Monday, January 18, 2016

Nameless Et Al

            It was about 11:00 pm on November 19, 1918, a little over a week after the Great War ended, that a black, or dark gray Hupmobile crossed the Interstate Bridge from Vancouver, WA to Portland.  The large convertible with the top up and side curtains buttoned pulled off the road just south of the bridge and a tall man with dark hair got out and walked back up the bridge approach to the toll booth.  C.G. Herrman, 54 year-old long-time Portland resident, was on duty as bridge tender.  As the man approached the tollbooth he thrust two handguns through the window and forced Herrman to hand over about $123 in change.  There was more money in the booth’s cash register, but the robber found the bag of change heavy and unwieldy and left the rest.  The robber forced Herrman to accompany him as he walked back down the bridge approach.
The Portland Police Bureau's first motorcycle "speed squad" was organized in 1915. Two years later the Multnomah County Sheriff's Department added motorcycle "speed cops" to enforce the traffic laws on the Interstate Bridge between Portland and Vancouver, WA. Portland Police Historical Society.
            Traffic around the bridge was pretty heavy for so late at night.  A group of soldiers returning from a night on the town were walking toward the bridge on their way back to Vancouver Barracks and the headlights of cars could be seen approaching from both directions. “I’d kill you anyway if it wasn’t for that other automobile approaching,” the robber snarled, motioning toward the car coming from Portland.  He cautioned Herrman to keep his mouth shut and quickly returned to the idling Hupmobile.  The walking soldiers spotted a woman waiting in the car at the base of the bridge, but couldn’t get a good look at her.  The Hupmobile drove back onto the road and speeded south toward Portland.
            The speed limit on the bridge approach was 20 mph and the Hupmobile was going significantly faster than that as it passed the Standard Oil filling station at the corner of Darby St. and Vancouver Rd.  Behind a large billboard at the filling station, Frank Twombley, a young father and six month veteran of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department, and his partner Jack La Mont, sat on motorcycles as “speed cops.”  Twombley laughed as he saw the dark sedan speed past. “There’s a good one,” he said. La Mont was having some trouble with his motorcycle.  “You chase him, Frank,” La Mont said, “I’ll have my machine fixed by the time you get back.”  Twombley took off in pursuit of the speeding car, knowing nothing about the robbery that had just occurred.
            Twombley overtook the Hupmobile near the corner of Union Ave. (now Martin Luther King Jr. Ave) and Portland Blvd. (now Rosa Parks Blvd.).  Still on a wartime schedule of round the clock-work, there were several people on the street who witnessed what happened next.  The motorcycle drew up alongside the sedan and Officer Twombley motioned for the driver to pull over.  One witness saw the driver’s hand, holding a revolver, as he fired three shots at the pursuing speed cop.  One bullet struck Twombley in the side and passed through his heart and both lungs.  The motorcycle wobbled and hit the curb, spilling the mortally wounded officer onto the roadway.
            The Hupmobile didn’t even slow down as it sped south into the city.  Two passersby rushed Twombley to the Emergency Hospital, but he was dead by the time they arrived.  A Military Police car, alerted by the walking soldiers, crossed the bridge in pursuit and was soon joined by Officer La Mont on his repaired motorcycle.  Radio, as a tool of police, was still in its infancy, so it was not possible for officers to radio in reports yet.  The pursuing officers found no trace of the Hupmobile and soon gave up, but it was the beginning of one of the biggest manhunts in Portland up to that time.  Multnomah County and the Interstate Bridge Commission jointly offered a reward of $2000 for the capture of Twombley’s killer; an all-points bulletin went out with descriptions of both the car and the man; and, detectives obtained a list of all Hupmobiles registered in the area and began an intensive search for the car.
            The Great War had brought huge changes to Portland.  The economy was booming as shipyards and lumber mills worked twenty-four hour shifts to supply the war machine that had finally defeated the Germans.  Two years of Prohibition, and the innovative crime policies of Mayor George Baker, had made the city a safe haven for criminals of all kinds and crime rates were rising.  This meant that there were plenty of “usual suspects” for the police to round up in their dragnet, but Twombley’s killer laid low at the Dennison Apartments on SE Belmont until he felt safe and then drove north out of town on a leisurely trip to Seattle. 
