This week, I received an e-mail from Dawsonite Tarie Castellarin. “[Husband] Mark & I enjoy watching the Mysteries at the Museum series on the television,” she wrote. “Last night there was a segment called the ‘Case of the Kates’ (originally aired January 11, 2018).”
She continued: “Now, there were some inaccuracies around the date of the Gold rush, however, it talks about a pair of silver dance hall shoes at the Deschutes Historical Museum [Bend, Oregon]. The shoes belonged to Kate Rockwell, but the story is about the first female RCMP … in lawless Dawson named Kate Ryan and her fight to keep her job because a dance hall girl stole her nickname “Klondike Kate”. …We were curious as to the accuracy of this story!
“It is quite interesting and we were wondering if you have heard of this story…”
I watched the episode on the internet, and what a story it tells. It’s 1900 and Dawson City is full of “bandits, hucksters and thieves.” The RCMP are trying to maintain law and order, and Kate Ryan, also known as Klondike Kate, is the first female Mountie.
Word reaches her commanding officer that she has been performing in one of the local theatres – which would be a terrible blemish on her reputation. Turns out that one of the dance hall denizens, a woman known as Kate Rockwell, has also been billing herself as Klondike Kate.
Kate Ryan goes to the theatre and sees a scantily clad Rockwell twirling about on stage. Rockwell was portrayed as having a “seedy” reputation. Ryan had Rockwell arrested a few months before and Rockwell had spent a month in jail at hard labour.
As revenge, Rockwell stole Ryan’s moniker and billed herself as Klondike Kate. Although Rockwell refuses to stop billing herself as Klondike Kate, Ryan is able to clear her reputation with her superior officer and is saved from disgrace.
The episode concludes by stating that over the years, the name Klondike Kate becomes associated not with the courageous police woman, but with the more scandalous women of the frontier. In closing the piece, Mysteries at the Museum alludes to a film from the 1940s titled Klondike Kate as the final legacy. At least the television program got that part right – almost.
In this segment of Mysteries at the Museum, the story is recounted by “historian” Matt Falber. But Matt Falber is no historian; his account is highly coloured, and factually inaccurate. According to his website, mattfalber.com, “Matt Falber is a passionate actor, creator and storyteller. … Matt is a regular contributor to Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum where he tells stories based on historical research he’s uncovered while creating articles and tours for his New York City based tour company.”
I think that Falber should stick to acting and storytelling, and leave Yukon history alone.
Had he done any research at all, Falber would have quickly learned that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police did not receive their title until the Royal Northwest Mounted Police merged with the Dominion Police in 1920. He would further have learned that Kate Ryan never stepped foot in the real Klondike, that is, Dawson City and the surrounding gold fields, where Kathleen Rockwell performed. Further, he would have learned that Kathleen, or Kate Rockwell, did not attach herself to the “Klondike Kate” brand name until the infamous Pantages rape trial of 1929.
Yes, Kate Ryan was affiliated with the Mounted Police, but as a special constable, assigned to customs inspections of lady travellers, and as a matron whenever there was a female prisoner detained in the Whitehorse jail.
In Ann Brennan’s book, The Real Klondike Kate, the author relates the case of a prostitute named Kitty Henry, who was sentenced to one month’s hard labour by the Mounted Police in Whitehorse in March of 1902. Perhaps Falber confused this Kitty with the Kitty Rockwell who performed at the Orpheum Theatre in Dawson City, hundreds of kilometres away. In any case, Ryan was visiting family in New Brunswick at the time that Henry was jailed.
The use of the term “Klondike Kate” can be traced back to the era of the gold rush, appearing in newspapers as early as November, 1897. At first, its usage is associated with ladies and events of questionable reputation, but in 1915, author Harry Leon Wilson published the novel, Ruggles of Red Gap, which includes a character named Klondike Kate.
The book became a best-seller, and was quickly adapted for the stage. Actress Leonore Harris played the role of Klondike Kate in the Manhattan production the fall of 1915, and Edna Phillips Holmes starred in the same role in the screen version released by Essanay Films in 1917.
Ruggles of Red Gap was remade in 1923 in a Paramount production, with Lois Wilson playing Kate in this version. Kate seems to disappear as a character in the 1935 talkie remake of the film, starring Charles Laughton.
In 1936, Mae West starred in Klondike Annie, based on her 1921 stage performance in Frisco Kate. Klondike Kate was revived again in 1943 in the Columbia Pictures Production of the film by that name, starring Ann Savage. Kate Rockwell, now Matson, was reported to be in Hollywood in November of ’43 to supervise the filming “of her story.”
So by investigating this episode, I learned plenty about the evolution of the name Klondike Kate, as it is applied to various people and events over the years. It started out as a generic term implying people and situations of dubious character. It was popularized in a best-selling novel, followed by its appearance in a series of stage productions and Hollywood films from both the silent era and the talkies.
Two women have become strongly associated with the name over the years, but neither can claim exclusive ownership. One (Kate Rockwell) became by far the most ingrained into popular culture while the other (Ryan) has assumed the status of injured party, whose name and claim to fame were hijacked by a theatre performer from Dawson City.
But this most recent treatment of the Klondike Kate story on Mysteries at the Museum is so outrageously off the mark that I have to ask: if they have gotten this account so wrong, can I believe anything I have seen on this television series?
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, The Yukon Fallen of World War I, co-authored with D. Blair Neatby, is now available on retail bookshelves. You can contact him at email@example.com