Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cigars, Pool and Sports Betting

            As long as people have played sports there has been sports betting. For many years the corner of SW 4th and Washington was the center of bookmaking in Portland. In the 1880s it was a saloon called the White Elephant. Portland sports fans gathered there to drink and bet on prizefights, baseball games, cockfights and horse races. In the 1890s the saloon closed and Ed Schiller opened a cigar store in its place, with a cigar factory upstairs. Sports fans kept coming and soon Schiller’s was the place to be. When the Portland Nationals began to play baseball out at Vaughn Street Stadium in 1901, the players liked to hang out at Schiller’s smoking and talking with their fans.
Orator and baseball fan Julius Caesar was a regular customer at Schiller's Cigar Store. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            It was not just the inside dope on the baseball team and the nickel slot-machines that kept the customers coming to Portland’s own “rope factory.”  There was a very colorful cast of characters that were regulars there. Jack Grim, the National’s coach, and “Talkative Jack” Marshal, the team’s secretary were often there. W.C. “Jerry” Powers worked behind the counter, selling cigars, taking bets and keeping the odds and scores updated on a huge blackboard. Julius Caesar, one of Portland’s famous African-American orators, stopped by regularly in his plug hat and bright red vest. If the Nationals were doing well, or someone was buying drinks or cigars, Julius would regale the crowd with a scene from Shakespeare or an ode on the prowess of the Nationals’ players.  If the Nationals were not doing well he was known to shake his head sadly and wander away. Joe Day, Portland’s most famous detective, was another regular customer at Schiller’s. Detective Day, who should go down in history for telling tall tales about his career as much as his actual exploits as a policeman and detective, was not a man to cross. In 1908 he nearly came to blows with C.J. Sweet, a member of the jury which had just convicted Edward Martin of manslaughter, rather than first degree murder, in the controversial Nathan Wolff murder case. Ed Schiller broke it up before anybody got hurt.
            In 1906 the party moved two blocks west to 6th & Washington, when the old building that had started out as Wagner’s General Store, was slated for destruction. Ed Schiller continued to roll and sell cigars and take bets at the new location, but Jerry Powers moved to the basement of the Perkins Hotel, a block away, to his own poolroom. There was a falling out between the two old friends around that time and Schiller’s fortunes began to decline.  Powers, who was starting to become the dominant figure in Portland betting, may have brought some pressure on his old boss after Schiller opened a competing pool room in the basement of his building in 1911. Portland passed its first anti-gambling ordinance in 1851, but the laws were rarely enforced. They were most often enforced when a gambler who made regular payments to the police wanted competition out of the way. The city started enforcing the gambling laws against Ed Schiller in 1913 and it was not long before he retired. Jerry Powers was the dominant bookmaker in Portland after that.
            There is no evidence that Jerry Powers was involved with any illegal activity beyond gambling. He was not a man to back down from a fight, though. In 1896, when Powers worked as a conductor on the Eastside Railway Company’s South Mount Tabor line, he took a bullet in the shoulder protecting his change-belt from armed robbers in the lonely waiting room at the east end of the line.  If you weren’t trying to rob him, Jerry Powers was an affable man, very popular with the regular crowd that hung out at Schiller’s and at Powers’ Poolroom. Powers used a telegraph wire and a telephone to keep scores and odds up to date on his blackboard. He pitched for the Fat Men’s Baseball team when they played charity games and he was known to hustle the occasional game of pool. Powers may have confined his illegal activities to breaking the gambling laws, but not all bookmakers are that scrupulous.
Bobby Evans right before his fall in 1932. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            Augustine Ardiss was a young immigrant who grew up in poverty in South Portland. Fighting his way up from the streets, Ardiss was booked for his first professional boxing match, under the name Bobby Evans, in 1909. “Fighting Bobby” became his nickname and he got a reputation as a heavy hitter in the lightweight class.  At one memorable bout in Marshfield (as they used to call Coos Bay) in 1911, Evans broke both wrists pummeling his opponent, “Roughhouse” Burns, before throwing in the towel in the fourteenth round. Billy fought his way back from that injury to a shot at the Northwest Lightweight Championship title in 1915 in a match against Seattle’s Billy Farrell in Pendleton, OR. Lawrence Duff, a retired Portland professional wrestler, refereed the brutal fifteen-round battle. He awarded the decision to Farrell and “Fighting Bobby” lost his temper, punching Duff in the jaw. Duff used an old wrestling trick to disable the boxer and Pendleton Police Chief Kearney, who was in the audience, arrested him and quelled the near riot that the punch had started among the rowdy spectators.
            Bobby Evan’s misplaced punch ended his career as a boxer. He returned to Portland in 1917 with a young boxer he had discovered and began his career as a coach and fight promoter.  In 1920 he was appointed matchmaker by the Portland Boxing Commission, giving him his new nickname. “Matchmaker Bobby” Evans began a long career in the public eye in Portland. He would end up in the 1970s as a TV commentator giving his colorful opinion on occasional boxing matches. By then most Portlanders had forgotten about the dark rumors and frequent criminal charges that surrounded one of Portland’s earliest organized crime bosses. Rumors that he was connected to the East Coast mob were frequent. When he was asked about them he would usually laugh and say, “You must have me confused with somebody else.”
Bobby Evans in 1971. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.
             Bobby opened a combination cigar store and boxing gym, The Shamrock Athletic Club on SW Second Ave. The police were never able, or willing to, prove the allegations that you could get illegal liquor at the Shamrock, but Bobby faced gambling charges more than once. Police found cards and dice with gambling chips on the table when they raided the place. Prohibition was in full swing by then and the price of booze in Portland was higher than anywhere else on the Pacific Coast. The city government was taking in about $100,000 a month in protection money from the few bootleggers who were allowed to operate. Anyone else who tried to sell liquor, whether backwoods still operators from Molalla or freelance smugglers from Canada, they faced strict enforcement of existing laws. The Portland Police Bureau often raced with Federal agents to grab the liquor first. There was even one near shoot-out between Portland police and Federal prohibition agents. Most of the liquor seized by the Portland police made it into the well-guarded storeroom in the basement of the Central Police Station. The “evidence” often disappeared, either at parties put on by cronies of Mayor George Baker or into the hands of “approved” bootleggers.
            Matchmaker Bobby coached young boxers, most of them immigrant children who participated in programs at South Portland’s Neighborhood House. A project of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), Neighborhood House provided services for immigrant families suffering poverty and trying to assimilate into their new country. The children attended Portland Public Schools and after school programs at Neighborhood House. Evans recruited some of his most important employees from the Neighborhood House boxing team. Young men like Mike DePinto, Abe Wienstein and Jack Minsky boxed for Matchmaker Bobby. They all ended up in careers in organized crime. Abe Weinstein’s family business was junk dealing and he was a natural leader. He opened a second hand store on the eastside and recruited a gang of young burglars to keep it stocked. Mike DePinto and his two brothers Ray and Nick were muscle. They were especially good at coercing young women into prostitution. Jack Minsky was a cab driver and pimp. He was pretty good in a fight too. By 1932 these young men would become the largest and most dangerous criminal gang in the city.
Jerry Powers' death in 1921 came at a very good time for Matchmaker Bobby. Photo from Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.

