On September 2, 1959, Pearl A. Kongsle, age 62, is killed and two visiting neighbors are injured when a bomb, hidden in a paper sack, explodes near the front porch of her West Seattle home. The force of the explosion gouges a crater in the front walk and breaks windows in nearby houses. Sixteen Seattle Police detectives are assigned to investigate the case, but they can find no apparent motive for the bombing and the few leads they have prove unproductive. It is the first time in Seattle’s history a private citizen has been intentionally assassinated with a booby trap. Pearl Kongsle’s murder has never been solved and remains an open investigation at the Seattle Police Department.
A Widow's West Seattle Life
Pearl Agnes (Anderson) Kongsle (1897-1959) was the widow of Captain Guy Kongsle (1887-1949), a veteran Puget Sound master mariner and deputy commissioner of the United States Maritime Commission in Seattle. In January 1955, she purchased a newly constructed duplex in West Seattle from building contractor Sam Benson for $27,500. The one-story brick house, located at 7150 46th Place SW, is in a quiet neighborhood two blocks from sprawling Lincoln Park and adjacent to The Kenney, a retirement community established in 1901.
Early Wednesday evening, September 2, 1959, Pearl Kongsle and a neighbor, Alberta Bowman, 54, had dinner at the Alki Homestead restaurant. Bowman, a recent widow, told Kongsle to skip dessert because she wanted to bake an apple pie. At approximately 8:45 p.m. Bowman walked from her house next door to Kongsle’s house with the hot pie and climbed the steps leading into the front yard. She saw a package sitting on the walkway at the top of the steps and stooped to inspect it. It was brown, paper, quart-size liquor bag with straw protruding out the top. Bowman started to pick it up, but then decided to leave it alone. She proceeded onto the front porch with the hot pie and rang the doorbell.
Pearl Kongsle was in the living room visiting with another friend, Edith F. Friedman, 5450 Beach Drive SW. When Bowman told Kongsle about the mysterious bag on her front walkway, she immediately went to examine it. She stood staring at the paper sack for a minute and leaned over for a closer inspection. Friedman called to her not to touch it, but it was too late. As soon as Kongsle picked up the bag, there was a violent explosion.
The force of the blast shattered windows in nearby houses and gouged a crater approximately one foot in diameter in the cement walkway. The two women, standing on the front porch, were knocked off their feet. Alberta Bowman crawled to the telephone and called the police. The dispatcher sent an alarm to the Alaska Street fire station and emergency equipment arrived at the scene within minutes. There was no fire, but the front of the home sustained blast damage. Firefighters found the remains of Kongsle’s body in the front yard. Bowman and Friedman suffered flash burns and minor injuries from bits of flying glass. They were taken by ambulance to West Seattle General Hospital for treatment of their injuries and shock.
According to King County Coroner Leo M. Sowers, Pearl Kongsle's right foot and part of her right hand were blown off. She also suffered a skull fracture, massive brain injuries, blunt force trauma injuries to internal organs and numerous contusions and lacerations. Bits of glass were found embedded in the victim’s flesh, but no fragments of metal or plastic. Kongsle’s body was cremated at Mittelstadt’s Lake City Funeral Home in Seattle.
It was the first time in Seattle’s history that a private citizen had apparently been assassinated with a booby trap. Seattle Police Chief Henry James "Jimmy" Lawrence (1902-1976) immediately assigned 16 detectives to the case full-time, hoping for a quick solution and arrest. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) personally placed FBI agents and laboratory resources at the disposal of the Seattle Police Department. Investigators and crime-scene technicians conducted a thorough search of the surrounding area for clues, but found only one small piece of curved glass and two glass splinters that were possibly related. The rest of the bomb, including any triggering device, had vanished in the powerful explosion.
The Seattle Police Department crime laboratory, aided by army explosives experts from Fort Lawton, tried to determine the type explosive used in the bomb. They were quite certain it was not dynamite, TNT, or gunpowder, but were unable to identify the explosive with any specificity. The residue found on clothing samples was a nitrate, the best possibility being nitroglycerin, an unstable, shock-sensitive liquid substance. Since nitroglycerin was not available commercially, someone had to have extracted it from sticks of dynamite. But how the booby trap was set and then detonated was open to speculation.
Detectives explored numerous leads, but after a week of investigation, they had no clue as to motivation. Pearl Kongsle had been a widow for 10 years, had lived in West Seattle for less than five years and had no children. She had just sold the duplex for $35,000, bought a new car, and planned to move within a week. Police found no evidence to support hatred or revenge as a motive and the method seemed rather haphazard for a premeditated murder. A juvenile prank, intended only to startle the neighborhood, was one possibility. Or perhaps the bomb was intended for Kongsle’s tenant, William J. Meyers, age 54, who had been in the Veterans Administration Hospital with a heart condition at the time of the explosion. If it was a random act of violence, the probability of identifying the perpetrator was almost nil. There was one fact that supported lethal intent, however: The bomber had to travel at least 50 feet from the corner of 46th Place SW and SW Othello Street and climb the steps in order to set the booby trap in front of Kongsle’s house. The bomb itself remained an enigma for investigators.
Adding to the bewildering mystery was an incident involving Pearl’s brother-in law, Elmer Kongsle (1894-1968) and his wife, Johanna (Dobel), who lived on Lake Serene in Snohomish County. On August 13, 1959, three weeks before Pearl’s murder, their daughter, Charlotte Schutt, who lived nearby, found three sticks of dynamite scattered in her parents' front yard. The incident was reported to Snohomish County Sheriff Robert R. Twitchell (1923-2002), who sent deputies to investigate. Sheriff’s deputies took custody of the dynamite and searched the property, but found no blasting caps, fuses, or anything to indicate an intent to detonate the explosives.
Strange Coincidences, Cold Cases
Pearl Kongsle’s murder was the third strange death in less than six months that had occurred in the family. On April 25, 1959, Major Robert Douglas Baker (1916-1959) and his wife Betty Jean (1921-1959), who was Elmer Kongsle’s oldest daughter, both died unexpectedly at Madigan Army Hospital in Fort Lewis. According to Pierce County Coroner Dr. Frank James, the couple, who died three hours apart, had been poisoned. The deaths were first believed to be from botulism. The Bakers had recently been on a vacation trip to Mexico and brought back several food items.
But botulism was ruled out after the Food and Drug Administration and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department analyzed all the food in the house and tested samples on laboratory animals without result. Extensive laboratory testing was conducted of stomach contents and brain tissue at Walter Reed Army Hospital, Washington DC, and Letterman Army Hospital, San Francisco, but neither facility was able to determine the cause of death. The army reported it could have been any one of 5,000 compounds. Adding to the mystery, none of the Baker’s three children had been affected in any way.
On Wednesday, April 29, 1959, joint services for the Bakers were held in the Chapel on the Hill at Fort Lawton in Seattle. Major Baker, a Seattle native, served with the army during World War II (1941-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953) and was Tacoma area commander for the Tenth United States Army Corps (Reserve). The Bakers were buried side-by-side in the Fort Lawton Cemetery.
The deaths of the Bakers, two adults who were apparently healthy one day and dead the next, has never been explained. Pearl Kongsle’s murder has never been solved and remains an open investigation at the Seattle Police Department.