January 09, 2022

Don't Know Russian Jack?


Don't Know Russian Jack?

The biggest city in Alaska, Anchorage, has plenty of real Russians living in it (about 9,943 out of a population of 710,231, per the 2010 Census). But it has very little Russian history to speak of – unlike the town of Sitka, the former Russian-American Company headquarters. But Anchorage has one very famous Russian character in its past, Russian Jack, who lent his (nick)name to a street, an elementary school, a post office, an apartment complex, a branch of a bank, and a former animal hospital. Every Anchorage resident probably knows Russian Jack Springs Park, so the man's nickname and identity have taken on mythic proportions.

His "real" name is assumed to be Jacob Marunenko, but "Jacob" is not very Russian; he was probably originally Yakov, but that is not a name that most Americans are familiar with. Between his birthplace and the United States, he briefly lived in Princeton and Vancouver, British Columbia. He entered the US in April 1915, via Oroville, Washington, across a lake from the Canadian border, as John Marchin, according to the manifest.

In 1916, Marchin ended up in Anchorage. He was there almost at the town's founding: In July 1915, the federal government auctioned off plots of land in Anchorage. It was a planned city, attracting potential residents as railroad tracks and telephone lines were laid. One of many newcomers to Anchorage was known as Jack Marchin, but Ancestry.com indicates that he was also known as Jake Merchen and Jake Murchin.

How did he become "Russian Jack?" A woman from the Susitna Girl Scout Council said that as a child she was told that "the homesteader was of Russian heritage and nobody could pronounce his last name so he was called Russian Jack." Presumably, that hard-to-pronounce name was Marunenko.

Anchorage
Anchorage: Not a bad place to visit. | Amanda Shirnina

According to official U.S. government documents, Russian Jack was born on October 23, 1883 (surely Old Style), in Parevka, Ukraine, then a part of Russia. His parents were listed as being born in Russia. Reportedly, Russian Jack had blue eyes, "br. gray" hair, wore a mustache and a beard, and was around 150 pounds and five feet, six inches tall. According to one source, "Jack's passport photo show[ed] a strong square Slavic face."

Russian Jack left a wife behind when he moved to the United States, Malina/Milania/Milaina Marunenko from "Kiev, Russia" or, alternately, from Parevka/Pareuka/Parewka. They married in January 1907 and gave birth to Stepanka in 1909 and Roman in 1912. Elsewhere, Roman's name is "A. Roman Jacob."

Bruce Merrell of the Anchorage Public Library wrote of Russian Jack's family position: "In the fading days of czarist Russia and under the ominous threat of world war, the Marunenko family lived together for only a short time. Although Jacob Marunenko was born and raised in the village of Parevka, married his wife in Parevka, and saw both his children born in Parevka, something caused him to leave this village and never come back." It seems that he never saw his family again. He may have gone ahead of his family, or he may never have intended for them to follow him. But once in the US, he made no secret of the precise details of his family in his paperwork (if the details are true), which suggests that he was not trying to start over.

Anchorage Museum
The source of the information in this story. | Amanda Shirnina

One article asserts, "Scholars have suggested that he fled to avoid conscription into the Russian forces then being ground up in World War I." It is unknown who these many scholars are supposed to be, however, since the facts of Russian Jack's life seem to have been pieced together primarily by Merrell, based on scraps of information he found in newspapers and local archives.

In Anchorage, Marchin worked as a laborer for the Alaskan Engineering Commission and Alaska Railroad. At the time of the 1920 Census, he either owned or managed the Montana Pool Room at 435 Fourth Avenue. On other government documents, he was a "carpenter and laborer."

But Russian Jack is infamous as a "squatter, moonshiner, and convicted killer." The police knew him well at a time when alcohol was illegal: "Prohibition had begun, Anchorage was thirsty, and Russian Jack had built a still." He "never received title to the land" on which he brewed the only hard liquor available in the city – because he was not a US citizen. Russian Jack used a light cover for distribution to his customers: "He'd get a woman to push a baby buggy with a doll and a jug of moon underneath it." One article in an Anchorage publication asks, "How many Alaskans have left a legacy like this?" Russian Jack is labeled "colorful" and "legendary" in the repetitive Anchorage newspaper articles answering every generation's question about who the park's namesake was.