            They were just getting started in 1921. Matchmaker Bobby, who was accused of fixing at least one fight, intended to control bookmaking in Portland. Jerry Powers was his only serious rival. On the night of October 23, 1921 someone walked into Power’s poolroom and shot Jerry once in the belly. The attacker walked out without taking any money and about an hour later Joe Heil, an immigrant from Austria, was found wandering in a daze with a pistol in his hand. He confessed to shooting the poolroom proprietor, saying he wanted to rob him. He couldn’t explain why he hadn’t taken any money and he didn’t speak very much English. Powers’ died of peritonitis several days after the shooting. The jury convicted Heil of first degree murder, but recommended leniency. He was sentenced to life in prison. Four years later he was pardoned and deported to Austria. There was no evidence that Powers’ death was anything but a robbery gone wrong. Maybe it was just a coincidence that Matchmaker Bobby controlled sports betting in Portland with an iron hand until his downfall in 1932.
Coming soon from the History Press

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Unfortunate Wives of George Sack

Who is JB Fisher, you ask.  He is my writing partner on the new book Portland Into the Vice Age 1934-1953 (please follow that link and support our campaign). He is also a talented writer and researcher with a strong interest in Portland crime during the mid-Twentieth Century, as he proves with this latest post.

I know you will enjoy his writing and want more from him.  I'll do my best to bring it to you. Now over to you, JB...

Near the corner of 162nd avenue and SE Stark was Jack and Jill’s Tavern. The building still stands today (Papa’s Casual Dining) but the scotch broom bushes that lined the nearby sidewalk in 1954 are long gone. At about 5 pm on February 18th of that year, Clyde Loughrey was walking past the tavern to a nearby grocery store when he noticed something yellow in the tangle of bare scotch broom branches. He took a closer look and found that it was the body of a woman, covered with a yellow coat. He hurried to the store and showed the grocer what he had found. Authorities soon arrived and eventually determined that this was the body of Goldie Sack.

