What Are Seattle's Urban Legends (And Are They True?) | KUOW News and Information

What Are Seattle's Urban Legends (And Are They True?)

Feb 23, 2015

Do Seattleites buy more sunglasses than residents of other cities?

Was there really a dead horse in Ballard’s water supply in the early 1900s?

And did prostitutes start the Seattle School District?

Listener Kristie Fisher of Belltown asked about Seattle’s urban myths as part of our Local Wonder project. So we asked our Facebook friends to share their favorites and chose a few for KUOW’s Jeannie Yandel to investigate.

50 Shades Of Myth

On a cloudy weekday morning at the University Village in Seattle, I see only one guy wearing sunglasses. His name is Michael Diego, and he’s heard the myth that Seattleites buy lots of sunglasses.

He’s with a friend, William Mee, who has a theory for why Seattleites might buy more sunglasses than anyone else.

“Because usually when people are driving, and they don’t have their sunglasses with them, they’ll stop at an AM-PM or a 7-Eleven and just buy off the rack. And those are cheap! That’s why we buy a lot!”

That’s the urban myth of course. But is it true? There’s an organization that tracks sales regionally – it’s a membership and lobbying organization for eye doctors and people who sell glasses. It’s called the Vision Council.

They say the South buys the most sunglasses, beating the West by more than 15 percentage points. Which makes sense, because the closer you get to the equator, the stronger the ultra-violet rays.

Dead Horse Myth

On Facebook, Sebastian Rataezyk asked: Did someone put a dead horse into Ballard’s water supply so Ballard would vote to join Seattle? 

I headed for the Nordic Heritage Museum to pore over issues of Ballard News from 1906 to see if there were reports of a dead horse in the water supply. That was the year when the annexation vote took place.

Kerri Keil, an archivist at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard, helped me sort through the crumbling books of old newspapers.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Ballard was a separate city from Seattle. And the city of Ballard’s population was growing so fast, the water supply couldn’t keep up.

Just across city limits, Seattle had plenty of water, which Ballard could have if its residents voted for annexation. But many Ballardites, surprise surprise, were fiercely independent.

The thinking goes that if someone were to have contaminated the water, say with a dead horse, that might have inspired some Ballard residents to question whether independence was worth forgoing clean water.

In 1906, the Ballard News covered the heck out of the Ballard water supply story.

But they never reported anything about a dead horse in the city of Ballard’s sole reservoir.

So I turned to the other side of this urban legend – the city of Seattle.

Scott Cline, the municipal archivist for Seattle, heard the dead horse story soon after he arrived in Seattle 30 years ago. The municipal archives house all the records from the city of Ballard up through annexation.

I leafed through council minutes, and at least for 1906-1907, there is no mention of a dead horse in water. Looking at the clerk’s records, I read reports from the superintendent of Light and Water, and the health officer, and again, there is no mention of a dead horse in the reservoir.

Now about that reservoir. Cline found plans for one but nothing showing that it got built. And maps from the time don’t indicate there was a reservoir in Ballard.

That means there was probably no reservoir. And probably no dead horse.

So who perpetuated the dead horse story? Well, several people mentioned the same name off the record, but we won’t say it here. We wouldn’t want to start any rumors.

As I tracked down these myths, I wondered why it’s so hard to say whether these urban myths are true.

“It’s tough in the case of urban legends because a lot of times you have to disprove a negative,” said Alan Stein, the staff historian for HistoryLink. “You’re trying to say, ‘Yeah, we’ve nailed down the facts by showing there are no facts.’”

A big part of Stein’s job is to look into local legends and rumors and try and see if they’re true. People don’t always like what he discovers.

People say, “I heard this story from my grandfather! There’s no way my grandfather would’ve lied to me!” Even with the facts in front of them, people refuse to believe him.

Could one of these horses have ended up in Ballard's water supply? This photo, in the Seattle Public Library, identifies the two men as Hans and Nels Nelson on the corner of Dock Place and Ballard Avenue (1892).
Credit Seattle Public Library

Know any other Seattle urban legends? Do tell! Tweet at @KUOW or write to localwonder@kuow.org

Mercer Girls Myth

Did prostitutes open the first public school in Seattle?

It took us a while to unpack this question, posed by Bill Craven on Facebook.

There had been a rumor back in the day that Lou Graham, one of Seattle’s earliest madames, had left her fortune to support education in Seattle. But some digging by HistoryLink found that she had bequeathed her wealth to relatives in Germany after she died in 1903.

But it turns out that the first Seattle teacher was a Mercer Girl – the name given to women who arrived in Seattle by boat, and who are often described today as mail-order brides.

"That is a persistent rumor, that they came here for men," Stein said. "They came here to be school marms and to add culture."

The Mercer Girls were young women from the Northeast and the South who moved to Seattle at the height of the Civil War. Asa Mercer, an early Seattle pioneer, went to their towns promising high wages and beautiful scenery. 

The Lowell Daily Courier notes Asa Mercer’s visit to the area in 1864. Mercer never mentioned marriage to these women, according to the article. 

Elizabeth Ordway, Seattle's first teacher and "Mercer Girl."

Peri Muhich, who has researched the Mercer Girls, says that although Mercer never mentioned marriage, it’s important to read between the lines. She said Seattle men longed for educated women from home – and that women in the Northeast longed for eligible bachelors. It was the Civil War, after all, and the male-to-female ratios were wildly skewed on both coasts.

So how did this rumor get started that prostitutes starting Seattle schools?

Muhich believes that the Mercer Girls started being described as mail-order brides in the 1940s or 1950s, after their children and grandchildren died – and when memory faded.

She learned of these young women in a class at the University of Washington. She started reading diaries and searching for marriage and death records and learned that many were teachers.

She found that among those first women to make the long, circuitous journey to Seattle, was Elizabeth Ordway of Lowell, Massachusetts. Ordway was the first teacher at Seattle’s first school, and she was there when 100 students showed up at her door. (She sent the younger ones home.)

Ordway never married. Her tombstone reads:

Elizabeth Ordway's grave in Seattle.
Credit findagrave.com

“We talk a lot about the founding fathers,” Muhich says, “but the women were the ones doing all the work.”

She also reached out to the Mercer Girls’ descendants.

“A lot of people didn’t want to admit to being descendants of the Mercer Girls because they didn’t want that hanging over them,” Muhich said.

The Mercer Girls are still viewed as prostitutes today, she said. After an article about her research was published in The Seattle Times, a man contacted her, demanding that she reveal that the Mercer Girls were prostitutes living in a bordello on Mercer Island.

Muhich replied, “If you can find me evidence of that I am happy to tell that story. But I have no evidence of those girls doing anything like that.” 

Isolde Raftery contributed to this report.

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