Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Shooting At Birdlegs'

            Before his death in 1929 James H. “Birdlegs” Reed became one of Portland’s most legendary bootleggers.  He wasn’t a “moonshiner” – who made illegal liquor – and he wasn’t a “rum runner” – who smuggled it in – he was a nightclub proprietor who sold liquor and helped people have a good time.  Most of the time he was in business – at the Union Social Club on N. Park Ave and later at Birdlegs’ Roadhouse on the Baseline Rd (now Stark St.) – he was supplied with liquor by the Pullman Porter Bootleg Ring, which brought bonded liquor into Portland on the Southern Pacific Railroad.  The steady supply of high quality liquor and the protection provided by “fixers” such as Al Wohlers and later Tom Johnson allowed Birdlegs to operate without interruption for nearly two decades.
The Pullman Porters on the Southern Pacific Railroad, which made regular runs between Portland and Oakland, Ca., kept Birdlegs' Union Social Club, and a large part of Portland, in high quality bonded liquor all through Prohibition. Photo by Jack Delano. U.S. Library of Congress.
            Birdlegs, a blind man and an African American, opened the Union Social Club sometime before 1912.  Soon the Union was known as Portland’s highest-class “negro resort” that provided an elegant environment for drinking, gambling and interaction between the sexes.  Although Portland’s first jazz performance most likely took place at the Golden West Hotel, a few blocks away, music was popular at the Union and after 1914 it was not unusual to hear jazz there.
            The Union Social Club attracted a diverse crowd, although the majority of its customers were black, and it became a favorite hangout for African American prostitutes.  The old North End pastime of “trick rolling” – stealing money from drunks and prostitution customers – brought the heat down in 1912.  After several reports of men being robbed at the club, Police Chief Enoch Slover “declared war” on the club and staged several harassing raids there.  Ex-policeman, saloonkeeper and pimp Al Wohlers, the most powerful North End “fixer” of that time, provided protection, so Birdlegs never faced serious punishment, but the raids weren’t good for business and sometimes they seemed personal.  Like the time the Union was raided while Birdlegs was away.  The next day he bragged that it wouldn’t have happened if he had been there.  Within days the place was raided again and the police arrested more than a dozen people, including Birdlegs, who was there this time.
Police Chief Enoch Slover seemed to take a personal interest in Birdlegs Reed and staged several harassing raids on his Union Social Club in 1912. Portland Police Historical Society.
            After Birdlegs moved outside the city limits in 1919 his roadhouse became a focal point for violent crime.  Its prosperity attracted robbers and rivalry with other bootleggers caused several violent incidents, but the Union Social Club kept a low profile, with only one known incident of violence there.  The violence occurred in 1913, three years before Prohibition began, and it was the result of rivalry over a woman.
            Lena Smith, an attractive African American woman and part-time prostitute, was the cause of the rivalry between Allen Clarke and William “Mack” McPorter.  Smith would achieve greater notoriety in 1914 when she had cocaine smuggled to her in the city jail inside hollowed-out walnut shells.  She was not only a cocaine addict; she was a promiscuous woman who was loyal to no man.  Her simultaneous relationship with Mack McPorter and Allen Clarke created bad blood between the two men and they fought over her on more than one occasion.
            Mack McPorter, a bootblack at the Multnomah Hotel, confronted Clarke, a barber with a reputation for violence, over his relationship with Lena Smith in June 1913.  The argument became heated and McPorter brandished a knife.  Clarke, who was known as a “bad man,” pulled a gun and shot McPorter three times.  McPorter was hospitalized and Clarke was arrested for attempted murder.  McPorter didn’t appear in court to testify, probably because he was recovering from severe wounds, and Clarke was acquitted on a plea of self defense.
            McPorter slowly recovered from his wounds and nursed fantasies of revenge.  When he was released from the hospital in August, 1913, one of the first things Mack did was get a gun.  Late in the evening of August 18, 1913 Mack walked into the Union Social Club looking for Clarke.  Mack must have known where to find his rival as he made his way through the crowded nightclub to a back room where he was gambling.  McPorter didn’t say anything, but he fired his pistol several times, hitting Clarke and killing him instantly.  Bartender Johnny Patton tried to keep McPorter from leaving, but Mack pressed his gun into Patton’s stomach and pulled the trigger several times. The revolver clicked on empty chambers, but it was enough to make Patton let go of him and McPorter ran from the club.
            The murder of African Americans in 1913 was not a high priority for the Portland Police Bureau and they followed different rules than they did in investigating murders of Euro-American victims.  When Captain Joseph Keller and Patrolman J.W. Morelock arrived they found the Union Social Club empty except for the dead man, but there were about forty excited black people in the street.  Keller and Morelock pulled their guns and arrested the whole crowd.  One man ran and Captain Keller’s warning shots just made him go faster. He was never identified.
Police raids were expensive not only because police confiscated liquor and arrested the customers, but they often broke up the furniture too. U.S. Library of Congress.
            Standard procedure for solving a black-on-black murder at the time was to arrest all black people in the area and try and get one of them to confess.  After interrogating the forty suspects, Capt. Keller identified six who had witnessed the murder and who named “Mack Porter” as the killer.  Birdlegs Reed cooperated with the police and identified Lena Smith as the cause of the trouble.  During a “general roundup in the negro quarter” Keller arrested Lena Smith as a material witness.

            Mack McPorter was nowhere to be found.  The murder generated excitement for a few days, but when the killer couldn’t be found the police ceased investigating. McPorter had fled to Washington State where he remained at large until 1920 when he was picked up in Everett, WA on another charge.  The Everett police identified him as a murder suspect from Portland, but since no indictment existed for him no one ever tried to extradite him from Washington and the murder was forgotten.  The publicity didn’t hurt business at the Union Social Club, which continued to operate until 1918, two years into Prohibition.  After a major raid that year, Birdlegs closed the place and opened Birdlegs’ Roadhouse just outside the city limits on the Baseline Road.
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