It was the 1890s, and a series of underground tunnels and cellars existed beneath Gold Rush-era Seattle, a result of the city’s relentless leveling of hills. In these hidden places were women, often addicted to morphine, often selling their bodies to support their habit. They lived under the city’s wharves as well, in conditions described as “damp and moldy and dark.” They lived in abandoned buildings and deserted outhouses on the city’s muddy outskirts, only creeping out in the middle of the night to find money or their drug of choice.
For many such women, the day they met Emma Ray was the day their life changed. A small African-American woman, born a slave in Missouri, Emma walked unafraid in the meanest streets of Seattle because she believed that she was a child of God, and that her work was divine. As a local leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, her purpose, as she saw it, was to minister to the “lost people” of Seattle – alcoholics, prostitutes, addicts, and more. She went into the brothels, slums, prisons, and saloons, as well as places few entered. She even invited large numbers of destitute women, men, and children into her home, that they might get on their feet.
Emma Ray’s autobiography, “Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed”, was published in 1926, and is a remarkable source for Seattle history at the turn of the 20th century, from 1895 to 1920. Emma and her husband Lloyd Ray experienced Seattle during the Gold Rush, World War I, and Prohibition. They offer a very different perspective on that distant time.
And in her stories and her treatment of Seattle’s poor, Emma’s life is a reminder that homelessness is not new; addiction is not new; and the importance of simple human kindness never fades.
Emma was born in Missouri 1859, and met her husband Lloyd – also born a slave – when she was 22 years of age. Lloyd had a very light complexion; the census takers over the decades sometimes considered him Mexican or white. Lloyd learned the trade of masonry, and Emma wrote, “We were very happy for a short time. Later, my husband began to drink… I found he had become a drunkard.”
Like so many drunks, Lloyd’s drinking was marked by failed attempts to stop and repeated attempts to “start over”, a constant strain on their marriage. After Lloyd was arrested for his part in a bar fight, the couple decided on a fresh start in Seattle – half a continent away from his bad habits and drinking buddies. Emma wrote, “He had promised before coming to Seattle that when he got here he would quit drinking and would buy us a little house.”
The couple stepped off the train in Seattle on July 6, 1889, just weeks after the Great Fire had leveled downtown. Lloyd easily found work as a stone mason, rebuilding the city in brick and stone. At that time, buckets of beer were freely available to the workmen on the job, and he began to drink again, throughout the day at work and then late into the night. His favorite watering hole was the corner saloon, Billy the Mug’s at Washington Street and Second Avenue.
Emma was very pretty, describing herself as somewhat vain; she wore false hair to frame her face, loved fancy clothes, played cards, went to dances, and wrote of sharing a “bucket of beer” with a friend in Seattle, as the two women commiserated about their errant husbands. But she was deeply dissatisfied with her life, her marriage and herself. She began to attend the African Methodist Episcopal Church and found friendship there, though she didn’t dare attend evening services because she “was afraid to leave Mr. Ray for fear he would go off to the saloon.”
She stood between two worlds, on the edge of one life, looking toward another. This portion of her autobiography has an airlessness to it, a feeling of holding one’s breath, a long pause of indecision.
Attending church eventually led to this chapter’s close and the opening of another. One day at a revival service, Emma wrote that she was swept with passion, with “such a love for souls as I had never felt before.” Her heart grew “hot,” and she saw spread before her eyes a “lost world.” She began to pray aloud for Lloyd and sing hymns as she did the housework. This had a profound effect on the man. He’d go to the saloon as usual and order a whiskey, but couldn’t drink it, leaving it there on the bar; the next day, he would order a beer and couldn’t drink it, either. Emma’s transformation became her husband’s as well.
When the Women’s Christian Temperance Union came to the African Methodist Episcopal Church to organize a chapter of 14 or 15 black women, Emma was elected president. The women held monthly meetings, visited homes, cared for the sick, cleaned houses, and witnessed against liquor, but Emma wanted to do more, overcome with compassion “for the lost and the drunkard.”
She began in the jails, where Emma and a friend she called “Sister Roy” testified to the prisoners “how the Lord had delivered my husband from drink.” Their work wasn’t always popular. The Rays were living, Emma wrote, “in a little shanty,” and neighborhood kids would throw rocks through their windows. Lloyd caught one little girl and Emma “felt it was our duty to inform her parents.” The child reluctantly led them to a “house down below the sidewalk on Yesler Way, a little dirty, dingy room.”
There, they found the mother “too drunk to talk intelligently, swearing, and smoking cigarettes.” The little girl’s father was an alcoholic, she learned, and serving 22 years in prison for murder. As they looked upon this sad family, Emma and Lloyd believed they were seeing what their lives could have been. This was the beginning of their dedication to helping Seattle’s underbelly.
