Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Wisdom Light Murder: Alternative Possibilities in the 1946 Torso Case

My co-author of Portland on the Take, JB Fisher, has been re-evaluating the 1946 Torso Case for a new project we are doing with KOIN TV. Slabtown Chronicle is proud to present his findings here.

Although the 1946 Torso Murder victim was never identified, the investigation turned up the disappearances of several women in the Portland area.

In their 2016 book, Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland, JD Chandler and Theresa Griffin  Kennedy make a compelling case for the idea that the unidentified torso victim that washed up on the banks of the Willamette River in April 1946 was Portland’s own AnnaSchrader. Schrader’s history with the Portland Police Bureau including her knowledge of the department’s inner workings as a private investigator and her tumultuous affair with PPB Lt. Bill Breuning would help explain both why she disappeared and why the torso case was left unsolved.

While the Anna Schrader hypothesis is intriguing and highly plausible, it is interesting to acknowledge other leads that the investigators were following in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Oregon State Police files shed light on a number of other missing persons who potentially matched the torso victim. While most of these were ruled out decisively (either because the missing persons were located or some identifying mark, feature, or condition determined them incompatible), several other subjects remained highly compelling potential matches to the torso victim. 
Although not officially involved in the Torso Murder investigation, Police Chief Leon V. Jenkins did handle some of the leads and may have had a motive to keep the case from being solved.

Bessie Carol Nevens

On April, 16, 1946, less than a week after the torso discovery, a hand-written letter was received by Acting Chief L. V. Jenkins at the Portland Police Bureau from Mrs. J. L. Wilson of Los Angeles. Numerous such letters were received in the days and weeks after the torso turned up, but most were quickly ruled out and the concerned parties notified. This one was different.

Mrs. Wilson explained that she was worried about her sister, Bessie Carol Nevens who had left Los Angeles July 10th, 1943 and had not been heard from since. At that time, a man had called at Nevens' home saying he was a cousin and that he was taking her up to Oregon to work on a ranch. Prior to this, a friend of Nevens' husband had contacted Mrs. Wilson requesting her sister's address. He explained that the husband was interested in sending an allotment to her. Nevens' husband was serving in the Navy as a pharmacist's mate and had never paid his wife a cent since breaking from her in 1937.

Upon learning that her sister had left with a stranger headed to Oregon, Mrs. Wilson contacted the party that had requested Nevens' address just days before she was taken to Oregon. In response, "all I got was that her husband is in the South Pacific and was not the one who called. I know that, but it could have been someone he knew."

Mrs. Wilson confirmed in the letter that her sister was in her early fifties, thus matching the age of the torso victim. She also described her sister's hair as gray, which would eventually prove a match when the head was discovered that October. She pointed out to investigators that the family had no cousins in Oregon and that she was uncertain as to the identity of her abductor.

Chief Jenkins' reply back to Mrs. Wilson was standard. He encouraged her to contact local authorities in Los Angeles to initiate a missing persons search. He reassured Mrs. Wilson that the letter would be passed along to the State Police since the crime happened outside the jurisdiction of Portland. While Captain Vayne Gurdayne of the OSP wrote back a few days later, no further follow up reports or letters exist in the file which suggests that Bessie Carol Nevens was never ruled out as the torso victim.

It should also be pointed out that in the mid-twentieth century, a number of ranches in central and eastern Oregon were owned by vice racketeers and corrupt cops the likes of Jim Elkins, Al Winter, Portland chief "Diamond Jim" Purcell and Earl Bush. The association of these ranches with gambling, money laundering, prostitution, and other vice is widely established. If Bessie Carol Nevens was abducted to Oregon for criminal purposes, it would be likely that law enforcement would cover the tracks since there were strong ties between racketeers and local police agencies involved in pay offs and protection.

Nevertheless, there is nothing more to determine whether Bessie Carol Nevens was in fact the torso victim.
During WWII the Portland shipyards employed thousands of women. At least one of them was investigated as a potential victim in the Wisdom Light Murder.
Eva Linder Panko

During World War Two, Eva Linder worked in the Portland shipyards building the Liberty ships that would help ensure the Allies' victory in the war. There she met fellow ship worker Tony Panko and the two were married January 29, 1944. The couple then moved to a small farm near Oregon City that Tony had acquired before the war.

