Alexander, Stella (1881-1960)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 2/01/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8474

Stella Alexander was a woman ahead of her time.  She broke into the previously exclusive boy's club of Issaquah politics when she was elected to the town council in 1927, and in 1932 was elected to a two-year term as mayor of the town (located in east King County). A large woman who seemed to enjoy confrontation, Alexander soon alienated her town council and eventually, the citizens she was elected to lead. The fire department resigned en masse; the police judge resigned; part of the town counsel refused to work with her; bedlam reigned in Issaquah politics in 1933. Three recall petitions were filed against the mayor; she nimbly dodged the first two, but the third was the coup de grace, and on January 2, 1934, she was recalled. In a grand finale, she refused to turn over the keys to the town hall.

Difficult Years

Stella May McCutcheon Burkhart Alexander was born on July 2, 1881, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the youngest of six surviving children. She had a hard childhood: Her parents separated when she was young, and her father took her to live with his sister. She ran away; her father retaliated by putting her in an orphanage called the Home for Friendless Children. From there she was taken -- but not formally adopted -- by Josiah Summy, who history records as having "indentured" young Stella ("indentured" is not explained further in these accounts). About 1895, Summy deserted a teenaged Stella in California.

Her fortunes did not improve. In 1901 she married Fredrick Burkhart, but soon learned he was already married to someone else. They divorced, and the next 14 years of her life are a mystery. One of her business cards said she went to “business college.” Her friends said she did practical nursing. Her enemies hinted that she worked as a madam, and supported their assertion by pointing to her dancing ability and the titillating fact that she wore ostrich-plumed hats, notwithstanding that many respectable women wore ostrich-plumed hats in the 1910s.

In 1919 she married John ("Jack") Alexander, described as a "British subject" with family in Vancouver, B.C. Historical accounts describe him as a "docile" man; "meek" might also be an apt description. When they moved to Issaquah, Jack opened a blacksmith business and Stella collected his business accounts.

A Tough Woman

Stella Alexander developed a reputation for frugality and toughness in her early years in Issaquah during the 1920s. A physically large woman with an equally large amount of inner strength, she was not afraid of confronting Jack's clients when they fell behind on their bills and following up to make sure the bills got paid. This reputation served her well, for when she ran for Issaquah Town Council in March 1927, she won -- "the first lady member of the council," noted The Issaquah Press on March 11, 1927.

She served on the council until the spring of 1930, resigning in May, one month before her term expired. Evidently the citizens of Issaquah initially appreciated her strength and independent spirit, because her name was bandied about as a candidate for Issaquah mayor in 1930 and in fact, she ran. She lost to L. R. Hepler by a vote of 152 to 111.

Madame Mayor

In 1932 Alexander again ran for mayor. Campaigning on the Taxpayers’ Ticket, she ran on a platform of fiscal economy, and reminded Issaquah voters of her effectiveness in collecting business debts due her husband, which even her enemies conceded was impressive. On March 8, 1932, she was elected to a two-year term, defeating the Progressive Ticket Candidate M. H. Clark (or Clarke) by a comfortable margin; the vote was 195 to 136, with 93 percent of Issaquah’s registered voters voting. After the results were announced, Alexander said that she hoped to tend to the town’s affairs “in complete harmony with members of the council” (The Issaquah Press, March 10, 1932, p. 1). The word “harmony” would later boomerang back to haunt her.

She was the first female elected mayor of Issaquah, and it seems to have attracted more attention in the larger cities than it did in the small town of Issaquah itself. Articles about her appeared in papers in Seattle, New York, and Boston, referring to her as "Madame Mayor," the "fighting woman mayor," and the "petticoat mayor." This went unappreciated in Issaquah. Keep in mind that in 1932 Issaquah was not the sophisticated Seattle suburb it is today (2008). It was a country town with a population of 763 in 1930, and even the Seattle papers routinely had to explain to their readers where Issaquah was: "the little King County town south of Lake Sammamish" (The Seattle Daily Times, January 2, 1934, p. 4).

Alexander was sworn in at the regular monthly town council meeting on Monday, June 6, 1932. Described the Press in its following issue: "The inaugural session of the town council, Monday evening of this week was quite a colorful affair ...  several large bouquets adorned the mayor's desk, complimentary to the incoming mayor and board." But alas, even at the inauguration, clouds appeared on the horizon. Added the Press: "On behalf of the [town] councilors, Mr. Harris informed the mayor that her appointments [of town officials] were not all satisfactory to the council; that while they would endorse them, the responsibility for their appointment must rest with the mayor." Things went downhill from there.