Emma and Lloyd eventually parted ways with the AME Church, due to disputes with the pastor over doctrine and his lack of support for the WCTU chapter. The chapter’s members fell away, its president Emma departed, and it came to an end.
“Misunderstood by many, both white and colored,” Emma and Lloyd were somewhat lonely in Seattle, and leaving AME meant the loss of a crucial source of fellowship. There were few “of our own people in Seattle when we came,” she wrote, so Emma joined the “white” WCTU, and was soon elected their County Superintendent of Jail and Prison Work.
Emma and Lloyd spent four years visiting the local jails. They sang to prisoners, she wrote, “the songs of devotion learned in slavery,” powerful hymns, powerfully sung. That distinctively black ministry became their trademark, although it was very rare to see a black prisoner. As prisoners were released from jail, the Rays would take them into their home, clothe them, feed them for a week or two until they earned enough money to get out of town. Their trust, Emma wrote, was never betrayed.
Soon, Emma met a woman named Olive Ryther, who ran a mission in downtown Seattle and invited women, children, and babies into her and her husband’s family home. The two women formed a team. Each Wednesday afternoon, Emma and “Mother” Ryther would enter the slums and speak to people. They also visited brothels. One such establishment, called the Octaroon House, had a madame who was willing to “stop (the) dancing and music,” and call the prostitutes down to listen to the earnest missionaries.
Ryther invited Emma and Lloyd to visit her home, where Emma remembered as many as 17 babies living at one time. Many of the young mothers were prostitutes addicted to morphine. Emma and Olive found more of these girls “hidden away” under the city’s sidewalks and wharves, and in its forgotten and most decrepit buildings, living where “not even dogs would be satisfied to live.”
The missionaries went to places no one else did, helping the women everyone preferred to ignore or simply use.
Authorities eventually allowed Ryther to take young addicts to her home, and with Emma’s help, to break them of their habits. The process was grueling. Ryther would daily lessen the amount of morphine she gave to each woman, with the windows barred and doors locked to contain the suffering of their withdrawals.
Emma reported many stories. Lucy, “a colored girl,” had been “well reared but sin had gotten her down.” She was an addict, and her legs and arms were covered with sores; it was feared she would die. Ryther asked Emma to speak with her, because “she was one of my own race.”
Like Emma’s husband once did, Lucy would swear off her addiction, only to resume her wild craving for her “gun,” as she called the morphine syringe. But Emma stuck by her, and “the converted fiend” was healed.
The Rays’ work expanded to include visits to the so-called “Billy the Mug” ward in the King County Hospital – so named for the popular bar – where alcoholic men received care. Emma wrote that Seattle’s “poorhouse was full of broke Alaska gold hunters” and homeless, jobless men. During the Depression of the 1890s, the building trades slowed in Seattle and then stopped. Lloyd felt fortunate to get a job as a porter at the downtown department store, McDougall and Southwick, where he “talked salvation” to the would-be miners at the counter. As men bought cold weather outfits for the Klondike gold hunt, they left their warm weather clothing behind. Emma and Lloyd used these cast-off garments to clothe the poor.
Billy the Mug’s was once Lloyd’s favorite bar. Now he and his wife would stand outside it starting at 10pm every Tuesday night, trying to turn people in another direction. “By that hour of night, all of the rough element was coming from its hiding place to rob, steal and beg,” and to make fun of the missionaries. A vaudeville show was housed in the basement, and the band would sometimes come out and play while Emma and Lloyd sang.
Afterwards, the Rays would lead a parade of “the lame, the halt, some partly blind, dope fiends, delirious drunks, some with bruises from fights, others with putrifying [sic] sores, and quite a few hungry and naked,” for a free meal at a nearby mission, which would later be housed in an old steamer ship docked at the foot of Jackson Street, where it was renamed the Wayside Emergency Hospital. There were a few cots for the very ill, but most men slept on the floor with their feet toward the fire’s warmth like “sardines in a can.” Emma and Lloyd ensured they had shelter for the night.
After a two year trip to Missouri to visit family, the Rays returned to Seattle in 1902 to find things were much changed. A wave of new Gold Rush money had washed over the city. “Great buildings were being constructed and many of the resident districts had been converted into business districts,” she wrote. The Rays “found it hard to rent a house” on their budget.
Even more than before, the poor of Seattle were being swept under the rug and pushed out of the city’s sight.
