Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 While doing some cleaning-up around the Odd Fellows Hall in Scio, a local girl found a tiny coffin with this partial skeleton inside. Whose? We'll probably never know ... (Story No. 204, Oct. 14, 2012) The ever-elusive D.B. Cooper peeks into the page from behind his signature shades. The story of his skyjacking exploit starts with episode 237, from June 2, 2013. Meet Kitty Kat, the wealthiest feline in the state of Oregon and landlord to the City of Tangent. Kitty Kat, until he died at a ripe old age in 1995, owned City Hall. (Story No. 163, Jan. 8, 2012) This crazy-looking speedboat was the invention of Portland wizard Victor Strode. The city commissioned a harbor patrol boat based on his design, but it didn't work out. (Story No. 201, Sept. 23, 2012) The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 This is the roof of the Franz Bread Rest Hut at Pixieland, the Oregon Coast's ill-starred answer to Disneyland, which opened in 1969 and went out of biz in 1974. The Rest Hut consisted of a giant fiberglass loaf of bread sticking out of the top of this giant fiberglass hollow log, the whole thing towering over a log-flume roller coaster ride. It's probably the most campily awesome example of the proud display of crass commercialism that was Pixieland. (Column No. 52 - Dec. 6, 2009)
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The skull of the skeleton found in the Odd Fellows hall in Scio, which is now at Oregon State University. The skeleton was that of a hard-working man who died sometime between 1860 and 1890.

Mysterious skeletons of Oregon: If these bones could talk ...

A long-dead dry-land homesteader ... a medical specimen in an Odd Fellows lodge ... what are their stories? We'll never know.


Oregon inventor Victor Strode’s revolutionary boat, the 'aerohydrocraft,' made the front cover of the March 1931 issue of Popular Science. The design didn't prove a useful one for the City of Portland, though, and the larger model the city commissioned to function as a harbor police boat didn't work out.

Buck Rogers-style police boat didn't work out for city of Portland

A local inventor developed the "aerohydrocraft" design in the early 1930s. But when the city built one as an ambulance boat, it flopped.


The remains of the barque Peter Iredale as they appear today, jutting out of the beach sands on Clatsop Spit at Warrenton as they have since 1906. In 1960, the wreck nearly was lost to a man who claimed he owned it.

How the Oregon Coast almost lost the Peter Iredale to a scrap-metal shark

An Oregon City man claimed he'd inherited the rights from his father, and demanded to be allowed to cut it up and haul it away. He almost got away with this little swindle.


Commander Dave Scott salutes the U.S. flag, which has just been planted on the surface of the moon. A small piece of Oregon lava rock, carried to the moon by Scott's fellow astronaut Jim Irwin, lies within this photo, next to one of the many bootprints. (Image: NASA)

There's a piece of lava from central oregon in this photo, on the moon.

It was left there by astronaut Jim Irwin at the request of a friend from Bend — who gave him a sliver of Oregon lava to leave on the moon's surface. And so he did.


The Motel 6 on Mission Street in Salem as it appeared in the mid-1970s, when Carl Cletus Bowles made his run from its back door. Don't laugh, at least not too loudly ... two innocent people would die before Bowles was back in prison.

Killer broke out of state prison during a conjugal visit at a nearby Motel 6

It had to be the most awkward prison-break scenario in the history of the universe. But it really did happen. Here's the story.


James Lappeus, former Portland Chief of Police. He eventually was fired over allegations that he'd offered to 'accidentally' leave the jailhouse door open for a convicted murderer if his wife paid a $1,000 bribe.

gambler, swindler, gunfighter, liquor man ... oh, and also police chief.

James Lappeus came to Portland to open a saloon and "theater." Despite his checkered past — or maybe because of it — he was named city marshal and, later, Chief of Police. Here's the story.


Boats of the Astoria fishing fleet, with the help of both wind and incoming tide, race away from the dangers of the Columbia River Bar in this postcard image from around the turn of the century.

When fishing was so deadly, one in 15 didn't survive the season.

They drifted downstream in heavy 24-foot boats with their nets out ... and prayed the tide would turn before they got sucked out onto the bar. Here's the story.


This postcard picture of Cannon Beach was created in 1966, which means just off to the left of the frame is a beach with a fence around it and "no trespassing" signs.

HOW OREGON ALMOST LOST PUBLIC ACCESS TO ITS BEACHES

A Portland real-estate guy found a loophole in the law and claimed a patch of beach for his own, and his friends in the state Legislature tried to keep it that way. Here's the story.


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.


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.


Title screen from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Mel Blanc, the legendary Looney Toons voice man, grew up in Portland.