Very quickly, the marriage deteriorated. Genevieve Baldwin, a friend of Eva's, would later tell the Oregon State Police that she "heard Tony threaten to kill Eva, that he was very jealous and hot tempered."

Within ten months, the marriage was over and a divorce was filed October 17, 1944. Eva then purchased a house in Southeast Portland with another shipyard worker, Herbert Troy Dennis.

Then, on November 21, 1944 the house burned down and Eva Linder Panko disappeared. She was described as in her 50s, grey hair originally brown, 5' 3" and 140 pounds with false teeth and a glass eye.

Efforts to track down Eva proved futile but investigators did locate Herbert Troy Dennis living in Seneca, Illinois. They learned that he had a brother in St. Louis and that both Dennis brothers were ex-cons with a record of forgery and burglary. It was also determined that the house fire in southeast Portland had been intentionally started for insurance purposes although no claim was ever realized.

By April 1945, Herbert Troy Dennis disappeared after violating parole and Eva Linder Panko was never found, Dr. Richardson who had performed the autopsy on the torso victim and the head ruled out Panko as the victim simply because he was confident that the torso victim had had both of her eyes at the time of death (although the head was eyeless when it was discovered).

Whether or not Eva Linder Panko could be ruled out confidently as the torso victim, she most certainly met with foul play and her ice-cold case would be long forgotten if not for the files of the torso murder.

Marian Coffey

Marian Coffey was fond of hanging out at taverns and bars with various men, despite the fact that she was married to Alton Coffey, "an insanely jealous man" who had several times tried to kill her. One of the places that Marian had frequented was the Tillicum Tavern on the Beaverton-Bertha Highway (now known as the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway). On April 16, 1946 Alton Coffey came to the Tillicum Tavern and showed the tavern's owner Claude Clark a newspaper article about the torso discovery. "Have you seen the latest?" he asked Clark. "I think this is Marian."

In an Oregon State Police report dated April 26, 1946, Vayne Gurdayne had this to say about Alton Coffey:

“Mr. Coffey came to the Milwaukie office [of the Oregon State Police] to look at the clothing found with the torso…and stated from the description appearing in the papers he believed this subject likely to be his wife; that she disappeared on March 18, 1946; that he left for work and on his return that evening she was missing and no word had been received from her since that time. He stated they had been married at Newark, N. J. five years ago; that they came from Newark to Portland about two years ago…He stated since their marriage his wife has disappeared at least ten times; that she associated with other men and frequented beer parlors, and that he had reported her missing a number of times to the Portland Police, and at one time had located her at the Tillicum Tavern…

“Coffey described his wife as 50 years old, 5 feet 41/2 inches, 140 pounds, very dark brown hair almost black, brown eyes, dark complexion, wore glasses, false teeth. He states she had been suffering with a tumor of the womb and that part of her uterus had been removed and at one time she had had a Caesarian operation. That while employed at the Tillicum Tavern she had associated with a party by the name of Willis Baker who…lived near Oregon City; that he had checked near Oregon City trying to locate this subject without success…

“Coffey denied ever having abused his wife or having struck her but did state several times she had returned home badly bruised, etc.”

At the end of the report, Captain Gurdayne has this to say about Alton Coffey:

“Coffey was very nervous while talking to the writer and I was not too much impressed with his appearance and actions so assigned Sergeant Genn to check further as to whether or not Mrs. Coffey bore the surgical scars, etc.”

No follow-up reports survive in the OSP file regarding Marian Coffey. Much like Bessie Carol Nevens and Eva Linder Panko, there is no evidence to suggest that Marian Coffey was ever decisively ruled out as the torso victim, nor is it clear whether her whereabouts were ever determined.

The investigation of the Torso Murder case sheds a great deal of light on the lives of women in the 1940s and the prevelance of domestic violence at that time.
Marie Diffin

On March 2, 1950, nearly four years after the torso discovery, George Alvin Diffin reported to authorities in Hood River, OR that he had important information pertaining to the case. His wife Marie Diffin had been missing since September 1944 when she left him and their four children in Springfield, OR. According to Diffin, he had heard rumors that she was in Portland and emphasized that "she was a great man chaser and hung around bars in order to get free drinks."

