Here are some of the most horrifying crimes that made headlines and shook Portland, Oregon. The brutal Ardenwald axe murders. The retribution killings by Chinatown tongs. The fiendish acts of the Dark Strangler. In this compelling account, author JD Chandler chronicles the coverups, false confessions, miscarriages of justice, and the investigative twists of Portland’s sordid past.
From the untimely end of the Black Mackintosh Bandit to the convoluted hunt for the Milwaukie Monster, Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon is a true crime account that acknowledges the officers who sought justice and remembers the victims whose lives were claimed by violence—all while providing important historical context.
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Pioneer Murder, 1858
Just six months after Oregon became a state, Multnomah County executed its first murderer. Danforth Balch's crime, a public shooting in broad daylight, was long remembered as Portland's first murder, but it really wasn't. That dubious honor goes to a man named Cook, who was shot to death at a saloon on Front Street, now Naito Parkway, on April 1, 1851, about six weeks after the city was incorporated. Cook, who was twenty at the time of his death, was killed by William Keene (or Kean) from Missouri. The two men argued in the bar and then shot it out in Wild West fashion. Portland was in Washington County in those days, so Keene was tried in Hillsboro, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six months.
The murder of Mortimer Stump by Danforth Balch, while not the first murder in Portland, is the first well-documented case of homicide. It took place on the Stephen's ferry at the Westside Stark Street landing on November 18, 1858. Stump was a former employee of Balch, who owned a land grant northwest of Captain Couch's grant, in the west hills of Portland. Stump, whose family lived in East Portland, a separate city in those days, worked on Balch's farm and lived in the Balch home for a few years. In the process, he fell in love with Balch's oldest daughter, Anna. When she was sixteen, Stump went to her father and asked for permission to marry the girl.
Danforth Balch, born in Massachusetts in 1811, came west from Iowa in 1848 and settled on a land grant near Guilds Lake in a neighborhood that became known as Willamette Heights. Balch Creek, which runs through Macleay Park and the Pittock Bird Sanctuary and was once a major logging stream feeding the mills on Portland's waterfront, is on land that once belonged to Danforth Balch. Balch had little education, "two or three seasons" according to his statement published after his execution, but by 1858, he had a prosperous farm about a mile and a half from Portland and a large family. The thought of his oldest daughter marrying at sixteen seems to have caused him to become unhinged. He fired Stump, threatened to kill him if he came around his daughter and chased him off his land.
Stump's love for the young woman was not unrequited; she eloped with him a few weeks later. The lovers went to Vancouver, where they were married, and they spent a few more weeks on honeymoon somewhere nearby. According to Danforth Balch's final statement, he hardly ate or slept after his daughter left, and he didn't remember much of what he did during that time. The rumor was that it was alcohol that made Balch forget. Whatever it was, Balch was in a bad mood on November 18 when he saw the Stumps near the corner of Stark and Front Streets.
Mortimer Stump and his bride, accompanied by his parents, had just finished buying furniture for their new house in East Portland. They loaded their furniture on a wagon and boarded the Stark Street ferry to cross to their new home. Danforth Balch was standing in front of Starr's tin shop on the corner when the wagon went by. Harsh words were exchanged between Balch and the elder Stump. According to Balch's statement, Stump's father said, "You're making a big deal about an ordinary little bitch." Enraged by the comment, Balch followed the party and caught sight of his daughter as she boarded the ferry. He said that he followed the wagon onto the ferry to get his daughter back and that he had his shotgun only because he had heard that Mortimer Stump had promised to "beat him to the ground." Balch claimed that it was an accident that the gun went off, twice, but in his enraged and possibly drunken state, it would have been more of an accident if it hadn't gone off. Mortimer Stump took two barrels of buckshot in the face and upper chest. He died instantly. The Balch case, as it came to be known, played an important role in the careers of two notorious Portlanders: James Lappeus and John H. Mitchell.
