Crooked gambler and liquor man was Portland’s first police chief
James Lappeus came to Portland from the gold fields of California, where he was a gambler, saloonkeeper and general mining-town rowdy. His career as a cop was dogged by rumors he'd offered to spring a murderer for a $1,000 bribe.
A portrait of James Lappeus painted from a photograph made
around the time he first became Portland’s police chief. (Image:
By Finn J.D. John — July 1, 2012
“Any desperado who had the necessary abilities could always get himself elected city marshal,” wrote Portland ex-gambler and saloonkeeper Edouard Chambreau in his autobiography, sometime in the 1870s.
Chambreau would have known. At the very time he was committing the story of his life to writing, one of his old friends from the Gold Rush days was sitting at a desk downtown in the city offices — an old friend and onetime business partner named James Lappeus, Portland Chief of Police.
James Lappeus was, most sources agree, Portland’s first police chief. And all sources I've found agree the position was — well, perhaps the most charitable way to put it is "ironic." For most of the time he was in office, Lappeus owned a combination saloon, variety theater and gambling house called the Oro Fino — this in an era when all gambling houses were crooked, and a variety theater was often a front for prostitution. He was eventually canned over fairly widespread allegations that he’d offered to let a convicted murderer escape from the city jail if his family could come up with a $1,000 bribe.
A gold-field desperado
James Lappeus came to the West Coast in 1848 with a detachment of U.S. Army soldiers to fight in the Mexican-American War, and decided to stay. Luck had placed him at the epicenter of one of history’s most fabulous wealth booms — the California Gold Rush. Had he staked a claim and started working the ground, there’s a good chance he would have made good money.
Instead, though, he went into a different business. He joined a cadre of steely-eyed characters that preferred to let others mine the gold, and then take it from them afterward in rigged games of chance or celebratory drunken benders. He became, essentially, a crooked gold-field gambler — in the parlance of the day, a “blackleg.” Chambreau, by the way, was one of these as well.
A Civil War re-enactor gives a quick tutorial on how to play Faro.
Both Lappeus and Chambreau were involved in the gang of San Francisco toughs known as “The Hounds,” and both probably participated in the 1849 attack on Mexican and Chilean miners that resulted in the formation of San Francisco’s first Vigilante committee to run them out of town.
(Chambreau, according to his autobiography, actually was one of the two "Hounds" who instigated the whole thing.) The “Hounds” ended up all over Gold Rush country, and added a great deal to the lawlessness and chaos there.
Gamblers in Reno, Nevada, play a game of Faro in 1910. By this time,
the game was almost extinct. (Image: Library of Congress)
Chambreau tells a memorable story from this time, when he was visiting Lappeus at the saloon and gambling house the future cop was running near Stockton. A group of teamsters was there, and a riot had just broken out. Chambreau and Lappeus drove the hostile teamsters out of the building by throwing bottles at them, and once outside, the teamsters started shooting into the building.
“In an instant we both had our six-shooters out, and you think it was not lively there for a little while?” Chambreau wrote.
Gambler = Swindler
A Will & Finck gaffed (cheating) Faro dealing box, which recently sold
for $2,250. This box dates back to the mid-1880s. (Image: Showtime
There’s a good chance the teamsters were rioting because they’d just figured out they were being swindled. The fact is, all professional frontier gamblers were crooks. At that time, there was no regulation or governmental oversight, and honest men simply couldn’t compete. In fact, the most popular frontier gambling game by far was faro — a game that, today, is simply no longer played. That’s because a gambler can’t make money playing faro unless he cheats. The "house edge" is razor-thin, and the game depends so much on chance that skill, honestly applied, isn't very helpful.
Gamblers today solve these problems by not playing faro. Gamblers back then couldn’t do that, because it was what people wanted to play, so they solved it by cheating. And if they didn’t cheat, they quickly went broke.
The Oro Fino Saloon and Theater as they appeared in 1876. The Gem
was also a saloon. These buildings were located on First Street between
Oak and Stark. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)
By the turn of the century, cheating at Faro was so widespread that the Hoyle’s rule book actually included the startling warning that all faro games were crooked — period.
Well, all gambling establishments offered faro games — at least, in 1850s Portland they did. So when, a year or two later, Lappeus came to Portland and built the Oro Fino Saloon and Hall, there couldn’t have been too much doubt over which side of the law he belonged on.
But then, in 1859, the old blackleg Hound started a law enforcement career. He was hired as city marshal.
City Marshal Lappeus
A satirical cartoon that appeared in The West Shore magazine in the late
1800s. (Image: UO Libraries)
Almost immediately, Lappeus got himself into trouble. When he got the job, there was a famous fugitive loose in the area: Danford Balch, a homesteader who had reacted to news of his daughter’s elopement by taking a shotgun and emptying both barrels into his new son-in-law. When Lappeus took the job, Balch had just escaped from the city jail, where he’d been held awaiting his murder trial.
Lappeus tracked Balch down and brought him back, and he was promptly tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. Then, after the trial, Lappeus apparently made the soon-to-be widow a proposition: “Cross my palm with $1,000 and I’ll accidentally leave the jailhouse door unlocked one of these nights.”
This offer can’t be proven to have been made, but the widow’s subsequent fund-raising frenzy can, and a number of citizens swore out affadavits accusing Lappeus of making this offer. But ultimately, it fell short of its goal, and Balch was hanged — in the first public execution in Portland history.
Portland’s first police chief?
A lithograph of the scene on a bleary Saturday morning in the Portland
city jail, published in The West Shore magazine in 1888. (Image: UO
In spite of the rumors of this attempt, when the Oregon Legislature seized control of Portland police matters in 1870 to prevent a political rival from gaining control, it picked Lappeus as police chief. Most sources say he was the first chief; the police department’s official history disagrees, saying the man who designed the department, Joseph Saunders, was chief for two weeks before the state seized power. This may be true, but it’s easy to see why P.P.D. wants to think so. Saunders was a good cop and had earned the right to be the city’s first chief; Lappeus, on the other hand, was not.
A lithograph of temperance workers praying and singing outside a
saloon in Iowa, published in Frank Leslie's magazine in 1874.
Similar scenes played out in Portland that year, and Chief Lappeus
arrested the protesting ladies several times. (Image: Library of Congress)
In power as chief, Lappeus was able to make some extra money by taking care of his friends. Chambreau wrote about how he’d work with Lappeus to make sure any suckers fleeced at his saloon didn’t get anywhere when they complained to the cops. Lappeus also, on several occasions, arrested temperance workers for “disturbing the peace” by singing and praying on public sidewalks outside other saloonkeepers’ establishments. It was a nice, cozy time for Portland gamblers and grogshop operators.
The fall of the house of Lappeus
Not that everything was always smooth. Lappeus was removed from office “for cause” in 1877, and replaced with a former City Councilor named Luzerne Besser (remember that name). But he was back in office again two years later.
In 1883, though, Lappeus’s law enforcement career ended for good — on a very ironic note. Newly elected Mayor James Chapman suddenly and unexpectedly brought the Danford Balch case up again, and used it as a pretext to fire Lappeus. A few weeks later, he confessed that he’d done this because ex-Chief Luzerne Besser had bribed him.
Lappeus apparently took the hint, though, and disappeared from city politics for good after that.
(Sources: John, Finn J.D. Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2012; Lansing, Jewel. Portland: People, Politics and Power. Corvallis: OSU Press, 2003; Wehrkamp, Timothy Lee. Edward Chambreau: His Autobiography. Ph.D. dissertation, UO, 1976)