The voice of Bugs Bunny went to high school in Portland

Legendary Hollywood voice man Mel Blanc's teachers weren't too impressed with his voice talents, but Oregon radio listeners and cartoon fans sure were. Here's the story.


Three Rocks Beach, Camp Westwind, the mouth of the Salmon River and Cascade  Head as they appear today.

Is there pirate loot buried at this YWCA youth camp?

The discovery of a giant skeleton in the 1930s suggested that the old Indian legend of a pirate ship sinking in the Salmon River might be true ... or maybe not. Here's the story.


This is not a picture of the Sunshine; it's a lumber schooner of a similar type, the Wawona. The Sunshine, on her way home from her maiden voyage to San Francisco, vanished and then reappeared, upside down, 200 miles off course.

Gold was gone when schooner washed ashore ... empty

The fate of the Sunshine's passengers and crew is unknown ... did somebody wreck the ship on purpose?. 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 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).


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.


Goal of Oregon whale hunters: Grow fur coats, and put a man on the moon.

helping put a man on the moon, one dead whale at a time?

Whale oil is special stuff, and NASA needed it for the space program. So an Astoria group launched a whaling venture in the early 1960s. 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.


Florence's famous exploding whale: A highway engineer didn't know how much dynamite to use, so he guessed ... and guessed wrong.

Whale explodes: Details at 11.

The highway department guy didn't know how much dynamite to use, and said so on camera. But he still thinks the operation was a success. Check out the story of Florence's famous exploding whale ...


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

was this shipwreck insurance fraud or just drunken incompetence?

On a beautiful clear October day, astonished beach-goers watched a big windjammer simply turn and sail straight into the side of a mountain. Why would her crew do such a thing? Here's the story.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Sen. John H. Mitchell: The Snidely Whiplash of Oregon

John Hipple dumped his family, changed his name and moved West. A dozen years and a few easy-money real-estate swindles later, he was a hugely successful railroad-and-timber lawyer and a U.S. Senator.

John H. Mitchell as he appeared in the 1870s, when he was in his
30s. (Image: Jos. Gaston)

When you’re watching a melodrama, you know right away who the villain is. That’s him over there, twirling a sinister handlebar moustache beneath a sleek silk hat and telling the pretty widow and her nine orphan children to kiss their beloved homestead goodbye.

But that’s melodrama, right? And the next scene is always one in which the hero foils the villain’s evil plan.

Ah, but this scene wasn’t melodrama. It was real life. The widow was Mrs. Mary Jane Balch, wife of the first man hanged in the history of the state of Oregon. The homestead included much of what’s now Portland’s Northwest Heights neighborhood, some of the most valuable real estate in the state. And the villain — an attorney Mrs. Balch had hired to help her sell, who had craftily arranged the paperwork so he could gobble up nearly all the proceeds — was none other than Oregon’s very own Snidely Whiplash: Future U.S. Senator John Hipple Mitchell.

As a member of the U.S. Senate, Mitchell enjoyed the official title of “The Honorable John H. Mitchell,” but, well, that title didn’t quite suit him. For one thing, “John Mitchell” was an alias. For another … well, perhaps I should just tell his story.

The swinging schoolteacher

Mitchell’s real name was John M. Hipple — “Mitchell” was his middle name — and he was born in 1835 in Pennsylvania. After graduating from college, he worked as a schoolteacher there. In the mid-1850s he got one of his students, 15-year-old Sadie Hoon, into some family-style trouble, and then married her.

The classic Snidely Whiplash-style melodrama character.. John H.
Mitchell was probably as close as Oregon has come to a real
historical figure who fits this stereotype. (Art: Leland John)

A few years later, the Hipples had two additional children, and John proved hardworking and ambitious. By 1857, he was a practicing attorney, and well on his way to making a nice life for himself and his little family.

And then … he vanished. He took his youngest daughter and his mistress, “borrowed” $4,000 belonging to the law firm he was working for (which he did pay back later), and set out across the continent to start a new life in California, leaving his wife and other children behind and penniless.

This new life must not have been much of an improvement, because in 1860 he did it again, abandoning the mistress there and moving to Oregon with his daughter.

A new life, a new city, his old tricks

Portland in 1860 was about as far away from anywhere as you could get without living in a log cabin and killing stuff for dinner. As other men had before him and others would again after, he found refuge from a checkered past in this frontier city, a place to start a new life. And with a new life came a new name: John Mitchell Hipple was now calling himself John Hipple Mitchell, Attorney at Law.

It was shortly after arriving that Mitchell deftly fleeced the widow and orphans Balch. At around the same time, the still-married Lothario started romancing the daughter of a blacksmith in Oregon City; he subsequently married her without having bothered to first divorce Sadie, an oversight that would come back to haunt him later.

