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 Portlandwaterfront.org


            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 Portlandwaterfront.org

            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 Portlandwaterfront.org
            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 Portlandwaterfront.org
            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

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Murder and Mayhem in Portland, Oregon


            My latest book, Murder and Mayhem in Portland, Oregon is finally available  from the History Press. You can use any of the links on this page to order your copy from the publisher now, or you can get it from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or Powells. This book is the culmination of sixteen years of research on murders in Portland and I had a clear vision of what I wanted to accomplish with it. My book is an attempt to present the history of my favorite city, Portland, Oregon by telling the stories of some of the city’s more interesting murders. Because of the limitations of space I deal with Portland’s history from 1851 to about 1945; in the future I may write a second volume that will deal with the last half of the twentieth century and the first part of this century. In addition to the stories I have collected a great set of historical photos of Portland and some of the people involved with the stories. This is a very attractive book and I have been told that the stories are compelling. You will have to judge for yourself. In the meantime here is what you can expect inside:

            Pioneer Murder --    Portland’s first murder, the long forgotten shooting of a man named Cook, occurred six weeks after the city’s incorporation in 1851. The legendary first Portland murder, the shooting of Mortimer Stump by his father-in-law Danforth Balch, occurred seven years later. Two of the most interesting and controversial early Portlanders, John H. Mitchell and James Lappeus, were involved in the prosecution of this case and its aftermath. To read more click here.

            Mayhem on Morrison Street --   In 1878 14-year-old Louis Joseph, an innocent bystander, was accidentally shot and killed during the commission of a violent armed robbery in downtown Portland. The hunt for, capture and execution of the two killers was one of the biggest public sensations of the 1870s. The execution itself drew the largest crowd of the era of public executions in Portland (1858-1903). To read more click here.

            The Court of Death – The Court of Death, also known as Portland’s Tenderloin, was a square block downtown, bounded by 3rd and 4th Streets, Yamhill and Taylor. It was an area of open prostitution and violence. Two important murders in the 1880s occurred in the Tenderloin. The 1881 murder of J. Nelson Brown, a timber spotter from Washington Territory who had come to Portland on a spree, by Portland brothel keeper Carrie Bradley created a political firestorm that ended the career of Portland’s first Police Chief, James Lappeus. In 1885 the brutal ax-murder of French courtesan Emma Merlotin, ushered in the end of the Tenderloin district and the removal of most prostitution to the North End. To read more click here.

James Lappeus was an early City marshal and in 1870, Portland's first Police Chief. He had a long career on both sides of the law. Photo courtesy of Portland Police Historical Society.

            The Girl in the Strawberry Patch – The 1892 murder of Mamie Walsh, a 14-year-old Milwaukie girl, became one of the most widely read series of posts on my Slabtown Chronicle blog, new research and new content allow me to tell this sad and strange story more fully and put it in context with the development of the city. To read more click here.

            Beneath the Mountain of Gold – I am most interested in history that has not been told. There is no more aggressively untold story from Portland’s history than that of the Chinatown criminal organizations of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This chapter looks at the formation of the criminal tongs by focusing on three violent crimes: The massacre in front of Frank Woon’s restaurant in 1888; the murder of Chin Bow Chong in 1892; and the killing of Gong Fa, a Chinese-American woman, in 1893. To read more click here.

            The Legend of Bunko Kelley – Joseph “Bunko” Kelley is one of Portland’s legendary crimps. Crimps were the men who “shanghaied” sailors to man the sailing ships that visited Portland on a regular basis during the 19th century. The history of shanghaiing and the Sailors Boardinghouses is one of the most misunderstood parts of Portland’s history. In this chapter I explore the life and crimes of Bunko Kelley and debunk some of the myths that have obscured his character. The murder of George Sayres, for which Kelley was convicted in 1894, was bound up in a broader political movement that was sweeping Portland at the time and it played a part in the rise of Larry Sullivan, Portland’s own crime boss. To read more click here.

            The Black Mackintosh Bandit and the Great Escape – Another popular Slabtown Chronicle post was the starting point for this chapter. With fresh research and expanded content I was able to take a deeper look at the career of Portland’s own Wild West Bandit, Harry Tracy, and his side kick, Dave Merrill. To read more click here.

Harry Tracy ran with the Hole-in-the-Wall gang before coming to Portland. Photo Courtesy of Oregon State Archive.

            The Unwritten Law – In the 19th and early 20th centuries the lives of women were extremely controlled by the idea of respectability. Respectable women lived tightly limited lives and their activities were controlled by their husbands. Many husbands felt that they had the right to decide whether their wives lived or died. The Unwritten Law was a legal concept that husbands used to assert this authority and it usually was invoked as a legal defense for the murder of a wife or her lover by the husband. During his highly publicized trial for the murder of Stanford White in 1906 Harry Thaw’s attorney referred to the Unwritten Law defense as Dementia Americana. Thaw’s trial disseminated the idea of the Unwritten Law widely and murders along those lines occurred in great numbers in almost every state. Focusing on the killing of a popular musician by a jealous husband, who was a former cavalry scout for George Custer, in 1907 this chapter explores Portland’s experience with Dementia Americana. To read more click here.