The fact that her parents in Klamath Falls had not heard from her made Diffin convinced that she had met at some point with an unfortunate end.

Diffin explained that in the early 1940s the couple began to have marital problems and his wife left periodically with several different men including Carl Schultz and George Hart. Although Diffin offered few specifics, he suggested that both Schultz and Hart had been involved in robberies in various parts of Oregon and that both had spent time in the State Penitentiary.

When George Diffin was asked by investigators why he had waited so long to come to authorities concerning his wife’s disappearance, he simply explained that he had visited with his daughter recently and she stated that she was going to report it if he didn’t. Even then, he waited an additional two months before reporting the situation to police in Hood River.

In closing the report, Oregon State Police private Robert Wampler offers the following remarks on George Diffin:

“It is apparent that George Diffin is not telling the whole story concerning the disappearance of his wife. Therefore, it is respectfully requested that the relatives and friends listed in this report be contacted for any information they might have concerning the above Marie Diffin and other subjects reportedly involved. It is possible that Marie Diffin is alive and her parents know of her whereabouts…

“In the event it is learned that Marie is definitely missing, it could be easily possible that George Diffin himself could be implicated. However, it is merely a supposition.”

When investigators followed up with Marie Diffin’s family members, they learned that she was indeed missing. Daughter Coleen Mae Downend (19) said that she strongly suspected that her mother was dead, “stating that the mother thought an awful lot of the younger child who was at the time the mother left three years of age and if not dead or forcible [sic] detained would have gotten some word to them for the boy’s sake.”

The daughter also explained that in addition to an operation for “female trouble” back in 1942, her mother had “a large bump on the upper right shoulder in which [she] had been advised that it might be cancerous unless attended to.”

When they spoke to George Diffin’s sister Mrs. Robert Jenkins in Hood River, investigators learned that “she was positive Marie Diffin was dead but had no idea what had happened to her or how it had come about. That the last time she had seen her in the latter part of 1943 she had had a growth on her shoulder which looked cancerous and that there was a good chance that that killed her.”

Mrs. Jenkins went on to describe her brother as “a liar and very mean,” saying that “he had a terrible temper and at one time in years gone by had threatened her, his own sister.”

Marie Diffin’s parents similarly confided to investigators that George Diffin was mean and violent and that on several occasions he told Marie that if she left he would kill her.  They also confirmed that she had left with George Hart and Carl Schultz back in 1944.

While Carl Schulz was not located, the Oregon State Police spoke with George Hart who explained that he last saw Carl Schulz and Marie Diffin in late September 1944 when the two told him that they were “going so far that no one would find them…she suggested that they might go to Mexico.”

There is no follow-up report on the Marie Diffin case after March 30, 1950 when investigators spoke with George Hart. Unlike the other possible victims discussed above, there is no clear evidence that Marie Diffin fit the profile of the torso. She was (as of 1944) 35 years old, 5’2” and 140 pounds, dark brown hair, “very large rump…” However, once again, the case was never conclusively pursued and the victim is most likely missing to this day. 
One connection that was never investigated by the Torso Murder detectives was the possibility that the murder was connected to the nefarious actions of the Portland Police Bureau.
The Wisdom Light Killer

While most mentions of the 1946 discovery of a middle-age female body in the Willamette River refer to this as “the Torso murder,” Oregon State Police reports and other references in the late 1940s call the case “the Wisdom Light murder.” This is likely referring to the place where the torso was discovered—a small moorage on the Willamette River below Oregon City known at the time as Wisdom Island Moorage. Perhaps there was a light on the moorage so that the name would more closely specify the location of that grisly discovery.

None of the cases discussed above yielded any suspects in the torso murder. George Diffin, Herbert Troy Dennis, Alton Coffey, Willis Baker, Tony Panko—none of these were pursued far enough to become suspects. Other names did come up in the investigation as potential suspects: Donald A. Benson, Richard Purnell, Russell Frederick Purnell, Carl Christian Roth alias Carl James Parnell, James Louis Purcell.

Yet no one was ever apprehended as an actual suspect in the case and the Wisdom Light killer has faded into the darkness of the long forgotten and elusive past. But if the torso was indeed Anna Schrader, then we know who killed her and why those individuals were never pursued.  -- JB Fisher.