The charming rogue

A portrait of Mitchell's boss, flashy railroad-and-stagecoach baron
Ben Holladay. (Image: Jos. Gaston)

Mitchell was, by all accounts, as charismatic as he was rascally. He soon made the acquaintance of another newcomer to Oregon: the controversial and flashy Ben Holiday, the Gilded Age stagecoach-and-railroad magnate who rocked the Portland establishment with his energetic, take-no-prisoners approach to business, especially his Oregon & California Railroad. Mitchell became Holiday’s personal attorney, which was most certainly a lucrative job, and soon he was Portland’s leading railroad-and-timber lawyer.

But where Mitchell made his big money, early on, was by a deft swindle pulled in 1868, which left him and few of his friends with title to half of downtown Portland.

The Caruthers swindle

Before Portland was more than a clearing on the river, a woman named Elizabeth Caruthers and her son, Finice, had taken out a 640-acre homestead claim that was just south of what had grown into downtown Portland. The property, clearly in the path of progress, was already skyrocketing in value. Elizabeth Caruthers considered herself a widow — her husband had disappeared and was presumed dead — so the land claim was in her own name.

One of the good things John H. Mitchell did for Oregon as a senator was
to arrange federal funding for the Cascade Locks. (Postcard image)

Both Carutherses subsequently died, with no known heirs and no will. Mitchell and some promoter friends saw their chance.

They went on a hunt for a man who answered to the name of Joe Thomas — the name of Elizabeth Caruthers’s vanished husband — who would be willing, for a fee, to swear to be the Joe Thomas, the missing husband himself.

They found such a man in St. Louis. Although his real name turned out to be John C. Nixon, he was willing to lie about that, which was good enough to get the job done.

Nixon was brought to Portland, where he was sworn in and faithfully did his bit of perjury. Then, after receiving an $8,000 payoff for his services, he deeded the land over to Mitchell’s group.

Easy money.

The Hon. John H. Mitchell, U.S. Senator

By the 1870s, Mitchell knew well how profitable it could be to mix business and politics. He’d gotten himself elected to the state senate in 1862, almost immediately upon arriving in the state.

Ten years later, he was able to clinch the prize he was really after: A seat in the U.S. Senate. At that point, though, he was nearly undone by a blast of karma. It had come to the attention of his political enemies that he’d abandoned most of his first family in Pennsylvania, was living under an assumed name, and was a bigamist.

Luckily for Mitchell if not for his adopted state, the Senate decided these things weren’t deal-killers, and seated him — whereupon he embarked on a 30-year run of deviousness and influence-peddling and chicanery that would leave the state, overall, somewhat worse for wear — although he did accomplish some notable good things for the state. His efforts got the Cascade Locks funded, as well as a number of Oregon’s complement of life-saving lighthouses.

However, Mitchell worked tirelessly to promote the interests of his clients in Washington, including Ben Holiday and, later, the Southern Pacific Railroad. He also never seemed to weary of trying to get the federal government to renege on treaties made with South Coast Native American tribes, whose heavily timbered lands development companies coveted.

But he’s best known today for his part in one of the biggest land swindles of American history — and his role in that swindle would finally bring him down.

Mitchell’s fall

In the early years of the 1900s, federal public lands in Oregon were available to individual homesteaders in 160-acre chunks for a tiny fraction of their true market value — $2.50 an acre. Large timber companies like Booth-Kelley and Weyerhaeuser wanted to buy vast swaths of it, and felt they should be free to do so — but they weren’t.

So they simply made arrangements with “front men,” often hobos, who would file a claim on 160 acres, pay the $400 for it with company money, and sign it over to the big outfits.

In the process of making these arrangements, the companies got some help from Mitchell. And when a federal investigation by Theodore Roosevelt appointee Francis Heney started looking into the matter, it was all over for the white-bearded Grand Old Man of Oregon politics.

Mitchell was convicted and sentenced to serve six months in prison and pay a $1,000 fine — which sounds beefy in 1903 dollars, although the bribe he was being convicted of taking was twice that.

In any case, he died from a dental abscess while the case was on appeal, so he never actually served any prison time. To this day, he’s one of only five Senate members in U.S. history who have been convicted of a crime while in office. And as far as I know, he is the only U.S. Senator who has ever served in the Senate under a false name.

(Sources: MacColl, E. Kimbark. Merchants, Money and Power. Portland: Georgian Press, 1988; Boly, William. “How they Stole the Oregon Land,” Oregon Times, July 1976; OHS Oregon History Project, ohs.org)