“No One Woman Is Going To Run This City”

In September 1932 the Issaquah Volunteer Fire Department resigned en masse at the monthly town council meeting over a dispute as to whether the fire department would fight fires outside the Issaquah city limits. (They soon returned.) The battle of the month at the November town council meeting was over whether the Town or property owners should pay for the repair of the town's sidewalks. This was only a taste of things to come.

In March 1933 Issaquah held its annual election of town council members, but when it came time to swear them in three months later, three newly elected councilmembers refused to take their seats, objecting to working with a woman mayor. At the next town council meeting on July 3, the mayor appointed two new councilmen in order to establish a quorum. One seat remained vacant. Alexander asked the remaining councilmen to ratify her decision appointing the two new councilmen. They refused. One of the elected councilmen, Charles McQuade, piped up and demanded the floor. Alexander ordered Marshal Paul Henry to eject McQuade from the meeting. He refused, saying McQuade had done nothing to justify it. She told him he had a choice: Remove McQuade or remove his badge. Henry promptly turned in his badge. Fire Chief Remo Castagno then secured the floor and famously told the gathering that "no one woman is going to run this city" (The Issaquah Press, July 6, 1933, p.1). Alexander proceeded to appoint Jack Legg as town marshal. (But even that did not work out. Later in her term she was forced to resort to having three alternate marshals, each serving two weeks at a time.) The new reorganized council was then sworn in, and both the police judge and fire chief resigned on the spot.

The Battle Is Joined

Alexander called the town council in a special session on July 13, and two sets of councilmembers showed up -- the council that had been originally elected, and the mayor’s reorganized council. The reorganized council tried to ignore the elected council during the meeting, but the elected council refused to back down, participating in discussions and voting on all questions brought to the floor. Eventually, "the breach became so pronounced it was finally climaxed when the mayor seized a chair and attempted to render McQuade hors de combat" (The Issaquah Press, July 20, 1933, p. 1). Explained Alexander brightly, "he left when I picked up a chair" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer Northwest, July 10, 1977, p.10). It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Issaquah citizens filed a petition for the mayor’s recall on July 21.

By this time the Seattle papers were eagerly reporting the fray, much to the irritation of the folks in Issaquah. The uneasy relationship that had existed between the mayor and Issaquah’s fire department since its mass resignation and return the previous September soured further in the summer of 1933. After Chief Castagno resigned at the July 3 town council meeting, the rest of the fire department basically mutinied at the helm. "We won't bring the truck. The mayor herself has got to do that as long as she is running this town," Castagno told a Seattle Daily Times reporter. The issue was the same problem that had come up the previous September. The fire department wanted authority to fight fires wherever they were needed, even if the fires were far outside the Issaquah town limits. Alexander objected, arguing that it would leave the town without protection should a fire break out there; worse, the town's insurer threatened not to cover fire losses arising in the town limit if a fire occurred while the fire department was out of town fighting a fire.

On July 23 the Sunday Times featured an article about the brouhaha, complete with a collage of pictures of the principal players in the recall, under the banner "On The Skirmish Line At Issaquah." Pictured were former police judge George Baker, also the town restaurateur, grinning slyly in his chef’s hat at his stove; explained Baker, "the trouble is that she [Alexander] wants to run this town her way." To Baker's right was Jack Alexander, in his blacksmith cap at his blacksmith hearth and looking nervously over his shoulder at the photographer ("I don't take any part in my wife’s politics," he told the newspapermen). A picture of the mayor was inset between the two men. Below, a photo of former fire chief Castagno, grinning broadly and sporting a porkpie hat, holding a portable chemical tank, foot on the running board of the fire department's Model T chemical cart and ready for action, completed the tableau.

And action came. Fisticuffs erupted in the streets of Issaquah between the mayor's supporters and opponents. The sheriff was injured in the fracas; another person was clubbed and led off in handcuffs to jail. Alexander -- who by this time was known to her detractors by a new nickname, “Madame Mussolini” -- threatened to call in the troops. The Press, almost visibly rolling its eyes, published a front-page editorial in its July 27 issue assuring its readers all was well. Explained the Press: "Notwithstanding this calumnious notoriety, so apparently, gladly featured by the newspapers of the big city ... there never has been a time in the history of the town where there has been less need for the calling out of the state militia, or even deputies from the sheriff's office."

