Plans are underway to honour dedicated Seattle police officer and native-born Icelander Jakob “Big Jake” Bjarnason, 90 years after his death from heart failure.
The decision was made after a number of history buffs informed the Seattle Metropolitan Police Museum that Big Jake’s grave in Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park was neglected and overgrown.
“He emigrated [in his twenties, during a time] when a lot of Icelanders were ‘going west,’ said Friðrik Þór Guðmundsson, an investigative journalist who recently spent a year in Seattle with family, looking into Big Jake’s story. Friðrik Þór happens to be Big Jake’s great-grand nephew.
Friðrik Þór’s research uncovered Big Jake’s renown. It turned out he was, at the time, considered a legend among Seattle police. Not only did he serve for over two decades, from 1903-1927—a rarity at the time—but his funeral was also one of the largest ever held in Seattle. Two thousand people attended Big Jake’s funeral, including over a hundred policemen and the Police Commander, all in dress uniform.
At roughly 223 cm tall (7-foot 4-inches) Big Jake towered over the residents of the city, and his giant, strong-jawed stature coupled with his booming voice proved a powerful deterrent for the city’s troublemakers (Big Jake only ever carried a billy club, saying he didn’t require a pistol).
Big Jake had to have all his clothes tailor-made as he was too tall to buy anything off the rack—everything down to his police gloves and even his shoes. According to Friðrik Þór, Big Jake had a sense of humour about his size, often joking that his barber charged him double for a shave.
“My favourite story might be, when asked by a Seattleite if he had been unusually tall in Iceland, Big Jake answered; ‘No, no, no, I was so little that I was ashamed, and moved over here!’” Friðrik Þór told The Reykjavík Grapevine.
“A lot was written about him in Washington state and US newspapers, which I read through genealogybank.com,” said Friðrik Þór about his research. “The rest I got from living people.”
“The most rewarding thing about this [whole process],” continued Friðrik Þór, “has been searching for something that’s almost vanished, but finding it, and being surprised and impressed with just about everything he did and stood for. Seeing item after item showing that he was justly called ‘a gentle giant.’ All my best investigative journalism happens outside journalism.”
Big Jake’s Memorial and new headstone ceremony will be held May 10, at 11 am at Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park and Friðrik Þór hopes his family in the surrounding area—other distant relatives of Big Jake’s—will be able to join him for it.
To learn more about Big Jake, check out Friðrik Þór’s article in Kultur Magazine.