E. W.  Merrill

This is another good Sitka story that hasn't been recorded anywhere. In the interests of history, I will send this along.

Dr. Harry Hodgins was a beloved Sitka dentist for many years. He and his wife were great outdoors people and generally all-round fine folks.

Harry told me about his relationship with E. W. Merrill one time.

To give a bit of background, Merrill was made famous as a lonely, hermit sort of man, in a romantic view of Sitka by Barrett Willoughby in her 1930 Sitka - Portal to Romance. All concerned admitted he was a superb photographer. Even to a non-photographer like me, his work is distinctive. You can check out his ouevre and see a photo of his plaque in Sitka on the Internet.

R. N. De Armond, Alaska historian extraordinaire, has pointed out Merrill was active in Sitka community affairs, but who wants the truth when romance thrives?

At any rate, Harry told me, and others agreed, that Merrill became something of a charge of his during his last years. The good dentist and his wife made sure he was all right; eating properly, etc.

One evening Elbridge told the Hodginses how he came to Sitka. Apparently he was originally from the Boston area and belonged to a family of means, as they used to say. When he was a young man, his family offered an arranged marriage. The young woman was all right and also seemed to like him, so they agreed.

After an elaborate wedding, they retired to a very posh Boston hotel for the honeymoon. Early in the evening Merrill went down to the lobby for a pack of cigarettes and ran into some friends. They talked him into coming with them, and the next thing he knew, it was morning and he'd played poker all night. (Here memory fails me a bit - he could have just partied with his friends, or even talked philosophy.) At any rate, he did not return to the bedroom that night.

Upon thinking about it, he could see no way out of his predicament except flight. So he got on a train and went west. In fact, he kept going west until he reached Sitka.

There the story ends. It would be tidy to say he eventually apologized to his bride and both families. Or that his family disinherited him. Or even that all concerned forgave him. But we have no idea of subsequent relations; only that he remained in Sitka, taking wonderful photographs the rest of his life.

One little addendum here - Merrill took the pictures at the 1904 potlatch in Sitka, the last sanctioned one. Among them is a photo of the famed Yakutat dancers, all in their best regalia and ready to dance. If you look closely at several participants, you will see they are trying not to laugh. A tall, elderly man had appeared from nowhere and made his way to the middle of the group. He is wearing only a Tlingit hat and a plain blanket, but looks dignified and poised.

I was told by one of the Yakutat dancers that the stranger apparently liked to have his photograph taken, and it was. No one ever knew his name or affiliation, but he is now captured for history.

D. L.

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