Jousting In Court

The battle moved from the streets to the courts. Issaquah’s city attorney, George Cole, resigned so he could represent the mayor in her efforts to combat the recall. Cole obtained an injunction to stop the recall from going forward, arguing that the charges were false and, even if true, were not sufficient to warrant a recall election. Both this case and the related case of which town council was legitimate were heard by Judge J. T. Ronald on August 7. The judge voided Alexander's council appointments and ruled the council that had been elected to be the legal town council for Issaquah. But the judge granted the injunction against the recall, finding the whole proceeding contrary to state statute, particularly since Alexander had not been notified when the petition was filed, and thus had not had a representative present when the names on the recall petition were verified. The judge added that for the sake of harmony, he hoped the people of Issaquah would drop the idea of a recall.

The people of Issaquah disagreed. They threatened another recall action, which, they said, would "thereby promote harmony for Issaquah" (The Issaquah Press, August 17, 1933, p. 1). Alexander briefly (perhaps half-heartedly) offered to resign, with certain conditions (including council approval of bills contracted by the mayor without a vote of the council). The council refused to accept her conditions, and she withdrew her offer. The townspeople filed another recall petition and Alexander quickly challenged it; it was soon dismissed on another technicality. A third recall petition was filed, and on September 29, Alexander's lawyers obtained yet another injunction which delayed -- but did not stop -- the proceeding. Another hearing on the recall's legality was scheduled for November 2.

In mid-October Alexander and her husband filed a libel suit against five of the sponsors (and their wives) of the third recall petition, and requested $30,000 in damages. History simply records that she lost, but few details of the case are known at this writing -- for example, we don’t know whether or not the case even went to trial or was dismissed by a judge before trial. But on November 2, the recall case was back in Judge Ronald's court. Alexander's attorneys again argued that the charges were groundless -- but this time, the judge ruled differently, holding that even if the charges were false, the recall proceeding itself was legal and thus outside the jurisdiction of the court.

The recall election was set for January 2, 1934. Meanwhile, chaos continued in the monthly town council meetings. In the meeting of November 6, Councilman L. J. Harris advised the mayor that she was "a cheerful liar,” and, added the Press, "the affair was enjoyed by the usual crowd of spectators" (The Issaquah Press, November 9, 1933, p. 4).

Recalled

"Issaquah's Recall Election Tuesday" read 1933's final issue of the Press on December 28; the article was symbolically placed next to a picture of a baby captioned "A Fresh Start: 1934” and was complimented with a mini-editorial on the next page wishing for “harmony, harmony, and more HARMONY!” in the new year. For by this time, the outcome of the recall was a foregone conclusion. While Alexander had considerable support from outside of Issaquah, particularly from women and particularly from Seattle, they weren’t voting for her. In Issaquah, Stella was a goner. "Of course, they'll beat me," she told a Seattle Times reporter on the morning of the election. "Next time, I'll go out for a big job. One that pays some money -- sheriff or something."

And lose she did, by a vote of 206 to 85. "Her principal support was believed to have come from the town's feminine voters," sniffed The Seattle Times the next day, although the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, in a separate article, noted that some of Issaquah's women had been active in the recall effort. Added the Times sarcastically, "Mrs. Stella Alexander's judgment today stood vindicated. She expected to be recalled as mayor of the little town of Issaquah -- and she was.” To add insult to injury, when it was announced on the night of January 2 that she had lost and that she had cast the 13th vote in the election, “some sly wag decorated the doorknob of the City Hall with a bow of black crepe and a large figure ‘13’” (The Issaquah Press, January 4, 1934, p. 1). Finally, just to top it all off, the next day another joker hung a placard on the town hall doors reading “Stella doesn’t live here anymore.”

Stella may not have lived there anymore, but she still had the keys. And she refused to hand them over, claiming she had not been officially notified that she was no longer mayor. As the next, now all-male town council meeting approached on the following Monday, January 8, the councilmen had a problem: The town hall was locked up tighter than Dick’s hatband, and they needed the keys to get in and elect a new mayor. “Oh, we will get in all right,” huffed Councilman Harris to a Times reporter, “but right now I don’t know just how” (The Seattle Daily Times, January 8, 1934, p. 1). No one knew what to do or what to expect. The suspense continued to build. The men grew more and more agitated -- Madame Mussolini had aced ‘em again. Finally at the last critical instant the deposed mayor sent the keys by messenger and liberated the hall. Sighed The Seattle Times in relief: “Man ruled again in Issaquah today, the town hall keys were in masculine pockets, and peace prevailed in the little town south of Lake Sammamish.”

Later Years

Thus ended the saga of Issaquah’s fighting woman mayor. Although she had said her political career was over, in 1940 she filed to run for Secretary of State as a Republican (a curiosity, in that her obituary reported that she had been active in the Democratic party for many years). She did not prevail.

