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This cover illustration from "Masked Rider Western," published in 1950, bears an uncanny resemblance to the events that kicked off Vigilante rule in Crook County.

When prineville was ruled by masked vigilante riders

In Crook County, the early 1880s were like a Louis L'Amour novel. And it all started with the lynching of an innocent man.


The classic melodrama villain, with sleek silk hat and waxed handlebar mustache, in the act of evicting the poor widow and children from their freshly foreclosed family homestead. Except for the mustache, Oregon's longest-serving 19th-century senator fit the trope with remarkable precision.

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.


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.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Oregon's first public execution still cloaked in dark mystery

Danford Balch got drunk and shotgunned his new son-in-law on the deck of the Stark Street Ferry. His diary and official records tell part of the story. But the real questions can only be guessed at — and some of the guesses are sinister indeed.

The Stark Street Ferry in the 1880s. The ferry on which the murder of
Mortimer Stump took place was a different boat; in fact, it was mule-
powered — a mule on a treadmill drove a paddlewheel, and the ferryman
urged it on by throwing rocks at it. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

On the afternoon of Nov. 8, 1858, 48-year-old Danford Balch stood on the deck of the Stark Street Ferry, holding a double-barreled shotgun. Both barrels were still smoking. At his feet in a widening crimson puddle lay the body of his son-in-law, Mortimer Stump.

It was the crime that would lead, early the following year, to the first public execution in Portland’s history. And it happened so long ago — it’s so shrouded in the mists of time and of rough-and-ready frontier recordkeeping — that it’s hard to know exactly what happened, or why.

The lucky pioneer

Danford Balch had come to Oregon in 1847 on the Oregon Trail with his wife, a pretty young widow with two children, whom he’d married around 1842 when he was about 31 years old. They crossed the continent in the usual covered-wagon way with their several children — “hers and ours,” as it were. Upon arrival, they staked a claim that included most of what today is the Northwest Heights neighborhood and much of what’s now Forest Park — some of the most valuable real estate in the entire state.

A drawing of the first house to be built in Portland, a log cabin built at
what would soon become Front and Washington streets in 1844. Three
years later, Danford Balch arrived. (Image: Joseph Gaston)

At the time, though, it was pretty remote, and mostly thickly forested. But as a decade passed and Portland grew from a cluster of shacks into the preeminent city in the state, Balch found himself a pretty important fellow. And that may be at least part of the reason he reacted so poorly when the son of a less prominent neighbor asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The fatal proposal

The would-be bridegroom was a strapping lad named Mortimer, a son of the Stump family from the east side of the Willamette. Young Mortimer had been staying with the Balches as a hired hand, and during his time there he and the eldest of the nine Balch children, 15-year-old Anna, had fallen for each other. So Mortimer asked her father for his permission to marry her.

Old Man Balch, apparently deeply offended by the suggestion, rebuffed Mortimer forcefully and then fired him and ordered him off the property.

But a few days later, Anna stole away and met up with Mortimer, and together they secretively eloped across the Columbia to Vancouver to marry.

Danford Balch as “Clifton Clowers”

A street scene in Portland in 1851, four years after Danford Balch came
and staked his claim in what’s now the Northwest Heights. (Image:
Oregon State University Archives)

Danford Balch did not take the news well.

“The night I came home and found the girl gone, it struck a pain to my heart, like a knife cutting me,” Balch later wrote. “I ate a little supper and went to bed, but did not sleep a wink all night. In the morning, at once after getting up, I started for town, and it seemed as if my stomach would burst from anxiety and grief, which were more than I can express.”

Keeping in mind that Balch had eight other children and a wife at home, the question of why Balch reacted in such an extreme way is the central mystery of his story. His vivid description of emotional desolation introduces a really disturbing note into this story. Historian Diane Goeres-Gardener comes right out and says what you are probably already thinking: “The description he gave of his emotional, physical and psychological state sounded more like a man describing the loss of a lover than a daughter,” she writes, in Necktie Parties.  