Jack & Jill's Tavern about 1940. Photo courtesy of Roxanne Cummings,
In 1952, Goldie Goodrich had come to Portland from Great Falls, Montana where she had been a schoolteacher. The 52 year-old Dayton, Oregon native soon met and married George F. Sack (53). Some years earlier, Sack himself had settled in Portland and became the owner/manager of the Gordon Court Apartments on SW Montgomery St.
            When Sack went to the morgue on the 18th to identify his wife’s body after she had been missing for two days, he was frantic:  "That is my wife Goldie. Where did you find her? Where's her rings, where's her watch, where's her purse? Why don't you find them?" Immediately, police became suspicious and held Sack at the station for questioning.
             Within a day, George Sack found himself arrested by police and held on $10,000 bail. Further suspicions had been raised when residents of the area where the body was found came forward to report “strange goings-on” during the evening of February 16th and when two pictures were sent by wirephoto to the Oregonian by the Chicago Tribune. The pictures dated from 1925 and portrayed George Sack on trial for the 1924 murder of his second wife Edna, shot in the head while seated in the back seat of a cab with him during an apparent holdup. Upon seeing the first photo (a standing portrait), Sack confirmed his identity. However, when a second photo showed him at the murder trial of his second wife, he quickly reneged saying “It doesn’t look like me.”
George and Goldie Sack in 1952. The neighbors heard lots of fighting and George Sack's actions brought suspicion on him right away.
             In the 1925 trial, Sack had been defended by famed Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow who around the same time was gaining prominence for his work in the Scopes “Monkey” trial and the Robert “Bobby” Franks murder. Darrow convinced the jury that Sack may have indeed murdered his second wife but that he suffered from insanity at the time. He spent a short time in an asylum and then walked free, but a peculiar aspect of the case was that no police records were found when the Chicago Tribune attempted to locate these at the request of Oregon authorities in 1954. While officials had little to work with on that case, they also learned that Sack’s first wife, Julia, had died under mysterious circumstances when she burned to death at the couple’s Chicago home in 1923.
             Meanwhile, evidence had been mounting to connect George to the death of his third wife Goldie. Witness George Cary described to police how he had been walking along SE Stark Street around 9:30 pm on Tuesday February 16th. He was on his way to get stove oil at the Richfield service station on the corner of 162nd and SE Stark when he noticed a car parked on Stark near Jack and Jill’s. It was running with its lights on. As Cary walked, he watched a man get out of the car and walk to the trunk with a slight limp. Raising the trunk, the man was starting to remove something when a car turned onto the street and headed toward him. He closed the trunk and returned to the driver’s seat. After the vehicle passed by, the man got out again and returned to the trunk. Again, several passing vehicles interrupted his efforts and he returned to the driver’s seat. Cary walked slowly and watched carefully. On the third attempt, the man lifted something out of the trunk and brought it to the curb. Cary couldn’t identify what it was but explained to police that "you could tell it was something rather heavy the way the man acted when he took it out." The man disappeared from the curb with whatever it was he was carrying. As witness Cary walked past the parked vehicle, he noted the license number and repeated it in his head until he arrived at the service station. He then asked the station operator to write down 827-107. Within a few minutes, both Cary and the service station operator watched the vehicle drive past with “the motor racing.”
            Sure enough, the license plate number matched George Sack’s 1950 Chrysler. That vehicle had been parked at the Gordon Court Apartments on February 16th, 1954 and Sack explained to officials questioning him on the 18th that he had not driven the car since the morning of the 16th when he had driven to Safeway on an errand. Yet there was convincing evidence that he had driven the car later in the day on the 16th. Several residents of the apartment complex told police how Sack’s car was parked outside the furnace room (just below his own apartment) around 6 pm. Witness Vera Craig, a former manager of the apartment complex who had come to dine with a another resident, explained how Sack was always kind to park his vehicle away from the complex so that residents could park there. This was an unusual exception. Craig further described how she and the friend left the complex around 8 pm and when they returned at about 9, Sack’s vehicle was no longer parked outside the furnace room.
Information soon surfaced that two previous wives had met bad ends. In this photo George Sack is on trial for the murder of his second wife in 1925.
             In addition to testimony about the vehicle, residents were also willing to tell police (and later the jury) about the status of George and Goldie’s marriage. Maralyn K. Billie, a former tenant of the apartment complex, reported that she frequently heard the couple quarreling from her nearby unit. Once during a particularly heated exchange, she heard Goldie scream “Don’t hit me again!” Several other tenants told of similar episodes and investigators learned that Goldie had attempted to file for divorce from George in March 1953. Her efforts were unsuccessful because, according to the courts, she had not resided in Portland long enough to separate from her husband.
            When George Sack stood trial for the murder of his third wife in September of 1954, witnesses testified about seeing the car on the night of February 18th and many described the troubled relationship between the couple. Much visual evidence was exhibited including a life size photograph of the deceased victim’s back showing a large circular shaped bruise. Along side this was a life-size picture of the trunk of George Sack’s car, showing a spare tire in shape and curvature identical to the bruise on Goldie’s back. Another image showed a man confined in the same position in a similar trunk and it was revealed that one would have to be unconscious to assume such as tight and awkward position. That Goldie was put in the trunk, that she died of asphyxiation, and that moderate levels of a “hypnotic depressant drug” that could induce a deep sleep were found in her body all corroborated with the visual evidence. 
Prosecutors also provided meticulous details of the numerous savings bonds that Goldie purchased (sometimes using her maiden name) during the time that she was married to George Sack. Strikingly, these were cashed by the defendant just days after his wife’s death. Even though the trial rarely touched on the question of Sack’s previous two wives, newspaper reports had already revealed that he had profited from insurance policies taken out by both of them.
Despite his persistent plea of innocence throughout the trial (and his unsuccessful effort to appeal the case in the state Supreme Court), George Sack was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Goldie Goodrich Sack and he was sentenced September 30, 1954 to die in the Oregon lethal gas chamber. Slowed up by the appeal process and still awaiting his decided fate on September 24, 1963, George F. Sack killed himself in the Oregon penitentiary by looping a shoestring around his neck and tightening it with a toothbrush. He left a note and here is what it said:
“Let it be known that I forgive and forget all my accusers and I ask for the same forgiveness for me. Please bury me in Salem. Charge burial expenses to my account.”
Years earlier, two funeral services had been held for Goldie. One was organized and paid for by George Sack in Portland. Organ music filled the Holman mortuary as George Sack sat alone to hear the pastor, accompanied in the room only by county police detectives George Minielly and Ed Fuller. The other service, arranged by her brothers and sisters and attended by over 120 friends and family members, was held in Macy and Sons Mortuary in McMinnville. Goldie Rosa Goodrich was interred beside her mother and father in the family plot at the nearby Yamhill-Carlton Pioneer Memorial cemetery.   
--JB Fisher 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pussy Willows: The Murder of Kermit Smith