Russian Jack Springs Park
All roads lead to Russian Jack's moonshine still. | Amanda Shirnina

Russian Jack's homestead and still were on the site of today's Russian Jack Springs Park. He cut, hauled, and sold wood from his land. A neighbor of Russian Jack said, "He was friendly but kept pretty much to himself... He was a very peaceful man who didn't seem to do too much." Another neighbor recalled, "A very nice gentleman – always very polite, very pleasant with us kids." One woman who did not want to be identified by name said Russian Jack "was a great person" but that she would not say "more about him because she didn't want to 'start anything.'"

Russian Jack's "peaceful homesteading days ended" when he got into a deadly fight.

On March 22, 1937, at a gathering at the cabin of a Mrs. Doris Simmons, Russian Jack shot cab driver Milton Hamilton in the head. The Sheraton Anchorage Hotel & Spa now sits at the site of the murder. One witness observed that "Jack made remarks earlier in the evening that he resented Hamilton's presence in the house." In court, though, Jack claimed that he had only met Hamilton that night. Another witness claimed that "Hamilton had hit 'Russian Jack' earlier in the evening and that Jack had not fought back." Someone noted that "the two men had shared angry words in the cabin earlier in the evening, and now late at night, they tangled, pushing and shoving." After being battered by the six-foot-tall, 180-pound Hamilton, Russian Jack shot him with a .32 caliber automatic pistol.

Why did Russian Jack have a gun at the ready at a friendly social gathering? He argued, "I walked six miles into the woods to work and took my gun for protection from wolves and coyotes. I carried the gun in the pocket of my coat." Jack claimed that he and Hamilton argued for a while, then he went outside, but he became too cold and went back in to retrieve his coat and hat. At that moment, Hamilton choked him from behind. Jack claimed that he did not know who it was and shot blindly in hopes of scaring his attacker off him. This version of events does not entirely square with the battered condition of Russian Jack's face afterwards – seemingly severely beaten by Hamilton. One of Hamilton's coworkers testified that Russian Jack had not come to the party with a gun but left the party angry and returned with it.

Polar Bear Garden
Sign for the Anchorage Museum's Polar Bear Garden exhibit (Sad belogo medvedya), March-September 2017; reference is to Sarah Palin's unfortunate Alaska comment. | Amanda Shirnina

In "The United States of America v. Jacob Marunenka, alias Russian Jack, alias Jack Marchin" [yes, that was really the name of the case], the defendant argued self-defense. He reported, "I had a bruise at the lower end of my sternum (breast bone), had two broken ribs, a bruise on the left side of my face, two broken teeth, a contusion across the bridge of the nose, a broken nose, a cut over the left eye, both my eyes black and swollen shut so that I could not open them, and a contusion a little to the left of the front of my scalp." The contusion on the scalp was a skull fracture, "a piece being broken loose with the point protruding through my scalp." The National Archives branch formerly in Anchorage but now in Seattle actually possesses "two yellowing, fingertip-sized pieces of Marchin's skull – evidence that Hamilton had allegedly beat Marchin nearly to death before Marchin shot him." The defendant wrote that his doctor would agree that a man in such a state "would be unable to control his mental faculties to such an extent that he could premeditate a crime or have any knowledge of what he was doing for a period one-half hour at least after the blows were struck."

The prosecution served up seven witnesses, while Russian Jack could only afford to call the doctor who treated his injuries. The jury did not buy his self-defense plea and convicted him of manslaughter. The penalty for manslaughter ranged from 1 to 20 years in prison. The jury gave Russian Jack two and a half years, which he served at the McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington, not far from Seattle.