The Rays resumed their volunteering at a large mission named The Stranger’s Rest, which had opened in their absence on Second and Washington Street, financed by a successful Swede in Alaska for “down-and-out Scandinavians and any others who were helpless.” The mission was dirty and unhealthy - the tide literally came in and out right under the basement floor. Hordes of mosquitoes bred in the dampness, and their buzzing and stings were so bad that they kept the drunks awake who had staggered into its gospel meetings.
After nine years of “slum work,” the Rays found the final home for their ministry at the Olive Branch Mission, where they took charge of night services on Sunday and eventually other evenings. Every night, the mission fed 350-450 people, and men had to attend the service to get their meal. Emma wrote that the Mission’s dining area was always filled beyond the amount of seats available, and was standing room only. “It was the most pitiful sight I ever beheld,” Emma wrote. “There were young men and old – all kinds of talented men, and all hungry.”
The Olive Branch Mission was their greatest ministry in Seattle, full of homes made whole and women rescued from lives of addiction. Emma took pride in the lives she helped heal, including an alcoholic former Royal Navy officer, and the alcoholic grandson of Chief Seattle, the son of Princess Angeline, who was “born again” at the Olive Branch.
And they kept bringing the “down-and-outs”, as Emma termed them, into their home. One of their converts at the new Oliver Branch Mission was a socialist speaker, who wore a tattoo on his arm reading “No God, no boss, no country.” These “rough men were capable of rough and wicked acts” in Seattle, throwing eggs and rotten fruit at the Rays as they ministered on the streets; “soap-box infidels” like the Wobblies ridiculed Emma and Lloyd, calling them “sky-pilots,” and burlesquing their hymns. The Rays continued to bring these “tramps” into their home on Sunnyside Avenue. They fed and clothed each man, asked him where he was from, and when he’d last written to his mother.
They were, Emma wrote, “never without a visitor.”
In 1920, Emma and Lloyd conducted their last service at the Olive Branch Mission. She was 61, and “we were getting much older and felt that we were unable to work on the streets in the rain every night before the services,” she wrote. But before they retired, they got to see one of their longtime dreams – a legal ban on alcohol – fulfilled.
Lloyd’s battle with alcohol had ignited Emma’s commitment to the the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, her advocacy for Prohibition, and decades-long campaign against booze. Statewide temperance efforts paid off, and Emma was a part of anti-alcohol rallies down First Avenue with banners declaring “John Barleycorn must go!”” He killed my brother!” “He broke up my home!” The saloonkeepers, she wrote, “stood in the doors of their saloons,” worried and certain of defeat.
In November 1914, Washington State voters approved the referendum that criminalized production and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. The last night before Prohibition began was “such a night of drunkenness and debauchery,” as drinkers drank “all they could because it was their last opportunity.” Emma rejoiced when a large electric sign on the roof at Second and Yesler –an illuminated, foamy bottle eight feet tall, advertising Rainier Beer – finally went dark.
Having been born into servitude, Emma was very conscious of her race. She remembered the great celebration as “the Negro race celebrated its first national independence,” the thrill of slavery’s end, “the gladness in our hearts that we were free. Abraham Lincoln, under God, had set us free.” The only freedom comparable, to Emma, was the freedom from liquor brought by Prohibition.
In Portland, Emma spent weary hours going door to door, trying to find a hotel in which a black woman could spend the night before boarding the morning train to Seattle. Once a “drunken sailor” – a white man - laughed at her as she sang the Gospel on the streets, but then “shed bitter tears of repentance” as he felt shame at his actions. “I made fun of that old colored woman,“ he said. “I want her to pray for me.” In a chapter of her autobiography titled, “Conversion of Two Colored Girls,” Emma wrote that “a burden was on our hearts for the people and especially for the girls in the cabarets and places of sin.”
The Rays helped everyone. Given the rarity of African-Americans in the Pacific Northwest, they necessarily aided many more Caucasians than people of their own race – at the Olive Branch Mission, Emma estimated that 100 white people were typically fed for every colored person. Emma and Lloyd lived the social gospel of compassion, acting on the words from the Gospel of Matthew:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.
Emma’s autobiography, “Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed”, deserves wider recognition as a record of a Seattle that was once hidden and remains hidden now, abandoned in our nostalgia for an innocent time that never existed here.
As Seattle continues to confront addiction, poverty, homelessness and despair in its modern era, the history of those circumstances is important to remember. When it comes to a city’s destitute, there has never been one single problem to solve or a single right answer to offer. But the hard work of charitable people has always been the key.
Lorraine McConaghy is the Public Historian Emeritus at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. Comments? Suggestions for future entries in this series? Contact the author via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos from Emma Ray’s “Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed”, the Museum of History and Industry, and University of Washington Library Digital Collections.