A rectangular wooden grave marker in front of a tree
Ella's grave at the Gold Rush Cemetery in Skagway, decorated with a hat in place of flowers.

NPS photo/T. Urbanski

Quick Facts

Significance:
Casualty of gold rush era Skagway
Place of Death:
Skagway, Alaska
Date of Death:
May 1898
Place of Burial:
Skagway, Alaska
Cemetery Name:
Gold Rush Cemetery

It is undeniable that vice played a big part in the gold rush days of Skagway. Saloons, gaming halls, and prostitution were revenue machines. Women in the sex industry came from all walks of life. Some professional women followed the migration of thousands of stampeders and their money. Being abducted into sex trafficking was common, forcing women to work as prostitutes against their will. Some women arrived in Skagway with husbands or family who either died or deserted them. With few options to support themselves, one way to make money was prostitution.

Ella D. Wilson was an African American prostitute living in Skagway. Her profession was one of the most dangerous a woman could have in the gold rush. In May 1898 Ella transitioned from a citizen to a statistic when she was found dead. Cause of death: murder. They discovered Ella in her bed, a pillowcase over her head and a gag in her mouth. Her wrists and ankles were tied together, her money and jewelry missing, her trunk rifled through. Next to her bed, nothing except a pair of rubber boots and a pistol. Everything pointed to a robbery gone wrong. 

Rumor had it that Ella had $2,000 dollars in her possession (roughly $60,000 in 2016). A well-known madam from Denver, Mattie Silks, accused the notorious Skagway con-man Jeff “Soapy” Smith as the one responsible for Ella’s death. In lawless Skagway, nothing came of this accusation. Just five weeks later, Soapy Smith died in a shootout. To this day the murder of Ella D. Wilson remains unsolved. 

Ella may be gone, but she is not forgotten. Her final resting place is the Gold Rush Cemetery.  Located at the north end of Skagway this is a well visited point of interest. Interred at the base of Reid Falls are famous and colorful characters from Skagway's gold rush days. Ella's grave is just a few dozen feet away from the grave of the man accused of murdering her, Soapy Smith.

Last updated: September 14, 2017