Sin, Early Seattle and Boss Way

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Wilson Eugene Thing changed his name when he got to booming Seattle, where he and others fueled the city’s growth with gambling enterprises.

Thing left his wife and children in Wisconsin and headed for Seattle, a timber industry boom town primed for the transcontinental railroad’s influx of people and products. He arrived in Seattle as Eugene Wilson Way.

Way became a prominent Seattle businessman, owning saloons, a billiard hall, real estate and insurance agency, boat-building company, saddlery, sign company and part of a local newspaper.

He sent for his family and in 1896 was elected to the Washington legislature, where he introduced bills providing free kindergartens and textbooks. He later served on the Seattle City Council.

Eugene Way, Seattle Gambler

It took digging by Gene Way’s great-great-granddaughter to correct the record. A damning Seattle Post Intelligencer article (March 1, 1900) quoted a man who met Way in 1880 in Montana as an inveterate gambler and con man who “was jumping about the country, betting poker games and stringing (cheating) farmers wherever he found them.”

This indictment said Way “came to Seattle dead broke in 1888…I have been told one of his friends who was in the gambling combine sent for him, and that gamblers paid his fare here…He became one of the M&N combination.”

Seattle’s Gambling Reputation

Seattle was widely known for its scale and variety of gambling. There were faro banks, black jack, poker, Chinese lottery and horse race betting carried on in back rooms of saloons and billiard parlors.

Infamous Soapy Smith came to Seattle to lure bunco artists to Skagway, Alaska for rigged games raking in money from Yukon gold rush prospectors. One gambling mogul shot and killed Seattle’s police chief.

Seattle Prostitution

Prostitution became big business early on because few women lived in Seattle. The first brothel opened in 1869 on a garbage-filled tideflat on the west side of Fourth Avenue South between the present South Washington and Main Streets. It was so profitable that owner John Pinnell soon opened another one.

Pinnell stocked his houses with Indian maidens rented from tribal chiefs in exchange for blankets and promises to employ, educate, feed and clothe the women. Later he imported attractive white women billed as “professional and business” women from San Francisco.

Seattle Corruption

Corruption ran rampant. Money was paid to keep eyes closed and businesses open. City officials and police were paid off. Gambling interests were able to get their own people into important political jobs. Sometimes an election was a choice between two crooks.

Eugene Thing/Way fit easily into this picture. He was in the saloon business with Mullen and Norton, two of the biggest west coast gamblers. He owned and partly owned several saloons and still had his billiard parlor in the 1920s.

He became known as “Boss Way” in crusading newspapers and was depicted in political cartoons as a shady character in the pockets of politicians and a friend of gamblers. Gene Way was boss of Seattle’s downtown First Ward.

“Boss” Way’s Downfall

Boss Way’s downfall is attributed to cheating his associates and being disloyal to gambling cronies.

Way never stopped gambling, always trying to hit it big, then becoming a big loser. Way’s son-in-law lost his home in one of Way’s failed schemes. Later, Eugene and wife Minnie ended up living with that son-in-law when Way lost their home.

Eugene Way died a poor man in 1939 at age 82. In an adverse way, he helped Seattle grow into a great city. Vice drew people who, as customers, caused growth in many legitimate businesses. During the 1880s, the population of Seattle—known as an immoral city—grew from 3,500 to more than 43,000.

Source:

  1. Cassady, Erin M., “Sin and the City, the Story of ‘Boss’ Way,” Seattle Genealogical Society Bulletin, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Spring, 1998).