            An Enduring Mystery – The bloody ax murder of William and Ruth Hill and their two children while they were sleeping in the new suburb of Ardenwald in 1911 is one of Portland’s worst unsolved crimes. Ernest Mass, the newly elected and inexperienced Sheriff of Clackamas County may have solved the crime in 1911 with the help of Portland private detective L.L. Levings, but his investigation was halted by a court order and all charges were dropped against the main suspect. In this chapter I remind us of a crime that shocked our great grandparents and a man who may have gotten away with murder. To read more click here.

            The Dark Strangler – The story of America’s first sexual serial killer and the four women he killed in Portland was another of the most popular posts at the Slabtown Chronicle. With fresh research and new content I was able to go into more detail and give a better sense of the victims of this maniacal killer. To read more click here.

            Taken for a Ride – Much has been written about organized crime in Portland during the 1950s, but most people fail to realize that the empires of Jim Elkins and men like him were built on a foundation that was laid in prior generations. In this chapter I look at the criminal gang run by “Shy Frank” Kodat and the deaths of Jimmy Walker and Edith McLain in 1933. To read more click here.

            The Other Side – Portland’s African American community has always been small, but very politically active. During World War II the black population of Portland increased more than ten times. The huge increase in population dramatically changed the relationship between black Portland and white Portland as discrimination and violence increased. Three killings in 1945, two in the Guilds Lake Housing Project and one in Vanport, had huge influence in the African American community and spurred the creation of an Urban League chapter in Portland. By 1948, when the Vanport Flood occurred, the groundwork had been laid for a vital Civil Rights movement that started in Portland earlier than in many cities. To read more click here.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

High as a Kite



The Pine Street Coffee House occupied this spot from 1872-1914 when the building was torn down. A few months later it reopened in the new building and remained in business for several years.

             Coffee houses have been an important part of Portland’s cultural scene at least since the 1870s. Early in that decade the Pine Street Coffee house opened its doors and soon had the reputation for serving the best coffee in town. Not long after they started serving breakfast “Jack’s German pancakes” and “two cackles and a grunt” – their colloquial name for ham and eggs – became legendary up and down the coast. According to Oregonian reporter Chester Moores, newcomers to town were often told, “It doesn’t matter where you sleep, but you haven’t eaten until you’ve had breakfast at the Pine Street Coffee House.” There is no record of what the Zellers, the Swiss family who ran the coffee house for more than two decades, or any of the previous owners paid for such valuable advertising, but it worked.

             By the 1890s, when the Zeller family took over, the Pine Street Coffee House was crowded most mornings. The familiar cry, “Here comes another millionaire,” shouted by the Bunch – regular customers – whenever a prominent banker or businessman joined them, earned a new name for the popular coffee house – The Millionaires’ Club. Prominent Portlanders such as William Ladd, Edward and James Failing, Henry Everding and the Corbett boys regularly had breakfast and coffee at the Millionaires’ Club. In 1914 the old building on Pine Street was torn down, but the Millionaires’ Club reopened in its old spot as soon as construction on the new building was complete. The popularity of coffee houses in Portland had nearly passed by then, though.

            The popularity of the Pine Street Coffee House had caught on and by the twentieth century there were busy coffee houses in several locations on both sides of the Willamette. Many of them were run by Greek, Serbian or Italian immigrants. A prostitution scandal in 1913 involving women working in several Greek coffee houses inspired a City ordinance banning the employment of women in such establishments. When the Great War started Serbian coffee houses became a focus of violence from Portland’s Austrian community, culminating in a near riot in a North Portland café in December 1914. In 1916 Prohibition came in and coffee houses saw a small boost in popularity, until it was discovered that many of them were selling illegal booze. Three scandals in a row ended the popularity of coffee houses in Portland and they virtually passed from the scene until the late 1950s.
In 1958 the Cafe Espresso brought a little sophistication to an ungrateful Portland. Karl Metzenberg is in the background. Photograph by Allan de Lay from the Oregonian.
  
            In 1958 Karl Metzenberg, a 1954 Reed College graduate, who “lived by his wits,” opened Café Espresso on SW 6th Avenue. Metzenberg had bummed around the northwest as a freelance writer and a dabbler in radio broadcasting since he left college and wanted to settle down in Portland and “jerk coffee” for a while. He spent about $10,000 to remodel an old restaurant and buy an Italian espresso machine. Seattle had three successful coffee houses at the time, but Portland had forgotten its coffee heritage. The Oregonian called Metzenberg’s new place “Portland’s first and only coffee house.”
 
