THE VIOLENT DEATHS OF
TOM STEPHAN in 1914
TALKEETNA STEPHAN in 1917
NAGOLIA STEPHAN in 1917
KNIK NICOLI in 1924
ANCHORAGE POLICE CHIEF
HARRY C. KAVANAUGH in 1924
A True Story
THE MURDER OF TOM
November of 1914, Tom Stephan (of the Nicoli Tribe), his wife Nagolia
and 13 year old daughter Inga, left Knik and headed to their hunting
grounds near the Nelchina District to set traps. When they got there, "Indian
Jim" Nikita (of the general Eklutna vacinity) had already set out his own
traps in Stephan's territory. A heated argument erupted and Indian Jim
shot Tom Stephan to death while Nagolia and Inga watched.
To counter any future revenge from Stephan's people, Indian Jim did
the honorable thing and took the dead man(and his widow and daughter) back
to the safety of Chickaloon; it took them ten days to get there. He then
continued, alone, to Knik where he confessed his crime to the authorities.
A week later, a band of Dena'ina men went to Chickaloon and brought Tom
Stephan's body back to Knik. When they buried him,they rang the church
bell for a full fifteen minutes in honor of the well respected man.
The U.S. Deputy Marshal arrested Indian Jim and took him to the Federal
Jail in Valdez to wait for Grand Jury proceedings. Six months later, he
was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years at McNeil
Prison records suggested that Indian Jim, prisoner 2622, had a rough
life. He was born in 1870; was 5'+7/8" tall and 137 pounds. He had multiple
scars on his head; he was missing part of his left earlobe where an earring
had been cut out; he had a scar on his lower back and a 6" scar on his buttocks;
he had 4 long angular scars above his left knee and 4 long angular scars
above his right knee; his right wrist and fingers were deformed from previous
fractures and he had multiple scars on both hands.
Jim Nikita (also known as Indian
Jim) was the namesake for
an area 7½ miles southeast of Palmer, Alaska known as
JIM CREEK. That general area was Jim Nikita's
stomping grounds and the USGS came up with the
Jim Creek name in about 1925.
When Indian Jim died in the fall of 1938, a huge potlatch was held
in his honor at Eklutna and Dena'ina people from all over Cook Inlet
THE MURDER OF TALKEETNA STEPHAN
three years after Indian Jim killed Tom Stephan, records show that Tom
Stephan's widow, Nagolia, was married to 50 year old Talkeetna Stephan
(also of the Nicoli Tribe).
In March of that year, Stephan and Nagolia, along with Stephan's
11 year old son Bob and Nagolia's 16 year old daughter Inga, headed to
their camp on Stephan Lake (near Talkeetna Lake). A friend named Knik
Nicoli went with them (he was the biological son of Pelageia Chanilkhiga,
a Russian speaking Knik woman and the step-son of Knik store merchant,
George W. Palmer).
In route to Stephan Lake, the travelers stopped at Old Chief Nicoli's
camp which was a mile below Talkeetna. According to later court testimony,
they spent the next week drinking before continuing the final 90 miles to
At Stephan Lake, the group set up camp and began to make more "hooch".
They mixed batches of flour, sugar and water in two small (1'x 2') barrels
and allowed it to ferment. As the mixture fermented, an alcoholic liquid
would rise to the top of the barrel and the adults drank it.
In early June, after
a day of drinking, Talkeetna Stephan and Knik Nicoli started to quarrel. Young Inga said they were "crazy
drunk and fighting with words", so she and her brother Bob got out of the
tent and hid several feet away while the argument escalated.
At one point, Stephan tried to leave the tent and stumbled against
the ridge pole which then fell and hit Nicoli on the head. Nicoli was so
furious that he climbed out of the tent and picked up a 4' long by 2" wide
piece of firewood and used it to repeatedly strike the Stephan's who were
still under the collapsed tent. When Talkeetna Stephan became motionless,
his wife Nagolia tried to raise the tent canvas, but Nicoli continued to
hit her across the back and head. After the attack, he laid down and went
to sleep for several hours.
At daylight, the young girl (Inga) said that Nicoli "got well" and pulled
the tent off of his friends. Talkeetna Stephan was dead; both sides
of his face were crushed and bloodied. Nagolia sat crying near
her dead husband; her nose flattened against her face, her arm broken
and her head badly cut. She told Inga that she and Bob would have to go
back to the safety of Knik alone since she was too injured to go with
them. She also asked Inga to tell the people of Knik the truth about
what happened at the camp the night before.
While Nicoli, Inga and Bob were digging a grave for Stephan, they heard
a gunshot and Nagolia was dead. Because her arm was broken and she couldn't
lift the gun, she tied a string around the trigger of her husbands .22
rifle and pulled on the string with her good arm; shooting herself in the
Nicoli wrapped both bodies with canvas and laid them side by side
in the 4' deep grave. He put poles over the bodies and more canvas
over the poles; then he covered everything with 3' of dirt. He then burned
the Stephan's bloody clothes and tent before he and the children left camp.
Once out on the trail, Nicoli told the children they should go
to Eric Larson's cabin on Fish Creek. This gave Nicoli time to make
a run for it before the authorities were alerted.
