A Taste For Playing With Fire: Gussie Bollinger Loved Not Wisely, But Too Well

By Steven Branting

Since 2000, many of this country’s leading history, geography and preservation organizations — including the American Association for State and Local History, The History Channel and the Society for American Archaeology — have honored Branting for the depth, scope and variety of his research and field work. In 2009, he was nominated by the Western Historical Association for the William Gilbert Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the teaching of history through the publication of journal articles. Find Steven Branting’s books online at Barnes and Noble, and at “and Books, too!” in Clarkston, WA.

Above, Royal Restaurant, 1896. Photo courtesy of the Nez Perce County Historical Society.

At 4:44am on Wednesday, June 18, 1997, a heat-sensitive alarm alerted Lewiston, Idaho’s fire department that a blaze was underway at the city’s iconic Bollinger Hotel. The first crews arrived within two minutes and quickly changed their tactics from an aggressive assault to save the building to defending surrounding structures. As one fireman kicked in a door, “everything we saw was a solid glow of red.” Forty firefighters from six agencies coordinated their efforts to quell the conflagration that generated 100-foot flames and 2,000-degree interior heat. Electrical power was knocked out for much of the city. By 8:30am the grand old Victorian Age lady was a pile of confusion and rubble, reminiscent of the way it had begun. And that is our story.

The Bollinger Hotel goes down in flames, June 18, 1997. Photo courtesy of the Lewiston Tribune.

A news item on page seven of the January 24, 1901 evening edition of the Lewiston Teller startled many readers and no doubt vindicated several local gossips. One of the city’s most popular businessmen had filed for a divorce from his young and “erring wife who loved not wisely but too well.” William and Carrie Bollinger, Will and Gussie to their friends and family, unleashed a “sensation in social circles.” Gussie had left town on the morning train for Spokane, as Will’s attorney headed for the courthouse to file divorce papers on the grounds of adultery. How had it come to this sorry point?

Leo Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina by saying: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Gussie’s family was a frequent dumpster fire.

She was Idaho-born. Her parents, Samuel and Alice Leachman, began farming with his brother John southeast of Lewiston in what would become the Lewiston Orchards, not long before her birth in November 1880. On February 23, 1882, a fire caused by a faulty stovepipe burned their home to the ground. Neighbors immediately rallied to their aid and within a day had raised a twelve-by-sixteen-foot building to shelter Samuel, Alice and their four young children and had passed the hat to provide the family with about $150 ($3,600 today) to buy new furniture, clothing and other necessities.

If any family in the Lewiston area appeared to have a target on its back, it was the Leachmans. Samuel’s management skills fell short of those needed by a frontier farmer/rancher. By 1889, he was repeatedly delinquent on his mortgage payments to Dr. Madison Kelly, Lewiston’s first official mayor in 1863 and a pillar of the community who was as shrewd as Samuel was naïve. Kelly filed papers to have the Leachmans evicted in a case that repeatedly came up on the district court docket over several years. Samuel would try to maneuver, and Kelly would counter.

The stress nearly proved fatal for Samuel in February 1895, when he came upon Dick McElroy at a road junction near the Leachman home. As Samuel told the story, McElroy, a “comparative stranger,” commenced into a tirade against him, challenging him to a fight. After a few minutes of “invectives,” Dick charged Samuel, who broke his double-barreled shotgun over the young man’s head. The blow failed to stop him, and the two men struggled for many minutes before neighbors separated the combatants. By that time, Samuel had received a right good whoopin’ and yelled “uncle.” Dick went for a gun but was restrained. He lost consciousness, and Samuel was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon.

At left, the wedding photo of Robert and Gussie Bollinger, August 1897. Photo courtesy of Joetta Leachman Pfeifer. Right, Samuel and Alice Leachman, circa 1885. Photo courtesy of Doris Leachman Wastradowski.

When the realities emerged, Samuel was shown to be the aggressor. Dick claimed that Samuel’s daughter Bertha had been broadcasting lies about him, saying so right to Samuel’s face and getting a whack over the head with a shotgun for his troubles. When Samuel’s case came up in April, the court could not seat a qualified jury. For most people, Samuel had defended his daughter’s honor, however dubious that honor might be. Meanwhile, in his suit with Dr. Kelly, Samuel was running out of options. At least he could take pride in fourteen-year-old Gussie’s listing on the honor roll for the Lower Tammany School in November.

District court judge William Piper finally ruled in Dr. Kelly’s favor in July 1896. Readers may recognize Piper’s name from the story of “Mad Margaret” Hardy (Nostalgia Magazine, November-December 2017). In the spring of 1895, Piper had presided over the case against Hardy for murdering Henrietta Myers, the two-year-old child of a Lewiston prostitute.