     Well, publishing two books not only takes a lot of work and energy, but it also brings great opportunities. It has also brought some interesting new friends, like JB Fisher. (Gotta love the first name.) This young man asked for my help in a project involving an infamous case from the 1950s. Slowly but surely he let me in on the fact that he had uncovered the notebooks and detective files of Walter Graven, a Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy in the 1950s and 1960s. The files have been a motherlode of information on crime in Portland and I am proud to unveil the first fruits of Mr. Fisher's labor.  It is the tale of a brutal domestic murder in 1955 and the pictures come from Graven's own files. This treasure trove will soon produce a book in collaboration between JD Chandler and JB Fisher, and probably many more from Mr. Fisher in the future. I hope you enjoy his writing as much as I do.

Oliver Kermit Smith's car was blown to pieces when he tried to start it in the parking lot of the Columbia Edgewater Country Club. Picture from the files of Det. Walter Graven

The news earlier this week that former Aspen socialite Pamela Philips has been found guilty of arranging the 1996 car bombing that killed her ex-husband Gary Triano invites us to consider some eerie parallels to a nearly forgotten 1955 Portland murder. On April 21st of that year, as he was returning to his car after a game of Gin Rummy with friends at the Columbia Edgewater Country Club, 35-year-old lawyer Oliver Kermit Smith was blown up by a car bomb. 
It had been just seven days since a bomb exploded in a third-floor restroom of the downtown Meier & Frank Co. building and the city had been abuzz with at least half a dozen telephoned bomb threats since. But as police detectives were quick to discover, this car bombing was not related. After following several false leads, they set their sights on Victor Lawrence Wolf, 45. The name had been mentioned about six weeks prior, when Smith summoned police after being beaten up in front of his home by a shadowy figure who subsequently escaped into the night. When asked by police if the victim could think of anyone who might have done this to him, he stated simply, “Wolf.” It turned out that the silver-haired Victor Wolf rented a room in a house owned by Smith’s 34-year-old wife and he did odd jobs as an electrician and handyman at the Smith residence.
Oliver Kermit Smith was the victim of a plot between his ex-wife and her tenant. Photo from the files of Det. Walter Graven

 In talking to Wolf, police learned that he had in fact been at the Smith home the day before the car bombing, helping Mrs. Smith install a swing set for the Smiths’ young daughter Susie while Kermit was at work. When asked whether his fingerprints might have been on Smith’s 1952 Buick sedan still sitting in ruins in the country club parking lot, Wolf was quick to answer, “Oh, I might have been alongside it. I could have touched it” although he denied ever being in the car. Closer inspection of Smith’s car revealed yellow and red wires attached to the vehicle’s starter solenoid and joined with friction tape to a lamp cord. A subsequent check of Wolf’s brown Mercury sedan parked in front of his Tillamook Street home yielded yellow and red wires hidden in a left side air vent. Wolf showed startled amazement, wondering “How did that get in there?” Next, black tape was found in the basement and in the garage. Wolf was whisked away to the county sheriff’s office for further questioning.
Also brought in for questioning was Marjorie Smith, widow of the late attorney. She told the investigators that she had been married three times, and that she had divorced Kermit for about three years before recently reconciling and remarrying him in February 1955. Sounding like a stereotypical 1950s housewife, she reassured the policemen that married life was now happy even though he had been abusive in the past: “Everything was working out fine. Oh, we still had fights once in a while, but who doesn’t? I get over my mads easy, but his would drag on. All I had to do, though, was bake an apple pie and everything would be all right again.” She went on to reveal that she had dated Victor Wolf several times while divorced from Kermit, explaining that she felt sorry for Wolf because his wife had run away with another man.

Detective Leitheiser (right) was bad cop; Det. Walter Graven (left) was good cop. Electrician Victor Wolf (seated) was on the spot. Photo from the files of Det. Walter Graven.

