Retired Seattle Police Officers Association


By: Officer Mike Severance #2866

Officer Cunliffe

About 1:40 a.m. on Saturday, June 17, 1911, Officer William Cunliffe was walking his beat. There had been several burglaries in the area where cash, jewelry and clothing had been stolen. On the northwest corner of Summit Ave. and Columbia St., he encountered at least one male, but most likely two. We will never know exactly what transpired between them. The end result was that shots were exchanged. A suspect fired three shots. One .38 caliber bullet hit the officer on his left side. It cracked two ribs, passed through his left lung, grazed his heart, and came to rest in the right lung. Officer Cunliffe fired three shots from his Colt revolver. It was believed that one shot hit a suspect. Sgt. Fred Ribbach and Patrolman E. E. Sheumaker were a block and a half away when they heard the shots and rushed to the scene. They found Cunliffe on the planting strip. He was alive and conscious, but unable to speak and give any account of what had happened. Dr. Edmund M. Rininger’s house was on that corner at 803 Summit Ave. Within minutes, the doctor was administering aid to the officer. Cunliffe was rushed to City Hospital at 4th and Yesler. His wife, Rebecca, was brought to the hospital from their home at 119 W. Smith St. She was by her husband’s side when he died at 3:20 a.m. He was survived by his wife and their two month old daughter, Mary Alice.

At the time of the shooting, Mr. W. O. Peterson had just gotten off a street car at Broadway and Columbia. He heard two shots and saw some muzzle flashes, but he could not see who was shooting. He then saw Officer Cunliffe, stepping backwards into the street, raise his revolver and fire three shots before reeling and falling onto the planting strip. Peterson then heard one shot, but he never saw any suspects. Mr. M. Clamont of 912 Minor saw two men go past his house. One man was supporting the other as if he were injured. Mr. Clayton Crawford saw one man enter the back yard at 1115 Madison St. and then disappear Officers surrounded the house and waited until daylight to enter. Several people were taken into custody, but none were charged. Mrs. J. H. Brown was a guest at the Otis Hotel at Summit and Columbia. She heard some shots and looked out a window. She reported seeing only one man walk past the officer on the ground. The man calmly walked west on Columbia and went north in the alley towards Marion St.

There were leads in the case which led nowhere. On June 21, 1911, a man identified as John W. Roberts walked into a Tacoma Police Station with a bullet wound to his thigh which was several days old. When police checked his account of how he was accidentally shot by a friend, they found it to be a lie. In August 1911, the Seattle Chief of Police received an anonymous letter postmarked in Salt Lake City. The letter identified one of three armed robbers, arrested in that city, as the murderer of Officer Cunliffe. A pocket watch, stolen in one of the burglaries in Officer Cunliffe’s beat, turned up at a pawn shop in Spokane. The owner of the watch had provided police with the serial number on the case and the serial number of the movement. In spite of these leads, Officer Cunliffe’s murder remains unsolved.

Just ten days before Officer Cunliffe’s murder, a new pension law went into effect. Rebecca Cunliffe was the first widow of a Seattle Police Officer, killed in the line of duty, to benefit from that new law. She received a monthly pension check in the amount of $33.33, one-third of her husband’s monthly salary.

William Henry Cunliffe was born in England on February 23, 1866. His name was fairly common in England. Not knowing his parents’ names, not too much is known about much of his life. He was a plainsman and cowboy in Montana for six years. He was also a Mountie with the RCMP for five years. The first record of him living in Seattle is from 1907. He worked as a carman for the “S E Co”. He was commissioned as a Seattle Police Officer on January 4, 1908. On June 27, 1910, he married Olive Rebecca Jorgenson in Victoria, BC. Their daughter, Mary, was born on April 2, 1911. Officer Cunliffe is buried at Lake View Cemetery.

Rebecca and Mary continued to live in Seattle. Mary A. Cunliffe married Carl W. Miles in 1932. She and her husband had three children. Mary’s son, Gerald, lives in Gig Harbor. Rebecca never re-married. She lived in Seattle until her later years when she moved to Los Angeles to live with her daughter and son-in-law. Rebecca died in 1966 at the age of 84. Mary died in 1988 at the age of 77. Mary is  buried at Lake View Cemetery near the father she never got to know.

Mary Cunliffe was married twice. Her second husband was Max L. McGilvra. He was the grandson of John J. McGilvra who was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to be the first United States Attorney for the Washington Territory. The McGilvra Elementary School, McGilvra Blvd. E. and McGilvra Place Park were named after him.

In May 1998, Officer William Henry Cunliffe was one of forty Seattle Police Officers, killed between 1881 and 1977, who were posthumously awarded the Washington Law Enforcement Medal of Honor. A sworn member of SPD had been tasked with locating surviving families of our Fallen, and he had from 1995 to 1998 to do it. He managed to locate four surviving families who attended the 1998 presentation ceremony. After 1998, the Department made no effort to locate surviving families of the other thirty-six officers. Officer Cunliffe’s Medal of Honor gathered dust at the Seattle Police Department for more than 15 years. At a ceremony on January 30, 2014, twenty surviving families of our 1998 Medal of Honor recipients finally received the officers’ medals. Gerald Miles, Officer Cunliffe’s grandson, was presented with his Medal of Honor. Karlene Miles, Officer Cunliffe’s great granddaughter, sang the National Anthem at the beginning of that ceremony.

Before Seattle politics reared its ugly head, the Historical Sign Project was going to launch with a ceremony at City Hall on June 17, 2011, the 100th anniversary of Officer Cunliffe’s death. To Seattle’s politicians, Seattle’s Fallen Officers remain gone and forgotten.