Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Pandora's Box Murder

The summer of 1946 was hot in Portland, in more ways than one. For at least a week it was over a hundred degrees everyday. Jack Teagarden played Jantzen Beach. You could almost hear the surf break in the rhythms of his band and the Columbia filled in for the sea.

It was a good year for movies. In one week that summer you could see: Spellbound, Mildred Pierce, A Walk in the Sun, or The Spiral Staircase. Portland always has been a good movie town.

There were 52 cinemas to choose from. Ranging from the stars of Broadway: Orpheum, Music Box, Oriental; to the classics: Aladdin, Baghdad, Rose Way; to the skid row: Star-"Jungle Virgin" plus burlesque, and 3rd Avenue--"Bring on the Girls" plus burlesque.

Besides Jantzen Beach, Oaks Park and Council Crest, it was not a good season for nightlife. The Fireside Room was, for obvious reasons, closed for vacation. Houston's was selling punchbowls made of ice. The Rose Room was closed for remodeling.

If it wasn't a night at the movies, or to take the air, and the crowds outdoors, you could take a drive. Thank God, gas was plentiful again; everything else was in short supply. With wartime controls still in place and famine stretching from India to Germany it was a time of shortages. Editorial cartoons illustrated the mood: Uncle Sam is waving the flag. A man says to him, "Nice, buddy, but do you know where I can get a shirt?"

Some people were glad the war was over. They listened to the war trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo and thought hanging was too good for the bastards.

Some were 18 and 19 year-old boys in the service and mad that there was no one to fight. That summer there was a rash of assault, robbery, rape, kidnapping and the occasional murder committed by sailors of the U.S. Navy. The traditional sailor’s weapon in Portland, a heavy beer mug, seemed to have graduated to a whiskey bottle by this time.

Violent crime has been a major part of Portland since the pioneer days. It was no different in 1946. William Kilpock, a 22 year-old war veteran said, “War is safer than standing in a Portland street. " He had a good reason to say this. One evening standing in front of the Orpheum Theater, after a show, Larry Brown, an ex-mental patient snuck up behind Kilpock and brained him with a hatchet. Kilpock survived a critical head injury. Brown went up for attempted murder.

There was also the gruesome reoccurring story of the woman's torso found wrapped in burlap floating in the Willamette. All summer long parts were found. Downtown the robbers and lunatics were bold. In the neighborhoods the crime was more domestic. The usual weapon was a knife, sometimes a gun. The killer was usually someone known and loved by the victim.

The most unusual of these cases occurred on Saturday July 27th 1946. On that evening, about 9 p.m. just as the rest of the city was starting to cool down, things got too hot for Fern Bowden. Her two teenage daughters were out with friends, her husband, James, on a fishing trip to Newport.

Things weren't good between Fern and Jim. She had filed for divorce a month ago and ever since had been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Jim had been nice, after his initial outburst, very hurt of course but putting up a good front. It was his jealousy, it pushed her further and further away. Ever since he got back from his war work in Alaska, he had been so suspicious. And there was Fred, whom she worked with at the freight terminal. He was so understanding and solid.

What was worrying her now was what was in that locker in the basement. The girls had seen Jim working down there with gloves on and he had yelled at them to stay away. It worried her, that's why she got the girls out of the house. A couple of drinks and a phone call to Fred to build up courage and then it was time.

At 8:45 p.m. the Hit Parade ended on KOIN. It was now or never. She left the radio on and could hear Tony Martin come on as she descended the stairs. A few minutes later the modest house in Southeast Portland was badly damaged in a blast that was felt several blocks away. Fern Bowden died instantly, her body so badly mangled that identification was difficult.

The patrolmen first on the scene thought it looked like a powder blast, maybe a hand grenade. They thought that maybe a war souvenir had exploded by accident.

James Bowden was questioned in Newport soon after the explosion. He denied knowing anything about it. Police began to suspect him after questioning his two daughters, Doris, 17, and Shirley, 13. The girls remembered seeing their father putting a paper-wrapped parcel into the footlocker. Their curiosity had been aroused by the fact that he wore gloves while he handled the package.

Among the debris in the basement police found a diary kept by Bowden. In it he had recorded the activities of his wife over the last couple of months, including meetings with a co-worker, Fred Hockenyos. A Clackamas Co. contractor came forward and said that he had sold Bowden six sticks of dynamite and some detonators in May. Bowden was soon arrested and charged with murder.

During his trial, which took place in December, 1946, Bowden claimed that he had built the bomb in order to kill Hockenyos, who he believed was having an affair with his wife. Bowden claimed that after building the bomb he had changed his mind and had locked it away in the basement until he could safely dismantle it. He said that he had warned his wife and daughters to stay away from the footlocker.

Both of the Bowden daughters testified at their father’s trial for what the press dubbed "The Pandora’s Box Murder." They said that their father had been acting strangely in the days before the explosion. He had aroused a lot of curiosity about the footlocker in the basement, even letting it be known that he kept his diary there. They believed that their mother had opened the footlocker to see what Bowden had written in the diary.

Judge Walter L. Tooze kept court in session day and night for a week in order to finish the trial before Christmas. After five hours of deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. James Bowden was sentenced to life in prison.


Blogger Shayne said...

hey nice blog. I want to link it to mine. :)

5:13 AM  

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