Meanwhile, Wolf was facing scrutiny from criminal detectives Leitheiser and Graven who were pressuring him to confess. Within a short time, he surprised them by asking, “Could I get off with maybe second degree murder? Would I have to go to the gas chamber?” They told him that the jury would decide those questions and then he muttered, “I don’t want to drag her into it, blacken her reputation.” He asked Leitheiser to leave the room—he had been playing bad cop and Wolf felt intimidated. After that, he proceeded to tell Detective Graven the story.
It had started when he rented the room in Mrs. Smith’s house on Tillamook Street. She was divorced at the time and they talked about homesteading in Alaska. They knew it would be expensive and her idea was that she would remarry Kermit and then collect his $20-30,000 life insurance policy. So they remarried and then she asked Wolf to help knock off her husband. There was the idea to shoot him in their house, which Wolf couldn’t carry out (he tried back in March, he said, but the plan was botched). He asked why she couldn’t just divorce her husband and she told him that Kermit said he would take their young daughter if she tried again. So they cooked up the bomb plot. Wolf got a lot of dynamite and he used his electrician skills to rig up the wiring in the Smiths’ garage while Mrs. Smith drank coffee with the neighbor lady who would have been suspicious. They had made a trip together to Ridgefield, Washington to get some of the dynamite a few days before the murder. They had a picnic alongside the road, and Wolf clipped some wild pussy willows for Marjorie. On the day of the bombing, Wolf pulled into the country club lot around 7:00 pm and finished the wiring job. Then he drove off.

Victor Wolf claimed that he had been a sex-slave to Marjorie Smith. The case drew a great deal of attention, including this layout in Sept. 1955 issue of True Police Cases magazine. From the files of Det. Walter Graven.

              When the detectives told Marjorie Smith what Victor Wolf had confessed, she was indignant and amazed. She said it was impossible and that she had nothing to do with “that repulsive old man!” Police went on to find the gun that Wolf claimed Marjorie had given him (it had belonged to Kermit’s father, a police officer). They found a set of keys to the Smith house in Wolf’s possession. They even found the pussy willows in a vase in the Smiths’ basement. Returning to the roadside spot in Rigdefield, they discovered that the cut branches matched the cut ends of the bushes in the field. Nearby, spent dynamite caps lay scattered on the ground. Still Marjorie Smith denied it all. 
Not long after being booked for first-degree murder, Marjorie Smith was exonerated by a jury in Yamhill County. Victor Lawrence Wolf was sentenced to life in prison for his crime. In 1957, a California court found Marjorie Evans Smith “unfit to maintain custody” of her daughter Susan, who had been cared for by Kermit Smith’s sister Ellen Hightower in Santa Clara County, CA since the time that her mother was initially arraigned.  
--J. B. Fisher

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Now You Look Out

This post is dedicated to Dana Beck and my friends at the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE).

            Carl Abbott, in his very readable Portland in Three Centuries, gives a good account of the development of Portland on the east side of the Willamette, especially the “steamboat suburb” of Sellwood. In 1882 Henry Pittock, publisher of the Oregonian, and a small group of investors purchased land from the pioneer claims of John Sellwood and Henderson Leulling, and formed the Sellwood Real Estate Company. Within a few months the steamer Dolly began to make regular runs between the Sellwood dock, at the foot of Umatilla St. and downtown Portland. Pittock and his partners platted out streets and town lots and hired a crew to come in and begin clearing timber from the low flat plain, well drained by Crystal Springs Creek.
            Soon the Sellwood waterfront boasted a sawmill and a furniture factory that employeed thirteen fulltime workers. By the time the Morrison Bridge opened in 1887 Sellwood had incorporated as a town and had about 500 residents. The nascent city of Sellwood had an elected town marshal, but was always dependant on the county sheriff for any real law enforcement. Part of the town was in Clackamas County and the rest was in an unincorporated region, so the sheriff in Oregon City had jurisdiction, but in reality the Multnomah County sheriff in Portland was closer. Even though it could take half a day for the sheriff to arrive from Rivercity, this relationship was formalized when Multnomah County annexed Sellwood in 1893.
            Sellwood was seen as a rural retreat from the fast-paced urban life of Portland. On the river just north of town, near the waterworks that pumped water from the Willamette to supply East Portland was the Old Red House, an early version of the road house, or semi-rural drinking establishments. Across the river in bustling Fulton Park was the west side equivalent, The White House. In 1888 Charles Bellegarde, who had already been chased out of the mining fields of Sacramento for his gambling and pimping activities, decided that he wanted to get away from the hurly burly of Portland and opened the St. Charles Hotel in Sellwood.
            The St. Charles was located at the corner of Umatilla and 9th St. (new style 17th Ave) and Bellegarde spared no expense to bring a luxurious environment to the small town. On the northeast corner of the street Bellegard built a saloon with a residential apartment where he lived. Next door he built the two story hotel. Bellegarde, a gambler and rumored to be a French immigrant, was known as a macqueraeu who lived off the earnings of his courtesans. Prostitution was illegal in Oregon in the 19th century, but laws were very selectively enforced. For a couple of years Bellegarde was considered an asset to the community, so his prostitution, gambling and drug use were overlooked. The St. Charles prospered and soon became legendary up and down the Willamette for luxurious dining, gambling and women.
            Charles H. Hewitt, a native of New York, came to Oregon in the 1870s and studied law in the office of Judge Strahan in Albany. In 1883 when Willamette University Law School opened Hewitt joined the first class and then came to Portland to open his practice. Nineteenth century Portland was a land of opportunity for young lawyers. There was political opportunity in the chaotic in-fighting of the Republican Party and there was money to be made in land speculation. There were two areas of law that were especially lucrative: probate and divorce. A crafty lawyer handling these types of cases could often get his hands on pieces of property that could be turned into cash.
            Charles Hewitt was no John H. Mitchell, but he soon had a prosperous practice and his wife, a doctor had a good practice in Vancouver. Between the two of them there was money to invest and a city lot in Sellwood looked like a good investment. Hewitt and Bellegarde had done business together and were friendly. It may have been his friendship with Bellegarde that inspired Hewitt to buy the lot on the southeast corner of Umatilla and 9th in Sellwood, across the street from the St. Charles Hotel. In the spring of 1890 Hewitt began construction on a two story building on that corner.
Clayton's Saloon was on this spot in 1890. The old building was replaced in 1906 and became Gottschalk's Cafe. The building is still there at SE Umatilla and 17th Ave. Today it's known as the Sellwood Inn. Image courtesy of SMILE.