While it is not possible to say with certainty that Anna Schrader was the victim of the Torso Murder, there is compelling circumstantial evidence to support that conclusion.  The evidence is laid out in my 2016 book Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland. We will be exploring that evidence and the case in a special KOIN TV event on Facebook on March 1st at 7pm. Please join us.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

No Time to Learn


Joe Hopkins won the National Golden Gloves Middleweight Championship in 1963 when he was 17.  His pro career was short-lived and the injury-prone boxer was banned by the Portland Boxing Commission in 1973 to prevent further injury.

        Something happened to Joe Hopkins. The young boxer, who had been a Golden Gloves champion as a teenager, described by Portland fight promoter, Sam Singer, as “a gentle, simple kid… [without] a mean bone in his body” was suddenly frantic.  Convinced that his neighbors had stolen a litter of kittens from his front porch, on the afternoon of October 8, 1974, he began shooting a handgun at their house.  A few days later the Portland Boxing Commission insisted that there was no brain damage that could explain his erratic behavior on the day he died, but he had been suspended from boxing the year before for fear of further injury.  No one was ever able to explain what happened to Joe.
            In 1974, before police officers received training in how to deal with people in mental and emotional crisis, they were aware of the problem and they approached the troubled young man carefully.  Officer William DeBellis, first on the scene, approached Hopkins on the front porch of his house and tried to talk with him.  Hopkins, yelling that he would kill DeBellis if he came any closer ran into his house and slammed the door.  DeBellis, and other officers who arrived quickly, kept watch on the house and soon found out that Hopkins had been in treatment at University Hospital’s North Psychiatric Unit.  Three officers watched the house while waiting for help to arrive, but none of them noticed when Hopkins slipped out the back door and made his way downtown.
            Hopkins had been in trouble before; arrested in 1971 for frequenting a gambling house, he had been in and out of the Psychiatric Unit and was currently being supervised by the Metropolitan Public Defenders (MPD) office.  From his house he went to the MPD office on SW 5th Avenue, and told them about the confrontation with the police.  It is not clear whether his supervisor there knew that he was still armed, but he called the police to report that the young man was there and should be picked up.  Hopkins, still very restless, left the office before the police arrived.  When Officer Gene Maher arrived at the MPD office, employees pointed out Hopkins walking down the street. Maher and Officer Eugene Francis approached Hopkins, planning to take him into custody.  Officer Bruce Harrington watched the three men from a nearby patrol car.
            Hopkins was still very agitated and he resisted when the two officers tried to arrest him.  He pulled a .38 revolver from under his jacket and fired a shot, before Harrington shot him in the chest, killing him instantly.  The death of the agitated young black man, the first suspect killed by Portland police since 1971, was considered an inexplicable tragedy, but it was the beginning of a series of shootings that enflamed community feeling and heightened tensions between African-American Portlanders and the police.  Over time the shooting of Joe Hopkins would be seen as the impetus for a new round of community organizing that would uncover serious problems within the police bureau.
The shooting of Joe Hopkins while in a violent psychotic episode in October 1974 was seen as an inexplicable tragedy, but his death was the first in a series of events that led to a new period of community activism in Portland.
            In 1974 there was little oversight for police shootings.  The Homicide Division conducted investigations and often they were cursory.  Not since the 1945 shooting of Ervin Jones had there been major controversy or community protest over a police shooting.  The shooting of Joe Hopkins was ruled justified because of his earlier violent behavior and his firing a shot while resisting arrest.  Just a few weeks later though, the shooting of a second black man raised questions about how the police were being regulated.
