Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from Brad Holden’s new book, “Seattle Mystic Alfred M. Hubbard: Inventor, Bootlegger & Psychedelic Pioneer.” The book is available locally and on arcadiapublishing.com. Photos are reprinted from the book, which was published by The History Press, 2021.
IT WAS A warm spring afternoon in Seattle, the type of idyllic day where the city’s inhabitants slowly emerge from their winter lairs to giddily soak up some badly needed sunshine amid all the newly blooming daffodils, tulips and flowering cherry trees. The year was 1924, and on this particular day, Alfred M. Hubbard was hard at work inside a new store he had just opened.
During a previous trip to Pittsburgh, he had developed a strong interest in the emerging field of radio communication after hearing broadcasts from some of the nation’s earliest commercial stations. It was a new industry, and radios were slowly becoming a popular household item. Using his tech savvy to stay ahead of an emerging trend, Hubbard decided to open Seattle’s first radio supply store, where customers could purchase the equipment needed to listen to these exciting new programs. The store was located near Colman Dock, on Seattle’s waterfront, and, as a harbinger of things to come, was one of the city’s first enterprises dedicated solely to selling new technology.
Hubbard went on to a fascinating life that included work as a spy, an association with the mafia that landed him in jail for two years, and a period during which he became one of the earliest and most enthusiastic proponents of LSD. But at this time, he was spending most of his days in the back of the Seattle store, assembling radio sets. That was the case on this fateful spring day, when he heard the bell on the front door clang, signaling that someone had just entered. He set his project down and stood up, ready to welcome a potential new customer. A well-dressed and somewhat-familiar-looking gentleman stood near the entrance, curiously looking around at the intriguing inventory of vacuum tubes and assorted radio parts. Greetings were exchanged and, after a round of small talk, the stranger introduced himself as local attorney Jerry Finch.
Once supplied with a name, Hubbard was able to make the connection of who, exactly, this man was. Finch was well-known in the local papers as the attorney for “King of the Puget Sound Bootleggers,” Roy Olmstead. At the time, Prohibition was in full swing, and Olmstead — a former Seattle police officer — had become the region’s top liquor boss, supplying all the city’s clubs and speak-easies with top-shelf booze that he and his men smuggled down from Canada using custom-built speed boats. Olmstead’s exploits were well-known throughout the city, where he had become a bit of a folk hero.
Finch explained that Olmstead wanted to meet the young inventor to discuss a job proposal. At the time, Hubbard and his first wife, May, were living hand-to-mouth in a cramped apartment as he struggled to get his new business up and running. It was a financially stressful time for the young couple, especially given that his wife was pregnant with their first child, and Hubbard was in serious debt to several creditors. The possibility of a big paycheck, therefore, was very appealing. With the allure of a potential lucrative job offer, Hubbard promptly closed his shop for the day, and the two men set off for the attorney’s office at nearby Smith Tower.
When they arrived at Finch’s downtown law office, a very friendly and cordial Olmstead was waiting for them. At the time, Olmstead was 38 years old and enjoying the best years of his life. He was known as “the Gentleman Bootlegger” because he didn’t allow his men to carry guns or engage in violence, and he avoided other vices such as gambling, narcotics and prostitution. Balding, very well-dressed and with a slightly chubby build thanks to all the fine dining he could now afford, Olmstead looked like a typical crime boss from that era, though with a decidedly more genial temperament than many of his underworld peers.
Introductions were made, and Olmstead got straight to the point about the reason for this impromptu meeting. The national Prohibition Bureau recently had set up an office in downtown Seattle and was starting to crack down on local bootleggers. Olmstead ran the region’s top liquor operation to the extent that he had become Puget Sound’s largest employer. With so much money rolling in, Olmstead and his wife, Elise, had purchased a palatial estate in the Mount Baker neighborhood and were parading around town in luxury automobiles. Such ostentatious displays of wealth helped place Olmstead’s bootlegging racket in the crosshairs of the Seattle Prohibition office, which moved all its manpower and resources to take him down as quickly as possible.
Understanding his predicament, Olmstead explained that he was now looking for ways to stay a couple of steps ahead of the Feds and he wanted to hire someone who could install communications equipment aboard all the cars, boats and planes that were used for his smuggling operation. He felt that Hubbard was the right man for the job, especially given his obvious expertise in radio technology. There was also mention made of Hubbard’s earlier invention that had taken the world by storm when it was unveiled a few years earlier. Olmstead couldn’t remember the exact name of this contraption, so Hubbard spoke up.
“It was the atmospheric power generator,” Hubbard informed him.
THE MYSTERIOUS DEVICE was Hubbard’s introduction to the world. The saga began on Dec. 16, 1919, when a photo of an 18-year-old Hubbard appeared on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In the photograph, a slightly grinning Hubbard — attired in an all-black outfit with a strange motif on his shirt — demonstrated his new invention by using it to power a lightbulb.
According to the article’s astonishing claims, Hubbard’s invention extracted energy from the Earth’s atmosphere, which it then converted into usable electricity. It was, in essence, a “free energy machine” that Hubbard claimed could be used to power cars, boats and even planes.
