Monday, May 30, 2016

In Time You Will Understand

            Jans Hassing, known as William, wanted his wife dead.  William married his young bride, Edith Hedman a hotel maid from Astoria, in Denver, just a few months after she quit her job and came to Portland looking for a husband.  The two of them settled in San Francisco at first, but their marriage was not a happy one.  In March, 1909, just a few months after they were married Edith Hassing disappeared for several days.  William was intensely worried about her disappearance, claiming that he feared she had been abducted.  He didn’t tell the police about the violent confrontation the night before she disappeared.  That night, possibly when she announced that she was pregnant, William threw a knife at her, missing her by just a few inches.  She had run for her life and taken refuge with neighbors.  Edith claimed that she was suffering from memory loss and kept the secret of her pregnancy and her husband’s violence.  It was not the last time that violence in the Hassing home would make the papers.
William and Edith Hassing were only married for about two years, but they had a great deal of drama and violence between them. Photo from Multnomah County Library Historical Oregonian Archive.
            A few months later the family moved back to Oregon, settling in Milwaukie, where their son, Jans Hassing Jr. was born.  Instead of pacifying the home, the baby became an object of contention.  Hassing and his wife fought over the baby, and other things, constantly and the fights often became violent.  In October, after an argument, William chased Edith out of the house, threatening her life.  She took a streetcar to Portland where her brother worked as a janitor in an upper class apartment building.  Returning the next morning Edith found that her husband had left for his job as an electrician at the phone company, leaving the baby alone on the floor of the apartment with soiled diapers.  William, who was never a dependable employee, soon lost his job and abducted his son, taking him to Denver.  Edith, charging desertion, filed for a divorce and begged the court to give her back her son.
            In Denver William’s plans were frustrated when his sisters refused to take in the infant boy and insisted that he return the child to its mother.  He returned to Portland, dejected and discouraged and his plans went into high gear.  Edith, now living with her brother and his family in southwest Portland, was happy to have little Jans back and she set about making a life for herself and her son.  She started working as a waitress in several downtown restaurants and finally landed a job as a maid at the high-tone Alexandra Court apartments.  Meanwhile, William, whose behavior was becoming more and more erratic, had a difficult time finding a new position.  He begged Edith to come back to the little house he had built for her in Milwaukie, but she refused.  He made several attempts to win her back, but when Edith’s heart failed to soften he threatened her life.
            Hauling her enraged husband into court, Edith begged Judge George Tazwell to protect her from his violence.  Tazwell, who served as police court and municipal judge for many years, was a man who often let his personal prejudices and self-interest influence his work on the bench.  In this case Tazwell was influenced by his prejudice against women and also by the fact that there was no formal law against making death threats.  It might not be fair to blame Tazwell for the prejudice against women, because the Multnomah County and municipal courts were systematically designed to give men advantage over women.  Women’s testimony, especially in domestic violence cases was usually discounted; without a witness to corroborate her story, Edith Hassing had no case against her husband.  William was released on the promise that he would not attempt to carry out his threats; a promise he never intended to keep.
            William Hassing was released from jail on November 11 and he began a campaign of harassment against Edith and her brother, Emil Hedman, often lurking in front of the Keeler Apartments on SW 14th avenue where they lived.  Hassing had been planning to kill his wife for some time.  Two high profile murder cases in Portland that summer had featured the Unwritten Law and temporary insanity as defense strategies and Hassing was very interested in both cases, especially the murder of Grace Lambert. At that time “the unwritten law” ostensibly gave a husband the right to kill his wife or her lover in case of adultery.  It had been used as a legal defense for murder many times, often with the added defense of “temporary insanity.”  In the murder trial of Harvey Lambert for killing his wife, Grace, although the unwritten law was not a successful defense, insanity was.  William Hassing attended several days of Lambert’s trial in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. At one point Hassing told another spectator that Lambert “would get off” because of insanity. Some thought that he got the idea to plead insanity from watching Lambert.
            It is difficult to say how long William Hassing had planned to kill his wife.  His violent behavior had been escalating for the entire two years of their marriage, but it is clear that he made a specific plan in November.  He even went so far as to write a note to his infant son, telling him that he was going to “end everything” and that the baby should keep his note until he was grown and then he would understand.  On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1910, Hassing checked to make sure his pistol was loaded and then walked to the corner of SW 14th and Columbia, across the street from the Keeler Apartments and waited for Edith to return from work.