Jack Laird as he looked when he entered the Oregon State Penitentiary in 1919 to serve a life term for murder. Oregon State Archive.
            At the wheel was Jack Laird (real name John Knight Giles), recently released from Washington State Penitentiary, and nearly out of money after a successful train robbery at Mukilteo just weeks before.  Laird was accompanied by a pretty young woman named Augusta Carlson.  The two of them would stay away from Portland for about a week, before foolishly returning to the city where their car was quickly recognized.  By that time Portland Police had already identified Laird from a laundry mark found on an overcoat he had discarded on the night of the murder. The laundry mark took them to the Dennison Apartments where they found a trunk that led them into the strange and twisted mind of Jack Laird. Laird was an intelligent young high school dropout who saw himself as a brilliant criminal mastermind, but his career had been extremely disappointing so far.
            Laird was born in Georgia, but moved with his family to Everett, WA at a young age.  The intelligent young man with a soft southern accent did well in school, skipping a couple of grades and dropping out at the age of fifteen.  His parents divorced that year and the troubled young man “left home for good” heading north into British Columbia where he quickly found work on a surveying crew.  Laird, who’s IQ was measured well-above average at 116, learned skills easily and soon was a master with surveying equipment.  Along the way he was introduced to the writing of Frederich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who was just gaining popularity in the United States.  Nietzsche’s writing convinced the young man that he was superior to average people and that he was not subject to ideas of morality and law.  He decided that working for a living was boring and that he was really cut out to be a criminal mastermind.
            After four years as a surveyor Laird headed south and shortly after his twentieth birthday pulled his first job in Centralia, WA.  It was a disaster.  Robbing a saloon the young hoodlum had trouble getting away.  He took a local doctor hostage and forced the man to drive him out of town.  After a couple of blocks the doctor tried to get the gun away from the nervous criminal and Laird fired several shots before running from the car.  The doctor was unharmed, but Laird was picked up less than an hour later and began his education at the state prison in Walla Walla.
            Drawing a five to ten year sentence for armed robbery, the young crook was pardoned on August 14, 1918. Three years in the state prison were not a waste for young Jack Laird.  On his release he was a confident criminal with newly learned skills and the ambition to be the leader of a gang of desperadoes who could make a mark on the Pacific Northwest.  On September 23rd Laird pulled the most successful job of his career, single-handedly robbing the Great Northern railroad near Mukilteo, WA.  The young train robber made what at first seemed like a huge haul, over $76,000 in liberty bonds and certificates.  On further examination it turned out that more than $70,000 of the haul was non-negotiable, so Laird only had about $6,000 to advance his nefarious plans.  He decided it was enough and headed for Portland.
            Laird rented an apartment on SE Belmont near 34th, carefully choosing rooms located close to the fire escape in case he had to make a quick get-away. He began collecting outdoor and camping equipment, firearms and other equipment, like surveying gear and a portable machinist’s kit.  Evidently he was equipping himself to live self-sufficiently away from a city.  He recruited two brothers from Southeast Portland for his “bootlegging” scheme.  Using Liberty Bonds from the Great Northern robbery he purchased two Hupmobile sedans and dispatched Jerry and George Noltner to California where liquor was still legal.  With a major chunk of his money tied up in the bootlegging scheme and equipment, Laird turned to his search for a “moll.”
Augusta "Amy" Carlson was a milliner and shopgirl when she caught Jack Laird's eye.  She didn't seem to mind that he was a train robber and she liked the shopping sprees he funded. Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.
            Augusta Carlson, a pretty young shop girl at Olds, Wortman and King Department Store, caught his eye immediately.  He began to hang around the Department Store and one evening managed to follow her home to the Hillcrest Hotel. Amy, as Augusta preferred to be called, had a bit of a hard look to her face, but her soft brown eyes and long dark hair went with an olive complexion to give her an exotic look.  Her affected French accent, elegant dress and romantic lies about her past were very alluring. Jack took a room at the Hillcrest Hotel and began to court Amy, who was already “engaged” to a Portland doctor and widow of a young husband who killed himself three days after their divorce was final.  She didn’t seem to mind that Jack was a train robber and she liked how generous he was as she furnished his Belmont apartment with everything she could think of at his expense.  Three days after they met Amy and Jack were engaged and two days later she moved into the Dennison Apartments with him on the promise they would be “married very soon.”
