WHAT, EXACTLY, HAPPENED to John H. Nagle, the German immigrant who staked out a 160-acre claim on Capitol Hill in 1855 (including the land we now call Cal Anderson Park), then spent the final 23 years of his life in asylums?
The record of his early years in Seattle sketches Nagle as a farmer and active citizen: church co-founder, public servant (he won three local elections, including two terms as county assessor), official fruit judge at the 1865 King County Agricultural Fair and more.
So what had Nagle done in July 1874 that compelled two men to drag him before a judge, who then locked him away?
Local newspapers from those years described several “insanity” cases (a woman who thought she was a priest and held nighttime Masses for the dead, a man who talked to bricks) but nothing about Nagle.
Trips to the county courthouse clerk’s office didn’t reveal much: terse, handwritten orders from the judge, plus a receipt from whomever took Nagle to the asylum at Fort Steilacoom (“Mileage: $9.00. Jail fees: $4.00. Asylum fees: $8.00”).
After Nagle’s arrest, David T. Denny, also a fruit judge at that 1865 fair, became trustee of the 160-acre estate. The rest of Nagle’s lengthy probate court file is property minutiae: taxes, receipts, leases to tenant farmers, occasional land sales.
The clerks confirmed Nagle was in the old “insanity index,” but said state law automatically seals mental-health records and prohibited me from seeing more. I pointed out that Nagle was committed in 1874 — 15 years before Washington was even a state. Plus, Nagle was a childless bachelor. He doesn’t have any descendants to mortify.
I was told I’d need a court order, so, on the advice of newsroom colleague Lewis Kamb, I threw a Hail Mary pass to King County Presiding Judge James Rogers. Surprisingly, he wrote right back (“presumably Mr. Nagle has no further objections”) and filed an order to unseal the records. If we can find them.
The clerks said they’d have to look in “the warehouse” and issued a work order. That might take a while.
What happened? And why do I care? I’ll cop to a little lurid curiosity — but there are easier ways to scratch that itch. While I squinted at faded cursive at the clerk’s office, other people lined up to deal with documents of their own private dramas: criminal records, divorce records, child-custody paperwork. I was looking for what happened to a forgotten man at the edge of his world, without much family, who suffered a dramatic reversal of fortune. Somehow, no matter what his inciting actions were — benign, sad, terrible — it feels important that someone remember.
I’ll keep you posted.