Offbeat Oregon History

Linn Cty mugshotsBy Finn J.D. John
By 1908, most Oregonians’ views on the Unwritten Law were hardening into suspicious disapproval.
Just one year earlier, citizens had burst into spontaneous applause in the courtroom when Orlando Murray was acquitted of murdering his sister’s ex-boyfriend. Since that time, though, suspicions had been growing that things were getting out of hand. The newspapers found the trend rather frightening, and didn’t hesitate to say so. Defendants were still getting acquitted because of the Unwritten Law — but it was getting noticeably harder for cases to qualify for its protection.

HeadlinesBy Finn J.D. John

When the story first hit the newspapers, it all seemed very clear and simple:
An Albina man got drunk and beat up his wife. Her brother went looking for him to teach him a lesson, and brought along a friend who happened to be a police officer. The wifebeater, tracked down at a local saloon, came out shooting, and moments later the innocent, luckless policeman lay dying on the sidewalk as the wife-beating murderer fled into the night.
For newspaper readers on the morning of Dec. 19, 1907, it was like a Vaudeville stage tragedy come to life. There was a good guy – brave, valiant Joseph P. Sivener, on a mission to deliver a much-deserved thrashing to his no-good, wife-beating brother-in-law; a bad guy – Melville Bradley, the aforementioned brother-in-law, whose surly, shifty-eyed mugshot appeared next to the story in the paper; the fair damsel – poor, battered Mrs. Bradley; and an innocent victim: the poor policeman, who was just doing his job when sudden and undeserved death came and bore him away from his devastated wife and four tiny children.

Orlando MurrayBy Finn JD John

Early in November 1906, 21-year-old Orlando Murray went to pay a call on a 22-year-old acquaintance named Lincoln C. Whitney. The main subject of their conversation was to be Murray’s 16-year-old sister, Mary. Secondary topics for the two men’s tete-a-tete included wedding bells and a baby shower – not necessarily in that order – and, last but not least, a .38-caliber revolver.
The conversation did not go well.
Whitney had met Mary when she’d traveled from her Portland home to Hubbard, where Whitney lived, to work in the hop fields for a week. Whitney had, Orlando Murray said (and, later, testified), sweet-talked the cute young out-of-towner into bed with fair promises of marriage, then disappeared as thoroughly as he could. Meanwhile, several weeks after their brief liaison, Mary suddenly found herself in a very awkward position.

SpectatorsBy Finn J.D. John

A century ago, the entire country was in the grip of a sort of lethal mania. You can catch references to it in old novels by nonplussed Britons like P.G. Wodehouse – a sense that the U.S., unlike England or France or Germany, was not really a country of laws. Oh, laws were fine for things like robbery and swindling and claim jumping, but when it came to crimes involving “honor,” nothing but cold steel or hot lead would suffice.
The concept was popularly known as “The Unwritten Law.” It was, essentially, a social sanction for honor killings.
The idea was that when a man caught another man making time with his wife, or moving in on his sister, not only was he justified to seek out the perpetrator and murder him, he was morally obligated to do so.

Grain fleetBy Finn J.D. John

The merciless waters of the Columbia River Bar are not known for easily giving up their prey once they’ve trapped a ship on their sandy shoals. But over the years, it has happened now and again, and the stories of these survivors are always interesting.

The Queen of the Pacific

There was no hint of irony in mind when the passenger liner Queen of the Pacific was launched in Philadelphia in 1882. The Pacific Coast Steamship Company of San Francisco had spared no expense. Competition on the San Francisco-Portland line was at its peak, and the Queen’s owners intended to have the very finest steamer on the route.

Greenhorn jailBy Finn J.D. John

One clear June morning in 1963, early risers in the historic Blue Mountains town of Canyon City were startled to see that there had been an unscheduled addition to the Grant County Courthouse the previous night.
Sitting there in front of the courthouse was a jail. It was a ramshackle blockhouse jail, small and square, its roof half collapsed but its thick walls of interlocking planks still as stout as they’d been when it was first built.
It was quickly recognized. The jail was a familiar one to many Canyon City residents, deer hunters in particular. It was the old municipal jail from the nearby ghost town of Greenhorn City.

Mr. Angel CollegeBy Finn J.D. John

Adelhelm Odermatt is not, of course, an Irish name. And the portly, jovial Swiss monk who bore it had not a drop of Irish blood in him, so far as he knew.
But he had come to visit this group of Irish Catholics to make his pitch for a donation to help save his monastery from an untimely foreclosure after a loan had been called in. And when in Rome, one did as the Romans did, right? So when he stepped up to speak, Father Odermatt tried his best to look Celtic as he introduced himself — as “Father O’Dermatt.”

Holstrom crewBy Finn J.D. John
Of the 80 American Army aviators who flew the Doolittle raid in April of 1942, at least seven were former Oregonians. Actually, with only one or two exceptions, all of them were former Oregonians, having been stationed at the Pendleton air base before preparations for the raid commenced; but for seven of them, the relationship with the Beaver State ran deeper than that.

Frances FullerBy Finn J.D. John
Back in 1867, Elwood Evans, a young lawyer, politician and historian in Washington Territory, started writing a book on the history of Washington’s neighbor to the south, the eight-year-old state of Oregon.
Thinking it would be well to get input from some of the still-living people who had shaped Oregon’s history, Evans reached out to some of them, hoping to get better information. One of these people was Jesse Applegate, popularly known as the “Sage of Yoncalla,” a key player in the early formation of Oregon who had since retired to his farm.

Airships ar ExpoBy Finn J.D. John
In 1904, a sharp-eyed 61-year-old hustler named Lafe Pence stepped off the train in downtown Portland for a meeting of the National Mining Congress.
The conference he was attending has been long forgotten. But had the group chosen Seattle or Bakersfield to hold it, the very shape of the hills in Portland would be different today.
Pence had the kind of colorful Western background that you’d expect in a man who sets out to literally move mountains.


McKenzie River Reflections is the weekly newspaper serving Oregon's McKenzie River Valley. Available by mail for $23/yr in Lane County, $29/yr outside Lane. Digital subscriptions are $23/yr. Subscribe at: Purchase copies online at: Read about area communities including Cedar Flat, Walterville, Camp Creek, Leaburg, Vida, Nimrod, Finn Rock, Blue River, Rainbow and McKenzie Bridge.