2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)
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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

Gun-toting “Oregon Wildcat” was America’s first “shock jock”

Robert Gordon Duncan was the first radio broadcaster ever to be sent to prison for cursing on the air. For the first six months of 1930, the entire city was riveted to his radio show, wondering who he'd slander next.

This political cartoon ran on the front page of the Portland
Morning Oregonian on May 30, 1930, with a story about KVEP’s
license revocation. The snake on top of the cabinet is supposed
to represent the old-fashioned loudspeaker, which in 1920s
radios looked like a curved trumpet mouth sticking out of the
top, like the one in this early-1920s photo.

The first radio broadcaster ever to do be sent to prison for cursing on the air was a hard-charging early shock jock known as “The Oregon Wildcat,” who kept the city of Portland and surrounding regions glued to their radio sets every evening for most of the first half of 1930.

Robert Gordon Duncan was his name, and he broadcast his scandalous but highly entertaining tirades every single day over Radio KVEP (K-Voice of East Portland), 1500 AM.

The radio station was originally started in 1927 by William Schaeffer, who ran it in the customary way for several years and achieved a modest popularity with listeners. It shared time on the 1500 A.M. frequency with several other stations, so it had designated hours during which it was supposed to be off the air so others could broadcast.

Then came 1929, and the onset of the Great Depression, and suddenly KVEP was losing money for Schaeffer. In desperation, he struck a deal to transfer control of the station (and later ownership) to The Wildcat: Robert Gordon Duncan.

The Oregon Wildcat is on the air

This modest ad ran in the Oregonian on April 15, 1930, in an
attempt to put together a group of merchants to legally oppose
the fund-raising tactics of “Oregon Wildcat” Robert Duncan.

Duncan was a populist firebrand with what passed, in the late 1920s, for a very dirty mouth. His primary focus was on “chain stores” — outfits like Woolworths and Sears that would open a store in a local community and, with the advantages of bulk-buying power and economics of scale, run the local “mom-and-pop” operations out of business. Duncan was running for the Republican nomination for Congress, and he had a little money at his disposal; it seemed like a match made in heaven.

It wasn’t.

Schaeffer soon wished he’d never met Duncan. Once the contract was inked, Duncan pretty much took over, and rebuffed any attempt by Schaeffer to rein him in. And as 1929 blossomed into 1930, the Voice of East Portland started drawing community attention like a train wreck in progress.

There were several factors that kept ‘em tuning in:

Advocacy, or extortion?

First off, The Cat’s vision of how an advocate should behave frequently crossed the line into outright protection-racketeering. On the air, the Wildcat demanded contributions from local merchants to help him fight the chain stores, and if the checks they sent in were too skimpy, he’d sometimes accuse them — over the air — of peddling bad merchandise or cheating their customers.

Secondly, after Duncan lost the Republican primary to incumbent Franklin Korell, his attacks on the Congressman became even more vitriolic, and he could be counted on to light into the lawmaker in distinctly ungentlemanly terms at least once a day. Korell seemed baffled by this continued attention. “Who is paying Duncan to continue these attacks on me now that the primary campaign is over?” he wondered, during one of the many judicial hearings that followed.

Nobody, apparently. It seemed The Wildcat was just on a tear, and one of his favorite topics was a rather frank speculation about Korell’s sexual orientation.

“Korell is a bachelor, and when he was asked why he doesn’t marry he says, ‘I don’t care for women,’” The Cat once thundered, according to the testimony of witnesses who heard the broadcast (tragically, there are no recordings; tape technology wasn’t available in 1930). “What do you know about that? Isn’t that a strange statement for a natural man to make? … It must be explained thoroughly, and in ways that I can understand, to free the man who says it from the charges of practicing the vices that caused the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Then, perhaps thinking that was putting it too subtly, he went on to claim Korell had been “the roommate and bed-fellow” of a man named Clarence Brazell, and urged all “natural men” to honor the women in their lives by voting for Korell’s Democratic opponent in the fall.

A third attractant to the Wildcat’s broadcast was the entertainment value of good, imaginative swearing. By modern standards this was fairly tame (“He’s a son of a mother who scratched her ear with her hind foot!” “You undiapered kid!” “He’s a convention grifter and a rum-soaked scamp!”), but it was peppered with “hells” and “damns” and occasionally lapsed into what many considered actual blasphemy.

