Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 While doing some cleaning-up around the Odd Fellows Hall in Scio, a local girl found a tiny coffin with this partial skeleton inside. Whose? We'll probably never know ... (Story No. 204, Oct. 14, 2012) The ever-elusive D.B. Cooper peeks into the page from behind his signature shades. The story of his skyjacking exploit starts with episode 237, from June 2, 2013. Meet Kitty Kat, the wealthiest feline in the state of Oregon and landlord to the City of Tangent. Kitty Kat, until he died at a ripe old age in 1995, owned City Hall. (Story No. 163, Jan. 8, 2012) This crazy-looking speedboat was the invention of Portland wizard Victor Strode. The city commissioned a harbor patrol boat based on his design, but it didn't work out. (Story No. 201, Sept. 23, 2012) The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 This is the roof of the Franz Bread Rest Hut at Pixieland, the Oregon Coast's ill-starred answer to Disneyland, which opened in 1969 and went out of biz in 1974. The Rest Hut consisted of a giant fiberglass loaf of bread sticking out of the top of this giant fiberglass hollow log, the whole thing towering over a log-flume roller coaster ride. It's probably the most campily awesome example of the proud display of crass commercialism that was Pixieland. (Column No. 52 - Dec. 6, 2009)
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The tawdriest love triangle in the history of the universe.

Lulu Reynolds was having a torrid affair with her music teacher. Her husband carried a .38 in his jacket pocket. It wasn't the kind of thing that ends well. It didn't.


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Graft, corruption, racketeering, and ... uh, pinball?

Until just a few dozen years ago, pinball was illegal, and the mobbed-up characters who supplied the games played for keeps.


The front cover of the May 1946 issue of 44 Western Magazine shows a scene vaguely reminiscent of the downtown gunfight between feuding newspaper editors in 1871 Roseburg.

The Roseburg "newspaper war" that was settled with a gunfight

The owners of rival papers escalated their war of words when they went for pistols on a downtown street one morning in 1871.


An artist's sketch of what D.B. Cooper may have looked like, from an FBI bulletin sent out shortly after the skyjacking.

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The man calling himself Dan Cooper parachuted into legend, and 40 years later the case remains unsolved ... but there are plenty of theories.


The front cover art of "For Men Only" Magazine showed a scene that bore some resemblance to the scene on the day Dave Tucker robbed the bank of which  he would, 32 years later, be named Vice-President.

The bank robber who became vice-president of the bank he robbed

After he got out of prison, Dave Tucker spent 30 years rebuilding his reputation in his hometown of Joseph, and it seems he succeeded.


A detail from the movie poster for the 1915 racist move 'Birth of a Nation,' which inspired and propelled the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the years just after the Great War.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Klux in Oregon

A slick marketing campaign and a taste for political power marked the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which spread through Oregon like a racist virus — and then collapsed.


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.

"I can make a
six-shooter sing 'come to jesus'!"

Meet Robert Gordon Duncan, the pioneering Portland shock-jock who was the first person ever sent to prison for cursing on the air, in 1930.


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.


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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.


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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.

During a conjugal visit at a cheap motel, the prisoner escaped

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.


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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.


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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? . 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.


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.

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

When the “Dark Strangler” stalked the streets of Portland

One of America's first known serial killers, Earle Leonard Nelson preyed on landladies, killing them while they were showing him real estate. By the time he was hanged, he'd slain at least 21 women — including four in Portland.

The booking mugshots of Earle Nelson, a.k.a. The Dark Strangler, after
his arrest in Winnipeg. (Image: The Winnipeg Sun)

October 20, 1926, could easily have been the day Mrs. M.D. Lewis died — suddenly, silently and violently.

She was doing some work around a small house she had for sale in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland when an old car pulled up in front of it and a small man with black hair and dark complexion stepped out. Rude and brusque, he beetled into the house as if he owned it, muttering, “House for sale” as he passed her.

Lewis, of course, found his manners completely offensive. Perhaps that was why she disliked him on the spot.

But there may have been something else, too, because when she heard him shouting down the stairs — “Come upstairs and see what’s wrong with this door!” — something clearly told her not to go.

Instead, she called upstairs that he should not worry about it, and the door would be fixed. Moments later, she heard him coming back downstairs, and he went into the basement. Then up the stairs came the abrasive voice again: “Come down here and see what’s wrong with this furnace!”

Lewis, now thoroughly alarmed, left the house and, from outside, shouted to the man to come see the flowers she’d planted in the yard.

“To hell with your flowers!” the man shouted back, and moments later he was driving away — fast.

The next day, the worried father of 37-year-old widow Mabel Fluke was searching for any sign of her in the house she’d been showing for sale, just a few blocks from Lewis’s. He didn’t find her, but the police did, two days later, in a dark corner of the attic.

She’d been strangled with a scarf.