            Metzenberg had hoped to attract an after-theater crowd, but other than on symphony nights, the theater-goers stayed away. Instead he became popular with a young intellectual crowd, especially college students. He told Oregonian staff writer Joe Bianco, “At Café Espresso you will discover a relaxed atmosphere conducive to, nay – designed for quiet conversation, the game of chess, and similar therapeutics.” 

            The Café soon got the reputation as a “beatnik” joint and was shunned by more respectable Portlanders. The young and eccentric flocked there to sip coffee and discuss race prejudice, Freudian psychology, religion and things that “were not meant to be discussed.” Sarte, Hemmingway and Ferlinghetti were popular, but it was considered ostentatious to carry around a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. Baroque music and folk guitar were popular, but the crowd would not abide the Romantics, much less vulgar Rock and Roll or Jazz. 

            Metzenberg insisted that there were no “real” Beatniks in Portland. “The Beatnik…is a person who has lost faith in nearly everything,” he told Joe Bianco, “My patrons still have some faith. They are students still going to school…. We do get the extremes on occasion. The scion of the west hills, the divorcee and mixed couple make irregular visits.” Disdain for the middle class was taken for granted. The middle class only knew the round world through the square picture tube of the “one-eyed monster” in their living room. That’s why they called them Squares.

            Karl Metzenberg approached life with a sense of humor; the sign on the front door of his café said, “English Spoken Here.” He also had a deep respect for others. He believed in Albert Schwiezer’s dictum that all living creatures have a right to life and that every other creature is obliged to recognize that right. Richard Abel, who ran Reed College’s bookstore and occasionally employed Metzenberg said he was “a very thoughtful and mild person. The only reaction I have ever seen to difficulty or crisis is a more or less whimsical attitude.”

            The so-called “Beatnik” café drew negative attention from the community including harassment. One night in May, 1959, shortly before midnight the negative attention created a crisis that Karl Metzenberg couldn’t shrug off with a whimsical attitude. It was about to become May 15th and there were about a dozen people in the café. Metzenberg was looking forward to closing up. Jean Paul Pickens, 22 and his wife Mary Ann sat at one of the tables with Gary Kilpatrick, 24 and an unidentified young woman. They were finishing their coffee and conversation when three young men burst through the door.
Larry Bolton was a football star at North Bend High School before he graduated. He was taking "bennies" the night he died.
  
            Larry Bolton, 19, a former North Bend High School football player, had been taking “bennies” – Benzedrine, a form of amphetamine – when he and Thomas Richardson, 20, and James Tucker, 23, entered the café and began to loudly harass the customers. Bolton yelled, “I’ve just been to an H party and I am high as a kite!” Richardson soon homed in on the table with Pickens and Kilpatrick. He insulted Mary Ann Pickens, who was six-months pregnant, and her husband began to argue with him. Soon Richardson backed down and the three rowdies left the café.
 
            Metzenberg was closing up. He cashed out his register and put his over-under two-shot Derringer pistol in his pocket as he always did when he had to make a night deposit. When Jean Paul Pickens and Gary Kirkpatrick left the restaurant they found Bolton and his friends waiting on the sidewalk. Bolton backed Kirkpatrick up against the building waving a “box-cutter” utility knife at his throat. Richardson said, “Not that one” and followed Pickens who had ducked back into the café.

            Richardson jumped on Pickens and wrestled him to the floor. Bolton and Tucker followed him into the building, Bolton brandishing his utility knife. Metzenberg, confronted by the knife-wielding young man pulled the small pistol from his pocket. Bolton laughed at the tiny gun, saying, “That little gun won’t stop me. Put it away and fight like a man.” Metzenberg said, “I don’t want to fight like a man or any other way.” He started to put the pistol back into his pocket when Bolton lunged at him with the knife. Metzenberg raised the pistol and fired one shot. The bullet hit the young man in the forehead killing him instantly.

            Stunned by the gunshot the wrestlers stopped their fight.  Metzenberg told his waiter, Edward Barns, to call the police and backed Tucker and Richardson into the storeroom, keeping his gun out so they wouldn’t leave the building before the police arrived. Metzenberg was charged with second degree murder for killing Larry Bolton, but he was acquitted on a plea of self defense.
Karl Metzenberg was acquitted of Second Degree Murder, but he had lost his taste for the coffee business and for Portland.
  
           Karl Metzenberg returned to the café, but he no longer had a taste for the coffee business or intolerant Portland; before the end of the year he accepted a job in Los Angeles in his brother-in-laws ribbon factory and left town for good. It took a couple of decades for the espresso coffee craze that was sweeping the west coast to regain its foothold in Portland.