After serving his prison term, Russian Jack returned to Anchorage. One cynical reporter noted: "Don't think that Anchorage spurned Russian Jack in the years after he got back." In 1948, the Anchorage Daily Times encouraged people to vote for him for Mardi Gras King. The Mardi Gras Ball was held at an Anchorage strip club. Jack lost the kingship but was named "prince of the events" and was pictured in the paper. Merrell believes that Jack's showing at the Mardi Gras Ball was proof that "the city was willing to forgive Russian Jack."

Saint Tikhon Orthodox Church
More Russianness in Anchorage. | Amanda Shirnina

The federal government was less thrilled with his return. Its War Assets Administration took over Russian Jack's homestead in the 1940s for use as public land. Not being a U.S. citizen, with an "unpatented homestead," Russian Jack had no leg to stand on. (Being a former convict probably did not help either.) The homestead was actually in the names of his citizen friends, Peter Toloff and Nicholas Darlopaulos (or Nicolaos Devlopoulos). When Marchin lost his home, he moved downtown, where he was frequently seen at City Mike's Bar.

Russian Jack
Photo of Jacob Marunenko, aka Jack Marchin,
from his application for naturalization in 1951.
 

Some sources assume that one of Russian Jack's aliases was Peter Toloff. But the son of Peter Toloff begs to differ. That assumption was likely a misunderstanding because Russian Jack and Peter Toloff were associated with each other: Toloff owned Russian Jack's land and, based on Toloff's last name, he also had Russian heritage. (He could have been Alaska Native, too . . . it's complicated.)

Though a convicted felon, Russian Jack earned his U.S. citizenship in 1954. In an article about the citizenship ceremony, Marchin was pictured and described as "one of Anchorage's oldest residents." The heavily bearded new American, at age 70, looked rather like Santa Claus. Though everyone still remembered him as a moonshiner and a killer, that did not affect his popularity: At the 1954 Miners and Trappers Ball, Russian Jack won the award for the "Most Alaskan" beard, sporting the traditional "fur."

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral
Even more Russianness at St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Anchorage. | Amanda Shirnina

Around 1962, Russian Jack moved to California "in the company of an unknown female." He moved to his last address in 1967. Russian Jack died at age 88 on October 28, 1971, in Arvin, California, near Bakersfield. He died of either natural causes or atherosclerosis and calcific aortic stenosis. His grave in Arvin Public Cemetery is not even marked, and his obituary stated that "he left no survivors." But virtually nothing in his Arvin obituary was true. He did not immigrate to the US as a child. He had not worked for years on the railroad. He had not been a miner in Alaska for 30 years.

Russian Jack remains an Anchorage legend. The March 2-8, 2000, cover of the Anchorage Press has a mug shot of Russian Jack blown up with the title, "You Don't Know Russian Jack." Russian Jack has been confused with other immigrants and pioneers. He was definitely not a composite character but a real person with real, verifiable personal details and multiple photographs depicting the same person at different ages. But other people have been confused for him and have taken on his infamous nickname over the years. There was a legend that Jack shot a Bureau of Land Management official over manipulation of Jack's land documents. That never happened. After World War II, an Anchorage man known as Russian Jack was a ferry operator; that does not appear to have been Marchin either. Alaskans eventually began calling any (presumably white) person with an unpronounceable name "Russian Jack." Alaska's Russian Jack should not be confused with the apparent namesake of a New Zealand wine company – a similar wanderer type.

Thanks to Russian Jack's enduring name gracing several city facilities, Anchorage residents cannot avoid thinking regularly about Russia, like it or not.

St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral
Interior of St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Anchorage, where most worshippers are Alaska Native.  | Amanda Shirnina

The source for almost all of the information in this article is: Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, Alaska, Cook Inlet Historical Society Legends and Legacies, Anchorage 1910-1940 Project Research Files, Box 8: Markley-Mears. Do give them a visit if you're ever in the area!

Also be sure to check out Bruce Merrell's online account of Russian Jack, which has some nice photos, including one of his injuries in the infamous fight.

 

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