Interview with JD Chandler, Author of Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon

In this interview with History Press West, Portland-based writer and criminal historian JD Chandler discusses the inspiration, the research, and the craft behind his new book Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon.

Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon by JD Chandler

HPW: What compels your interest in murder and history?

JDC: I have had a lifelong interest in history, even as a young child my favorite things to read were stories about people and events in the past. I recently mentioned to my brother that I have been a “public historian” for the last twenty years without even realizing it; he said it’s been a lot longer than that. I’m not sure what first attracted me to the study of murder, but I do know what made it an obsession. In 1992 my friend James Lee was shot to death in Seattle. He had recently taken a job as a taxi driver and one night he was held up and killed. He was 27 and I was 30 at the time and it was the first time that someone who was close to me died suddenly by violence. I attended every day of the trial of his killer and I learned some important lessons.

First I learned that murder doesn’t just destroy the life of the victim. In James’ case the killer was a young man who grew up in the same neighborhood I had and even attended the same school. He was only nineteen, but the course of the rest of his life was set. He is still serving more than thirty years in prison at Walla Walla. By killing my friend this young man destroyed his own life as well. In addition at the trial I got to know the family of the killer and my friend’s family and I saw the terrible damage that had been inflicted on them all by the senseless act. From this I learned that every murder has a ripple effect through society and affects the lives of a number of people.

While dealing with the effects the violence had on my own life and the way I felt about myself I started to learn about the personal effects of trauma. Before that I had no idea of the devastating effects that the violent death of a close friend can have; and the more I have looked at it the more I have found that even the violent death of an acquaintance can cause trauma. Murder is a crime that has almost unlimited potential to harm people and society. I have been nearly obsessed with the study of murder ever since.

James Lappeus, Portland’s first career police officer. He had a long career on both sides of the law. Courtesy of the Portland Police Historical Society.

HPW:  Who would you include in a historical list of Portland’s dirty dozen criminals?

  1. James Lappeus – It might seem odd to include Portland’s second City Marshal and first police chief on this list, but I think he belongs in the first place. Lappeus was Portland’s first career law enforcement officer, yet he started out as a gambler and conman, and according to the many charges he faced in his long career he never completely gave up on the criminal aspects of his career.
  2. Lucerne Besser – another city marshal and police chief who was probably Portland’s most corrupt city council member.
  3. James H. Mitchell – Arguably the most corrupt U.S. Senator in history, Mitchell started his career in Portland as an unethical lawyer.
  4. Jim Turk – The founder of Portland’s Sailor’s Boarding House and Shanghaiing business, he was a violent man who was arrested repeatedly for assault against sailors, employees, policemen, customs officials and his own family.
  5. Larry Sullivan – another Sailor’s Boarding House man who is one of the most important pioneers of organized crime in Portland, especially its connection with local politics.
  6. Carrie Bradley – Her crimes were small compared to some of the others, but for brutality and greed this woman, who ran a house of prostitution, is right up there.
  7. Nathan Harvey – He was never convicted of a crime, but he may have been the city’s most successful child molester and murderer. Everyone has forgotten him, but I haven’t.
  8. Earle Nelson – The Dark Strangler was one of the earliest and most prolific serial killers to ever operate in Portland.
  9. Jack Justice – He was really just a small time fixer, but he was involved in one of Portland’s most famous killings and the people behind him were never exposed. Justice will have to fill in for them, just as he did when he was alive.
  10. Jim Elkins – An important figure in Portland organized crime. He self-destructed rather than let the Teamsters take over his business and he took down the Police Chief, D.A. and almost the Mayor in the process.
  11. Michele Gates – She started her killing when she was only 9 years old and she is one of the scariest killers of children the city has ever seen. She’s out of prison now and living in Portland under another name.
  12. Sebastian Shaw – One of our more recent serial killers. His crimes are particularly frightening, because he killed at random as the opportunity presented itself. His motive was to relieve his stress from work.

The first eight on this list are included in Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon. The others will have to wait for volume two.

HPW: How did you go about deciding which stories to include in Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon? Did you uncover any incidents or anecdotes that you wished you had time or room to include?

JDC: This was the hardest part of writing the book. I have a spreadsheet, The Slabtown Chronology, which includes details of more than 2,000 murders that have occurred in Portland and the vicinity since the city was founded. Murder & Mayhem in Portland tells the stories of less than 10%. Picking out the right murders to tell about was not easy.