            The second shooting occurred on October 27 and again it involved a young man with a police record.  Kenneth “Kenny” Allen, 27, was a familiar figure on the streets of Northeast Portland. Allen, an intravenous drug user, prowled the streets looking for opportunities among the prostitutes, drug dealers and their customers; he had a long arrest record.  On the night of his death two undercover police officers, John Hren, 26, and Ed May, 28, were also prowling in an unmarked car looking for prostitutes to arrest.  Allen was talking with two women on the sidewalk when he saw the car with two white men pass by.  He flagged the car down and asked if the men were looking for drugs.  Hren told him they weren’t interested in drugs, but they were looking for women, indicating the women that Allen had been talking to.  Kenny said he could take them to a brothel and climbed into the backseat of the car.
            Allen directed the two undercover officers to an address on N. Congress Street, but when they arrived he produced a handgun and stuck it in Hren’s left ear.  He said it was a holdup and he wanted their cash.  According to Hren, Allen seemed very nervous and began to pat Hren down, discovering his shoulder holster under his jacket.  At that moment, Ed May, who was in the driver’s seat, pulled his weapon and fired at the man in the back seat.  Both officers emptied their weapons and then jumped out of the car.  Allen, who also went by the name of Kenny Nommo, was hit by six bullets which penetrated several internal organs and killed him within seconds.  Hren related a dramatic tale for the Oregonian and Mayor Neal Goldschmidt praised the shooting, implying it was a good idea to shoot the “crazies with guns.” Some felt that the whole story had not been told, but a cursory investigation again ruled that the shooting was justified and there was little community outcry.
Career-criminal Kenny Allen drew little sympathy from the public when he was shot by two police officers.  Mayor Neal Goldschmidt characterized him as a "crazy with a gun."
            Less than one month later another black man, Charles Menefee, 26, was shot to death by the police after a high speed car chase.  Questions raised by the Portland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Albina Ministerial Alliance motivated District Attorney Harl Haas to put the case before a Multnomah County Grand Jury, which again ruled that the shooting was justified.  The death of Menefee certainly seems to have been justified, but the sudden frequency of police shootings and the death of three black men at the hands of police raised community awareness and the issue of police accountability became a serious issue for organizing in Portland’s African American community.
            Charles Menefee had a record for burglary and was most likely up to no good as he cruised the small suburban town of Canby on the night of November 20, 1974.  In Canby a black man driving around was considered suspicious in itself and soon the local police approached Menefee’s car.  The young man attempted to evade the police and drove north at high speed.  It must have been an exciting chase as Canby, Milwaukie, Oregon City, Clackamas County, Portland and State police joined in the pursuit on Highway 99E, up Grand Avenue, across both the Hawthorne and Steel Bridges.  By the time the speeding car reached Williams Avenue in Northeast Portland, not far from Menefee’s house, there were fourteen officers involved.  Menefee’s car was finally forced out of control near Sacramento Street.  Menefee fired at least one shot from a rifle, wounding Portland Officer Kent Perry before dying in a hail of bullets. More than fourteen officers fired dozens of bullets in the exchange of fire and Portland Officer John Murchison was struck by a ricocheting bullet and slightly wounded. 
Charles Menefee was probably up to no good the night he died in November, 1974, but the overwhelming violent response to his crimes made Portland's black community nervous.