Downtown Portland in 1854, four years before the murder. This is the
era in which Portland became known for the whitewashed stumps that
dotted its streets. (Image: Oregon State University Archives)

Her observation takes on a particularly sinister tint in light of the fact that Anna was probably Danford’s stepdaughter — not related to him by blood. The dates are fuzzy, but remember, Mary Jane Balch had two children already when Danford married her in ’42. Was Anna one of those? It’s impossible to say for sure, but she was the oldest child in the Balch home in 1858 when all this happened.

Balch also, by all accounts (including his own), had started drinking heavily several years before this incident.

Belligerent, drunk and heavily armed

So on that fateful November day, Balch apparently was in Portland having a drink at a saloon when the newlyweds came to town to buy supplies so that they could set up housekeeping. A confrontation ensued in front of the store kept by Multnomah County Sheriff and former Portland mayor Addison Starr.

Here’s what Balch had to say about that encounter: “He (the elder Stump, Mortimer’s father) cursed a great deal and said I was making a great fuss about my child; that she was an ordinary little bitch, and (he) did not know what (unknown expletive) I wanted of her,” Balch wrote. “There was more said. I do not recollect saying another word.”

After this encounter, Balch apparently ran for home, poured himself another big drink, grabbed his double-barreled shotgun, and hustled back to town with it. He later claimed his plan was to use it to demand the return of his lost property — viz, Anna. Obviously, he was not thinking very clearly, and witnesses to the incident that followed confirm he was by then quite drunk.

The Stumps almost escaped from his clutches. They were on James Stephens’ mule-powered ferry, ready to take off across the river, when Balch ran up with his shotgun and dispensed the contents of both barrels directly into his new son-in-law’s face.

Arrested, jailed, tried, convicted, hanged

Balch was, of course, very roughly taken into custody on the spot by outraged fellow passengers, and lodged in the rickety rented building that the new city was using as a jail. He escaped and was on the lam for a while, hiding out in the woodsy part of his land, but a few months later was recaptured by city marshal James Lappeus.

At his trial, to his evident astonishment, Balch was convicted and sentenced to hang. Several people testified at his trial that they’d heard him threaten to kill Mortimer Stump; apparently he was in the habit of going to Portland saloons, drinking to the point of blackouts and then making belligerent verbal threats that he didn’t remember the next day. His confession, written just before his hanging when it wouldn’t do him any good at all to lie, is full of bewilderment at all the Portland residents who testified at his trial to deadly drunken pledges he didn’t remember making.

Balch was hanged on Oct. 18, 1859, ten months to the day after his crime. As a side note, there were rumors — fairly credible ones — that Marshal Lappeus had offered to let him escape from the city jail for a $1,000 bribe, which the widow had been unable to raise; these rumors haunted Lappeus for the rest of his law-enforcement career.

At the hanging, Portlanders were shocked to see a dry-eyed Anna Balch Stump there with her in-laws. They were there to watch Danford die. And they did.

The reporter from the Portland Oregonian was aghast. “The idea of a daughter, by her own volition, attending the execution of a father upon a gallows, is a disgrace to the intelligence of the age, and to every principle of filial affection manifested or exhibited by every species of the brute creation, in the sea or upon the earth,” he wrote in the following week’s paper. “This fact is of a character that we cannot pass unnoticed, and must meet with the surprise, reprobation and detestation of the whole community.”

This surely seemed like a reasonable inference. But then, maybe the Oregonian reporter just didn’t know the whole story. And that’s probably all that should be said about that.

(Sources: Kenck-Crispin, Doug & al. “The Hanging of Danford Balch,” Kick Ass Oregon History (podcast), vol. 1 No. 4; Goeres Gardner, Diane. Necktie parties: Legal executions in Oregon. Caldwell: Caxton, 2005; “Execution of Balch,” Portland Weekly Oregonian, 22 Oct 1859)