefully reported upon in lengthy detail in the June 3 edition by the Nugget, which won the case. Having already been embarrassed several times by the newspaper, Consul McCook was again exposed to ridicule before a packed courtroom as witness after witness, including several dance-hall girls, stood up and testified to the goings on at the Phoenix that fateful April morning.
After the trial was over, the Nugget closed the book on the ‘McCook fight.’
“If Consul McCook listens to the advice of those who really are his friends,” stated the Nugget, “he will retire before the facts in the case are presented at Washington.”
In fact, he departed Dawson in late September, and returned to Dawson City for two more summers of consular service.
A final thought: if a prominent public official pokes the media with a stick, it will respond. If McCook had not kept prodding the newspaper with letters and lawsuits, the original article would have been buried soon after it was published. But he didn’t, and it made for plenty of entertaining reading. I’ll bet it sold a lot on newspapers, too!
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.