In 1910 the Police Bureau had no automobiles available to them.  For an emergency such as the shooting on Thanksgiving, 1910 the horse drawn patrol wagon responded along with a horse-drawn ambulance. Photo courtesy of Portland Police Historical Society.
            About 9:30 pm Edith Hassing showed up, walking toward the Keeler Apartments where she lived.  The weather was mild that evening and there were several people on the street who saw William Hassing step out of the shadows and approach his wife.  He walked up behind her, drawing a handgun, and without warning fired a bullet into the back of her head.  As she fell to the sidewalk Hassing bent over her and fired a second bullet into her head. After firing the second bullet Hassing looked around and realized that there were too many people on the street for him to get away.  He raised the pistol and fired a bullet into his cheek and fell to the sidewalk.  Two doctors, brothers Roy and E.D. McDaniel, were on the street nearby and rushed to the scene of the shooting.  Someone phoned for the police and for an ambulance.  Dr. Roy McDaniel knelt next to the badly wounded Edith Hassing and did what he could for her.  His brother attended to William who was bleeding badly from a wound in his face. William told the doctor that he was glad he had shot his wife. He also said that he had planned the shooting for several days.
            A horse-drawn ambulance soon arrived and Hassing was loaded aboard and rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital.  His unconscious, dying wife was left lying on the sidewalk until the police patrol wagon arrived.  It took more than thirty minutes to get the fatally injured woman to the hospital; she died a few minutes after arriving in the emergency room.  Meanwhile, William’s superficial wound was treated and he was taken to the county jail.
            The shooting was the end for Edith Hassing, but it was just the beginning of a long case that would be extremely controversial every step of the way.  It started with a protest by the Portland Women’s Club.  A few days after the shooting the Women’s Club issued a scathing report criticizing Judge Tazwell for releasing Hassing without bail and the “discrimination in favor of the murderer” they saw in the transportation of the victim.  “To all right minded people it would seem as though the murderous criminal properly belonged in the patrol wagon and that the poor, dying woman should have been conveyed to the hospital in the most gentle and considerate manner possible,” the report said.  Police Chief Arthur Cox swept the report under the rug, saying that the Hassing case only proved that the Police Bureau needed automobiles.
Police Chief Arthur Cox received a great deal of criticism for the way the Hassing shooting was handled. He swept the criticism under the rug, claiming it just proved that the Bureau needed automobiles. Photo courtesy of Portland Police Historical Society.
            Hassing remained in the County Jail for most of a year while standing trial.  His defense was that he had been driven insane by jealousy and that he had suffered an “irresistible impulse” to kill making him insane at the time of the shooting.  Hassing was a popular prisoner at the County Jail, being elected as “judge” of the Kangaroo Court that governed the prisoners in their cells.  He was so popular that several of his fellow prisoners testified at his trial about his “insane actions” while in jail.  Dozens of witnesses testified at his trial, defense witnesses claiming that he displayed insanity regularly; witnesses for the prosecution testified that he was shamming.  Since the only “insane acts” in evidence were refusing to shave, occasional ranting and refusal to make eye contact in court, there was not a strong case for insanity.  Three of Hassing’s sisters testified to the fact that nearly everyone in their family back in Denmark was insane, but it failed to sway the jury.  Hassing claimed that he was insanely jealous of his pretty young wife, but no evidence was ever presented to show that he had reason to be jealous of her.  The jury found Hassing guilty of murder in the first degree and early in April, 1911 he was sentenced to hang.
            The controversy didn’t end with a death sentence.  Hassing appealed his conviction, but in October the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the conviction should stand.  On November 16, 1911, almost one year after the murder Hassing was sentenced to hang once more.  Timing was everything in the Hassing case.  Less than one week after the resentencing, Governor Oswald West announced a moratorium on all executions in the state, commuted the sentences of all unexecuted prisoners to life in prison and called for a referendum on the death penalty.  It took until 1914 to bring the question to the ballot and Oregonians voted against the death penalty.  William Hassing’s life was saved.  He was transferred to the Oregon State Prison for a life sentence, but he wouldn’t stay long.  In August, 1917, just a few months after the U.S. entered the Great War, Hassing escaped from prison.  A posse searched for him for several months, but the last sight of him was in Nevada before he disappeared for good.
By the end of 1911 the Police Bureau had acquired its first automobile.  This 1911 Pope-Talbot touring car began to operate in January 1912. Photo courtesy of Portland Police Historical Society.

            Jans Hassing Jr., made an orphan by his father’s actions, was given into the care of friends of his mother.  They changed his name to John Prouty Burntrager and tried to give him a normal upbringing.  The young man, who served in the Coast Guard in his twenties, grew up without knowing of the tragedy that had orphaned him.
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