     The victims

Mabel Fluke was the second of three Portland women who fell victim that week to one of the first known serial killers in American history — a man who would come to be known in the newspapers as “The Dark Strangler.” By the time her body was found, both the other two had been discovered: Beata Withers, 35, found at the bottom of a trunk full of clothes in the room-for-rent she was showing; and Virginia Grant, 59, found in a crumpled heap in the basement of a house she had for rent ... behind the furnace.

At first, police had thought Withers’ death had been suicide, although it seemed a pretty weird way to go, smothering oneself at the bottom of a trunk of clothes. And Grant’s death had looked like heart failure. But as for Fluke, that just wasn’t possible, and besides, she’d been robbed of her jewelry.

Also, once they took the time to check, authorities quickly figured out that the victims’ bodies had been, in the euphemism of the day, “outraged” after death. This hadn’t been obvious, because the killer had carefully re-dressed the corpses afterward.

But by the time they figured all this out, the Dark Strangler was already a thousand miles away, at a boardinghouse with a room for rent in San Francisco, with his fingers around yet another feminine throat.

     Thanksgiving in Portland

By late November, though, the Dark Strangler was back in Portland. Perhaps he was looking for another woman to murder when he came to see the room in Sophia Yates’ lodging house on Third Avenue. For whatever reason — perhaps because there were two other women there as well, the lodgers in the other rooms — he rented the room instead of murdering the landlady.

Giving his name as Adrian Harris, the Dark Strangler spent Thanksgiving with Yates and her lodgers. They found him very nice — polite, soft-spoken, very intelligent, but a bit of a religious fanatic. When he learned the women didn’t have enough money for a Thanksgiving dinner, he offered to spring for the whole spread if they would cook it for him.

“Adrian” also was generous in other ways. He gave both Yates and one of her lodgers, Emily Crawford, bits of expensive jewelry — jewelry that he had, of course, pulled from the fingers and ears of their freshly slain owners a few weeks before.

But Yates and Crawford didn’t know that. What they did know was that Yates had gotten nicer gifts than Crawford, the discovery of which now caused the two of them to exchange some sharp words.

“They must have gotten loud about it,” writes historian J.D. Chandler in his book, “because suddenly ‘Harris’ burst into the room. ‘I’m going to beat it,’ he said. ‘You two will have the police up next.’ He ran from the house and drove away, leaving two days’ rent unused.”

On the day after Thanksgiving, “Harris” checked into another boardinghouse. This time, he didn’t stay long, or give anything away. And the next day, the body of the landlady, 48-year-old Blanche Myers, was found stuffed under the bed.

     The Dark Strangler’s Canadian Waterloo

This illustration, which appeared in the Portland Morning Oregonian in
1927, shows serial killer Earle Nelson’s travels and killings across the U.S.
and Canada in the months before his arrest. (Image: Portland Morning
Oregonian)
 

After that, Portland was on high alert; but, perhaps knowing the turf was burned here, the Dark Strangler never returned. Instead, he struck out on a sort of six-month-long blood-soaked road trip, leaving bodies behind him in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kansas City; Chicago; Philadelphia; Buffalo; and Detroit. Then, following a pair of murders in Winnipeg — including one of shocking brutality, perpetrated with a hammer — he was snagged by the Mounties while trying to make his way back to the U.S. border.

Left in his wake, the Dark Strangler left at least 21 murdered women — probably more than 30 — and one 8-month-old baby.

As it turned out, the Dark Strangler’s real name was Earle Leonard Nelson, and he’d had — as so many serial killers do — a rough childhood. His mother died of syphilis shortly after his birth, leaving him to be raised by a fanatically religious grandmother. He was expelled from elementary school at age 7 for violent behavior. By age 18 he was in San Quentin, serving time for a burglary charge.

After his release, he was in and out of mental hospitals over the following decade or so, until he embarked on the nationwide murder spree that brought him to Portland — and subsequently to Winnipeg.

     A bungled execution?

It was in Winnipeg that Nelson’s sordid life story turned its final page. Sentenced to hang for his crimes, he stood on the platform on Jan. 13, 1928, and said, “I declare my innocence before God and man. I forgive those who have injured me, and I ask pardon from those I have injured.”

Unimpressed, the executioner pulled the lever and away Nelson went.

“The hangman’s rope was a little too short,” Chandler writes in his book, “and it took Nelson nearly 15 minutes to strangle to death. Some thought it was poetic justice for the ‘Dark Strangler.’”

It is at least worth considering the possibility that this oversight in preparing Nelson’s noose was not accidental.

By the way, a more thorough treatment of this story, along with quite a few others like it, can be found in Chandler’s book, Murder and Mayhem in Portland, Oregon.

(Sources: Chandler, J.D. Murder and Mayhem in Portland, Oregon. Charleston: History Press, 2013; Portland Morning Oregonian, Oct. 23, 24, 25 and 27, 1926, and Dec. 4, 1927)