Schoolteacher Ray Jackson may have been a serial killer
It's hard to believe, but in 1902 the school district put a convicted felon, fresh from serving hard time at the state pen, in charge of its grade-school kids. But the forgery and robbery he was convicted of may have been the least of his crimes.
Editor's Note: This column is part 1 of a 2-part series on Jackson. To read Part 2, click here.
A 10-mule freight team passing through downtown Lakeview in 1900.
This is the town in which Ray Jackson served briefly as superintendent
of the Lake County School District, eight years after this photo was
made. (Photo: UO Libraries/ Wasco County Pioneer Assoc.) [Larger
image: 1800 x 1102 px]
By Finn J.D. John — Sept. 4, 2011
The morning after he'd gotten in a big fistfight with one of his students, the grade-school teacher walked nonchalantly into the classroom and laid his .45-caliber Colt revolver on the desk.
Would anyone like to continue yesterday's scrap, he asked?
No one spoke up.
So the school day got started — a day not all that much different from any other in “Professor” Ray Van Buren Jackson's classroom in Silver Lake, Oregon, in 1906.
From jailhouse to schoolhouse
One has to hope this wasn't the typical educational experience for students in early-1900s Oregon. For starters, Jackson was, by any account, not a man you'd want to entrust your kids to. At the very least, he was an embezzler, a forger, a convicted felon and an unusually cruel man. He'd come to the school district fresh from the state prison, where he'd served a total of three years for robbery and embezzling.
The prison mugshot of Ray V.B. Jackson, taken when
admitted to the Oregon State Penitentiary
on forgery charges in 1896.
(Photo: Central Oregon
image: 1200 x 1538 px]
He may also have been a serial killer.
Nobody figured that out at the time. It took seven years of serious detective work on the part of Christmas Valley historian Melany Tupper, sifting through old newspaper articles and court documents, to make the connections, and today — 100 years later — it would be pretty tough to actually find proof.
Still, Tupper found an astonishing array of dramatic and sometimes deadly events — run-ins with neighbors, disappearances of large sums of money and high-profile unsolved murders — that swirled around Jackson's life, and which paint a pretty grim picture of the man himself.
The full story is in Tupper's book (see "Sources," below). But here are some of the highlights:
A penchant for forgery
Ray Jackson grew up in Sodaville, near Lebanon. He was left-handed, and his teachers were determined to “fix” this “defect” — which they did, although he had to be held back two years in school to do it. The ability to write with either hand carried with it an ability to imitate almost anyone's handwriting. This ability would prove useful later in his career.
Jackson followed in the footsteps of his older brother by going to college and getting a teaching certificate. Everything seemed to be going well, until the summer of 1895 — when two things happened that, Tupper suggests, pushed him over the edge and into true psychosis.
First, his favorite uncle was run over by a railroad train before his eyes at the bottom of Singer Hill in Oregon City, in one of the most grisly accidents ever. The train collided with wagon Jackson's uncle was driving, killing his horses and literally running over his head while Jackson watched.
Then when Jackson got home to Beaver Creek, where he was working as a teacher in the local school, he learned he was wanted by the law for having forged a couple vouchers. Jackson went on the lam for a year or so, during which he was able to continue teaching at Klamath Falls, but eventually he was caught and sent to the state penitentiary for two years.
He was released in 1898, but a year later he was back in again, this time for a robbery committed in Baker County.
Now a “jailbird,” with a reputation
If you're keeping track, the places in which Ray Jackson had established his bad reputation included the entire Willamette Valley, plus Jackson and Josephine counties in the south, and Baker County in the east. There wasn't much of Oregon left in which Jackson could get a fresh start. And people travel; if Jackson set up housekeeping in, say, Shaniko or Bend, sooner or later somebody would travel to town and recognize him.
But the remote stockland of Lake County was different. The nearest railroad was more than 100 rocky, bone-jarring wagon-road miles away, and Silver Lake was on the way to absolutely nowhere; you didn't come through town unless you were coming to town. Hard characters often came to Lake County to get away from the reputations they'd forged in gentler places; some of them took a liking to it and stuck around even after it was no longer necessary for them to do so.
Now, as he left the state pen for the last time, Jackson did exactly that. He took a job teaching first through eighth grade at Silver Lake, moved into the school house and started calling himself “Professor Jackson” — although he wasn't credentialed as a professor and never taught above the eighth-grade level.
A felon in charge of the children?
It's hard to imagine this happening today — a man who's spent three solid years in the slammer being put in charge of small children. But nobody seems to have asked any probing questions about the man's background, and perhaps Silver Lake's options were limited. Oregon teachers were very poorly paid in the early 1900s.
In any case, Jackson soon established a reputation as a strict disciplinarian. He kept a pair of buggy whips in the classroom, and used them — both the butts and the lashes — on older students who misbehaved. Accounts of his classroom management, and things he said to others in the community, suggest his goal in meting out corporal punishments may have been more than just discipline — that he may have actually been deriving pleasure from it. He confided to a neighbor that he always took his single-action Colt revolver and baseball bat to class with him. And at least one of his students narrowly avoided serious injury, when Jackson hurled a heavy glass inkwell at his head.
Jackson loses his job — but in a good way
Jackson's run as Silver Lake's schoolteacher was relatively short; he was there from 1902 to 1908. But it didn't end the way you might think it would; he was promoted, not fired. In 1908 Jackson was elected superintendent of Lake County Schools, and moved to Lakeview.
It was in Lakeview that Jackson's career in education was definitively put to an end. Once he was in charge of the whole show, the temptation to make grabs from the till was apparently too much. Two years later, he was indicted for embezzling money from the district, and he resigned in 1911.
After that, Jackson was involved in a number of ventures involving cattle ranching, retail business and homesteading. He never went back to teaching school.
The most extraordinary part of Jackson's life, though, was his personal involvement in at least six suspicious homicides — three of which were declared suicides and three of which remain officially unsolved. (That's not including his own death, which was also declared a suicide, in 1938.) We'll talk more about those six deaths in the next column (here's a link to it).
(Sources: Tupper, Melany. The Sandy Knoll Murder. Christmas Valley: Central Oregon Books, 2010; Moore, Earl F. Western Echoes. Klamath Falls: Tremaine, 1981)
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