At Fish Creek, Inga and Bob told Larson about the death
of their parents and he took them to Talkeetna to talk to Marshal
Healy. On July 7th, the Marshal, along with young Bob Stephan, a packer
named G. L. Kennedy and an Indian guide named Pedro, left Talkeetna and
walked the 90 miles back to Stephan's camp; they arrived there on July
At the campsite, the Marshal found the fire pit where Nicoli had burned
Stephan's tent; in the center of the ashes, he found Stephan's watch; at
the edge of the fire pit was Nagolia's dress and sewing basket as well as
Stephan's glasses and moccasins. Eighteen feet from the pit the Marshal
found the grave, which he dug up. He examined the bodies for injuries and
identification and reburied the Stephan's in the same grave. He estimated
that they had been dead almost a month.
Knik Nicoli was captured near Susitna Station on 7/31/1917 and brought
back to Talkeetna. The official wording of the charge
against him was: "Knik Nicoli, on the 10th of June 1917, near Talkeetna
Lake, willfully, unlawfully, feloniously and voluntarily killed Talkeetna
Stephan, by beating and striking him, violently and repeatedly with a certain
large club." Nicoli was taken to the Federal
Jail in Valdez to stand trial.
Sixteen year old Inga Stephan was one of the main witnesses at
Knik Nicoli's trial. In court, she appeared mature beyond her years,
having witnessed the murder of her father, Tom Stephan; the murder of her
step-father, Talkeetna Stephan and the suicide of her mother Nagolia; all
within a three year period.
Undaunted by the "big city" of Valdez and a courtroom full of strangers,
Inga, who had no formal education, unhesitatingly answered all questions
asked of her; describing the death of her family in perfect English.
Also questioned during the trial was Inga's eleven year old brother
Bob, who testified with the help of an interpreter, since he spoke no
English. Bob said that he ran outside of the tent when the ridge pole
fell down because he was afraid and the adults were trying to "talk fight
with hooch all around". He said that once he was outside, he watched Nicoli
club his parents who were still under the tent. After recounting the story,
the young boy became afraid and would not answer further questions.
Knik Nicoli was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced
to three years in Federal Jail on 11/2/1917.
THE MURDER OF ANCHORAGE
POLICE CHIEF HARRY CLINCH KAVANAUGH
Knik Nicoli got out of prison (for killing Talkeetna
Stephan) in late 1920 and by 1923 he had moved to Anchorage. He was
living in a cabin at 8th and B Street and was well known in the area for
being violent while drinking.
On 1/2/1924, Nicoli's roommate, Polly Rufe, told police that he was
"crazy drunk" and terrorizing her, so Anchorage Police Chief, Harry Kavanaugh,
and his deputy Charlie Watson set out to arrest him.
When Nicoli did not answer the police chief's knock at his cabin door,
Kavanaugh went to the rear of the building and climbed a ladder (to the
loft where Nicoli was known to sleep) and called for him to come out. A
shot was fired and Police Chief Kavanaugh yelled to his deputy, "Look out
Charlie, he's got a gun". Kavanaugh then took off running towards 8th Street
in search of cover.
Deputy Charlie Watson ran to the front of the cabin just in time to
see Nicoli shoot twice at Kavanaugh with a 30-30 Winchester rifle;
one bullet hit the Chief in the back; passing through his body and
exiting his stomach.
With Kavanaugh mortally wounded, Charlie waited for a safe shot at Nicoli
through the window on the east side of the cabin. When there was no sight
of the Indian, Charlie opened the front door and immediately found himself
face to face with Nicoli who was holding a rifle; he instinctively fired
two shots with his revolver, killing Nicoli instantly.
Chief Kavanaugh was rushed to the Anchorage Railroad Hospital and treated
by Harry Abercrombie, Dr. C.H. Turpin and Dr. J.H. Romig, however
he died about 16 hours after surgery.
On 1/5/1924, Chief Harry Clinch Kavanaugh's casket was
accompanied to the railroad station by his wife Stella; Mayor Conroy
of Anchorage; the City Council members and members of the Odd Fellows
Lodge. Anchorage citizens lined the route from the city morgue to the train
depot, removing their hats (in respect) as the 44 year old officers coffin
passed by. Kavanaugh's remains were sent to San Pedro, California for burial;
he had only been an Anchorage police officer for 8 months.
In contrast, Knik Nicoli, the man who murdered Talkeetna Stephan AND
Chief Kavanaugh, was laid to rest in an Anchorage Cemetery the same
day as Kavanaugh's funeral procession. The only people in attendance for
Nicoli's burial were cemetery employees.
O. G. Herning Diary 12/7/1914
O. G. Herning Diary 12/13/1914
New York Times 9/13/1915
Anchorage Times 7/31/1917
Anchorage Times 8/2/1917
Anchorage Times 1/2/1924
O. G. Herning Diary 8/14/1938
Alaska Miner 8/23/1938
Alaska Miner 9/6/1938
USA vs. Knik Nicoli Indictment No. 644
McNeil Island Penitentiary Records Prisoner No. 2622