In 1936, Stella and Jack Alexander moved to Renton and purchased the Renton Tourist Hotel, which they managed for a number of years. Jack died in 1950, and shortly after that Stella was forced to sell her house in order to make room for a new road. Just as the early years of her life had been particularly difficult, so were her final years: She lost part of her eyesight. She was forced to sell most of her property and lived off of its proceeds, and at the time of her death was living in a hotel in Seattle. In declining health the final five years of her life, she suffered a serious heart attack in December 1959 from which she never recovered. She died a month later, on January 8, 1960.

But her legacy lived on. In 1982, a writer interviewing some of her contemporaries on the 50th anniversary of her election found that strong emotions, both pro and con, remained among those old enough to remember her. L. R. Hepler, who Alexander succeeded as mayor in 1932, recalled her as “crazy and a woman that really wanted to mix up trouble,” whereas others recalled a woman “upright and just in all her ways” (Halstrom). Whoever was most accurate in their description -- or if the truth lay somewhere in between -- all agreed that Stella Alexander left a monumental impression.


Sources: "Tuesday's Election," The Issaquah Press, March 11, 1927, p. 3;  "Important Issues On Ballot for Election of March 11th," Ibid., January 23, 1930, p. 1;  "Progressive Ticket Wins, Annexation Carries," Ibid., March 13, 1930, p. 1;  "Entire Taxpayers' Ticket Is Elected," Ibid., March 10, 1932, p. 1;  "New Council Takes the Management of City Affairs at a Colorful Meeting," Ibid., June 9, 1932, pp. 1, 4;  "Volunteer Firemen Resign At Meeting, Henry Named Chief," Ibid., September 15, 1932, p. 1;  "Councilman Harris Resigning Position At Stormy Session," Ibid., November 10, 1932, p. 1;  "Mayor Reorganizes Emergency Council," Ibid., July 6, 1933, pp. 1, 2;   "Recall Incited by Hectic Session," Ibid., July 20, 1933, pp. 1, 3;  "Still On Even Keel," Ibid., July 27, 1933, p. 1;  "Injunction Delays Election On Recall," Ibid., August 3, 1933, pp. 1, 4"  "Judge Gives Each Side Decision," Ibid., August 10, 1933, p. 1;  "Arrangements Being Made For Petitions In New Recall," Ibid., August 17, 1933, p. 1;  "Clerk Case Is Charged With Contempt of Court," Ibid., September 28, 1933, p. 1;  "Recall Case Will Be Heard On November 2," Ibid., October 5, 1933, p. 1;  "Issaquah Mayor In $30,000 Libel Suit," Ibid., October 19, 1933, p. 1;  “Handicap Still On Municipal Affairs,” Ibid., November 9, 1933, pp. 1, 4;  "Issaquah's Recall Election Tuesday," Ibid.,  December 28, 1933, pp. 1, 4;  "Issaquah Recalls The Madam Mayor," Ibid., January 4, 1934, p. 1; "Woman Mayor of Issaquah Plans Fight On Recall," The Seattle Sunday Times, July 23, 1933, p. 3;  "Fire Department Deserts Woman Mayor of Issaquah," The Seattle Daily Times, July 22, 1933, p. 1;  “City Attorney of Issaquah Resigns To Help Mayor,” Ibid., July 24, 1933, p. 2;  "Woman Mayor of Issaquah Facing Vote Test Today," Ibid., January 2, 1934, p. 4;  "Mrs. Alexander Was Right -- She Lost Mayor Job," Ibid.,  January 3, 1934, p.5;  “Recalled Woman Mayor Keeps Male Council From Town Hall,” Ibid.,  January 8, 1934, p.1;  “All Is Well In Issaquah; Men Have the Keys,” Ibid., January 9, 1934, p.1;  “Woman Mayor Fails To Halt Recall Action,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 3, 1933, p.1;  "Woman Mayor Recalled By Issaquah Vote," Ibid.,  January 3, 1934, p.1;  Joe Peterson, "The Recall of Stella Alexander," Seattle Post-Intelligencer Northwest, July 10, 1977, p.10;  Melody Halstrom, “Stella McCutcheon Alexander,” typescript dated December 6, 1982, Jessie Spenard letter to Mr. and Mrs. Bolser, December 22, 1960,  obituary, “Mrs. John G. Alexander,” n.d.,  file labeled “Stella Alexander,” Issaquah History Museums, Issaquah, Washington;  “Washington State Historical Decennial Populations for State, County, and City/Town: 1890 to 2000,” Office of Financial Management, State of Washington website accessed January 23, 2008; (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/decseries/historicalpop.xls).

Related Topics:   Biographies | Government & Politics | Women's History

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