This naturally attracted the attention of the science world. Many were interested in examining this exciting new technology. Hubbard declined these requests, saying he needed to safeguard his invention until it had received a patent. The protective secrecy over his machine further piqued the public’s curiosity about it, and requests for a demonstration of the device only grew louder.
On July 28, 1920, with public speculation mounting, Hubbard decided to finally hold a live demonstration of his invention by using it to power a boat on Lake Union. Word of the event spread fast, and a crowd quickly gathered at the Queen City Yacht Club on Portage Bay to witness this exciting display.
Many potential investors, curious about the veracity of his claims, were also in attendance. At the specified time, Hubbard made his appearance, cutting quite the dashing figure in a suit, tie and matching brimmed hat. Walking out to a nearby wharf, Hubbard turned and, with a dash of showmanship, waved to the crowd before stepping into a boat. With an impish grin, he then powered up his atmospheric power generator and used it to launch the 18-foot craft into the water.
For many, it was a spectacular display of technological ingenuity, drawing an immediate round of applause. According to various accounts, the demonstration got off to a shaky start when Hubbard had difficulty getting the motor started, and had to make frequent stops to prevent the generator from overheating. The boat was eventually able to attain speeds up to 10 knots and was out on the lake for more than an hour.
Local newspapers heralded the event as a scientific breakthrough. One journalist even pondered the ramifications of Hubbard’s device, proposing that it would likely result in the closure of power plants, as well as the demise of the oil industry. Despite all the accolades in the press, Hubbard’s unusual level of protectiveness over his device left many people skeptical.
A MONTH LATER, Hubbard invited a small gaggle of reporters to his home laboratory in Everett to witness his generator being used to power an automobile. This was followed by rumors of Hubbard working with a local aviation company, which wanted to use the engine to power its fleet of planes. Afterward, any further mention of the device suddenly stopped, and Hubbard abruptly shifted his focus to this new radio venture, which is what led him to this unexpected meeting with Seattle’s liquor kingpin and his attorney.
Sitting in the fancy law office with these two gentlemen, Hubbard pondered the offer that had just been made to him. With such an important opportunity in front of him, he took a few minutes to think the situation over and, after a moment of consideration — and with the trademark glint of mischief in his eyes — accepted Olmstead’s offer … with some stipulations, of course. First, Hubbard would need Olmstead to pay off several thousand dollars of debt he had accrued, as well as open a charge account for his pregnant wife. Additionally, he requested that he and his wife move into the basement of Olmstead’s estate. He had read about Olmstead’s new home in the papers and knew that he would need such an area for a proper workspace. Not to mention, he desperately wanted out of the tiny apartment that he and his wife had been living in. Lastly, Olmstead would need to advance him any money needed for the job, no questions asked.
With a big grin on his face, Olmstead agreed to all of Hubbard’s terms and even threw in the free and unlimited use of one of his luxury cars. The two men then shook on a deal that would dramatically shape each of their respective destinies in a very profound way.
HUBBARD’S DESTINY, in particular, would prove quite memorable, with a life that often resembled that of a Hollywood movie script. This included a stint as a double agent for the Prohibition Bureau that he would use to exploit law enforcement as well as local liquor rackets, prompting the Seattle Star to describe Hubbard as “a shadowy figure who worked both sides of the street.” This was followed by a two-year incarceration at McNeil Island Penitentiary after Hubbard decided to lend his technical services to a San Francisco mafia boss.
During World War II, Hubbard would find himself recruited by the government’s Office of Strategic Services for an important role in a top-secret smuggling operation in which the United States — before it officially had joined the war effort — helped supply the Allies with ships and planes. Hubbard would later disclose that he also played a peripheral role in the historic Manhattan Project.
After the war ended, he would establish a uranium business and use his skills as an entrepreneur to become a self-made millionaire, complete with a flashy Rolls-Royce and his own private island in Puget Sound. In fact, Dayman Island would serve as Hubbard’s estate for the next several decades.
The biggest chapter would happen when a middle-aged Hubbard discovered the transformative effects of a new hallucinogenic compound known as LSD, and began introducing the drug to some of the brightest minds of the 1950s, including Aldous Huxley. From Dayman Island, Hubbard would develop the blueprint for what would become known as psychedelic therapy, using the drug as a form of mental health treatment. In Vancouver, B.C., Hubbard joined forces with an esteemed psychiatrist. He used this revolutionary new form of therapy to successfully treat alcoholics at the legendary Hollywood Hospital.
Meanwhile, in an arid region of California that eventually would become known as Silicon Valley, Hubbard would introduce several influential computer engineers to the world of psychedelics, some of whom would go on to develop the precursor to the internet. The man who developed the computer mouse was also a one-time disciple of Hubbard.
In Los Angeles, Hubbard instructed several prominent psychiatrists on the benefits of psychedelic therapy; they then introduced LSD to their celebrity clientele. Actor Cary Grant, in particular, would serve as a high-profile advocate for the benefits of hallucinogenic-based psychotherapy. Some of these same movie stars were known to have flown to Dayman Island for personally guided sessions with the man himself.
From all this, Hubbard would become widely known as “the Johnny Appleseed of LSD.” Some simply knew him as “the Captain,” and to others, he was an eccentric genius with a devilish grin whose ideas are still reverberating throughout the world today.