Dayton whodunit mixes history, food and fun

Participating in murder and mystery at Dayton's Weinhard Hotel.

A gambler decries the presence of outlaws in the community.

A gambler decries the presence of outlaws in the community. Nick Page

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Being accused of murder was not originally on my weekend to-do list.

I should have known better when I signed up for a Murder Mystery weekend at Dayton’s Weinhard Hotel. The event brought 28 people together from all over Eastern Washington and Idaho and tasked us with figuring out who, exactly, had shot a man dead in a Wild West saloon following a poker tournament.

Over the course of dinner, almost everyone was accused of murder, so my plight was nothing special. While I’m sworn to secrecy on the details of the plot, I will say that some accusations were more credible than others.

The day began in the lobby of the Weinhard Hotel well before the murder. Each guest had previously been assigned a character, complete with a back story and instructions for dressing and acting the part. Our story took place in Deadwood, a Wild West town which had just finished holding a grand poker tournament and was preparing for a closing dinner that night. I would be attending as Emma Belmont, a traveler from the East who was passing through town.

After being served morning coffee and tea, we were given a brochure with directions for obtaining money, which we would need later to bribe our fellow players for clues. The directions read like a scavenger hunt. They tasked us with locating pieces of Dayton-related history and trivia and reporting answers back to local shops in exchange for (fake) cash. I spotted my fellow participants running around like mad, trying to check off every stop on the list.

“How can you be an outlaw if you don’t stay on top of things?” one woman scolded her husband, who was loitering in Elk Drug.

Along with my boyfriend, who was playing the role of gambler Ace Hoyle, I discovered dates engraved in 19th century railroad spikes and clues hidden in murals and sculptures around town.

We reported each nugget of information to one of a dozen participating shopkeepers around town, who handed us green $50 and $100 notes. By midafternoon, I had collected almost $1,300 (thanks in part to my savvy poker playing), learned a lot more about Dayton, and even gotten a jump on my Christmas shopping.

Interacting with local businesses isn’t part of the mystery’s plot, but the Weinhard Hotel’s owners, Shellie and Gary McLeod, have included it by design. They began offering Murder Mystery weekends in January, as a way of bringing guests to town during the tourist offseason.

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Shellie McLeod, co-owners of the Weinhard Hotel, gets involved in the festivities.

“I just wanted to get the whole town involved,” said Shellie McLeod. “People think about a small town, ‘There’s nothing to do here.’ I wanted to show them there’s so much here you can’t even do it in one day.”

Local business owners told me they’ve seen increased sales and foot traffic, and many enjoyed having guests bribe them with coffee in exchange for extra cash.

Following our adventures around town, guests were told to dress for dinner — a delicious four-course meal, which began with a surprise murder over drinks and unfolded with shocking information reveals and clues between courses.

Initially, each player was given an envelope with objectives for the evening: people to talk to, information to suss out. Conversations were tentative at first. But soon, most of us had gotten into the spirit of the evening and were speaking in low voices to saloon girls and slipping bank notes to the sheriff in exchange for more information.

Just before dessert plates were cleared, each guest was instructed to write their vote for the murderer, as well as for best costume and best acting awards, which would be distributed the following morning at breakfast. Before the murder’s official solution was read, we went around the table so each guest could offer their theory as to who committed the murder. Almost every character was accused, and the group enjoyed a few good laughs before Gary McLeod opened the envelope and revealed who had, in fact, shot a man in cold blood.

The McLeods said Murder Mystery weekends have been more popular than they could have hoped. Their first mystery, a Prohibition-era drama entitled, “Murder at the Juice Joint,” sold out after two weekends were offered, so they added two more to keep up with demand.

The weekend I attended was the inaugural for Murder at the Deadwood Saloon, which will be offered again on Oct. 26, Nov. 9, Jan. 11 and 25, and Feb. 8. Guests can call the hotel at (509) 382-4032 to reserve a weekend package, which costs $239 for a couple, including one night’s stay in the hotel. Murder Mystery Weekends for private groups can also be arranged.

Pretending to be a lone traveler from 1834 all day is exhausting, and by the time we’d solved the murder I was ready to go to bed. But all things considered, the weekend was one of the more different, fun experiences I’ve had in a while.

As to whether I or any of my close acquaintances were responsible for the murder, I’m still sworn to secrecy. But if you decide to participate in a future mystery weekend, all will be revealed.

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