Lappeus came west with a regiment of New York Volunteers during the Mexican-American War in 1847 and then stayed in California to gamble and prey on gold rushers. Lappeus became a notorious "black leg" gambler and was involved with the gang known as the Hounds, which inspired the Sacramento Vigilante Committee to lynch several members of the gang. Coming north when things got too hot in California, Lappeus was soon part owner of the finest gambling establishment in Portland, the Oro Fino Theater and Gem Saloon. Lappeus was elected town marshal shortly after the Stump murder. At the time Lappeus took office, Balch had escaped from the city jail and had been at large for some time. Lappeus soon tracked the fugitive down; he was camping on his own land in what is now Forest Park. Lappeus allegedly offered to "leave the door open again" if Balch would pay $1,000 (more than $25,000 in 2013). Although nothing came of the offer, if it occurred, the rumor haunted Lappeus's career as town marshal and eventually police chief, contributing to its end in 1883.
John H. Mitchell, born John Mitchell Hipple in 1835 in Pennsylvania, started his career as a schoolteacher in his home state. In 1857, a sexual affair with a fifteen-year-old student forced him to resign his teaching position and marry the girl. He decided to go into the practice of law, but soon he embezzled $4,000 (more than $95,000 in 2013) from his employer, which he later paid back, and abandoned his young bride to go to California with his mistress, Maria Brinker. In 1860, he grew bored with Brinker, left for Oregon without her and changed his name, switching the order of his middle and last names. Soon he had a law practice and a new wife, although he hadn't bothered to divorce the first one.
Sharp men with flexible ethics have always prospered in Portland, and Mitchell was no exception. Mary Jane Balch, the killer's widow who had eight little children to support, turned to lawyer Mitchell for help. Mitchell, as if trying out for the part of villain in a melodrama, defrauded the family of all of their land, which was divvied up with some influential people, such as Henry Pittock of the Oregonian. Mitchell was soon serving his first term in the Senate, after the Ethics Committee ruled that his conduct before entering the Senate, such as embezzlement and bigamy, were not relevant.
When the Balch children came of age and tried to get their land back, Mitchell pled that the statute of limitations had expired, and he was not tried. It did raise embarrassing issues during his campaigns for Senate and contributed to the debacle that left one of Oregon's Senate seats vacant in 1896. Mitchell was never one to let a little thing like ethics get in the way of his career, and he was reelected to the Senate in 1900. An even bigger land swindle, involving thousands of acres of timber land in the Cascades, came to light in 1903, and in 1905, Mitchell was indicted for fraud and conspiracy and convicted by the Senate. Before he could be sentenced for his crimes, Mitchell, who was seventy years old, died from complications of a tooth extraction in Portland.
A little less than a year after Mortimer Stump's murder, the age of public execution began in Portland when Danforth Balch was hanged in the stockade just south of the city jail on Alder Street between Front and First Streets. Public execution lasted in Portland from 1859 to 1903, but it was not a common occurrence. Balch's execution drew a crowd of about six hundred people (most of them from outside of Portland), including the entire Stump family with Anna Balch Stump, who wanted to see her father hang for killing her husband. After that, hangings, often clumped together to execute three or four criminals at a time, drew much bigger crowds. One of the biggest crowds, estimated at nearly four thousand people, gathered for the hanging of Archie Brown and James Johnson on March 10, 1879, nearly twenty years after the execution of Balch.CHAPTER 2
Mayhem on Morrison Street, 1878
The violence of the Old West that is pervasively portrayed in the movies and popular literature is mostly a myth. The truth is that western cities, such as Portland, became more violent the farther they got from pioneer days. The two most common forms of murder in the nineteenth century, as in the twentieth and twenty-first, were killings that arose out of domestic disputes, such as the murder of Mortimer Stump, and alcohol-related violence, such as Portland's first recorded murder, the shooting of Cook. The third most common motive for murder is robbery. The excitement and public uproar that accompanied the shooting of Louis Joseph, a fourteen-year-old boy, during a violent armed robbery in downtown Portland illustrates how rare these kinds of crimes were at that time. The public execution of two of the robbers in 1879 was the most attended execution ever held in Portland and required military occupation of the area around the Multnomah County Courthouse.