Murderers tend to repeat themselves, often murders are so much like killings that have happened in the past that it would be repetitious to tell them all. For example in my introduction I talk about the killings of young women in their apartments by lovers, friends or acquaintances. It is very sad when you realize that this type of killing happens every couple of years. In my own neighborhood I mention the murder of Gwen Ponsson in 1942 and that of Nikayla Jayden Powell in 2012, which occurred within twelve blocks of each other. This was a convenient pair of bookends to make my point because the murders are so similar that they are almost interchangeable. If you made a map with these kinds of murders, just in one neighborhood it would be covered with spots. We can learn important things by studying each one, but that went beyond the scope of what I was trying to do with Murder & Mayhem in Portland. Maybe it will have to be another book at some point.

Charles Reynolds, a former scout with General Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, successfully used the unwritten law to defend himself against murder charges for killing the man he said was having an affair with his wife. Courtesy of the Oregonian, Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library, Portland, Oregon.

My vision for Murder & Mayhem in Portland was to tell the history of my favorite city by telling the story of murder. I picked the crimes that I wrote about by choosing murders that were historically famous, but inaccurately remembered, or had been forgotten, but tell us interesting things about the development of the city and the way people lived. In addition I looked for crimes that involved people who were interesting in their own right. For example in my chapter on the Unwritten Law I had six or seven murders that I could have focused on, but I chose the one that was committed by a man who had been a cavalry scout for George Custer, because he interested me. In addition, I included murders involving Bunko Kelley, Harry Tracy, Earle Nelson and many more.

I tried to find murders that shed light on the lives of groups of people who have been forgotten or under-reported in history. For example in telling the story of Johnson & Brown, two armed robbers who were executed in one of Portland’s most notorious public executions in 1879. I came across evidence that they had been gay. This led to an exploration of the lives of gay people in 19th century Portland. I don’t get deeply into the subject in the book, but it is worth further study and discussion. Likewise the murder of Chin Bow Chong in 1892 gives us insight into the lives of Chinese in Portland and the rise of the criminal Tong organizations. The chapter on murders in Guilds Lake and Vanport in 1945 gave me a chance to describe the experience of Portland African-Americans. What interests me the most is forgotten and untold history. Murder gives us an interesting way to approach those subjects.

I found a huge number of stories that I wasn’t able to include in the book. Some of them can be found on my Slabtown Chronology Blog. I also found some interesting stories that are not about murders. Some of them can be found on my Weird Portland Blog. Others will have to wait and be told in future books.

After Ernest T. Mass was elected sheriff of Clackamas County in 1911, he would face one of the most baffling crimes of his career: the Hill Case. Courtesy of Old Oregon Photos.com

HPW: Can you briefly describe one of the infamous incidents or criminals you touch upon in Murder & Mayhem in Portland?

JDC: Now this is a hard question to answer. I was really happy that I had a chance to write about the Hill Family murder of 1911 because it was a huge sensation at the time, but no one today remembers it, but I think I would rather talk about the murders of Jimmy Walker and Edith McLain in 1933.

This murder was considered Portland’s first “gangland” killing and it’s true that Walker and McLain were literally “taken for a ride.” What interested me the most was what I uncovered while I was researching it. I had heard rumors for years about a gang of burglars and safe crackers who made their headquarters in Portland and pulled jobs all around the region. While researching the deaths of Walker and McLain I realized that the gang that had pulled off the killings, led by Frank Kodat, was the burglary ring.

Kodat learned the safe-cracking trade from the legendary armed robber “Dutch Pete” Stroff. Together they organized a group of thieves that committed robberies all over Oregon, Washington and California and they made their headquarters in southeast Portland, not too many blocks from where I live, at Frank Kodat’s boarding house and speakeasy. Their organization was connected with the prisoners in Salem at the Oregon State Pen, so when a convict with the proper skills was released he could always find a place to live and employment at Kodat’s. This was the organization that took Jimmy Walker and Edith McLain for a ride, so as a byproduct of investigating their killings I also uncovered the true story behind the legend I had heard for years.

Another fascinating aspect of this case was the connection to Portland’s boxing world, through the character Jack Crim, who was probably the guy who pulled the trigger, although he was never charged. Crim was a Modoc Indian who used the fierce reputation of his tribe to enhance his fame as a local boxer. While researching his boxing career I found out that Portland had a thriving boxing scene in the 1920s and 1930s, involving the legendary fight promoter Tex Salkeld. Most of the boxers were identified ethnically, for example there were African-American, Phillipino, Chinese, Irish, Jewish, Scandanavian and German boxers in addition to Crim, who was known as The Halfbreed. I find it fascinating that in such a time of racial and ethnic discrimination each of these boxers had loyal followings who rooted for them based on their ethnic identity.