“I can make a six-shooter sing ‘Come to Jesus,’” he roared into the mic one night just before the election he was about to lose, “and I’m going to shoot the next crook that comes into my office to bully me.”

Making enemies in high places

But although Duncan’s daily broadcast was attracting eager listeners like a bare-knuckle boxing match, it was also making some big waves in the Portland business community. The chain stores, of course, loathed him with great cordiality, and the mom-and-pop operators understandably felt that a friend and advocate who regularly practiced extortion on them wasn’t much of a friend and advocate. That left, essentially, nobody in the Wildcat’s corner.

And KVEP was making even bigger waves in the broadcasting community, because the Wildcat had quit respecting the time division agreements with other stations and was now just broadcasting his rants for as long as he pleased; Radio KUJ Longview could just wait until he was done, thank you very much.

The Federal Radio Commission gets involved

Letters and telegrams from all these aggrieved groups, plus some V.I.P.s whom the Wildcat had slandered on the air, started pouring into the Federal Radio Commission, which — clearly shocked by the volume and fervor of the correspondence — got going in record time.

At the resulting hearing, Portland judge J.C. Kendall was serving as counsel for a remarkably vast and diverse array of civic organizations and prominent individuals, including the American Legion, the Chamber of Commerce and a big bevy of church groups, all petitioning the FRC to shut KVEP down.

“There is a mad dog loose in the City of Portland,” Kendall fulminated. “For two hours every night we have had a persistent series of talks so utterly indecent that they offend every human sensibility.”

He then went on to demand Schaeffer be sanctioned as well, because “for the past three months he has had his hand on the faucet of this filth without attempting to turn it off.”

The Wildcat gets skinned

The F.R.C. members were shocked by what they heard, and moved to slam the door on KVEP in record time. Then they initiated prosecution against Duncan himself, taking him into federal custody.

While Duncan was under arrest in the federal building, one young man, the son of deceased Oregonian editor Edgar Piper, tracked him down, burst in on him and socked the 60-year-old Wildcat in the teeth. It seemed Duncan had said some rather uncharitable things about the elder Piper on the air shortly after his death, when the newspaperman’s corpse had barely cooled. A U.S. marshal tried to intervene, Piper punched him, and a general melee broke out, which ended with the 1930s equivalent of a blackstick beatdown for Mr. Piper, who was, of course, then arrested.

A sympathetic court subsequently fined the young lad the modest sum of $50 for this crime, to which he freely admitted; he had been, he said, overcome with fury at the criticism of his freshly dead father, and determined to have his punch, come what might.

“This young man would rather be a toad, and feed upon the vapors of the dungeon, than allow such procedure to go unpunished,” his attorney explained to the apparent approval and sympathy of the entire court. “It is fortunate that he was unarmed, or were it not so this polecat would be lying today under six feet of earth.”

Off to the slammer

Duncan himself got no such sympathy on his day in court, and a short time later The Oregon Wildcat found himself convicted of indecent broadcasting and sentenced to a six-month term in the county jail.

Duncan later tried to launch a magazine, but it went nowhere. Eventually he gave up on public life, and in the early 1940s, historian Malcolm Clark found him running a nine-hole golf course near Troutdale — “an inoffensive, frail, rather courtly gentleman who was old before his time,” Clark recalls.

Duncan died at the age of 73, in 1944. He had, as it were, clawed his way into the history-of-broadcasting textbooks with cutlass in one hand and pistol in the other, a 60-year-old political pirate from the crazy maverick state of Oregon. And whatever you might think of his sketchy practices as a broadcaster, you just have to respect that kind of chutzpah.

(Sources: Keith, Michael C. Radio Cultures. New York: Lang, 2008; Hillard, Robert L. Dirty Discourse. New York: Wiley, 2009; pdxradio.com; Clark, Malcolm. “Self-appointed anti-chain lobbyist …”, Portland Morning Oregonian, 20 Dec. 1982; various articles, Portland Morning Oregonian, May-June 1930)