            In 1890 Umatilla and 9th was the center of Sellwood, geographically and socially. Bellegarde’s saloon and brothel was the main attraction, but across the street was the more respectable Clayton Saloon and Livery Stable. A couple of blocks west on Umatilla was the steamer landing, where the new ferry to Fulton Park had been operating for more than a year and Dolly made regular visits. To the north 9th street turned into the long lonely road through the swamps and hills to the Red House and East Portland. Whatever Hewitt had planned for his corner, it would have been a money-maker.
            1890 had not been a good year for Charles Bellegarde. Records are scarce, so it is hard to know if murders or suicides actually occurred in the St. Charles Hotel, but in less than two years it had attained the standing of a “cursed” hotel. People in Sellwood whispered that anyone who slept in the St. Charles was doomed to commit suicide or be murdered. In January 1890 the authorities closed Bellegarde down and soon the abandoned hotel began to look cursed. Bellegarde might have begun to feel cursed too, because soon his wife left him and filed for divorce and his old friend Charlie Hewitt was representing her.
            Bellegarde’s wife, a mysterious French courtesan variously known as Blanche, Victoria or Webfoot Mary, had hired the aggressive attorney to get her share of Bellegarde’s fortune before he gambled or drank it away. To Hewitt the divorce was just business; but Bellegarde took it personally and their friendship had become strained. On July 7, 1890 Hewitt hired a one-horse livery rig in downtown Portland and drove south on the Macadam Road to Fulton Park where he could catch the ferry to Sellwood. He drove up Umatilla St., eyeing the partially erected building on his own lot and parked his horse and rig at Clayton’s Stable across the street.
            Fred Clayton and his wife Anne were running the saloon as usual, while Fred Jr. took care of the stable. Two generations of Claytons would keep the popular saloon and livery stable open until 1906, when George Gottschalk bought the place and put up a new building; still in business as the Sellwood Inn. In the summer of 1890 Charles Hewitt stopped to have a drink in Clayton’s and soon his old buddy Charles Bellegarde joined him. The bad blood between the two friends was well known and the Claytons were very curious. Fred tried to eavesdrop more than once, but Bellegarde was being very cagey. Once he gave Clayton a dime saying, “Get yourself a drink and keep away or it will be your turn.” Clayton didn’t know what he meant, but he got the drift and stayed away.
            Fred and Anne heard enough to know that the two men were talking about Webfoot Mary and Bellegarde seemed very upset. Bellegarde and Hewitt were drinking beer and with each round they loudly proclaimed their friendship and shook hands. It seemed a little stiff, though and soon the men were stiff too. At one point Bellegarde raised his glass and said, “Do you see that beer? My life has been pure as that beer. I have never hurt anyone. I have never killed anyone.” He lowered his beer and gazed into it, then he raised his eyes to his old friend. “I mean to kill you,” he said.
            “Mmph,” spluttered Hewitt, who was pretty drunk too and took the other man’s threat as a joke. Bellegarde drank his beer and soon the two men were staggering across the street toward Bellegarde’s place. As they crossed Bellegarde told Hewitt that he could sleep in the hotel. Hewitt said loudly, “I wouldn’t sleep in that cursed place for a thousand dollars. I’ll take my chances sleeping with you.”
            The next morning things seemed pretty normal, except for the amount of drinking that went on. Charles Bellegarde and Charles Hewitt came into Clayton’s for a couple of drinks before returning across the street for breakfast. Anne Clayton saw the two men arguing on the porch a little while later and Clayton came across the street for his buggy and talked Fred into riding out to Crystal Springs Creek with him. The weather was nice and Hewitt didn’t say much on the short journey. The two men took the air and then returned to Clayton’s stable. Hewitt went back to Bellegarde’s place.
            About 11:30 men were starting to gather at Clayton’s for lunch when they heard three pistol shots from Bellegarde’s house. Suddenly Charles Hewitt burst through the door and ran into the vegetable garden at the side of the house. Bellegarde emerged in the doorway with a breech-loading shotgun. Hewitt fell to his knees in the garden and begged for his life. 

