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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Senator John H. Mitchell: Oregon's own real-life Snidely Whiplash

He abandoned his family, changed his name, moved to Oregon, bilked widows and orphans in two big real-estate swindles ... and was promptly elected to Congress.


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.


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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.

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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.


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

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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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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central oregon's most fabulous homesteader ever.

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

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

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

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Visit to Portland ended
with life in prison for teen

Like the hero of an 1800s “cautionary tale,” 17-year-old Joseph Swards stepped off the ship, fell in with bad company, got caught up in a robbery that went horribly wrong — and in the end was lucky he wasn't hanged.

This early photo of the Gem Saloon and the Oro Fino Theater dates from
1876, two years before Joseph Swards arrived in Portland. These
businesses were located on First Street between Stark and Oak; the
grocery store at which Swards started his tragic spree was also on First
Street, probably farther north. The Oro Fino was rumored to be a front
for prostitution, and was partly owned by former Portland police chief
James Lappeus. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

Joseph E. Swards was 16 years old when he left his native Philadelphia as a brand-new apprentice seaman on the barque Geo. F. Manson, bound for Astoria and Portland. He would turn 17 at sea, in July of 1878.

By the time he was 18, he would be doing life without parole for a crime he didn’t commit.

The facts of Joseph’s story are clearly laid out in the Portland newspapers, and they read like a 19th-century cautionary tale — the kind that used to be made up to demonstrate the dangers of playing with matches, socializing with “gypsies,” etc.: A young man, seeking adventure, gets careless and comes to a bad and often grisly end.

Sailing off to adventure

I haven’t been able to learn why young Joseph shipped out — whether it was for the romantic idea of adventure at sea (still a thing in the late 1870s, although fading fast) or to escape from something unpleasant at home. Nor do I know how he was treated on this, his first deepwater voyage, although as an apprentice he would have been very low on the pecking order, so it’s likely it wasn’t comfortable.

But however lousy his life had been before his arrival, it was a palmy paradise compared with what awaited him in Oregon.

After he arrived in Portland, Joseph does not seem to have even considered going back to sea. Of course, he didn’t think about much of anything at first. He was young and free with money in his pockets, loose in a wild and hard-partying city. Surely he was looking forward to an epic blowout.

However, he immediately met up with a man named Martin Tracy, who kept a grocery store on First Street. Tracy, standing at the door of his store, invited the lad in for a beer as he walked by, and Joseph naively took him up on it.

“I drank a glass and a half and then ‘went away’; I was tight,” Joseph testified, at a subsequent inquest. “He must have put something in it. Then we went to bed.”

Bad company

It’s hard to tell for sure, through the fog of Victorian sensibilities and 150 years, if this meant what it sounds like to the modern ear — that Joseph was drugged and sexually exploited on his first day in Portland. But it probably did, because later that night, Tracy’s wife caught Tracy “pouring something on me in bed, or trying to” — and, it seems, kicked him out.

So Tracy and young Joseph left together, going to a boardinghouse, where they stayed for several nights — and met another drifter by the name of James Johnson.

A few days later, Joseph said, Tracy “left for the mountains” — an 1870s colloquialism for going on the lam, which seems a strange thing for a storeowner to do — and the lad was once again at loose ends.

“Johnson asked me what I was going to do,” Joseph testified later. “I told him I was going to work; he said he was going to hunt work too, and told me to stay with him and we would board in the Norton house. … I told him I had no money except a dollar and a quarter; he said never mind, that he had money and would pay my board.”

Worse company

The two of them stayed at the Norton house for a few days, skipped on the board bill, then stayed in a hotel for two nights in order to steal some blankets. Then they met up with another drifter by the name of Archie Brown; the three of them “borrowed” a rowboat, crossed the river and walked down the railroad tracks to Oregon City.

Once they got there, Johnson and Brown made Joseph stay and guard their camp while they looked for work — at least, that’s what they said they were doing. Actually, they were trying to rob the post office. But they were watched so closely that they thought the better of it and returned to camp.

So the three of them headed back to Portland again, setting up their camp just outside town, and Joseph heard his two adult companions talking about pawnshops. Still in need of work, and subsisting on potatoes and turnips stolen from gardens by night, they had decided to pawn the stolen hotel blankets — or so they said.

On August 20, the three of them left their camp and went to Portland to pawn the blankets. It was a day Joseph would remember — and lament — for the rest of his life — a life that would be considerably shortened as a result of the events of that day.

The pawnshop job

“When we got to Second Street, where Mr. O’Shea’s shop is, they told me to wait on the corner, and they went into the store,” Joseph said. “They were about ten minutes, and I went down to see what they were doing.”

Joseph didn’t know it, but when he opened the door of O’Shea’s pawnshop, he was not only walking into a store — he was also walking into the penitentiary. Because Johnson and Brown were not there to pawn blankets. They were there to rob the place. Had he stayed on the corner as instructed, no one would ever have known he was connected with the robbers in any way. But now he was dawdling in the shop, waiting for them to get done with their transaction so they could all leave together.

While he waited, standing near the front window, he noticed two boys across the street looking at him, and he smiled, winked and wagged his finger at them. They thought this was odd, so they continued to watch him.

Then suddenly there was a flurry of movement behind him, and a sickening thump.

“After I heard the first groan, I looked and saw Brown strike O’Shea again,” Joseph said. “He struck him with a piece of iron … it was about 18 inches long and about three-quarters of an inch round.”

Now, too late, Joseph tried to run for it — but nothing doing. “Johnson told me I had got myself in trouble by coming in there, and told me to stand at the counter and pushed me away from the door,” he testified. Johnson then locked the front door.

Meanwhile, the boys Joseph had wagged his finger at were figuring out what was going on. They ran to get a nearby police officer — and the chase was on.

A fatal flight

The three of them broke out a back window and fled, hampered by several pounds of gold, jewelry and pocket watches. The cop was unarmed, but fast gaining on them. Brown pulled his pistol, a big .44-caliber cap-and-ball Colt Navy revolver that he’d probably just lifted from the pawnshop, and turned and sent a bullet zipping past the cop's ear.

Brown didn’t mean to hit the policeman; he just wanted to scare him off enough to gain a little distance. And, in fact, he didn’t hit the policeman. The bullet from the revolver flashed past the cop —

— and lodged in the heart of 14-year-old Louis Joseph, a local youngster who’d come to see what the fuss was about.

“I’m shot!” gasped Louis, and collapsed to the ground, and died a few seconds later.

As a distraction, this unhappy event seems to have worked. The three fugitives got away, stealing a wagon and racing off into the woods outside of town.

A massive manhunt

Outrage swept the city. A $250 reward was promptly offered, then increased to $500. The three fugitives did the best they could to avoid capture and leave the area, but every eye was peeled for them. Even the baddest bad guy in town, shanghai artist Jim Turk, joined in the hunt for the murderers. Young Swards was captured the very next day; Brown, whose real name was Avery, was taken at gunpoint by the landlord of a boardinghouse he’d checked into; and Johnson was captured in Los Angeles some time later.

The trials of the three men got under way in December, and in January they were all found guilty. Johnson and Brown were sentenced to hang, and Swards, convicted of second-degree murder, drew a life sentence in the state penitentiary.

The Morning Oregonian, for one, thought the unhappy teenager was getting off easy.

“It is not easy to see why Swards … is not as criminal as his associates, who are under sentence of death,” the paper opined in an editorial. “But various considerations, among which are the youth of the prisoner and the probability that he was not the originator of the scheme of robbery which led to the murder, seem to have inclined the jury to leniency.”

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian archives, 8-21-1878 through 1-17-1879)