Although Samuel appealed Piper’s decision to the Idaho Supreme Court, the ruling brought the Leachmans into town, where they took up residence on old Monroe Street (now Seventh) near Idaho’s first Universalist Church. Samuel and sons Charles and Walter became day laborers, although Samuel would serve a few months in 1898 as a night watchman for the city police department. All seemed calm – for the time being.

Born in September 1870, William Bollinger arrived in south-central Washington with his Swiss-German parents Rudolph and Sophie from Minnesota about 1883, his father taking a homestead near Dayton. After graduating from the local high school, Will spent the next five years clerking in a Dayton general store and learning the butchering trade, squirreling away money, eager to create his own financial identity.

Bollinger moved to Lewiston in April 1896 with his close friend Jack Bell, partnering in the purchase and operation the Royal Restaurant on Main Street. The restaurant proudly advertised that it had no Chinese cooks: “This is the only eating house in the city that employs white help only.” Bell and Bollinger promised a “good square meal” that could include “fresh” Eastern oysters for twenty-five cents ($7.50).

Will was just about the most eligible bachelor in town, and Gussie set her sights on him. Just because she was sixteen and Will twenty-six posed no obstacle. Several Lewiston couples had age differences far greater in May-December marriages, and odd matches were no less common in 1897 than they are today. The particulars of the Leachman-Bollinger courtship received no attention from the town’s newspapers until the Saturday, August 28, 1897 issue of the Lewiston Tribune:

Wm. Bollinger and Miss Carrie Augusta Leachman will be united in marriage tomorrow morning at the residence of the bride’s parents on Monroe Street, Rev. J. D. McConkey performing the ceremony.

Never a stickler for a church wedding, John McConkey was Lewiston’s longtime, respected rector of the Church of the Nativity Episcopal. Immediately after the ceremony, Will and Gussie caught a steamer for the railhead to Spokane, which would be the hub for an extended tour of the sights and cities of eastern Washington. Upon their return in September, they set up their newly-wed residence on Eugene Street (now Eighth), just a block from her parents’ home.

Bollinger House, 1901. Photo courtesy of the Bollinger Family Archives (Zurich, Switzerland).

Will lost little time catching up with his business ventures. He and Jack purchased the Golden Star Grocery in October. Gussie’s lifestyle went from marginal to well-heeled with a simple “I do.” She would soon find a way into social circles theretofore unknown to her. By January 1898, she was frequenting the town’s bowling alley with the wives and daughters of Lewiston professional and business elite. In May, the local chapter of the Rebekah Lodge, Idaho’s first, initiated Gussie “into the secrets of the order.” All the while, she and Will traveled back and forth between Lewiston and Dayton, where he still had sizeable business interests. On several occasions, they were accompanied by Will’s younger sister Minnie. It was a heady existence for a hard-scrabble teenager amidst the doyennes.

The year 1899 would prove both eventful and distressing for the couple. In January, Will and Jack sold the Golden Star Grocery. On April 6, the building that housed the Royal Restaurant caught fire. The upper floor was used as a lodging house, and one of its lodgers was Jack Bell, who “was awakened to find the flames crackling all around him and rushed out the back entrance of the building in his night clothes.” The restaurant was destroyed to the tune of $1,650 ($50,000), of which only $800 ($24,000) was covered by insurance. Will would not be deterred. He had bigger plans that no fire could destroy, but restoring a small restaurant was not what his ambition now included.

In November 1898, he and Jack had purchased a fifty-foot-square lot near the corner of Third and D Streets for the unheard-of price of $3,000 ($90,000). They announced that a brick hotel with forty rooms would arise at the site by the next spring, with plans to purchase adjoining lots and the expansion of the hotel to three stories and a footprint four times larger. However, after the restaurant fire, Jack lost interest in the partnership, sold his shares to Will in August and returned to Dayton to take a bride. It would be a short-lived interruption in their collaboration, but the buy-out was yet another financial drain and doubtless a source of marital discord.

Bollinger Hotel, 1905. Photo courtesy of the Nez Perce County Historical Society.

With Jack gone, Bollinger would enter this new venture on his own and at his own risk. For Gussie, the sums of money being bantered around must have seemed enormous. She had grown accustomed to the pleasures the wife of a wealthy businessman could expect. Now Will had no businesses and seemed to waste little time worrying about past losses. Will and Gussie sold off properties to keep a cash flow in place. One plot brought in $225 ($6,700).