            “Don’t, Charlie, don’t,” he said.
            Fred Clayton and a few others stood in the street watching the scene and they added their voices to the plea, begging the Frenchman not to shoot. Bellegarde fired the shotgun and Hewitt fell dead in a potato patch. Bellegarde then turned to the on-lookers and brandished the double-barreled shotgun.
            “Now you look out,” he said.
            The witnesses, completely unnerved, scattered and found hiding places. Bellegarde went into his place and slammed the door. The town marshal made himself scarce and the frightened witnesses closed the street and kept everyone away from the death house, sure that to go near Bellegarde’s lair would mean instant death. It took several hours for Multnomah County Coroner George River to arrive and take charge of Hewitt’s body. Since witnesses said that Bellegarde was alive and threatening to kill anyone who came after him he stayed away. Finally Sheriff Penumbra Kelly arrived with two of his men and cautiously approached the house.
            Bellegarde had gone up to his bedroom right after the shooting and standing in front of a mirror slashed his own throat with two steady strokes of a Johnson pipe pattern straight razor. By the time Sheriff Kelly broke into the place Bellegarde had been dead for several hours and his body lay in a large pool of blood. According to the Oregonian, “As soon as the fact of Bellegarde’s death became known the courage of Sellwood’s inhabitants rose 30 degrees, and it was difficult to keep the crowd away from the house.”
            The sensational nature of the crime piqued public interest and Coroner River put the two bodies on display in his funeral parlor at 4th and Yamhill. Mrs. Dr. Hewitt had her husband’s remains taken to Vancouver for burial as soon as the inquest was over; but Charles Bellegarde, with his throat wounds artfully sewn closed, remained on display for a couple of days before being buried in Sellwood Cemetery. The attractive mustachioed macquereau drew quite a crowd, estimated up to 7000, many of them young ladies. The cursed St. Charles Hotel remained vacant for years before becoming the Portland Rug Co, which was operating on the site in 1927. The haunted old building was torn down in 1950 when the current structure replaced it.

Thanks to the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE) History Committee for the photograph of Gottschalk’s and research on the neighborhood.

            If you enjoyed this story I hope you will read my book


Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Brother's Keeper

In the 1870s and 1880s Portland attracted a large number of immigrants from all over the world. Picture Courtesy

            Alfred Andersen, 20, an immigrant from Norway, arrived in Portland in 1874 and began a career as a seaman on steamboats. In the 1870s Portland was becoming an important Pacific coast port, but it was still difficult to get the large ocean-going vessels all the way to the city with the narrow and dangerous channel down the Columbia River. Portland historian Barney Blalock explains the process in his book Portland’s Lost Waterfront. Steam tugboats ran between Portland and Astoria to ferry freight and people between the city and its closest seaport. This provided lots of good jobs for both boat crews and longshoremen in Portland. Andersen worked the steamboats for eight years, but he never managed to earn much money. Like most of Portland’s seamen he lived a hand-to-mouth existence, alternately flush and broke. His friends remembered that he often had to borrow money from them.
            By 1881 Alfred had saved enough money to finance a trip back to Norway to visit family. He was gone for nearly a year and returned to Portland broke, as usual. While he was away Alfred heard about the success of his brother Charles who had gone to Chicago around the same time that Alfred came to Portland. Charles, two years older than his brother, ran a successful saloon in the Windy City and was rumored to be wealthy. When Alfred returned to Portland he began writing to his brother; extolling the virtues of muddy Portland and inviting him to come west.
Steamship traffic between Portland and Astoria was heavy, providing a lot of jobs. Picture courtesy of

