Clean-cut murder case turned out to be sordid and complex
The “good guy” was a petty swindler. The “wronged woman” was a prostitute and bigamist. And the “innocent victim” was a serial philanderer. By the time the “bad guy” was caught, Portland just wanted to forget the whole thing.
By Finn J.D. John — September 20, 2015
For the average Oregon newspaper reader, the first inkling that something about Portland Police Officer John Gittings’ murder was not as it appeared came a few days before Christmas, when it became apparent that he had been having an affair with his murderer’s wife’s sister.
By itself, that wouldn’t seem to change much. The facts, as Portlanders knew them, were still pretty black-and-white: Melville Bradley beat his wife, Kate; Kate’s brother, Joseph Sivener, went looking for him to thrash him, and brought Gittings along; Bradley came up shooting and Gittings caught a bullet. The fact that Gittings was Sivener’s sister’s boyfriend, rather than just some random innocent beat cop helping out a citizen, didn’t really change much.
But it had a significant effect on Officer Gittings’ posthumous reputation. It soon became clear that not only was Gittings married with three small children (and one more on the way), but that he neglected his family shockingly.
The Oregonian’s reporter called the Gittings family manse “a deplorable little shack, cold, forbidding, leaky, un-paid-for.”
Case No. 3:
The Unwritten Law Files
This column is one of a series of case studies of the early-20th-century mania for honor killings in Oregon. It was popularly known as “The Unwritten Law,” and it was a social convention that permitted and/or obligated a man to murder anyone whom he knew to be working to seduce his wife or sister. Unwritten Law cases arose around the country in the 1890s and were alarmingly common until around the time of the First World War.
Today’s column discusses one such case, which took place in Portland in 1907, and which may actually be the case that ended what had been widespread public approval of Unwritten Law killings.
“The wind whistles uncomfortably through the cracks where the boards fail to meet,” he continued. “The shack stands three feet from the ground and by way of a front stoop two earthen jars do service. … Gittings got $100 a month from the city, but his family did not get so much from Gittings. There is no evidence that they ever got anything. The widow is miserably clothed, the three little children actually look cold.”
Gittings’ brother officers now rose gallantly to the occasion, and started taking up a collection to take care of the widow and orphans.
“The sentiment seemed to be that whatever discreditable there might have been in the affair … the widow and the children were innocent of it and eminently deserving of assistance,” the Oregonian reported.
Under the cops’ leadership, with the full moral support of the newspaper, and in the spirit of the Christmas season, the community rallied around poor Mrs. Gittings. Soon she and the kids were living in a fully paid-for, upgraded home, with a cow and chickens in the back to supply milk and eggs.
Time passed. There was no word on the murderer — a man for whom public animosity was already starting to die down. Meanwhile, the murderer's wife, whose beating had started the whole spectacle, had moved on with her life, as had her brother, Joseph Sivener. Both were back in the headlines just a few months later, both under rather unfortunate circumstances.
First, in March of 1908, Sivener was picked up by police and tossed in the city pokey. It seems he had acquired the habit of swindling small amounts of money by forging checks drawn on the accounts of East Side saloonkeepers and cashing them. In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor offense, but it didn’t play well with the public’s image of him as the righteous, avenging brother of the poor wronged wife, charging forth to call her no-good wife-beating husband to account.
Speaking of the poor wronged wife — well, perhaps it’s best to just quote from the newspaper directly. This article hit the papers a little over a year later:
“Mrs. Kate Kakarous, the wife of a Greek bartender and formerly the wife of Melville Bradley, the murderer of Policeman Gittings, was arrested last night as a streetwalker by Patrolman Stillwell, at the corner of Third and Everett streets.”
Third and Everett, by the way, is right in the middle of the old North End — the rough-and-tumble waterfront district, down by the wharves and sailors’ boardinghouses, brothels and shanghai joints.
By this time, the avid newspaper readers of Portland had learned that the party whom Bradley had suspected of being intimate with his wife (the pretext for the beating) was Gittings himself. This suggested a whole new theory of the crime — one in which Bradley, called out of the saloon by Sivener, sees Gittings waiting for him in uniform and wearing his service revolver. Gittings, as he would have known, was a crack shot and owner of a large collection of rifles and pistols. Thinking the whole thing a setup with Gittings the trigger man, he draws and empties his revolver at Gittings.
