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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Historical Note: Mary E. Thompson and the Minnehaha Saloon

Many years ago I came across this snippet of information from the book Seattle's Black Victorians, 1852-1901, by Esther Hall Mumford, via the historylink.org site: 

"In 1893, Mary Thompson, owner of Minnehaha Saloon dies. She was one of Seattle's wealthiest African American citizens at the time of her death. As the owner of the saloon and brothel, she earned a fortune in real estate, jewelry, and cash."

Particularly for someone with a hobby of studying northwest bar history, this was really damn intriguing. And yet with all my data and all my reading of Seattle history, I never found another mention of the Minnehaha, nor a shred of additional information about Mary Thompson -- not in sources of bar history, not in local black history, and not in local women's history. I found only the occasional repetition of the basic facts above. 

But recently, I found a series of newspaper stories on Mary and the bar in online issues of the Seattle Post Intelligencer that I'd somehow missed all this time. There were only a few articles, and with the first brief mention I found I was happy just to have a primary source confirming that the bar existed. But then the soap opera that unfolded about Mary's life was beyond anything I ever would have imagined.

It turned out that I actually did have a bit of the Minnehaha in my bar data -- an entry for a saloon of unknown name and inexact location belonging to E.D. Thompson in 1890. I would later find out that this was Edgar Thompson and the saloon was the Minnehaha Lodging House, located at 319 Jackson Street. The "Lodging House" portion of name referred to the rooms available on the floor above the saloon, i.e. the brothel. I have no evidence for how long the bar and brothel may have existed before then, with no mention of Minnehaha or E.D. Thompson in city guides of the preceding years.

I also confirmed the wealth of Mary Thompson, though estimates of the size of her "fortune" varied widely. In the Jan 19, 1893 Seattle PI, R.W. Stokes, her main heir, summarizes her net worth at approximately $2,000, or the equivalent of $200,000 today. But the Seattle PI estimated it at closer to $20,000 ($2 million in today's dollars), comprising the saloon, additional real estate, "considerable jewelery," a horse and carriage, and cash. (Seattle PI)  But let's back up a bit.

Edgar D. Thompson, then proprietor of the Minnehaha, died of consumption on June 29, 1890. But the inheritance of his estate (then estimated at $5,000) by his wife Mary Eddy Thompson was contested by Edgar's brother George. George maintained that at the time she married Edgar in Tacoma, Mary was actually married to another man, Caleb Eddy, from whom she never divorced. While I have not found an article on the resolution, Mary must have prevailed, as subsequent articles refer to her ownership of the saloon and other assets. 

Mary herself appears to have died in California in early 1893. Her own will leaves most of her assets and the role of executor to R.W. Stokes, a bartender at the saloon whom she describes in her will as "a husband and a friend" (despite her continued use of the Thompson surname), and also "the only one on earth I think is entitled to my affection and respect." But some thought Stokes had manipulated her into the will.

At the time she wrote her will in 1892 Mary had both a son and a daughter; but she states, 
"I have no recognized relations. None that I care to inherit any of my gains left behind. I, Mary E. Thompson, have two children living, a boy Johnne, 18 teen, a girl Maggie 17th. The girl I have not seen nor do I know that she lives or not but the boy has been around me going on three years. He has never respected me as a mother but has caused me much trouble." 
The son, the PI notes, is actually nearly 25 when she died, and was employed at the saloon. Stokes' status of executor was revoked because he could not maintain both this role and most the inheritance, and he eventually appears to have ended up with little to nothing, after failing to procure the appropriate bonds. (Seattle PI 3/31/1893)

As for the saloon, if it was in operation at all after Mary's death, the business was short-lived. The saloon was gone by the time of a news story of a fire in the building in October 1893, and it was torn down in 1894. By 1906 the area would make way for the King Street Station, where now travelers deboard Amtrak, and fans exit light rail trains on their way to Seattle Seahawks games

For several years I'd hoped for some additional information on Mary and the Minnehaha Saloon -- largely items that would fit neatly into a spreadsheet: the location, years of operation, changes in ownership. But when I finally found more answers they created so many more questions that I'll almost certainly never see answered. What was her personality like? What would Mary tell us about her experiences as a black woman making a go of it in the rough and tumble skid road area of 19th century Seattle? Was she happy in life, with her multiple husbands, few friends, and estranged children? Did her wealth help her or hinder her toward that end? Every answer just evokes a hundred more questions, but I'm glad for every little tidbit.



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