Washington moms come in all shapes, sizes, and temperaments. Sweet or spicy, warm or cold, orderly or chaotic - there are endless types of mothers to celebrate (and sometimes, admonish). I can't easily describe my mother; she and I have a strained relationship and I keep my distance. My mother-in-law, though, is wonderfully generous but unyielding - I love her, and I'm so glad I have her in my life.

Sentimentality aside, when looking for inspirational mothers in Washington's history, I came across a woman who - as far as records tell - didn't even have children with either of her husbands, but who nonetheless earned the nickname "Mother Damnable." And she is a treasure of Seattle's history.

Mary Ann's journey to Seattle

"Mother Damnable" was not a Washington native. Born Mary Ann Boyer in Pennsylvania in 1821, she would become partnered to Captain David W. "Bull" Conklin at 30 years old. Conklin was the captain of a whaling ship that patrolled the waters of the Pacific Northwest. But just two years after meeting him, Mary Ann found herself discarded in Port Townsend.


Far from her home and alone, Mary Ann Boyer (Conklin) decided to head to the then-small village of Seattle in Puget Sound. Historical records don't note how, but Mary Ann became the manager of the Felker House.

Felker house. Jackson St. and Front St. Built 1853. First hotel in Seattle. Photographer: Theodore E. Peiser. Public domain, available through Seattle Public Library.
Felker house. Jackson St. and Front St. Built 1853. First hotel in Seattle. Photographer: Theodore E. Peiser. Public domain, available through Seattle Public Library.

Seattle's Felker House (of ill repute?)

The Felker House was Seattle's first hotel, and potentially its first pre-fabricated building. Brought to the town by Captain Leonard Felker in the hold of his ship, and erected at Maynard's Point. The two-story building had pine floors, plaster walls, and a two-floor porch on the front - a luxurious, 'civilized' appearance in the rough western settlement.

Mary Ann managed the house, renting out its rooms both for overnight stays and for meetings, including offering a "courtroom" for the Territorial government and jurors attending trials. Records aren't entirely clear, but there's an indication that Mary Ann also ran a brothel in the establishment - either upstairs or in the rear of the hotel - earning her the additional moniker "Madame Damnable."

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Why was Mary Ann so "Damnable"?

Records do indicate that Mary Ann was an excellent businesswoman, keeping the hotel clean, visitors fed, and, as mentioned above, garnering extra business through diversifying the use of Felker House's many rooms. This would mean she was a cornerstone of the growing Seattle community, and likely networked with a wide variety of people.

However, Mary Ann had a reputation for cursing and assertiveness that was unbecoming of a woman of her time. The best-written example of this is from the memoirs of Thomas Stowell Phelps, the navigator of the U.S.S. Decatur during the Battle of Seattle in 1856:

... on the eve of relieving our suppressed feelings in congratulatory shouts, the door flew open, and this demon in petticoats, who had bided her time, shot out upon us like a bolt from a catapult, and, to our astonished senses, the very air seemed filled with sticks, stones, curses, and dogs, and the division, a moment before so firm and hopeful, now, blanched with fear, first wavered, and then broke, and incontinently fled in every direction to escape the fury of this whirlwind of passion.

Historical records and tales indicate that "Mother Damnable" (a term which perhaps has history from 17th century England) was prone to throwing things at her clients, even for asking for a receipt. She was reported to curse in five different languages, all equally impressive and colorful.

We know little else about the rest of her life, other than she passed in 1873. The Felker House burned down during the Great Fire of Seattle in June 1889.

The origin of the Seattle great fire
Seattle Fire. June 6, 1889. At place of origin. Public Domain, available through The Seattle Public Library

One final myth makes Mary Ann a legend even in death

"Mother Damnable" has ended up not only in the history of the founding of Seattle - she also ends up in the "Weird Washington" category. A legend claims that her body turned to stone in the grave, making her weigh too much to move her coffin when it came time to re-inter her. The Stranger evaluated the myth, and suggested two things: that the 'stonelike' appearance of Mary Ann was likely "grave wax" (adipocere), and that the myth of petrified corpses was common at the time her grave was moved. She now rests at Lake View Cemetary.

I could find no record of Mary Ann having children. It's unlikely that she did or, if there were children, they were not part of her life very long. All the same, her salty spirit and shrewd business sense make her one of Seattle's early mothers - and worth remembering.

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