By 1878, Portland was a bustling metropolis, collecting and distributing ore, beef, wool and wheat from the Columbia and Snake River country, as well as fruit, hops and lumber from the Willamette Valley. These commodities collected in Portland for transport to the rest of the world; manufactured goods, clothing and other necessities were made in Portland or came in from San Francisco for distribution to the countryside. This brisk business left a good residue of money in Portland that was gathered up by the merchants, sea captains and real estate speculators who are now revered as the fathers of the city. Very little of this money remained in the hands of working people, and the little that did was absorbed by the saloons, bagnios and opium dens of the waterfront and the North End in the area that is now known as Old Town. Most of the working people in Portland, a disproportionate number of whom were single men, lived a boom or bust lifestyle, and pawnshops did a brisk business.
Walter O'Shea was a prosperous pawnbroker with a shop on the south side of Washington Street between First and Second, an area that is now a parking lot and the approach to the Morrison Bridge. In 1878, it was a busy corner, with several shops and stores of various kinds. Business was good. On Monday, August 19, O'Shea had more than $8,000 (nearly $180,000 in 2013) in his safe, but he had removed most of it, and the next day, he probably only had about $1,000 cash in the shop. Shortly after he opened on Tuesday, two men, known as Archie Brown and James Johnson, entered the store and said that they wanted to buy blankets. Sixteen-year-old Charles Schwartz (aka Joseph Swoards) came in behind them. Brown and Johnson dickered with O'Shea over the blankets. When Schwartz came in, Johnson admonished him to close the door. "Why?" asked the young man. "We don't want anyone to see," Johnson replied.
"Terrible Tragedy: Assault, Robbery and Murder" Oregonian, August 21, 1878
The men agreed on a price, and Johnson offered cash for the blankets. O'Shea squatted down behind the counter to open his safe and get change. Brown picked up a convenient iron bar and brained O'Shea with three vicious blows. The first blow, to the top of O'Shea's head, opened a deep wound in his scalp, exposing the skull. The second and third blows aimed at the back of O'Shea's head were not as strong, but they rendered him unconscious. Johnson sprang to the door, locked it and then scooped the jewelry from the window displays, stuffing them into a handy valise. Brown grabbed the cash from the safe and took the valise from Johnson.
Ed Miller and Lee Backenstos, two pioneer layabouts in their early twenties, were standing on the sidewalk across the street from O'Shea's. Backenstos, one of the first white men born in Oregon, was the son of a military officer who had been stationed at Fort Vancouver. He would later be a pioneer morphine addict. Miller's forte would be forgery. In 1878, they watched the three men enter the pawnshop and then saw Johnson lock the door and grab jewelry from the window. Looking down the street, they spotted Constable Sprague and fireman W.W. Sweeny talking on the corner. Alerted to the robbery in progress, the two unarmed men approached the pawnshop. Sprague covered the front, while Sweeny attempted to get around to the back.
Sweeny had to climb up to the roof to see into the backyard. As he reached the roof, he heard shattering glass and saw the robbers break through a window and climb the fence into the adjoining yard. Brown brandished a pistol as the men walked boldly through the Lewis and Strauss store and out onto the sidewalk of First Street. Sweeny motioned to Sprague, letting him know which way the men were going, and Sprague gave chase.
The men turned west on Alder Street, with Sprague in pursuit. Johnson turned back and warned the unarmed officer, but he continued his pursuit. The valise that Brown was carrying was heavy, and he had trouble keeping up with the other two running men. As they reached the corner of Third and Alder, Brown was heard to say, "Damn it let's make a stand right here; I've run just as far as I'm going to go." Johnson looked back and saw Sprague getting close. He said, "Give it to him."