In September 1899, Bollinger unveiled the plans for the new hotel, albeit a design with only ten rooms. Contractors set themselves to building the stone basement. In short order, the crews proceeded to raise the exteriors walls. Bollinger must have been pleased with the speed of construction, but, as the old adage says, “haste makes waste.” On December 6, the unfinished walls collapsed, resulting in a loss of $1,000 ($30,000) in damages and forcing the contractors to dismantle anything still standing and start again from the foundation.

By January 1900, contractors had restored “to the second story, and this time to stay,” much to Will and Gussie’s relief. Opening day, May 1, came none too soon. Bollinger revived his successful Royal Restaurant with an “elegantly fitted” eatery on the main floor. The second floor contained ten rooms. “The plumbing, heating, furniture and fixtures have been arranged to give every possible comfort to the guests.” By December, Bollinger announced a $2,500 ($195,000) twenty-two-foot expansion of the hotel. His vision seemed insatiable.

And then the sanitized news broke of Gussie’s reckless infidelities.

With locals scratching their heads over the collapse of the Bollinger marriage, Gussie scurried from town but not unescorted. Jack Cook, a waiter at the new Bollinger House’s restaurant, also had his ticket in hand. Jack had arrived in August 1900, soon after the opening of the hotel. Will was in no mood for adverse publicity, and newspaper editors accommodated him. The Lewiston Teller described Gussie as “a woman, young, prepossessing, humored to a fault by her indulgent husband, who,” in journalistic double-speak, “charges not so much her unfaithfulness as to the baseness of the man who had led her astray.” Poor, innocent Gussie. Bad Jack.

The swiftness of Will’s response exposed what many must have known. Gussie’s dalliance with Cook was not her first illicit liaison. As the Teller phrased it: “When the husband discovered the true nature of affairs, he made short shift [sic] for the matter.” There would be no reconciliation. Gussie had burned her bridges. Tongues no doubt wagged that Bollinger was an inattentive husband, away too much on business at all times of the year. He was admittedly an odd duck. Minnie arrived to console her brother two days after the news broke and began helping as a waitress in the new hotel restaurant.

Within three weeks, the decree was final. Will’s attorney cut Gussie a check for $400 ($12,000), and she waived all claims to their communal property and assets. She was not in a position to bargain. Adulterous partners were fined and often incarcerated at the time. Two weeks prior to the Bollinger brouhaha, another Lewiston couple each received $50 ($1,500) fines and were still serving out their sentences in the county jail.
Gussie’s infatuation with Jack Cook led nowhere. He disappeared, and she took up residence in Spokane. However, if you thought she would be shy about showing her face again in Lewiston, you would be wrong. With her parents still living in the city, she was a frequent visitor under her married name.

By April, Jack Bell returned to the partnership with an infusion of cash, allowing Will to travel the East Coast for several weeks to clear his head from the whole Gussie debacle. When he returned, he found a new employee at work in the dining room – seventeen-year-old Ella Runge, “a young lady of many charming accomplishments” who had immigrated to the Pacific Northwest from Germany the year Will and Gussie married. Minnie and Ella roomed with Ella’s cousins while the two girls were high school students in Weston, Oregon.

Whether Ella made an immediate impression on Will is unknown. Locals certainly liked the girls, with one editor calling them “the popular Bollinger House waitresses.” Once burned twice shy, they say, but a spark was struck for another workplace romance after the girls returned in August from a two-month vacation. Will and Ella were married in Dayton on December 9, 1902. The local newspapers were careful to keep the two Mrs. Bollingers clearly distinguished in social notes.

Above, Gussie Leachman Bollinger, circa 1903. Photo courtesy of Doris Leachman Wastradowski.

Within months of Will’s remarriage, readers of the local newspapers noticed a change in advertising. The original section of the hotel continued to be called the Bollinger House and was soon filled with offices on the second floor. The “Bollinger Hotel” became the moniker for the new addition. Had “Bollinger House” been Gussie’s suggestion? For whatever reason, the word “house” was gone by 1904.

After a trip to Seattle with Gussie that year, the Leachmans’ marriage soured. Alice moved out of the family home, and Samuel’s already fragile mental state deteriorated. He repeatedly told people that he was going to do away with himself. On August 23, 1906, he went to Alice’s house near the courthouse and waited for her. Upon her return with one of their sons, he asked Alice for a private conversation inside the home. Within a few seconds, neighbors heard two gunshots. Samuel had put a bullet in Alice’s head and then killed himself. Gussie got the telegram at her new home in Denver, Colorado. Local physicians removed a section of Alice’s skull to relieve intracranial pressure. She made a full recovery and lived until March 1939, dying at the age of 83 near Portland, Oregon.

