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A color lithograph of George and Kate Ann Williams’s Victorian  mansion, located at 18th and Couch streets downtown.

This spooky-looking Portland mansion was home of a 'starvation cult'

A prominent Portland socialite led a sect called "Truth," with the motto "Pray and Be Cured," that required 40-day fasts. It vanished after its leader starved herself to death during a 110-day fast. Here's the story.


An illustration of the scene in the Davis Hotel when detectives saw a hand suddenly  reach out from under the bed, grabbing for a pistol hidden there, from the Portland Morning Oregonian.

Railroad Murder mystery solved with the victim's help

The thieves, cornered in a boxcar, shot their way out, mortally wounding a railroad "bull." But the dying man was still a pretty good shot. Here's the story.


The archway monument leading up to the Wallowa County Courthouse,  built in 1936. The bronze plaque on the inside left of the arch includes  the name of murderer and horse thief Bruce “Blue” Evans.

A monument in honor of a horse thief and mass murderer?

Bruce "Blue" Evans led the gang that slaughtered over 30 innocent Chinese miners in 1887. So why is his name celebrated on a monument to Wallowa County Pioneers? Probably because they didn't know. Here's the story.


One of Conde McCullough's bridges -- the steel one linking Oregon City with Gladstone. he's better known for the Oregon Coast bridges.

Sammy Davis Jr. used to regularly play portland clubs.

Many consider him the coolest member of the Rat Pack. Sammy caught his big break while he was in Portland. Here's the story.


The steamer Telephone, fastest boat on the river in the 1880s and possibly the world -- until it burned to the waterline one day.


riverboat captain had to choose: save passengers, or save his boat?

The steamboat Telephone caught fire at the widest spot in the Columbia; the decision must not have been too tough, because Captain U.B. Scott didn't hesitate for a moment. Here's what happened.


The gravestone of Ame, who despite having died 10 years after the Civil War, was still considered a slave.

sHE DIED AROUND 1874. SO WHY DOES THE GRAVESTONE SAY SHE WAS A SLAVE?

Ame came over the Oregon Trail from Missouri. But when the North won the Civil War, her status as a slave didn't change. Here's what happened.


Ray V.B. Jackson in a booking photo from the Oregon State Pen, in 1896. Four years after this photo was taken, he was teaching grade school in Silver Lake.

Is this the face of oregon's first serial killer?

Like an "angel of death," ex-con Ray V.B. Jackson just happened to be at the scene of at least five Central Oregon homicides. What are the odds? Here's the story (in two parts).


The Sagebrush Symphony Orchestra on its 'giant violin' float, after riding it through the town of Burns in the Fourth of July Parade, 1915.

america's first youth orchestra came out of tiny sagebrush town.

The Portland Youth Philharmonic says it was founded in Portland in 1924. Actually, it's older than that -- and much more rural. Here's the story.


Vaudeville's famous Klondike Kate became a Central Oregon legend

central oregon's most fabulous homesteader ever.

Homesteader Kitty "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, retired from the bright lights of Vaudeville, often wore full costume just to weed the garden. Here's the story.


Early Oregon 'holy roller' cult ended in murder, suicide, insanity

THE holy-roller "NAKED LADIES' CULT" IN CORVALLIS and waldport.

It started out as a church seeking perfect holiness and Godliness. It ended in murder, insanity and chaos — and, yes, rumors of naked ladies. Check out the full story (in two parts).


The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

mariner's spooky nightmare came true the next day

In his dream, the first mate of the German barque Mimi saw seaweed covering all but three shipmates. The next day, all but three drowned in one of Oregon's worst-ever salvage disasters. Here's the story.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Oregon's first female lawyer:
A legal Mother Teresa?

The real Mary Leonard was probably someone who had given up “the good life” after realizing, during her time in jail, that the powerless women of her time were getting a raw deal — and determ ined to do something about it.

<<First | <Previous | — This story is Part 3 of a 3-part series on Mary Leonard. — | Next> | End>>
An old portrait of Mary Leonard, found in a family album in
Switzerland in 1965, made in Portland in 1890 or 1891 when
Mary was roughly 45 years old. (Photo: Oregon Historical
Quarterly)

Not many years ago, smug historians thought they understood the story of Oregon’s first female attorney. But — what if they’d gotten it completely wrong? What if the woman they’d blithely pigeonholed as a garden-variety grasping nag was, in fact, a sort of Mother Teresa to the down-and-out prostitutes and working girls of Portland’s notoriously seamy waterfront?

Looking over the historical record, it’s at least a strong possibility.

The historical record of Mary’s life is mostly extrapolation. We know a few facts, and the historian explains those facts by guessing at the reasons behind them. The most well known account, that of Malcolm Clark Jr., is full of that sort of thing.

As long as it’s not labeled as proven fact, there’s nothing wrong with extrapolation. The trouble is, these guesses about Mary come to us filtered through the eyes of 19th-century men (often newspaper reporters), and saturated with that odd (to us) mixture of dismissive condescension and self-interested gallantry with which those long-gone guys viewed women — especially uppity ones.

No great surprise: the resulting picture of Mary Leonard, passed down through the years to us, is of a stereotype-infused caricature, a ridiculous sort of extreme picture of a grasping, nagging, husbandless hag, bereft of brains but making up for it by trading on her protected status as a member of the “fairer sex” and getting her way by burying her opponent under mountains of impassioned but meaningless blather.

Well, today I’m going to do some extrapolation of my own. I’m proposing a theory of Mary’s life. I can’t prove any of it, or most of it at any rate. But I suspect it’s at least closer to the truth than others have gotten.

