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 second pressing of The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" record, on the Wand label. This bodgey, lo-fi monophonic recording, with its inscrutable lyrics and driving yet languid style, got thousands of parents worried about possible obscene lyrics, and was even banned in Illinois.

Bad recording job led to an F.B.I. investigation for Portland band

No one could understand the lyrics in The Kingsmen's recording of 'Louie Louie," but many tried ... and some of them had rather dirty minds.

Actor Justus Barnes takes a shot straight into the camera at the end of a 10-minute silent Edison Films production called 'The Great Train Robbery,' the filming of which started in November 1903 – two months after Bill Miner’s gang tried to rob the train just outside Portland. It’s hard to miss the similarity between Barnes’ character and Bill Miner.

How Bill Miner learned to rob trains ... he learned the hard way.

But his botched Portland job appears to have inspired an iconic 1903 movie called 'The Great Train Robbery' a month or two later. Maybe he even watched it later ... in prison.

A scene from the Disney movie "Saludos Amigos" (1943), a sort of cartoon-character tour of South America. This scene is from the Argentina part, with Goofy dressed as a gaucho. In this cartoon and most others, Goofy was voiced by Pinto Colvig.

Goofy was from Oregon. Also Bluto, Grumpy, Sleepy, Bozo, dozens more.

Vance "Pinto" Colvig, from Jacksonville, was a pioneer in animated cartoons and a gifted show-biz man.

Earle Leonard Nelson, a.k.a. The Dark Strangler, as he looked a week or two before his execution in Canada. Nelson's hanging ended a cross-country and international murdering spree in which he murdered dozens of women.

When the 'Dark Strangler' preyed on Portland landladies

His M.O. was simple: While a woman was showing him a room or house for rent, he'd strangle her, take her jewelry and flee.

A breathless headline that appeared in the Portland Morning Oregonian after Lulu Reynolds revealed her clandestine lover's guilt in a particularly dramatic and creepy way.

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.

A screen capture from an episode of ABC's legendary 1970s show "Happy Days." Because the show is set in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisc., "The Fonz" is actually breaking the law in this scene; pinball was outlawed in Milwaukee at the time.

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.

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

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The legend of cool-cat skyjacker
D.B. Cooper:
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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.


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.

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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.

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The voice of Bugs Bunny went to high school in Portland

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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Bad batch of “dehorn” alcohol killed 28 hobos on Skid Road

The alcoholic derelicts of on Burnside Street knew they could count on denatured alcohol for a cheap-but-nasty buzz; it might make them sick, but it wouldn't kill them. But then, one day, it did.

This street scene shows Burnside Street at its intersection with Third
Avenue in 1933, one year before the “dehorn” poisoning tragedy. The
Pioneer Drugstore, from which the victims bought their deadly liquor,
is on the far right-hand corner of this intersection, marked by the “Cut
Rate Drugs” sign. (Image: Portland City Archives via Vintage
Portland blog)

On December 7, 1934, Ben Votruba left his room at the Bridge Hotel, a run-down flophouse in the 300 block of East Burnside in Portland, and made his way across the bridge to a corner drugstore on the west side.

Ben was, essentially, a washed-up alcoholic. Although still relatively young in years — he was 46 — those years had seen some hard living. His long-term drinking problem had taken him to rock bottom and instead of bouncing back, he’d stuck there, doing whatever he had to do to get by, day by day, drink by drink.

But it would be wrong to say he was obscure. The Portland Police Department knew him well. So did the municipal judge and clerks, who had seen him come before the bench on vagrancy and petty theft charges many times. They called him “the Canned Heat King.”

Drinking stove fuel

Canned Heat — sometimes referred to by its brand name, Sterno — was, and still is, a small can full of jellied denatured alcohol. The idea is, you open the can and light it on fire, and it burns with a clean blue flame that you can cook over.

Many hobos used canned heat to cook with. They used it for something else, too. If you took the pink gelatinous blob out of the can, wrapped it in a handkerchief and squeezed, you’d get a few ounces of liquid alcohol, and you could actually drink it. It might make you a little nauseous, and it would taste like burning Napalm, but it wouldn’t kill you — and boy, at roughly 190 proof, would it ever get you drunk.

Since he couldn’t afford to drink anything better, fresh-squeezed Canned Heat was Ben Votruba’s usual drink. And he went through rather a lot of it.

The Canned Heat King’s rap sheet was probably some kind of record — he’d been hauled before the court more than 80 times. It was mostly for petty drunkenness-related offenses, although there was that one spectacular incident 14 years earlier in which he’d T-boned the Portland fire chief’s car while the chief was hurrying to the scene of a structure fire. They’d found three or four bottles of wine in his car afterward. That was back when Ben was young and strong — back when he could afford to drive a car and drink the good stuff. Those days were gone now.