            Three black men dead at the hands of the police in one month created a big stir in the African American community. Besides the NAACP and the Urban League a new organization, the Black Justice Committee (BJC) was formed.  Charlotte Williams, daughter of Otto Rutherford, an important leader of the NAACP, became the most visible spokesperson for the BJC and soon the host of a weekly Public TV program, Black on Black, focused on issues in the black community.  Things cooled down between the police and Portland blacks, but when the next shooting occurred, in March, 1975 the BJC was well organized and vocal about their demands for police accountability.
            The killing of 17-year-old Rickie Johnson on March 14, 1975 by North precinct officer Ken Sanford combined with Police Chief Bruce Baker’s confrontational stone-walling attitude was the last straw.  Johnson, a junior at Washington High School, had obviously fallen in with a bad crowd.  His father, Oscar, warned him just weeks before his death that if the police ever caught him they would “blow his brains out.”  Any parent of a teenager knows the fear that Oscar Johnson must have felt at the poor choices his son was making, but only an African American parent knows the life threatening danger presented by the police.  A danger Rickie Johnson had “no time to learn” according to an Oregonian letter-to-the-editor published in the aftermath of the young man’s death.
            It started on March 12 when Radio Cab driver Marvin F. Zamzow was called to pick up an order of Chinese food from the Pagoda Restaurant in the Hollywood district and deliver it to a house on North Gantenbein Street.  When he arrived a young black man, later identified as Homer Zachery, another Washington High School student, held the door open for the cabdriver with a box of food.  Zamzow stepped into the house and Zachery closed the door behind him, guarding it with a baseball bat. Another young man, who was probably Rickie Johnson, pointed a handgun at the driver and demanded money.  Zamzow handed over about twelve dollars in cash along with the box of food.  The two young men were angry at the small amount of money and ordered Zamzow into a closet where they told him to wait for ten minutes.  After Zamzow reported the robbery, Officer Ken Sanford went to the vacant house to investigate and familiarized himself with the layout.
            Two days later when Zamzow received a call to pick up food at the Pagoda and deliver it to the same house in North Portland he called Officer Sanford.  Donning Zamzow’s pants and sweater, Sanford carried a box that looked like it was full of food; it actually contained his pistol which he held through a hole in the back of the box.  Zachery again held the door and Rickie Johnson waited inside.  Most witnesses claimed there was an unidentified third robber in the house who escaped and wasn’t pursued, but no testimony about a third person appeared after the initial report.  According to both Zachery and Sanford, Rickie Johnson pointed a handgun at Sanford’s face.  Zachery ran when Sanford displayed his weapon and yelled, “Police. Drop it.”  Sanford said that he was “afraid for his life” when he fired two shots.  One went into the wall above Johnson’s head, the second entered the back of his skull, passed through his brain and lodged in his cheek. Another officer, hiding nearby, fired a shot at Zachery, who was running through the yard.  It was never determined where the third bullet landed, but Zachery surrendered.
Charlotte Williams, daughter of Otto Rutherford, was a prominent activist in the PSU Black Studies Program and became the popular host of Public Broadcasting's Black on Black program.  She was the most visible spokesperson for the Black Justice Committee.
            Community response was instant. Questions about the shooting: Why was he shot in the back of the head? Why wasn’t he given the opportunity to drop the pistol before shots were fired?  Inconvenient facts: Johnson had a non-functioning, unloaded weapon; There were seven officers on the scene, most never named, and none pursued the “third suspect". A “blue wall” of resistance to any investigation; a general distrust of the Police Bureau as well as the unsympathetic government of Mayor Neal Goldschmidt; along with a simmering anger in the black community in the aftermath of two uprisings in Albina in 1967 and 1969.  All these elements combined to create a legal case that would become a sort of racial Rorschach test for the city of Portland.