            When the Noltner brothers finally returned to Portland in November, 1919 they brought bad news with them.  Their Hupmobile, loaded with a valuable and expensive stash of high quality liquor, was stuck in mud and snow in the McKenzie Pass in the Cascades far south of Portland.  Desperate for cash after a shopping spree with Amy and with the majority of his assets stuck in the snow, Laird went to Plan B.  Amy had gained a good reputation as a lady’s milliner while working in the downtown Department Stores and in an age of fashionable hats she had entrée into some of the wealthiest homes in Portland. The wives of William M. Ladd, banker and scion of the Ladd fortune, Frank J. Cobb, “millionaire-lumberman,” Arthur C. Spencer, chief attorney of the O.W. R & N railroad/shipline, and J. D. Farrell, president of the O.W.R. & N., invited her into their fashionable homes to help them have the most stylish hats.  Amy’s knowledge of the homes of such important men gave Laird the idea.
            Laird, who never seems to have understood that his real talent was as a writer, made elaborate plans.  Typing detailed instructions and self-justifications while wearing rubber gloves so as to not leave fingerprints on the keyboard, he concocted a plan to kidnap one or more of the men on his list and hold them for $50,000 ransom each.  The letters stated that the kidnappings were being executed by a large gang that had kidnapping experience all over the country.  Laird signed his epic instruction letter “nameless et al.”  Not trusting his incompetent henchmen, Laird hired a young jitney driver, a sort of gypsy cab, named “Kid” Maples to drive him around on November 19, 1919 and put his plan into action. Telling the driver that he had important information that had to be rushed to Salem as soon as he made several calls, Laird went to the home of each man on his list, starting with William M. Ladd.  Like all of Laird’s criminal capers, the Kidnap Plot was meticulously planned but had a fatal flaw.  He had forgotten to learn the routines of his victims so he could catch them.  At each house he found the occupants out and his Kidnap Plot was foiled before it began.  Returning to the Dennison Apartments late in the evening Laird must have been in a foul mood and very short of cash.
            Around 8:30pm Jack and Amy jumped into their dark Humpmobile sedan and drove north toward Vancouver, WA.  Desperate for money Jack hoped to pull off another train robbery and bring in a good haul.  In November, 1918 Vancouver was a military town and the train depot was heavily guarded by armed soldiers.  Amy said that they spent quite a while in the parking lot looking for a weakness to exploit, but finally headed back to Portland in disappointment.  She said that the tollbooth robbery must have been a spur of the moment decision, because he pulled off the road suddenly and was gone for only ten minutes.  She said by that point he seemed wild and she was afraid of him.  He was carrying two guns on his body and had a third under the driver’s seat of the car.  After the shooting Jack, said, “What have I done?” and seemed to panic when she told him he had killed a speed cop.
            Jack was charming on the witness stand and had the jury laughing along with him more than once as he told the crazy story of how he had been “framed up” for the tollbooth job, but the evidence was solid.  Amy testified against him and soon after the trial married again. She remained in hiding from Laird and over the years ran two successful clothing businesses in small southwest Washington towns.  Jack was sentenced to life in prison and soon moved into his new home, a tiny cell in Salem.   
     Prison was a good place for Jack. He started working in the print shop and soon became editor of the prison magazine.  As a writer Laird was a bit pedantic and preferred dense subject matter that the State Prison guards found incomprehensible, but soon he hooked up with Elliot “Mickie” Michener, another inmate serving a sentence for armed robbery.  Mickie and Jack, who both had discipline problems in their first days at the penitentiary, soon became model prisoners.  Between 1928 and 1931 they co-wrote more than two dozen action/adventure stories, some with a humorous bent, featuring their western hero Black Bill.  The stories were very popular and ran in Short Stories and West pulp magazines.  Their editor, Roy de S. Horn, of Doubleday & Doran estimated that the stories were read by more than a million readers and he believed the two men, who wrote under the name Jack Laird, could make good livings as writers and be rehabilitated into law abiding citizens.  Jack and Mickie had other plans though.
Jack Laird in 1935. Oregon State Archive.
For more on Portland during prohibition see my new book with Theresa GriffinKennedy Murder & Scandal in Prohibition Portland available February 1st from The History Press.  More on the adventures of Jack Laird is coming soon at Weird Portland.


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