Gill, Hiram C. (1866-1919)

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 10/27/2000
  • Essay 2755

Hiram C. Gill served as a Seattle City Councilman for 12 years and as mayor twice. His support for an "open-town" where "vice" carried on in brothels, gambling parlors, and saloons went unsuppressed, eventually caused him to fall into disfavor. In 1910, the Washington Legislature granted the vote to women and in a February 7, 1911, recall election, 20,000 of 23,000 registered women voters cast their ballots. Real estate man George W. Dilling (1869-1951) won by 6,000 votes and Gill was turned out of office. In 1914, Gill managed a political comeback by reversing many of his positions, but ethical failures, corruption scandals, and prosecution marked his four years in office.

Lawyer and Son of a Lawyer

Gill was born August 23, 1866, in Watertown, Wisconsin, the son of a lawyer and Civil War commander who later served as Wisconsin's attorney general. Gill graduated from the University of Wisconsin law school in 1889, working part of the time as a stenographer. He went west in 1889 and waited on tables in a Seattle waterfront restaurant. Shortly after the Great Fire of June 1889, Gill landed a position as a stenographer in a Seattle law firm. In three years, he began the practice of law.

His public service began in 1898 with his election as a Republican city councilman. He was reelected in 1900, defeated in 1902 and elected again in 1904. He was president of the Council for three years and then in 1910 he ran for mayor.

Seattle's Open Town Controversy

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Seattle politics was divided between "open town" and "closed town" factions. The prosperity following the Klondike gold rush in 1897 and the expansion of Pacific trade following the Spanish American War in 1898 caused vice to flourish. Despite laws to the contrary, gambling and prostitution thrived. Proponents of the open town, including Seattle Times publisher Alden J. Blethen (1845-1915), believed that such conduct was normal and as long as it was restricted and regulated, it should be permitted. The community relied on the municipal government and particularly on the police to keep the gambling dens, brothels, and saloons within an area south of Yesler Way.

Those opposed to vice on moral grounds and to the concomitant graft and corruption included church groups, progressives, prohibitionists, and woman suffragists.

Hiram Gill, a staunch Republican, believed that vice should be confined to its own district rather than be allowed to spread across the city. Gill promised, "[The segregated district] will be the most quiet place in Seattle ... the restricted district under me will be located in a place where men will have to go out of their way to find it" (Berner, 117).

The 1910 Election

He opposed municipal ownership of utilities (such as transit, waterworks, and electricity), taxes for city projects, and labor unions. In 1910, he ran for mayor and in the primary bested his progressive opponent. In the runoff, Gill won the mayor's office and Republicans swept the rest of the open seats. Gill was accused of importing hundreds of jobless men and lodging them in vacant houses and apartments, to vote Republican. The March 8, 1910 election did record the largest voter turnout until that time.

Gill's election stimulated reform forces to organize the Public Welfare League on June 16, 1910. The Public Welfare League, the Clean City Organization, the Municipal League, and the Ministerial Federation combined to support a broad spectrum of reform issues on a non-partisan basis. One such issue became the administration of Mayor Gill.

Windfalls for Wappenstein

Gill appointed as chief of police a man whom Mayor John F. Miller had dismissed for corruption — Charles Wappenstein. Wappenstein quickly arranged to be paid $10 a month for each of the approximately 500 prostitutes in Seattle. Seattle Police tracked the women closely to insure that the appropriate fees were paid. Gambling ran around the clock and continued to operate "uptown," north of Yesler Way, along with brothels.

A journalist reported that "cigar stores and barbershops did a lively business in crap-shooting and race-track gambling, drawing their patronage largely from school boys and department-store girls ... All over the city 'flat-joints,' pay-off stations, and dart-shooting galleries were reaping a rapid harvest ... in the thirty or forty gambling-places opened under the administration of Hi Gill" (Berner, 119).

When two "vice-lords" built a 500-room brothel on Beacon Hill with a 15-year lease from the city, the Public Welfare League began to circulate a recall petition targeting Gill. Gill went out of town and the acting mayor fired Wappenstein, but the mayor returned only to reappoint the corrupt chief.