PART TWO – Racial Rorschach Test

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.
Thanks for reading. If you found this post interesting or valuable please consider supporting my work with a contribution as small as $1.  History isn't free. Support your local historian.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Joy Ride

          I'm happy to announce that JB Fisher (my co-author of Portland on the Take) and I are working on a new project together.  It will be a look at the impact of the automobile on Portland especially in terms of taxicabs and the Traffic Division of the Police Bureau.  Here is a post about a fatal auto accident that made the city start taking traffic laws seriously for the first time. Hope you like it.
            It was shortly before midnight on Saturday September 18, 1909 when a Cadillac touring car pulled up at the corner of Northwest Ninth and Everett to pick up a party of young women.  The Cadillac belonged to William M. Ladd, the wealthy son of the late banker, real estate developer and city founder William S. Ladd.  At the wheel was Harry Holland, Ladd’s nineteen-year-old chauffeur and John Robertson, 24, a car washer from Covey Garage and self-described “professional joy rider.”  The party of young women included 29-year-old Dolly Ferrara-Martini, the ex-wife of a prominent attorney, and three young factory worker sisters recently arrived in Portland from Minnesota: Anna, Eva and Rosa Meyer.
The 1908 Touring car was  the largest model Cadillac had built up to that time and had no safety features. Picture courtesy of Passion For the Past Blog 
            Rosa and Eva, both still teenagers, said they were too tired to “go for a ride,” but their older sister’s friend, Dolly, was insistent.  Dolly, who was divorced from her husband, Albert B. Ferrara, five years before when her affair with another man became public, had been living a “fast life” for some time.  She convinced the three young women that a fast ride in the cool early morning air would be exhilarating.  The four women climbed into the Cadillac’s tonneau (rumble seat) and Harry Holland drove across the Burnside Bridge and headed east on the Baseline Road (Stark Street).  The younger girls didn’t know it, but Dolly had planned the drive with John Robertson and their destination was Fred Merill’s Twelve Mile House on the road to Gresham. 
            Fred T. Merrill, the Northwest Bicycle King, sportsman, cinema impresario and City Council member had withdrawn outside Portland city limits after his failed campaign for mayor in 1905.  He bought a horse ranch twelve miles from Portland on the Baseline Road and opened Portland’s first road house in 1906.  By 1909 Twelve Mile House was a popular destination for “joy riders,” people who were out for a good time with their automobiles.  The first Portland Auto Show, which had been held in March, increased the number of cars in Portland to over 3,000 and by that summer it seemed like everyone was enjoying “pleasure excursions” or joy rides.  Being outside the city limits allowed Merrill to skirt liquor control laws and keep his business open long after city drinking establishments had to close.  Merrill also consistently broke the laws against selling liquor on Sunday and serving alcohol to minors.  At a time when the Portland police and the Multnomah County sheriff had no automobiles the long trip to Twelve Mile House, combined with Merrill’s connections among the city’s powerful, protected him from law enforcement.
            It was well after midnight when Dolly Ferrara and her party saw the lights of Twelve Mile House.  As she had planned, Dolly suggested they stop for “something hot to drink.”  After the long brisk ride everyone agreed and Holland pulled the Cadillac into the roadhouse’s busy parking lot.  The witnesses’ stories varied, but Rosa Meyer probably told the truth when she said that she and her sister Anna had beer and Eva ordered lemonade.  Dolly and the two men ordered hot whiskey toddies and drank several of them as the party danced and enjoyed themselves until nearly three a.m.  According to all three Meyer sisters, Dolly and both of the men were visibly drunk as they walked out to the car.  Dolly insisted on driving and Robertson told Holland to sit in the back.  “Dolly and I will do the driving,” he said.
The accident that killed Dolly Ferrara, coming at the end of a summer notable for traffic fatalities, gained a lot of publicity and turned the public against the roadhouses.
            According to the Meyer girls Richardson was doing the driving, but Ferrara had her hands on the wheel and was doing some of the steering from the passenger seat as the Cadillac headed east on the Gresham Road.  Richardson insisted that the car was going no more than twenty-five miles per hour, the legal speed limit, as they approached a stretch of the road that came to be known as “the loop of death.”  At the bottom of a hill the road took a sharp turn to the left as it approached a gravel quarry.  The sisters said that Richardson was not as good a driver, or as confidant in his driving, as Harry Holland who was passed out in the tonneau with them.  Dolly Ferrara may have grabbed the steering wheel as the Cadillac sped down the hill, but whatever happened the car didn’t make the turn.
            The 1908 Cadillac Touring Car was the first large model that the two-year-old car company produced, and it included all of the latest technical advances in its design.  In the pre-product liability age Cadillac, like all car makers, gave no thought at all to safety.  Not only were there no seatbelts, there was not even a top to keep the passengers inside the car.  One of the most dangerous features of cars in this era were the open-flame headlights, which very often ignited a vehicle even in a minor collision.  The car carrying Dolly Ferrara didn’t have a minor collision.  It flew off the road into the gravel quarry and overturned as it landed.  Most of the people in the car were thrown clear of the wreck before it landed and escaped with only minor bruises, but Dolly Ferrara somehow got her feet tangled in the steering wheel and Anna Meyer stayed in the tonneau as the Cadillac crashed.