The Mother Teresa theory:

As you read the following, please remember that it's a theory. None of it is to be taken as proven historical fact. It is, however, entirely possible, and in places (in my view) very likely.

In this, my historical theory, Mary may or may not have been her husband's murderer, but he did kill her: He infected her with syphilis, a case of which he had, in my theory, picked up earlier in his life; remember, he was pushing 60 when they were wed. Mary is now forced to give up any plans she'd had for starting a family. Revulsion, anger and determination not to give birth to a syphilitic child cause her to cut her husband off from what he later referred to as his "marital rights," so he files for divorce and kicks her out of the house. And while that divorce is pending, someone — maybe it was even her! — slips into his house and shoots him in the head.

Now, charged with this crime, Mary is in the Wasco County Jail. She is, in a very real sense, ruined; she can never have a family; no future husband will want a syphilitic wife; she's done. She probably cries a lot. She's in there for a long time — roughly a year — while her case drags on.

But during that time, she meets some other jailbird women. The stories they tell put hers to shame. She soon sees that, poorly as she’s been treated, they’re getting much worse, and they need a friend. She determines that, if she gets out of jail, she will be that friend.

Then she’s declared not guilty, handed her late husband’s complete inheritance, and sent out into the community. She stays in The Dalles exactly zero days longer than she absolutely has to; that much we know. Conventional wisdom is that her reputation as a suspected murderess drove her out of town. But if that’s the case, why would she not take her newly gotten money and go someplace where she was unknown, but could make a fresh start? Maybe open a store in a tiny town somewhere in Idaho, maybe meet a nice not-too-young widower and make a quiet, happy life there?

No. Instead of that, she moves to Portland — where, thanks to the excellent newspaper coverage of her murder trial, she is well known already — and plunges into the worst neighborhood in town and sets up a boardinghouse. A place for girls and women exactly like the ones she met in jail. As historian Clark rather boorishly puts it, a “côte for soiled doves.”

Now, remember, this is a boardinghouse for the lowest-status people in the city. It’s probably safe to assume that year after year, teenage girls are moving into her place, trying to work at the theater or factory, slipping into desperation, becoming prostitutes, getting raped and assaulted, turning to whisky and opium and fading away into oblivion and disappearing. Where do old prostitutes go, anyway? Had you asked Mary, it’s a good bet she’d know. Because, I would argue, she’d made a deliberate decision to spend her life helping them.

Why she decided to study law (maybe):

She runs the boardinghouse for four years, and then she starts studying law. Now, why on Earth would she ever want to do that? To make money, perhaps? But at that time, there had never been a female attorney in the history of the state. There were a few of them around the country, but they weren’t getting rich at it. And female lawyers were still illegal in most states, including Oregon; there was a strong possibility that she would never be admitted to the profession at all, and those years of study would be utterly wasted. No, money couldn’t be it.

Fame, then? Not likely. Mary’d had a bellyful of fame.

Clark suggests that maybe she thought she might need good legal advice again someday, and that it would be wise to grow her own, as it were. That theory works great … as a punchline for a lame joke, that is. Two years of one’s life is a crazy price to pay for free legal advice that one may never actually need.

The one explanation nobody’s paid any attention to until just recently (a tip of the hat here to historian Kerry Abrams of Stanford) is Mary’s own — delivered to Abigail Scott Duniway in an interview:

“Many are the wrongs I have suffered in my time, and besides, so many inflicted upon others came under my observation that my heart went out to all womankind, and I resolved to do all I could to assist my sisters who were less fortunate,” she told Duniway. “You just let me get a legal clutch on some of those who wrong and plunder members of my sex, and see if they long escape punishment.”

This is the only explanation that makes any sense at all — essentially, that Mary got into law to help the helpess. A woman of independent means and a skeleton in her closet plunges into the worst neighborhood of Portland, starts taking in prostitutes and impoverished girls and women as boarders, decides she’s going to learn to handle herself in a court of law, and then, upon admission, practices primarily in criminal courts representing those same impoverished women — you have to work very hard to make that pattern of facts add up to any other explanation.

Clark gives it a shot, implying dismissively that she practiced mostly in criminal court because she was too incompetent to do anything else. And we do know she wasn’t a detail person. But it seems unlikely that an attorney with her known rhetorical skills — she did, after all, successfully argue for her own admission before both the state supreme court and the state legislature — would have had no more lucrative options available to her.

Madness ruins her reputation

Later in her life, Mary seems to have declined slowly into a sort of low-grade madness. Her behavior got really erratic and more than a little unethical starting in the late 1890s. This can only be explained as some sort of worsening medical condition. My theory, of course, was that it was the syphilis given her by her husband reaching the tertiary stage, the stage that sent Christopher Columbus over the edge of lunacy. Syphilis would explain why she never remarried or, so far as I’ve been able to learn, even indulged in any kind of romance after leaving The Dalles. In any case, her pitiful antics during these later years cast a big, ugly shadow on the legacy of what she had accomplished a few years before.

Mary is gone now, and remembered chiefly as a sort of adorably crazy old nag, to be smiled at indulgently and immediately dismissed, who just happened, through no fault or merit of her own, to have ended up as the first female attorney in the state of Oregon.

I can’t represent my theory of Mary’s story as truth; at best, as I said, it’s informed guesswork. But I can guarantee this much: It's a lot closer to the truth than the conventional wisdom on her story.

(Sources: Clark, Malcolm H. “The Lady and the Law,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 1955; Abrams, Kerry. “Folk Hero, Hell Raiser, Mad Woman, Lady Lawyer,” womenslegalhistory.stanford.edu)

<<First | <Previous | — This story is Part 3 of a 3-part series on Mary Leonard. — | Next> | End>>