So the bloody bodies of Walker and McLain, found in the woods outside Portland, serve as a trail marker into a fascinating period of Portland history. This is what I think is most important about the study of murder; it gives us a way in to stories that are usually not told.

HPW: Your book goes beyond the headlines to share personal stories about the people whose lives were irrevocably changed by a murder. Did you have an opportunity to speak with individuals, or descendants of individuals, impacted by the events you chronicled? Do you have any advice for other writers investigating traumatic events?

JDC: This is probably the most rewarding part of doing my Slabtown Chronicle blog. I have been contacted by many survivors and relatives of people who have killed or been killed. My emphasis in writing these stories is on the victims. Most of the time victims of murder are completely forgotten while news reporting focuses on the killers. In my stories I do my best to tell the victims stories as fully as possible. Sometimes that can only be done when their survivors come forward. In Murder & Mayhem in Portland I deal with murders that occurred up to 1945, so it is difficult to find survivors or even descendants of the people involved, but in certain cases, such as Carrie Bradley the killer in the chapter on Portland’s Tenderloin, it was possible. Also my chapter on the Dark Strangler includes stories about the victims told by their families, but they are all from contemporary press accounts.

At my blog, Slabtown Chronicle, sometimes the comments are the most interesting part of the story, as people who knew the people involved argue about what really happened and describe their own experiences. When I started writing there I didn’t expect that, but I am so glad it happens. In many cases, such as the killing of Ruthie O’Neil, a four year old killed by her preteen babysitter in 1980, I have talked with Ruthie’s mother and several people who grew up in the neighborhood and knew Michele Gates (the babysitter) when they were children, that story didn’t fit into Murder & Mayhem in Portland, but it needs to be told. Maybe another book someday.

The most important thing I would say to other writers who write about trauma is be sensitive. Trauma affects people’s lives in terrible and unexpected ways. People talk to me about it, not just because I am a trauma survivor myself and open about it, but because I focus on the lives of the victims and I am very sensitive in my approach. If you want to be a successful writer about these subjects examine the trauma in your own life and learn about the effects it has on you, then use that knowledge to inform the way you approach people about it. Most important don’t glorify the criminals, there is far too much of that in the press, talk about the victims and the lives that have been lost. That is what is important about murder anyway.

HPW: What True Crime books or authors have you enjoyed recently?

JDC: I love Ann Rule; to me she is the most important True Crime writer. Her book Dead by Sunset is my favorite because it is about a Portland murder. I enjoy Lust Killer for the same reason, plus it is also a good scary story. I like Greg Olson, he’s a good writer and most of his work is about the Pacific Northwest. Phil Stanford is a good newspaper columnist who writes about crime, and while his books are a little light-weight I enjoy them. Some of the best True Crime writing, I think is being done on the internet by bloggers like Steve Huff and Laura James.

Flood, fire and financial panic shaped Portland in the 1870s, but the city continued to grow and prosper. Photographed by Joseph Buchtel. Courtesy of Old Oregon Photos.com

HPW: What would you like your readers to take away from your book? What can we learn by studying murder?

JDC: Murder can happen to anyone and everyone; regardless of class, wealth, gender, ethnicity or any other factor. No one is immune to murder. By studying murder in history we are able to learn things about the way people actually lived and died in the past. Studying the police response to murder we can learn about the development of crime detection techniques and, more important, about the relationship between the police and the community. In addition the study of murder gives us a way in to some of the most interesting forgotten and untold stories of history.

I would like readers to come away from Murder and Mayhem in Portland, Oregon, with a good understanding of the development of Portland as a city and the lives that Portlanders have led at different times in the past. I would like to help them put a human face on the history of my favorite city. Most important I would like them to remember the victims that have lost their lives by violence.

~~~~

JD ChandlerJD Chandler is a public historian and former political/labor activist. Chandler writes both fiction and nonfiction, but for the past sixteen years, his primary focus has been studying Portland’s criminal history and compiling the Slabtown Chronology at www.portlandcrime.blogspot.com. His newest history blog is www.weirdportland.blogspot.com.

 

Murder & Mayhem in Portland, Oregon by JD Chandler is available from the History Press, Powell’s Books, Broadway Books, the Oregon Historical Society, McMenamins Edgefield Giftshop, and other Portland area shops.

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