            Anna suffered a concussion and had to be extricated from under the car before it burst into flames, but she was not seriously injured.  Dolly Ferrara on the other hand took the full force of the car as it rolled over her body.  Her spine was broken in several places and it was clear that she was mortally injured as Holland pulled her from under the burning car.  John Robertson, suffering from shock as well as drunkenness, staggered around the burning car.  He eventually stumbled into a sand pit, where he had to be rescued when help finally arrived.  Holland kept his cool and after rescuing the two women under the car managed, with the help of Eva and Rose, to get the fire extinguished before he ran to the Twelve Mile House for help.  It took about twenty minutes for the first group of roadhouse customers to arrive at the accident scene and it was more than an hour before the sheriff and some deputies arrived.  Dolly Ferrara only survived about fifteen minutes before she died.  It was the sixteenth major traffic accident since June and the seventh fatality.
            The accident that killed Dolly Ferrara occurred the same week that Hazel Maddux and Frank Rodman were indicted in the death of May Real in an earlier fatal accident involving revelers at Larry Sullivan’s roadhouse, the Claremont Tavern, on the Linnton Road.  Two fatal accidents involving drivers who had been drinking at roadhouses within thirty days, just added to public sentiment against automobiles and their drivers that had seriously started with the death of 7-year-old Walter Reffling, who was run down as he stood on the sidewalk downtown on June 29, 1909.  Up until September the Portland Auto Club (PAC) had been responsible for enforcing traffic laws.  Auto Club members on the “speed committee” had the authority to arrest drivers exceeding the state imposed speed limit of 25 mph outside city limits and 8 mph within city limits.  The Club also investigated accidents and had the power to revoke driver’s license for drivers found to be unsafe.  Auto Club members preferred to reason with law violators and there were very few arrests or license revocations.  They were also volunteers and spent little time looking for moving violations, only intervening when they happened to witness them.
Merle Sims (right) became the first Portland motorcycle officer when he volunteered to use his own motorcycle.
            That all changed on September 1, 1909, when PAC president E. Henry Wemme declared “war to the end…against reckless automobile drivers and speed maniacs.”  Wemme pointed out that automobile owners were still a very small minority and if public sentiment turned against them they could see restrictive laws passed that would keep cars off the streets.  Claiming that ninety-five percent of automobile owners were responsible with the “highest regard for public welfare” and that cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco had more than ten times the traffic problems that Portland had, Wemme committed the Auto Club to work hard to stop reckless driving, “because it is in our interests to do so.”  With that in mind he announced the appointment of six reliable Auto Club members as “special police officers” who would receive pay for patrolling for traffic violations and who would “not hesitate to make an arrest.”  He also announced that the Auto Club was raising funds to pay the salaries of two regular police officers and equip them with motorcycles so they could chase and arrest speeders.  The new Police Chief, Arthur Cox, was glad for the support of the Auto Club and he pushed a bill through the City Council that made the registered owner of a vehicle legally liable for accidents it was involved in, regardless of who was driving.
            Just a couple of weeks later Dolly Ferrara was killed in a harrowing accident.  The city’s wrath turned against the roadhouse owners, most of whom were openly criminal.  Merrill, who was much more law abiding than most Portland businessmen, was charged with several crimes including selling alcohol to minors, a charge that could put him in jail for a year.  Holland and Richardson both faced auto theft charges, until W.M. Ladd finally decided not to press charges and Richardson faced a manslaughter charge.  Merrill, who not only owned the city’s first auto dealership, but also a successful chain of movie theaters was not convicted. He agreed not to renew his liquor license and devoted his time to raising horses and promoting sporting events.  Richardson was cleared of the manslaughter charge, because most of the witnesses agreed that Ferrara had grabbed the wheel just before the car went off the road.  It is difficult to track what became of John Richardson, but there is evidence that he served as part of Mayor Baker’s secret police in the 1920s.  Harry Holland joined the Police Bureau sometime before the Great War, but in 1917 he was implicated in a series of burglaries and was cashiered from the police force before serving time in the Oregon State Prison.
In 1911 the Police Bureau acquired its first automobile.  It was used mainly to transport investigators to crime scenes, rather than as a patrol vehicle.

            Patrolman Merle Sims, who joined the police force in February, 1909, volunteered his own motorcycle as a patrol vehicle and before the end of the year two more officers were equipped with motorcycles.  The “speed squad” was inaugurated in 1910 and Portland finally had a force that was dedicated to catching traffic violators.  The next year the Police Bureau acquired a Pope-Hartford touring car and the automobile patrol began, although the car was used to transport officers to crime scenes far more often than it was used on patrol.  The traffic fatalities of the summer of 1909 had forced the city to respond to the growing impact of cars on the city.  The Police Bureau and the City of Portland would never be the same.
          Future posts here and on Weird Portland will continue to chronicle the impact of cars on various aspects of Portland culture as we research and write the new book.  I hope you will stay tuned.  It takes a lot of work and effort to produce this stuff and it pays very little. That's why I rely on the support of my readers. Remember history isn't free. Support your local historian