Offbeat Oregon History

Gov Martin speechBy Finn J.D. John
It was the morning of Oct. 1, 1938, at the ceremonial dedication of the new Oregon state capitol building. Following several dedicatory speeches (including one by President Franklin D. Roosevelt), the ribbon was cut and the crowd outside invited to come inside and have a look.
But as the crowd moved forward, those at the front found themselves up against a door stuck shut. The crowd of Oregonians found itself packed tightly against the door.
Then a voice rang out, strident and harsh and full of authority. It was the governor of Oregon, Major General Charles Henry Martin, and if he’d been in his dress uniform he would probably have had his sword out whacking people with the flat of its blade.
“Get back, you bastards!” he roared.
“It was just like a blowtorch,” former Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield told historian Gary Murrell. “The people fell back.”

Charles MartinBy Finn J.D. John
Remember General Jack D. Ripper, the character from the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”? Can you imagine what might have happened if General Ripper had been elected governor?
For Oregonians, just a few years ago, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. In 1934, voters elected a retired major general named Charles Henry Martin — known to the soldiers assigned to his care during the First World War as “Old Iron Pants.” And although Martin isn’t known to have gone on any anti-fluoridation rants or spluttered about “precious bodily fluids,” his political style was more than a little reminiscent of Ripper’s … and, of course, it’s not a work of fiction.
“If things come to a crisis,” he wrote to a sympathetic fellow military man in 1937, while discussing the likelihood of a Communist takeover in America, “there are enough strong men left in the country to handle it properly. … The Italians wouldn’t submit; they organized their blackshirts. The Germans wouldn’t submit, so they had their brownshirts and Hitler. I don’t believe Americans will submit.”

Hawthorne asylumBy Finn J.D. John
For many years, the case of Charity Lamb was looked at like a crime-fiction yarn from a pulp magazine like Spicy Detective. It seemed to have it all: illicit sex, a mother-daughter love triangle, conspiracy — and, of course, a brutal ax murder committed by a woman with the most ironically innocuous name imaginable.
“Charity Lamb and her seventeen-year-old daughter shared a passion for a drifter named Collins,” pop-historian Malcolm Clark Jr. explains breezily, in his 1981 book Eden Seekers. “When (Nathaniel) Lamb, as outraged father and cuckolded husband, strongly protested, Charity cut off his objections with an ax.”
The real story, of course, is not only more nuanced, but, well, totally different. In actual fact, the only part of Clark’s account that’s historically supportable are the names of the involved parties, the words “strongly protested,” and the word “ax.”

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.”


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.