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An Undocumented Documented Case: Man killed by Wolves in March of 1939

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Pack of wolves in Northern Wisconsin

The case of Crist Kolby and his probably death by wolf was first written by W. R. Selfridge and published in 1943 in Alaskan Sportsman. It was published again in 1956 in the book, Blood on the Arctic Snow, and examined again in The  Wolves of Alaska: A Fact-based Saga by Jim Rearden, a legendary writer, scientist and historian in Alaska. This article relies on the account in Blood on the Arctic Snow, supplemented with analysis from The Wolves of Alaska, and internet sources for the Ketchican Cemetary and the Thirteenth Annual Alaska Game Commission report, 1936-1937.

In February of 1939, Crist Kolby, a well known and successful Alaskan outdoorsman in Ketchican, Alaska, left to tend his trap line on the Thorn river, located on Prince of Wales Island. He took sufficient supplies for the trip, including a fairly new and top of the line Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver. Less than 5,000 had been produced at that time.  Kolby was routinely armed, known to be a good woodsman and to be in top physical condition, at 40 years old.

When Kolby failed to return by July, the United States Commissioner sent two men to investigate the situation. They found Kolby’s base of operations, 10 miles up the river, in the old Hudson cabin, without difficulty. It appeared Kolby had left on a day trip on March 2nd, and had never returned.  An extensive search near the cabin discovered a rowboat up a creek. The men came to the conclusion an addition search for his remains would be futile in the summer foliage. They returned to Ketchican with his belongings from the cabin. An executor for his estate was appointed in Ketchican.

Kolby’s friends were not satisfied. They suspected foul play. Another expedition was appointed to do a comprehensive search in October of 1939. They took gear to drag the nearby lakes for his body. The head of the expedition was former game warden W.R. Selfridge, who knew the area intimately. Three other men rounded out the investigatory party. They found the cabin as described by the former investigators, late on a Monday afternoon, October 30. Almost a week later, after diligent searching, they found clothes, effects and limited remains they concluded were of Crist Kolby.  It was Sunday, November 5th, 1939.

One of the key findings was the holstered revolver, still on a buckled belt, with teeth marks on the holster consistent with wolf bites. The revolver was unloaded. It had a broken mainspring. It was one of  the rare (in 1939) .357 magnums.  Cartridges were found in a pocket. No pack was found.  

Circumstantial evidence strongly suggested Kolby had been pursued by wolves while on the ice of the lake. A coat, sheath knife with wolf bite marks on the handle, and torn shirt sleeve cuff, were found on the shore. The scattered remains of clothes, buckled belt with holstered revolver and knife sheath, and bone fragments, were found 50 feet away, under two trees. Bone fragments and the mostly intact skull were found scattered over a hundred foot radius.  The bones of one arm were found three feet from the shore, under water.  To the experienced woodsmen reading the sign, only one conclusion fit the evidence: 

Crist Kolby had been pursued by wolves. He knew his revolver did not work. He dropped his pack on the ice of the lake, and made it to the shoreline where he fought a little while with his sheath knife, desperately trying to reach climbable trees. Close to the trees he was dragged down and killed.

The fact the revolver was holstered and unloaded supports the hypothesis the broken mainspring had been discovered after Kolby had left the cabin on his final trip. It would be very strange to bring a useless revolver on a trapping expedition. Unloading the revolver and putting the cartridges in a pocket is exactly what an experienced man would do as they attempted to diagnose a problem. 

No one with experience would work on a loaded revolver. At the time, all Smith & Wesson .357 magnums were custom ordered. While expensive, at $60, such a revolver indicates a firearms enthusiast. $60 was the equivalent of 3-6 prime mink pelts of the era.  In constant dollars, the price would be about $1,100 today. 

In November of 1939, the four men of the official investigatory team posted this notice on a tree:

IN MEMORY OF Crist Kolby

Killed and ate up by wolves in March 1939.

Found November 5, 1939. Found by:

W.R. Selfridge

Vic Hautop

W.A. Miller

M. Walker

The bone fragments and skull were gathered and returned to Ketchican. The Ketchican cemetery shows a grave site for a Chris Kolby which appears to date from the era.  It does not give a birth date or date of death.

Was Crist or (Chris) Kolby killed by wolves? Probably. He almost certainly was eaten by wolves. A small chance remains he died of exposure, heart attack or other malady/misadventure near the shore of the lake. 

It is not impossible a wolf unsheathed the knife, bit it, and carried it to the shoreline, along with the coat and torn shirt cuff, and bones of the arm. 

As noted by the investigators at the time, no one had been killed by wolves in Alaska, where the attack was witnessed.  Accounts of people treed by aggressive wolves have been fairly common. There have been two in the last decade in the lower 48 states, one in Washington, one in Michigan.

The concept a pack of aggressive wolves would be able to run down a man who only had a belt knife to defend himself, successfully pull him down, and kill him, is uncontroversial.

The evidence demanded to “prove” a person was killed by a wolf or wolves is very difficult to produce. It can be done if there are witnesses, the wolves can be killed to find a DNA match to DNA on the body, and a forensic investigation can be done in a timely manner. Wolf advocates will go to great lengths to prevent such a finding, as documented by Valerius Geist.

In most plausible cases of wolf attacks, those factors will not be available. 

Such is the case with Crist Kolby’s death.  It is an undocumented, documented case of death by wolf.

©2022 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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