World's clumsiest drug smugglers were also its most audacious
December 22, 2022 | View PDF
It's not clear when William Dunbar and Nat Blum, owners of the Merchant Steamship Co. in Portland, started smuggling opium on their steamships, the Wilmington and the Haytian Republic. They may have been smuggling opium all along; but the astonishing rate at which opium-related disasters started piling up after mid-1892 following at least 18 months of smooth operations suggests that before that, they were only smuggling people.
Smuggling opium was not only much more lucrative than smuggling people, but it was also much more space-efficient. The steamers were making the trips anyway; an extra half-ton of opium wouldn't make any difference and would add the modern equivalent of about half a million dollars to the profit on the journey.
To make it work, though, the opium had to be off the ship before it tied up in port. With the help of well-placed friends at Customs, a group of illegal immigrants could be passed off as legal residents returning from business trips in Canada; illegal opium, though, could only be disguised as legal cargo by forging tax stamps, a task the Blum-Dunbar gang didn't have the resources to attempt. Also, opium, legal or illegal, would draw a lot of attention, which obviously was never a good idea for a smuggler.
So the opium, packed in watertight barrels, would be rolled off the back of the steamship in a quiet, lonely part of the Columbia River as the ship steamed past, and retrieved by gang members in rented steam launches or skiffs.
This might seem like a pretty workable arrangement. But, for Blum and Dunbar the problem was, they couldn't just run down to the Kelly Temporary Services agency and hire a couple of guys for a day to fish smuggled opium out of the river. The only people they could trust with an operation like this were actual members of Portland's criminal underworld. Men like Robert Garthorn, Thomas Berg, and Joseph "Bunco" Kelley - sailors' boardinghouse runners shanghaiers, and low-level drug smugglers.
And they all turned out to be pretty bad at their jobs.
Barrels of opium were getting away from the gang as early as July 1892. That's when Garthorn, up in Canada, loaded 300 pounds of opium on the Wilmington and returned to Portland by rail. Back in town, he met up with Berg and went down to the spot near St. Johns where the Wilmington was scheduled to make the dope drop, sometime between midnight and dawn the next day.
But the Wilmington was late arriving. So, after Garthorn and Berg had waited all night, they gave up and went back to Portland.
A few hours later, in the dim morning light, the Wilmington steamed by the rendezvous point, rolled the barrels off the back and steamed onward to port.
When the Wilmington arrived at the Dunbar Produce wharf, Blum and Dunbar learned what had happened. Blum leaped into panicky action. Grabbing another gang member, he raced to St. Johns to rent a steam launch, picking up Garthorn on the way.
They found two of their three barrels easily enough, but the third was a little tougher. As they worked their way down the river, they spotted it perched on an old dock.
Putting in to the dock, they introduced themselves to a man who was standing nearby, a river pilot named J.L. Caples.
Garthorn, who had an old brass star that he wore in order to implicitly impersonate a customs official, thanked Caples for picking up the barrel and offered him a dollar for his trouble.
But Caples had already opened the barrel. He didn't know what opium looked like - didn't smoke the stuff himself - but the barrel was full of tiny little tins with Chinese characters printed all over them, and it didn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what they were. (Each tin held one tael of opium; a tael was roughly one and a third ounce.)
So Caples counteroffered at $50.
Blum accepted immediately, but he didn't have $50 on him - just $10, plus a couple $100 bills that Caples thought might be counterfeit anyway. So Caples took the $10 and an I.O.U.: He was told that he could stop by Dunbar Produce and Grocery, 52 Front Street, later in the day, and there would be $40 waiting for him.
If Caples had any doubts as to who was doing the smuggling in Portland, that would have laid them to rest right there.
A few months later, disaster struck again - and this time it really was a disaster. The Wilmington was on its way into port with another 450 pounds of opium, but someone had gotten suspicious when it was loaded on board in Vancouver, and tipped off the feds. Dunbar learned about this while the steamer was en route, so he hastily sent Garthorn along with Bunco Kelley to Astoria to intercept the ship and warn them that they should dump the opium somewhere right away, as close to the bar as possible, so the evidence would drift out to sea.
Unfortunately, as they approached the Wilmington in their rented launch, they saw that a federal revenue cutter was already on the scene; apparently, it had been waiting just inside the bar for them to arrive. They watched helplessly as the cutter hailed the Wilmington and ordered it to put into port in Astoria ... opium and all.