Buying a bottle of “dehorn”

This is the type of bottle in which denatured alcohol was sold out of
drugstores during Prohibition. The large, scary labels
notwithstanding, the vast majority of denatured alcohol sold in
bottles of this size was used for drinking, despite its terrible flavor
and toxic additives. (Image: eBay auction item)

On this particular day, Ben wasn’t drinking canned heat. He was on his way to the Pioneer Drugstore to pick up a half a pint or so of denatured alcohol — known to the initiated as “dehorn.” Dehorn was industrial grain alcohol cut with a tiny quantity of toxic methanol, or wood alcohol, and sometimes some formaldehyde as well. The idea was that because it was unfit to drink, it would not qualify for the steep tax levied on distilled booze. (Prohibition had ended the previous year.)

Bottles of “dehorn” bore prominent labels that read “POISON,” reflecting the fact that wood alcohol is lethal stuff. A small amount — a tablespoon or two — will make you miserably sick. A little more of it — a third of a cup or so — causes permanent blindness, something a few thirsty moonshine drinkers have learned the hard way over the years after sampling the first runnings (the “heads”) from large-capacity stills.

But more than half a cup of pure wood alcohol causes one of the most miserable, agonizing, inexorable deaths known to 1930s medicine. The wood alcohol breaks down into formic acid, which spreads throughout the body and stops cell respiration. The victim, through an hours-long process, turns blue, suffers serial organ failures and finally slips into a merciful coma and dies. And in 1934, there was very little that could be done to stop that train once it had left the station.

So, yes, “dehorn” was poison. But what impecunious derelicts like Ben knew was that there wasn't enough poison in it to seriously hurt even the thirstiest man. For even the worst dehorn, at 5 percent wood alcohol by volume, you'd have to soak up the alcohol equivalent of about three "fifths" of 80-proof whiskey to get a big enough dose of wood alcohol to reach truly toxic levels.

So if you were willing to be miserably sick the next morning, you could drink it. You could drink a lot of it. Enough to get even a really experienced drinker like Ben Votruba drunk.

That meant that many of the vagrants living under bridges and in North End flophouses during the Depression, desperate for a drink but strapped for cash, were eager to buy the stuff. And a certain class of drugstores soon came forward to meet this demand.

The disreputable druggists

A cartoon published in the Aug. 6, 1929, issue of the Portland Morning
Oregonian shows a trio of hobos enjoying a picnic of bologna and
watermelon, which they were washing down with denatured alcohol.
This was, of course, during Prohibition. (Image: Portland Morning

Such a place was the Pioneer Drugstore, conveniently located on the corner of Third and Burnside just across the river from Ben’s room.

Each day, dozens of vagrants like Ben would troop into the Pioneer Drugstore and others like it, and ask for a “ten-center.” The druggist would hand over a bottle of clear liquid with a skull and crossbones on the label — pretending not to know the slovenly bindlestiff at the counter was planning to drink it.

On this particular winter day, Ben walked into the Pioneer and laid down his dime. Back he repaired to his flophouse room with the little bottle in his pocket. Ben drank alone, of course, in his room. Drinking in public, for a guy like him, was a great way to end up in a cold jail cell shaking through the agonizing symptoms of hardcore alcohol withdrawal.

In his room, Ben settled down on the bed and opened the bottle.

Wood alcohol poisoning takes about 10 hours to start its killing process, and that process can drag on for 10 or 12 more. So it was not until late on Jan. 8 that, as doctors and nurses at Good Samaritan Hospital looked on helplessly, Ben Votruba finally slipped into a coma and died.

Ben was one of the first of a total of 28 of Portland’s down-on-their-luck alcoholics to die that night and over the following few days from drinking a particularly bad batch of dehorn. All of them, heavy drinkers with high tolerances, had put away massive doses of it. Very few of the victims survived.

The drugstore

Police had little trouble tracking down the source of the toxic tipples; the name of the pharmacy was printed right on the side of the bottles.

Because some of the victims had bottles from several different pharmacies, a total of four drugstores came under suspicion. But within a few days it became clear that one drugstore was the source of the problem: The Pioneer Drugstore.

The drugstore’s owner, Solomon Miller, showed the authorities a five-gallon can marked “Denatured Grain Alcohol,” which Miller had gotten from a paint-supply company. This can, according to a toxicologist who inspected it, was full of “approximately 100 percent pure poison” — straight wood alcohol.

Manslaughter charges

With the light of hindsight, it seems very unlikely that Miller had any idea he was poisoning people. If he’d planned to kill, would he have put his name on the lethal bottles?

But as with dozens of other shady pharmacists of the day, what he was doing was probably illegal, and certainly highly unethical. He was making money selling industrial alcohol to people who weren’t supposed to drink it, knowing perfectly well that they were doing just that.

In the end, following a speedy prosecution in which the public took an avid interest, Solomon Miller pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Ben Votruba’s death. He drew a three-year prison sentence. According to the Oregonian’s report, he received the news with his face in his hands, sobbing.

So far as I’ve been able to learn, the paint company that sold him the mislabeled can of methanol was never called to account.

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, Dec. 1934 — April 1935; Menne, Frank R. “Acute Methyl Alcohol Poisoning: A Report of 22 Instances with Postmortem Examinations,” Archives of Pathology, 1936)

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