This theory, of course, doesn’t quite square with the earlier impression that Gittings and Kate Bradley’s sister, Aggie Vanders, who had made such a dramatic commotion over his corpse, were lovers. But by then, most Portlanders had concluded that everyone involved in the whole affair was some sort of dangerous looney. And there was such a dramatic flair in Aggie Vanders’ grief; could it have been a put-on?
So, if you’re keeping track — at this point in the story, every single character in our crime drama had been revealed to be some sort of unlovable freak. The Good Guy — Sivener, who went forth to avenge his sister’s beating — turned out to be a petty swindler. The Damsel In Distress — Kate Bradley — turned out to also be a prostitute and bigamist (she didn't bother to divorce Bradley before remarrying). The Innocent Bystander Policeman turned out to be a serial philanderer, homewrecker and top candidate for Worst Family Man in the City, and to also have possibly been intending to murder Bradley.
And for anyone tempted to conclude that Bradley had been right to do as he did — beat his wife and murder her maybe-lover — there was the testimony of his brutality to his family to deny even that.
“Friends and neighbors of the Bradley family said that he not only abused his wife, but that his children, too, came in for a share of his cruelty,” the Oregonian reported.
That last remark was delivered in the Oregonian article that announced, in July of 1909, that the fugitive murderer had at last been caught in Idaho and was on his way back to Portland for trial. It also suggested that Bradley would try to invoke the Unwritten Law at his trial, since the man he was accused of killing had been his wife’s home-wrecking lover — or so he claimed to have supposed.
But it scarcely mattered any more. The story had utterly subverted the clean morality play that lay behind every Unwritten Law honor killing.
As for the final denouement of Bradley’s case, I haven’t been able to learn it. It wasn’t in the paper. Toward the end, it was clear that people were weary of it and just wanted it all to go away. It seems the most likely explanation that a grand jury simply declined to indict him, and that was that.
There is one final chapter, though, in this sordid drama. It was published in March of 1909 — just over a year after the murder. It seems Policeman Gittings’ widow — whose first name is never mentioned — had plunged once more into desperate poverty.
“They have had nothing to eat but cornmeal and water for some time,” the Oregonian’s reporter noted. “At the time of Gittings’ death, the police of Portland made a fund out of which was purchased a home, and private citizens and philanthropic people furnished the house, purchased a cow and chickens and sent provisions and wood. … The cow has since died, the children are too young to assist and the mother cannot leave them to secure employment.”
Many a jaundiced eye was probably cocked at this assertion, since most Portlanders knew the oldest Gittings boy was now 10 — plenty old enough for babysitting duties. Also, not mentioned was the fact that the Police Officers’ Social and Aid Society had been sending her monthly support payments of $11 each month — not a lot, but plenty enough to buy food other than cornmeal mush.
The community rallied around once again to relieve the need and succor the children, who were clearly getting the brunt of their mother’s lack of overall competence.
Then the helpful community members did something that likely wasn’t what Mrs. Gittings had in mind:
“As a result of investigations made into conditions existing in the family of J.W. Gittings … steps have been taken to place the children in the Children’s Home, and to send the mother either to the Home for Feeble-Minded Persons or to the County Poorhouse,” the paper announced.
And so the whole affair ended, with a clear demonstration of a credible motive for Policeman Gittings’ actions in neglecting his wife.
But there did seem to be one clear take-away from the whole sordid mess: Life was just not simple enough for The Unwritten Law to be any kind of true justice.
It was a lesson that seems to have taken hold in Portland, for even as the honor killings continued elsewhere in the country, Oregon, after this, saw very few of them.
There were a couple more, though, from the rural parts of Oregon -- cases that reinforced the lesson that justice was as complicated as the Unwritten Law was simple. We’ll talk about both those cases next week.
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian: 19-23 Dec 1907, 19 Jan 1908, 06 Feb 1909, 13 Mar 1909, 02-03 Mar 1909, and 11 Jul 1909.)