Johnson and Schwartz kept running. Brown turned, pointed his navy pistol at Sprague and fired. Just as Brown fired, Sprague bent down to pick up a rock to throw at the robber. Louis Joseph, fourteen, who had been working at his father's glazier shop on Alder Street, came out of the store to see what the commotion was about. The bullet intended for Sprague struck the boy in the center of his chest, and he died instantly. Brown fired once more, and Sprague ducked behind a tree to avoid being shot. The three robbers jumped into a horse-drawn wagon in front of the Weeks and Morgan Grocery Store and raced from town, heading west on Morrison Street. They abandoned the wagon at Fifteenth Street. Brown, who had become frustrated with the heavy valise full of coins and jewelry, removed the coins and distributed them among his partners during the wagon ride. He had also rifled the jewelry, keeping the most valuable and smallest items, such as a diamond set valued at over $1,000 and several gold watches, before discarding the valise and much of the jewelry in the backyard of a residence. The three men disappeared into the woods of Washington Park, then known as City Park.
Within minutes of the shots, hundreds of people, many of them armed, had poured into the streets of downtown. Police Chief Lucerne Besser personally took control of the investigation and sent eight armed officers in pursuit of the robbers. Within an hour, more than fifty well-armed volunteers had joined the hunt, and guards were posted on all routes in and out of the city. Even Jim Turk, who would soon become a dominant force in the crimping trade, got into the act, bringing in two men he arrested when he became suspicious of the $100 cash he found on them. The two men were quickly released by the police, but it would be surprising if Turk didn't end up with their money somehow.
Some historians have questioned the pervasiveness of gun ownership in the nineteenth-century West, but there is plenty of evidence that most, if not all, Portlanders owned guns. Two days after the robbery at O'Shea's, the Oregonian reported on a series of burglaries on the remote east side of the Willamette. In every reported case, the burglars were foiled when homeowners opened fire with shotguns or handguns. These reports are common in the Oregonian through the 1870s and 1880s. Portlanders believed in citizen participation in law enforcement. When violent crime threatened the community, especially when it involved children, armed posses were formed to support, and sometimes coerce, the police in their investigations. In the case of O'Shea's robbers, a reward of $250 ($5,500 in 2013), posted within an hour of the robbery, stimulated the citizen response. Unarmed crowds, numbering more than one hundred, continued to surround the city jail in the interest of "seeing justice done" if any suspects were located.
Fortunately, no suspects were caught that day or the next. There was a large public funeral for the Joseph boy, and a crowd of supporters accompanied his body to Beth Israel Cemetery on Taylor's Ferry Road south of town. Public sentiment ran high, but with no suspects, it began to cool. Some merchants were willing to commercialize on public feeling by using the crime in their advertising. After the funeral, the crowd downtown began to disperse.
"Next to the Robbery, the Greatest Excitement in Town Is the Low Prices at the C.O.D. Grocery" Oregonian, ad, August 21, 1878
At about 11:00 p.m. that night, Special Officer Gwynne and another man were scouting the lonely road north of town along the Willamette on the way to Linnton. Near the Terminus Saloon, a notorious dive that had already witnessed a fatal shooting that summer, the two hunters startled a group of three men. Two of them ran off in different directions and got away; Charles Schwartz was captured and returned to Portland. Schwartz, sixteen years old, had arrived in Portland a few weeks before on a ship from Philadelphia. A runaway with no money or prospects, Schwartz was picked up by two men who lived in a hotel in the North End. "Taking a fancy" to the boy, the two men told him that he was too good to work and that he should stick with them. They even paid his board at the hotel while they cased the city looking for a target to rob, although Schwartz said that he thought they were looking for work.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder & Mayhem in Portland Oregon"
Copyright © 2013 JD Chandler.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: I've Been Thinking About Murder Lately,
Pioneer Murder, 1858,
Mayhem on Morrison Street, 1878,
The Court of Death, 1881,
The Girl in the Strawberry Patch, 1892,
Beneath the Mountain of Gold, 1893,
The Legend of Bunko Kelley, 1894,
The Black Mackintosh Bandit and the Great Escape,,
The Unwritten Law, 1907,
An Enduring Mystery, 1911,
The Dark Strangler, 1926,
Taken for a Ride, 1933,
The Other Side, 1945,
About the Author,