JUNEAU, Alaska - English Professor Art Petersen was wandering around Skagway a summer evening 13 years ago when he happened upon a bronze bust of a young woman named Mollie Walsh.
The worn inscription on the stone pedestal read: "Alone without help, this courageous girl ran a grub tent near Log Cabin during the Gold Rush of 1897, 1898. She fed and lodged the wildest gold-crazed men generations shall surely know. This inspiring spirit murdered Oct. 27, 1902."
That evening encounter led Petersen, and later his collaborator, D. Scott Williams, down the obscure paths of northern history. For years they tracked the real story of Molly Walsh.
It's a story, Petersen says, whose truth lies somewhere between the version that tells of the woman who betrayed her husband and died at his hand, and the woman known by some as "The Angel of the White Pass Trail."
The authors' curiosity and persistence resulted in a short book, "Murder, Madness, and Mystery: An Historical Narrative of Mollie Walsh Bartlett from the Days of the Klondike Gold Rush."
They published the scholarly account themselves. The book is available from bookstores and gift shops in Juneau and Skagway.
The narrative details what Williams and Petersen were able to discover about Mollie Walsh and her husband and murderer, Mike Bartlett. But in a larger sense, it's also a story of how their tragedy was forged in the crucible of the gold rush, a crazy time when people did crazy things.
The outline of the story was known already.
Mollie Walsh was a pretty, young Irish girl who turned up in Skagway in 1897, along with thousands of other fortune-seekers. She opened up a grub tent 30 miles up the White Pass trail, near a rest stop called Log Cabin.
There she fed hordes of stampeders drawn by visions of gold over the grueling pass into the Klondike. She earned a reputation for graciousness and kindness.
She also attracted the attentions of men, among them Jack Newman, a packer on the trail, and Mike Bartlett, one of three brothers who ran a successful pack train and freight business in Dawson. (Mike's nephew, E.L "Bob" Bartlett, eventually became a territorial delegate and U.S. senator for Alaska.)
In 1898, Mollie married Mike in Dawson, and they had a baby boy whom they named "Leon Edward Seattle No. 3 Yukon Woodpile Bartlett," after the steamer and place where he was born on the Yukon River.
But three years later, Mollie ran away with one of Mike's business associates, taking her son and all of Mike's assets she and the partner could get their hands on. In 1902, Mike and Mollie agreed to reconcile, and he joined her in Seattle. There their story turned even darker. Mollie had him arrested for abusing her, and then begged the courts to release him.
A week later, Mike shot Mollie dead on a Seattle street. His own suicide attempt on the spot failed. When he went to trial on charges of murder, he was acquitted because of temporary insanity fueled by drink and jealousy over his wife's infidelity.
Two years later, after spending time in an insane asylum, he killed himself.
Those were the bare bones. What Petersen and Williams wanted to know were why Mollie left her husband and why Mike killed his wife. They pieced together information about his bizarre behavior, speculating on his apparent fall into drink and the decline of the family business, as well as the possibility that he was genuinely mentally unstable.
They also consider whether Mollie's character was actually as sterling as her myth would have us believe, and if so, why no one stepped forward to speak for her during Mike's trial.
There's a third story in the book, that of Jack Newman, the packer who loved her. In 1930, he erected the monument to Mollie that Petersen and countless other visitors to Skagway have admired.
"Her spirit fingers still reach across the years and play on the slackened fingers of my old heart in such sad undertone that only God and I can hear," Newman wrote in a cable sent to the dedication ceremony.
After several years of dipping into the research himself, including visiting Mollie's grave in St. Paul, Minn., Petersen seven years ago asked Williams, a former student, to help him in his effort.
Williams, who has long been interested in Juneau gold-mining history, had the time and inclination. He spent months delving into the archives in Juneau, Whitehorse and at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he received help from English lecturer DorisAnn Bartlett, E.L. Bartlett's daughter, and historian and Professor Claus M. Naske, E.L. Bartlett's biographer.
Williams also searched passenger lists in San Francisco and Prince Rupert and papers at the University of Washington.
He wrote up the research as a paper for Naske's Alaska history class and sent the draft to Petersen. Together they polished it and readied it for publication.
Petersen would like to fill in some of the gaps, such as what Mollie was doing in the seven years after she left home and before she went to Skagway. He would also like to shed light on the shadowy period when Mike was in Nome and seemed to begin his descent into mayhem.
Also still unsolved is the essential mystery laid out in the book's conclusion: " . . . for if the worst could happen to two of the best suited for the challenges of this land and those times, how would we fare?"
Petersen says he now better appreciates the complexity of human beings.
"We cannot tell what the truth is from the surface appearance of events. Life is a great deal more complex than that."