Portland man hailed as a hero for murdering sister’s ex-lover
UNWRITTEN LAW FILES, Episode 1: Orlando Murray's trial had something for everyone: Sex, revenge, vigilante action, a Fallen Woman, drunkenness, hysteria, the insane asylum, and even lawyers getting in fistfights.
By Finn J.D. John — August 30, 2015
Early in November 1906, 21-year-old Orlando Murray went to pay a call on a 22-year-old acquaintance named Lincoln C. Whitney. The main subject of their conversation was to be Murray’s 16-year-old sister, Mary. Secondary topics for the two men’s tête-a-tête included wedding bells and a baby shower — not necessarily in that order — and, last but not least, a .38-caliber revolver.
The conversation did not go well.
The Soured Romance
Whitney had met Mary when she’d traveled from her Portland home to Hubbard, where Whitney lived, to work in the hop fields for a week. Whitney had, Orlando Murray said, sweet-talked the cute young out-of-towner into bed with fair promises of marriage, then disappeared from her life as thoroughly as he could. But several weeks after their brief liaison, the freshly jilted Mary came to realize that he'd left her in a very awkward position.
“My sister told my father that she was threatened with disgrace unless Whitney could be induced to make good his promise and marry her,” Murray told the Morning Oregonian. “My father and Mary went to Hubbard. Father talked it over with the elder Whitney and then called the young man himself. Whitney laughed in my father’s face and said he would not marry my sister. Mrs. Whitney then came out, called my sister a vile name and insulted my father.”
The avenging brother
The young Murray said that when he learned about the situation the following week, he decided to settle the matter one way or another. So, once he tracked Whitney down, he gave his best shot at persuading the young Lothario to, as the saying goes, make an honest woman of the girl he had seduced. This Whitney steadfastly refused to do. Murray said he pleaded with him, appealed to his moral sense, and finally offered him money — all to no avail.
So he pulled the .38 — and offered him lead.
First in a series:
The Unwritten Law Files
This column is one of a series titled "The Unwritten Law Files" — a collection of case studies from the early-20th-century mania for honor killings. It was popularly known as “The Unwritten Law,” and it was a social convention that permitted and/or obligated a man to murder anyone whom he knew to be working to seduce his wife or sister.
Unwritten Law cases arose around the country in the 1890s and were alarmingly common until around the time of the First World War. Today’s column discusses one such case, which took place in Portland in 1906.
Not even then would Whitney agree to marry the girl, Murray claimed. So Murray let him have it. Three shots, all lethal hits.
Then Murray hurried to the sheriff’s office and turned himself in. And the next morning, newspaper readers across the state read the details with breathless avidity. It was the opening act in yet another drama made possible by The Unwritten Law.
The family circus
If Orlando Murray had hoped his conversation with Whitney would save his sister from public shame and humiliation, its outcome was rich with irony. Murray’s subsequent murder trial bore a more than passing resemblance to a circus, with a main attraction (the trial); sideshows (including a fistfight involving the defense attorney); and numerous clowns and jokers, both on the witness stand and in the crowd of onlookers. The whole sordid story — replete with insanity, sex, alcoholism, hysteria, and of course murder — was unpacked before capacity crowds of very interested spectators. Mary twice suffered hysterical breakdowns and had to be removed from the court.
Murray, of course, pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity — the classic Unwritten Law plea. In entering it, his attorney claimed that “when he saw all chance and hope of Whitney’s making right by marriage the wrong he had done the young woman, (Murray) was suffering from emotional insanity, and not responsible for his murderous act,” the Oregonian reported.
The defense’s moral case was bolstered by widespread accounts of Whitney having boasted of his “conquest” of Mary Murray. Its case for the insanity plea was supported by the bizarre sideshow spectacle of Orlando Murray’s aged mother testifying that insanity ran in Murray’s family; her brother-in-law, she told the riveted onlookers, “died a maniac at Salem, while another brother served a term in the Salem asylum,” according to the newspaper report. She further testified that Murray’s father (whom the newspaper never names) was compelled to give up his medical practice three years earlier because of “mental incapacity, brought on by excessive use of alcoholic stimulants.”
Perhaps it’s not so much to be wondered about that Lincoln Whitney didn’t wish to marry into the Murray clan.
Others, however, did. Murray’s attorney’s office was soon flooded with marriage proposals for Mary, from all over the state — most likely from lonely bachelors working in logging camps. It’s not clear whether any of these offers were actually passed on to their object of long-distance affection, though.
The lawyer-on-lawyer action
As the case continued, the two opposing attorneys fell into some eyebrow-raising interpersonal acrimony. The fireworks seem to have started when Murray’s attorney, John F. Logan, used his opponent, W.T. Vaughn, as a case study in personal disreputability.
“To give point to his contentions, Mr. Logan suggested that Mr. Vaughn might possess an excellent character, but that a considerable interval would elapse between the date of his death and the hour when people would be saying good things about him,” the newspaper recounted.
This poke drew a rebuke from the judge, but the pugnacious Mr. Logan doesn’t seem to have taken the hint, for on the last day of the trial Logan punched one of Whitney’s relatives in the ante-room. In the ensuing scuffle, a wild punch landed on the chin of the Multnomah County Sheriff, who was helping to restrain the would-be combatants.
From the perspective of the scandal-hungry newspaper readers of Portland, it was over all too soon. When the verdict came in, it was an open-and-shut victory for The Unwritten Law: Murray was declared innocent.
The crowd in the courtroom was overjoyed. “Thank God for it!” quavered an old woman from the front row of the gallery. Spectators rushed to congratulate Murray, who was clearly the hero of the hour — the righteous avenger and defender of his sister’s honor.
But even the Oregonian reporter, who was clearly on Murray’s side, seemed a little uncomfortable with his reaction to the verdict:
“He took his mother in his arms,” the reporter recounts. “She commenced weeping hysterically, and he began laughing, both exhibiting the same emotion in a different way.”
So, what really happened? As with most “unwritten law” cases, the trial generated far more heat than light; it’s likely that we’ll never know. Murray’s claim — that Whitney looked down the barrel of a .38 revolver and refused to say he’d marry Mary — is very improbable. It seems most likely that Murray’s conversation with Whitney escalated from accusations to insults to threats of violence, and then Murray simply got so angry that he whipped out his revolver and started shooting.
Another subject we know nothing about: How did Mary feel about the way things turned out? She spent most of the trial either in a hysterical breakdown, or recovering from one at home in bed while other members of her family detailed the most intimate and personal details of her nascent sex life for all the world to gawk at and judge. Were her hysterics a reaction to that? Or was she, in part, grieving for the father her child would never know?
Questions like these are, of course, like a handful of gravel in the comforting balm of mob justice. No one in the audience really wanted to know. It was enough that Woman had been Wronged and Man had Avenged.
But the day after the trial ended, Lincoln Whitney’s bereaved father was also in the paper. The spectacle of seeing Orlando Murray hailed as a brave hero and champion of virtue for the act of murdering Whitney’s own son was apparently too much for the old man. After going home from the courthouse, he’d suffered a heart attack and died.
(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian, Nov. 13, 14, 17 and Dec. 2, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15, 1906)