            When Charles decided to check Portland out he did it in style. He sold his Chicago saloon and convinced a young Swedish girl, Bertha Nelson, to quit her job as a housemaid and travel with him. Charles and Bertha arrived in San Francisco on September 28, 1882 and registered as man and wife at the American Exchange Hotel. They were on their way to Portland and Charles let it be known he was in the market to buy a saloon. He was not shy about being seen with “an inch thick” wad of greenbacks that he carried in an ornate leather wallet. He was a little more secretive about the wide leather belt he wore around his waist, stuffed with twenty dollar gold pieces. He also had an open-faced gold watch and wore a large gold ring with a flat dark stone.
            Charles didn’t recognize his brother when he met Alfred. The two men hadn’t seen each other for more than eight years, but soon he was convinced that the man was really his brother. Alfred and his friend George Reid, a North End saloon keeper, took Charles all around town looking for a saloon to purchase. On October 7 Charles found a place he liked and signed a lease with a man named Marshall. The successful saloon keeper liked the prospects for business in the “wide open town” that Portland had become. His brother had other plans for him, though.
            Swan Island is a large sand bar in the Columbia Slough near the mouth of the Willamette River. Sand bars and snags were numerous in the Columbia and in the Columbia-Willamette Delta causing a lot of difficulty for navigation. In the 1860s U.S Senator Henry Corbett, a Portlander, convinced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin dredging the Columbia Channel in a process that historian Blalockcalls ‘The Big Dig.” Dredging of the Swan Island and Post Office channels added to the area of Swan Island and in 1882 it was a marshy island covered with vegetation. It was a popular spot for bird hunters who would row out to the island to shoot game.
Swan Island was a hazard to navigation that continued to grow as the channel was dredged. Map Courtesy of
            Alfred told his brother about the great hunting on Swan Island and offered to rent a couple of shotguns and take him hunting. Charles was interested, but he had an appointment in McMinnville on Sunday to look at another saloon. He wanted to check out conditions in the smaller town before making a final commitment to the bar in Portland. The brothers agreed that they would go hunting Monday morning, October 9, 1882. That night Alfred complained to his friend George Ried that his brother had changed his mind about Portland and gone to look at the place in McMinnville.
            Monday morning was a little misty on the river as the two brothers rowed out to the marshy island. They had rented two muzzle-loader shotguns for the trip. The clerk at the gun shop couldn’t remember for sure, but he thought that Alfred had taken some buckshot along with the birdshot and powder he bought to go with the rented guns. Captain William H. Whitcomb, a veteran of thirty years as a seaman, was aboard the steam tug Wonder, smoking his pipe and watching the river. He saw two men reach Swan Island in a row boat and disappear into the bushes.
            About a half mile upriver Whitcomb heard two gunshots and looked back at Swan Island. He saw a man run out of the bushes carrying two shotguns. The man dropped one of them into a patch of bright yellow mud and struggled with the guns before throwing them into a waiting row boat and rowing away across the river. “Wonder what he needs two guns for,” thought the old steamer Captain. He shrugged his shoulders and went back to work, not thinking of the incident until a dead body was discovered on the island nearly three weeks later.
            The next morning Alfred Andersen returned the guns that he and his brother had rented the previous day. The gun store clerk, William J. Riley, was annoyed to see that the barrels of one of the guns were jammed with yellow mud and its ramrod was broken. He remembered Charles from a conversation they had about a mutual acquaintance in Chicago and he was surprised that he hadn’t returned. “Where’s your brother?” he asked.
            Alfred seemed distracted and hurried as he answered. “He’s gone back to Chicago,” he said and hurried from the store. He went to the Depot Hotel where Bertha Nelson was still waiting for Charles to return. Nelson, a very friendly and hard working young woman, had taken a job as a housemaid with a Portland family in the few days she and Charles had been in town. Alfred told her that Charles got tired of Portland and went back to Chicago without her. Alfred proposed that she continue her travels in his company and the congenial twenty-year-old Swedish woman went along.
Prosperity in Portland, fueled by the grain industry among others, was very attractive to immigrants looking for jobs. Picture Courtesy of
            Alfred took a large packet of money, some clothes and some jewelry from his brother’s trunk and then got rid of it somewhere. It was never found. He and Bertha took a steamer to Kalama, Washington Territory and from there they went to Tacoma by train. On their “vacation excursion” they stayed six days in Tacoma before taking ship to Victoria, British Columbia where they stayed another week before heading for San Francisco on the steamer Dakota. Alfred and Bertha shared staterooms and hotel rooms along the way as man and wife and Alfred introduced himself as a successful saloon keeper from Chicago looking for a saloon to purchase.
            Coincidentally Alfred Andersen lived in a house near the Willamette river that had a view of the spot where J. Nelson Brown’s body was found after he was killed by brothel keeper Carrie Bradley. It is amazing that his “vacation excursion” with his brother’s mistress followed nearly the same trail that Bradley and her gang had taken when they fled the city after bribing Police Chief James H. Lappeus.Maybe it was because he hadn’t paid a bribe that Lappeus wired a warrant for the arrest of Andersen and Nelson to San Francisco and requested assistance from the police chief there.
            Charles Andersen’s body was found on October 29 by a couple of hunters. It was so badly decomposed it could only be identified by the clothes it wore, especially the hat. The hat had been perforated by buckshot from the two blasts the dead man had received. The dead man’s money belt, ring and watch were missing, although a rusted cheap watch was found on the corpse. It was thought that the watch had stopped at the time of death, but when it was wound it ran perfectly well. Lappeus soon determined that Andersen’s brother had left town suddenly around the time that the victim was last seen alive. He found a photograph of Alfred in Davidson’s gallery and dispatched Detective Hudson with copies of the photo on the killer’s trail.
            Hudson arrived in Victoria, B.C. two days after Andersen and Nelson had shipped for San Francisco. He was able to find out that they had left on the Dakota and wired Portland for further instructions from Lappeus. The chief told him to come home and then wired the warrant to San Francisco. The San Francisco police met the Dakota when it arrived and took the two suspects into custody. Lappeus went to the City himself to bring the pair back to Portland.
            Andersen claimed that he thought his brother had gone back to Chicago and Bertha backed him up, but it didn’t take long for the prosecution to put together a strong case against the seaman. Alfred Andersen was executed by hanging on July 20, 1883 in the same stockade that held the gallows when Archie Brown and Jack Johnson were hanged in 1879. Diane Goeres-Gardener in her book Necktie Parties describes the execution and gives excellent information on the case. It is from Ms. Goeres-Gardner that we get the rest of the story on Bertha Nelson, as well.
            Bertha was held for several days in the Multnomah County jail as a material witness in the case against Andersen. She was never charged as an accessory and she was seen as a naïve party who was deceived. During the trial she made the acquaintance of Antoine Anderson, a friend of Alfred’s and a witness against him. Anderson had also been held in jail as a material witness before the trial and he had struck up a friendship with the friendly young woman. In February 1883 Bertha and Antoine got married and moved to Slabtown, which was then still a real neighborhood in northwest Portland; presumably they raised a large family.
      If you enjoyed this story I hope you will read my book