Gill was also accused of collusion with the Seattle Electric Co., which was owned by Jacob Furth (1840-1914) and the Boston firm of Stone and Webster. Seattle Electric had been forced to lower its electric rates because of competition from Seattle City Light. Gill appointed former Seattle Electric official Richard Arms as superintendent of City Light over the popular and effective James Delmage Ross (1872-1939). Arms extended City Light service into an expensive and hard to serve area, and he passed up profitable contracts, all to the detriment of the city utility. An investigation confirmed misfeasance by Arms.

Women v. Hi Gill

Recall forces ran real estate man George W. Dilling as Gill's replacement. In 1910, the Washington Legislature granted the vote to women and in the February 7, 1911, recall election, 20,000 of 23,000 registered women voters cast their ballots. Dilling won by 6,000 votes and Gill was turned out of office.

A grand jury investigation into police corruption resulted in the indictment of former-chief Wappenstein and of Times publisher Blethen and his son Clarence. Wappenstein was eventually convicted and sent to the penitentiary. The Blethens were acquitted.

Gill ran again for mayor in March 1912, but was defeated by the progressive George F. Cotterill (1865-1958). Gill returned to his law practice. Cotterill's administration was troubled by the Potlach Riots of 1913 and by divisive strikes.

The New Gill

Gill was ready for a new run for the mayor's office in 1914, this time as a closed-town advocate. But economic issues may have decided the election. Gill's opponent received backing from the Employer's Association, which alienated organized labor. Gill garnered the labor vote for a decisive win.

Gill followed up on his promise to crack down on vice by appointing the progressive Austin Griffiths, who had opposed Gill in the mayoral primary, as police chief. Griffiths tightened up on police conduct, improved conditions at the city jail, and got lighting into dark alleys.

In 1915, City Light and its superintendent J.D. Ross ran into trouble when the new dam on the Cedar River failed to hold water. Although Gill opposed Ross's plans to expand City Light service to new areas, he nevertheless reappointed Ross in December 1915. This allowed Ross to work for new sites for the hydroelectric dams that became the key to City Light's survival and success.

Washington Goes Dry

Gill ran for reelection in March 1916 and won another two-year term.  Statewide prohibition, approved by Washington voters in 1914, had taken effect that January, four years before the nation went dry. Mayor Gill led highly publicized police raids on liquor stores, restaurants, and the Rainier Club, causing $20,000 in damage to two establishments. Even prohibitionists were offended by the mayor's actions.

In 1916, a waterfront strike resulted in violence. At first, Mayor Gill infiltrated union meetings with police. When African American strikebreakers struck and won at several docks, Gill came down on the side of labor and told employers that he would not support their efforts for an open-shop (union membership not compulsory) town.

After the Everett Massacre of October 31, 1916, in which anti-union vigilantes shot and killed four members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Mayor Gill declared, "In the final analysis it will be found that these cowards in Everett, who, without right or justification, shot into a crowd on the boat, were murders and not the I.W.W.'s..." Gill distributed free tobacco to IWW inmates of the city jail and earned the wrath of The Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer. However, Gill's record with labor was inconsistent.

Still a Wild, Wide-open Town

Gill ran into trouble in 1917 when he and the sheriff and the police chief were put on trial for accepting police protection money from bootleggers. Seattle became such a wild town that the U.S. Army declared it off-limits to soldiers from Camp Lewis in Pierce County. This did not square well with businessmen who missed the soldiers' dollars. Several impeachment petitions were circulated against Gill. In January 1918, he was disbarred for a year for unethical solicitation of legal work.

When Gill ran for reelection in 1918, he finished a poor third in the primary.

Hiram Gill died a few months later, on January 7, 1919.


Clarence Bagley, The History of Seattle from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vol. 3 (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1916), 367; Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1900-1921: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration, (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991).
Note: This essay was corrected on March 19, 2012.

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