Seattle Now & Then: The Recall of Hiram Gill, 1911

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: On Feb. 2, 1911, four days before his recall election, Mayor Hiram Gill addressed an overflow crowd of 2,200 in the Grand Opera House near Third and Cherry, then crossed Third to the packed Seattle Theatre to again deny charges of political corruption. The streets filled with hundreds of would-be spectators who were denied entry. The photo was taken from the new Hoge Building nearby. (Courtesy MOHAI)
NOW1: The Grand Opera House, built for legendary theater impresario John Cort in 1900, was gutted by fire in 1917. In 1923, it was converted to a five-story parking garage with an original capacity of more than 300 automobiles. Its façade is largely unchanged. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on Jan. 5, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Jan. 8, 2022

Newly enfranchised women spark 1911 recall of Mayor Hiram Gill
By Jean Sherrard

Seattle was once the Wild West, bitterly divided between an “open city” that tolerated gambling and prostitution south of Yesler Way and a “closed city” that would enforce laws everywhere without exception.

Amid this debate in March 1910, Hiram Gill was elected mayor but soon faced charges of corruption. Female voters, on the verge of acquired suffrage in our state, launched a successful recall petition. The campaign resembled a theatrical play, for which we’ve created a script with actual quotes from key players:

The cast:


Hiram Gill


Mayor Hiram Gill (1866-1919). Open-city proponent, former city councilman, lawyer noted for defending houses of ill repute, casually smoked a corncob pipe.



“Wappy” Wappenstein


Charles “Wappy” Wappenstein (1853-1931). Gill’s police chief, 5-feet tall, walrus mustache, considered genially effective if utterly corrupt.



Rev. Matthews


The Rev. Mark Matthews (1867-1940). Angular 6-foot-5 First Presbyterian preacher, popular denouncer of sin.



Alden Blethen


Alden J. Blethen (1845-1915). The Seattle Times owner/editor-in-chief, vigorous supporter of Gill.



Erastus Brainerd


Erastus Brainerd (1855-1922). Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor-in-chief, Queen City booster, open-city opponent.



GILL: I don’t pretend to be a very good man, but I know the law and will enforce it.

WAPPY: People don’t really want a clean city. They just say they do.

MATTHEWS: This city doesn’t want prostitution, gambling, all-night saloons or police corruption.

BLETHEN: Not one iota of testimony … prove[s] that Wappenstein has taken money as a public official.

BRAINERD: He would make a model chief of police were it not for his one known weakness — graft.

WAPPY: There will be a chance for all of us to make some money.

BRAINERD: [Gill] has allowed enforcers of the law to enter into lewd partnerships with breakers of the law.

BLETHEN: All the ranting of the P-I gang will never cause The Times to turn against these two men.

MATTHEWS: This is a campaign of decency versus indecency.

GILL: Public decency is not the issue. What do you care [about] some cuss shooting craps?

WAPPY: Mayor Gill is one of the most popular mayors Seattle has ever had, and there’s little danger of his recall.

GILL: If Charley Wappenstein had committed 100 murders, I will see that he holds his job.

MATTHEWS: Every ballot cast will be either for or against righteousness, civic purity and law enforcement.

BLETHEN: Gill’s fate lies with the women of Seattle.


To his lasting regret, Blethen was correct. On Feb. 7, 1911, Seattle’s female voters resoundingly ousted Gill in the first mayoral recall election in U.S. history.

In 1914, Gill was re-elected mayor. Flexibly repentant, he had campaigned on a closed-city platform. Meanwhile, Wappy wound up in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.


A few more photos to amplify:

Zoom in on the following astonishing portrait of the audience awaiting Hiram Gill in the Seattle Theater. The women are few though their voice would be heard days later.

THEN2: An overflow crowd awaits Mayor Hiram Gill in the Seattle Theatre on Feb. 2, 1911. (MOHAI)
THEN4: The Rev. Mark Matthews (left) and Hiram Gill (right) provide unlikely bookends to an unidentified newlywed couple on the Smith Tower observation deck, circa 1914.
NOW2: The exterior of the former Grand Opera House, now replaced by the Cherry Street Garage at 213 Cherry. While the arched entryway has been filled with concrete, original windows remain. (Jean Sherrard)

For our narrated 360 degree video shot on location, click right here!

And here are two related installments by our column founder Paul Dorpat:

Feb. 24, 1985, “Now & Then” column by Paul Dorpat.
Jan. 8, 1995, “Now & Then” column by Paul Dorpat.

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