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


Blogger Barney-Athanasius Blalock said...

Very interesting! I sometimes wonder if we are drawn to reading about murder for the same reason some of us are drawn to horror movies: we are glad it isn't us. We breath the sweet air and say, "Thank God, I am alive and in one piece!"

Thanks for the post! I am really looking forward to reading your book!

10:32 AM  

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