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Under the Needle: Only one way Edward Jackson would leave 35 years of clutter

Under the Needle: Only one way Edward Jackson would leave 35 years of clutter

By Mike Lewis
November 07, 2008

Jackson didn't shower because he'd long since buried his two bathtubs under deep drifts of flashlights, life preservers and children's toys. To stay clean, he used paper towels and rubbing alcohol, swabbing himself daily. He'd twist the used, soaked towels into tight braids and pack them into open, half-gallon milk containers.

He'd stack these like cordwood along a living room wall. Hundreds of them. He told Thom Wilson, a reluctant friend, occasional caretaker and former building tenant who was with him in the hours before the end, that the compressed bunches "would make good fire-starters someday."

Turns out, they did.

Born in Tacoma 90 years ago this Nov. 18, Edward Eldon Jackson graduated from Stadium High School and, according to government records, worked as a petroleum storage technician and as a welder. Married, 26 and living in Tacoma, he joined the Army in 1944 and served for the duration of World War II, plus a few additional months. He divorced.

At or around his discharge, he married an 18-year-old named Mary. Ed sold auto parts wholesale and Mary worked as a waitress. Mary told friends they'd even smuggled a bit of booze across the Rio Grande.

At some point -- available records aren't clear -- the couple moved to Seattle. And after that -- Wilson said it was the early 1970s -- the couple moved into the Marion Apartments.

Within two years, the building's owner hired them to manage the 26-unit complex on the corner of Bellevue and Pine. The pair took to the job immediately. Former tenants say when the two weren't walking the property, they'd sit on the balcony of their unit, No. 206, and survey the parking lot.

"If anyone walked across the lot at night, they'd be down there immediately with the bear spray asking what they were doing," said former tenant David Swalwell, who lived in the complex for three years in the 1990s.

"They'd shine the spotlight on you," said Wilson, who lived down the hall from the Jacksons for nearly 17 years in unit No. 201. Some former tenants assumed they owned the building.

John Werner, who did own it from 1985 through 2006, said the couple almost made him think the same thing. "When I bought it, they made it clear that they were the owners and I was here to put some money in it," he said laughing.

"It was their baby."

All agreed the Jacksons, especially Mary, were terrific managers. Former tenants said the two were scrupulously fair with deposits and well-liked despite some odd habits: the endless nocturnal patrols; the regular interrogating of guests; the popping into apartments unannounced; and the collection of cars that cluttered the lot.

What was the deal with those cars and vans Ed packed to the ceilings with junk, they wondered.

Now living in Hawaii, Patti Ikeda rented No. 203 for about 12 years, from 1984 through 1996. She got to know the couple and invited them for Thanksgiving dinner a few times.

"But they would always get in these fights over things and bicker at the table," Ikeda said. "So I started offering to bring dinner over."

Dropping off dinner for the first time, she got a surprise. Boxes piled nearly floor to ceiling. Stacks of newspapers, magazines, books. There was a narrow path through it all. Mary seemed embarrassed. Ed didn't notice.

"I've never seen anything like it," she said. "Stacked higher than my head and I'm 5 feet 2. I started noticing that whenever I'd throw something out, like a box of books, they'd grab it and keep it."

Other tenants said the same. Some thought the pair owned the little junk store around corner where Mary worked on Saturdays. Not true, Wilson said, Mary just worked in there to get out of the house. Ed wouldn't allow her or anyone to sell a single solitary thing.

And so it went for years. But increasingly, Ed stayed in the apartment. Then Mary, a smoker, rail thin and 79 years old, had a quadruple bypass. Two weeks later, April 30, 2004, she died at Virginia Mason of congestive heart failure.

The Jacksons were married 62 years. Ed had her cremated and buried at Acacia Cemetery in Tumwater. Wilson said Mary was like an adopted mother to him.

"After she died, he kind of went hog-wild with the hoarding," Wilson said. "It was like he was free and no one was there to stand in his way."

Wilson had moved at this point, but tried to help Jackson. "He asked me how to do laundry. He hadn't done laundry in 62 years."

Ed packed additional cars and vans full of junk and parked them in Georgetown. He filled every available storage locker at the Marion. The apartment, already crowded, he packed even tighter. He told people he had hundreds of flashlights. Then thousands.

"He had a lot of fantasies about disasters," Wilson said. "And those cars are still parked in Georgetown. I know where they are."

Two years after Mary died, Werner sold the building. The new owners had plans for it in rapidly gentrifying Capitol Hill.

What happened in the end was predictable, Wilson said.

For two years, the new building owners told Jackson his days in the building were numbered. First, they planned to go condo. As required by the city, they paid Jackson's relocation fee. Then they decided to tear down and redevelop.

Wilson said they went above and beyond to help the increasingly cranky, paranoid Jackson. "They helped find him a new place in West Seattle. ... But when the new landlord learned how much stuff Ed had, she freaked.

"She said no way. I don't blame her."

So he set about helping Ed purge. But when Wilson would throw stuff away, Jackson would sneak out at night to retrieve the items. The apartment remained packed.

The night before the fire, Ed looked around the place where he'd spent nearly four decades. It remained filled. He was 89 and getting frail. He needed the stuff, all of it, for the store he'd been planning for decades to open.

He looked at Wilson, a man who stayed loyal to Ed out of his love for Mary.

"I just wanted to keep him alive here so she'd get a longer break in the afterlife," Wilson said, smiling.

Ed asked him what he should do. It was midnight, eviction day. Wilson needed sleep. "I said, 'Pack, Ed. Pack.' "

On his way over the next morning to help with the move, the new owners called Wilson. They said there was a fire. They said Ed was dead. He had torched the place and shot himself, investigators said later.

"I remember him joking years ago that he had so much stuff he should light a match and walk away," Wilson said. "But he didn't walk away, did he?"

P-I reporter Mike Lewis can be reached at 206-448-8140 or Read his Under the Needle blog at

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