And that was how the Blum-Dunbar gang lost the Wilmington; it was seized by the federal officials along with its load of opium. The gang would now have to get by on just one steamship: The Haytian Republic.
It was probably about this time, or shortly thereafter, that Dunbar informally adopted a young, spunky Japanese teenager to be a companion for his son, Lambert - like Dr. Benton Quest did with Hadji in Jonny Quest. This, of course, was Yosuke Matsuoka, who would graduate from the University of Oregon and go on to become Foreign Minister in Imperial Japan just before the Second World War.
Several months later, on Sept. 2, the smugglers brought in a big shipment on the Haytian Republic - 1,400 pounds of opium, which was dumped overboard in the Columbia and retrieved by Dunbar himself. Garthorn and Berg took charge of part of it and hauled it off to Berg's house, where they planned to stage it for later distribution to customers in the Portland and San Francisco Chinatowns.
But there was a problem. It seems a day or two earlier, Berg's wife had gotten into a fight with one of the neighbors, and the neighbor - who clearly suspected something criminal was going on - had started keeping an eagle eye on the Berg home. As soon as she saw this big flurry of late-night loading activity, she picked up the telephone (very few people had them in 1892, but she did) to get her revenge by calling the police.
The timing couldn't have been worse, as there was already more than half a ton of opium in the house in addition to the new stuff being unloaded. But the phone call seems to have been fielded by a friend of Nat Blum's, because instead of the police responding to the scene, Nat himself appeared, knocking on the neighbor's door and introducing himself as a police detective.
While "Detective Blum" was taking her statement, the two of them watched Garthorn and Berg through a window as they hauled the opium out of Berg's house and wheeled it down the street on a cart - getting away with the goods! But Blum smoothly told the neighbor lady not to worry - the two smugglers were walking right into a trap, he assured her. He told the woman, according to the Portland Evening Telegram, "that he had two policemen stationed down the road, who would catch them with the opium and place them under arrest, thus securing her silence until after the opium had been moved to his own house."
Perhaps Blum was too busy congratulating himself on this smooth play to realize that it meant Berg's house was no longer a safe place to stash contraband. This would prove to be an expensive oversight two months later when another big load came in. Half a ton of it was taken straight to Berg's pad again. Then Dunbar sent over another 400 pounds.
The gang then packed 600 pounds of the dope into steamer trunks, 100 pounds to a trunk, and Blum, along with two other members of the gang, headed to San Francisco, each with two trunks to hand over to contacts in Chinatown there. One of the three "mules" got busted upon arrival, and so there went 200 pounds of the goods.
When they got back to Portland, they found worse news waiting: The remaining 800 pounds of opium had been stolen from Berg's house while they were all gone. It's tempting to wonder if that suspicious neighbor lady, who obviously kept a close eye on the Berg house, had anything to do with it. Maybe she concluded that, if the police were going to be so cavalier about opium smuggling, she might as well get a slice of it herself!
A few months later, Dunbar made a trip to San Francisco with two trunks and lost one of the claim checks on the way. Blum found the claim check but was afraid to claim the trunk himself, so he paid another man $300 (nearly $8,000 today) to go get it.
Another attempt to service customers in San Francisco turned into an even bigger fiasco. Dunbar packed several hundred pounds in boxes marked "Playing Cards" and shipped them southward unattended, as freight. But the two draymen he hired to load the boxes - who were not members of the gang, just regular workers - thought it was really weird to be shipping thousands and thousands of boxes of playing cards to a city that was perfectly capable of supplying itself with gambling accouterments, and the next day they told Police Chief Spencer about it. Spencer telegraphed San Francisco, the shipment was stopped and inspected, and the Dunbar-Blum gang was busted again. This time, there was a bill of lading with Dunbar Produce and Grocery's name and address on it.
In all, the gang lost at least half a ton of opium in official seizures. It lost at least twice that much to theft. They also managed to lose a $30,000 steamer. Regardless of how lucrative opium smuggling was, it's hard to imagine how this all could possibly have penciled out.
(Sources: Agony of Choice: Matsuoka Yosuke and the Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1880-1946, a book by David J. Lu published in 2002 by Lexington Books; "Yosuke Matsuoka: The Far-Western Roots of a World-Political Vision," an article by Masaharu Ano published in the Summer 1997 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; Wicked Portland, a book by Finn J.D. John published in 2012 by The History Press)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
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