Bollinger continued to pour money into the hotel, eventually enlarging it to take up most of a city block by 1906. The hotel’s bar was acclaimed as the “best in the West” from 1904 to 1916, when Idaho went “dry.” In one published report, the Bollinger House dining room was the scene of the first American woman lighting up a cigarette in a public venue. She was staying at the hotel to take advantage of Idaho’s divorce laws, which required a six-months residence.

Will’s eccentricities included animals. People would bring critters to him, and he would house them in the building’s courtyard, eventually installing an aquarium, where an alligator was kept in the 1920s. Two bear cubs were especially popular until they repeatedly escaped their enclosure and took to running up and down the hallways.

In April 1909 Sam Olson, a stranger to Lewiston, partied well into the evening and needed a place to rest from his festivities. Olson picked the wrong place. The spot he selected was just a few feet from the entrance to the enclosure for “Teddy,” one of the Bollinger’s now-grown but docile black bears. Sam had just gotten comfortable when Teddy discovered him and immediately proceeded to drag Olson into his den. The harder Sam worked to extricate himself, the firmer Teddy’s grip became, punctuated with a few light cuffs of bear paws telling him to quit struggling. Sam set to hollering, alerting a patrolman, who let Olson sleep off his bender in the drunk tank.

Tragic things continued to stalk the Leachman family. On December 18, 1923, Gussie’s brother Clyde, along with his wife Mattie and a friend, were attending a dance in Pomeroy, Washington. Prohibition was the law, but the liquor flowed freely. A local police officer confronted Clyde, who was attempting to destroy some liquid evidence against a brick wall. The two men scuffled, with Clyde yelling for assistance from his wife and friend. The three of them pummeled the officer, who drew his 32-caliber automatic pistol and fired, hitting Clyde in the abdomen with a single bullet that passed through his stomach and lodged against his spinal cord. He was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lewiston, where doctors reported his wounds to be identical to those suffered by President James Garfield in July 1881. Although Clyde briefly rallied, he died on December 22. Mattie protested Clyde’s innocence, but one look at the officer’s injuries dispelled her claims of police brutality.

For Ella and William Bollinger, life revolved around the hotel until February 1910, when their first son John was born, followed by Robert and Anne. John, called “Billy” by his family, was “an invalid from early infancy, unable to join in child pleasures.” When he died in February 1920, his death certificate revealed what many already knew – a mental incapacity so severe that attending physician Edgar White wrote “imbecile.”

The opening of the five-story Lewis-Clark Hotel in September 1922 a mere two blocks away brought an end to Bollinger’s claim to Lewiston’s most elegant accommodations. The grand-opening crowd of 10,000 did not bode well for his business, and yet he persevered. In June 1924, he contracted pneumonia. For two weeks his condition swung back and forth from improved to critical. He died on June 30.

Four months after Bollinger’s death, the Ku Klux Klan set up its headquarters in room 116 of his hotel. More than 1,500 members paraded silently down Main Street and burned a cross in north Lewiston at a ceremony initiating more than 500 members – a disquieting reminder of Bollinger’s “white help only” policy and Lewiston’s checkered legacy of race relations with the Nez Perce, the Chinese and African-Americans.

That leaves us with Gussie. By the 1920s she had taken to calling herself Jessie and moved to California, where she was in the midst of her third marriage. She was only getting started. When she finally died in December 1951, she was Carrie Augusta “Gussie” “Jessie” Leachman-Bollinger-Grady-Wellman-Trumbley-Smith-Allen, the hardened Lewiston social butterfly “who loved not wisely but too well,” too beautiful to strangers and too fond of fire.

Find Steven Branting’s books at Barnes & Noble online, or at and Books, too! in Clarkston, WA.

Since 2000, many of this country’s leading history, geography and preservation organizations — including the American Association for State and Local History, The History Channel and the Society for American Archaeology — have honored Branting for the depth, scope and variety of his research and field work. In 2009, he was nominated by the Western Historical Association for the William Gilbert Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the teaching of history through the publication of journal articles. The Idaho State Historical Society conferred upon him the 2011 Esto Perpetua Award, its highest honor, citing his leadership in “some of the most significant preservation and interpretation projects undertaken in Idaho,” whose governor awarded him that year’s Outstanding Cultural Tourism Award for showcasing Idaho’s heritage. In 2013, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution awarded Branting its coveted Historic Preservation Medal, the first and only one to date given to an Idaho scholar. In 2015, Lewis-Clark State College selected him for the Shinn Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2016 awarded him the President’s Medallion for “outstanding leadership and enduring service” to the community and the institution.

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