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From death by cow to 'artistic' hangings to a sheriff driven mad, new book details early Oregon justice



COURTESY PHOTO - Gus Wachline (pictured here) proclaimed his innocence to the moment of his public death by hanging in 1898, an incident that weighed so heavily on Washington County Sheriff William Bradford that he claimed it drove him to insanity.You’ve heard their names.

Jackson, Purdin, Cornelius and more are well known for the streets or schools or cities they denote here in western Washington County.

But unless you’re a local-history buff like Ken Bilderback, you probably don’t know about the scandals and murders and con jobs connected with these prominent citizens.

Bilderback’s new book, “Law and Order at the end of The Oregon Trail,” will fill you in, from the jewelry heists conducted by Ira Purdin’s grandson to the bitter feud over Sarah Cornelius that led to the murder of her father, Ben Cornelius.

But the book contains more than just juicy details of Oregon’s earliest — and eeriest — cases of crime and punishment. It also follows the trial-and-error task of crafting a criminal justice system from nothing.

When pioneers came to the end of the Oregon Trail, there were no jails or sheriffs or even laws waiting for them.

That started to change in 1841, when a wealthy Portland settler died and nobody knew what to do with his estate. He had no heirs and no will so immediately after his funeral, the settlers elected a “judge,” who decided an auction would solve the problem. The settlers used the auction proceeds to build the state’s first jail.

Now they needed laws. At a meeting in Champoeg which drew representatives from across the Oregon Territory, “one of the settlers produced a copy of the legal code of Iowa, which the settlers adopted as their own,” Bilderback writes. But that single copy would have to be shared across thousands of square miles, so someone read the laws aloud while people scribbled notes to take back to their settlements.Rev. Richard Kennedy of Hillsboro attacked a woman at a neighbors home but escaped conviction in part because the all-male jury believed women are prone to hysteria in stressful situations.

“To cover their bases, they hastily added a provision that gave law enforcement and judicial authorities almost complete freedom to interpret right from wrong, based on equity and common sense,” Bilderback writes.

In some places, however, right and wrong was decided by vigilantes who conducted a “reign of terror,” hunting down not just murderers and cattle rustlers but also political enemies, in one case storming a saloon and gunning down a rancher who had spoken out against them.

Some vigilante targets got lucky, such as Daniel Tromley, an annoying Hillsboro resident whose escapades with alcohol and women repeatedly landed him in jail. Instead of killing him, the 25 men who dragged him from his cell decided to simply strip him naked, then coat him with hot tar and chicken feathers.COURTESY PHOTO - Gus Wachline proclaimed his innocence to the moment of his public death by hanging in 1898, an incident that weighed so heavily on Washington County Sheriff William Bradford (pictured here) that he claimed it drove him to insanity.

The vigilante problem was aggravated by Oregon being one of only two states in the country to require voice votes. Until 1891, settlers who wanted to vote the vigilantes’ friends and relatives out of power and vote honest, courageous people into power had to stand up in public and cast their vote orally — with the vigilantes watching.

The oral vote was finally abolished in 1891.

Bilderback also gives many detailed examples of how Victorian sensibilities influenced the treatment of women in Oregon’s justice system, where “beating or raping a woman was no big deal, but having consensual sex with a woman you weren’t married to could land you in jail.”

And he explains how Oregon turned out to be a good place for wanted criminals to hide out. When FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover introduced the “Ten Most Wanted” list in 1950, an Oregon fugitive was among the first top ten. The first top-ten fugitive actually captured was captured in Oregon. So was the very first fugitive named on the list, a Chicago native who robbed a mail train and broke out of the Leavenworth prison in 1931 only to be recognized (and captured) 20 years later in Beaverton where he was a valued employee of Cascade Concrete Products.J.H. Slippery Burke sparked a huge manhunt in Oregon and Washington after he tried to cash a forged check at a Forest Grove bank.

The bread and butter of the book, however, is Bilderback’s descriptions of numerous fascinating cases, including many in western Washington County, from Forest Grove pharmacist Charles Miller’s creative maneuvering around the city’s anti-alcohol Law and Order League, to the discovery of a bus driver lying unconscious but alive in a pool of blood near the intersection of Thatcher and Gales Creek roads.

And after reading about the string of mysterious deaths and near-deaths connected to the Jackson family, you’ll never think of Jackson School Road the same way again.

The book is available at the Gaston Market, at Corner Antiques (2019 Pacific Ave. in Forest Grove) and in downtown Hillsboro at the Washington County Museum, 120 E. Main St., and Jacobsen’s Books, 211 E. Main St. They are also available online, including a Kindle copy, at HYPERLINK "http://kenbilderback.com" kenbilderback.com, which includes excerpts and more information.

Contract Publishing

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