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Private manhunt ended with cold-blooded, jury-approved murder

John Bowlsby stalked his wife's paramour from North Bend to Portland, a heavy .44 revolver in his pocket. He caught up with him on a steamboat in Astoria, stealthily shot him from the shadows, and a few months later walked free.

The headline in the Portland Morning Oregonian on June 20, 1907, announcing the coroner’s jury verdict in the case of John Bowlsby’s murder of Cleve Jennings. (Image: Portland Morning Oregonian)

It was a little after 6 a.m. on June 14, 1907. Dawn was just brightening the decks of the passenger steamer Alliance, docked at the pier in Astoria, when John Bowlsby saw his prey step aboard. He fingered the big .44 in his pocket and tried to stay out of sight, waiting for a chance to make his move.

His chance came almost immediately. The marked man was moving away from the crowd of people, and soon he stood in a spot where Bowlsby felt he could get in a good shot without risking hitting any bystanders. Carefully he steadied the big revolver against the side of a deckhouse — and pulled the trigger.

Bowlsby’s target, a fellow North Bend man named Cleve Jennings, died in a hospital eight hours later. Meanwhile, with his head held high, a triumphant John Bowlsby quietly submitted to arrest and handed over his revolver.

Hard as it is for a modern person to believe, this cold-blooded assassination met with widespread approval. It was about as close to a pure example of “The Unwritten Law” in action as Oregon would ever see.

Case No. 2:
The Unwritten Law Files

This column is one of a series of case studies of 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 Astoria in 1907.

“It was the outcome of one man alienating the affections of another man’s wife and was the result of a manhunt in which the hunter finally found his game,” wrote the Morning Oregonian’s Astoria correspondent the next day.

Bowlsby was, or at least considered himself to be, a wronged husband. The man he had stalked and gunned down was Cleve Jennings, a former co-worker of Bowlsby’s wife; Jennings and Mrs. Bowlsby had both worked in a cheese factory in North Bend for a time. Bowlsby had grown suspicious of the younger Jennings, and determined to run him out of town. This he apparently did; Jennings left North Bend sometime in early 1907.

Some time later, Mrs. Bowlsby (the newspaper never mentions her name) had journeyed to Astoria to visit her brothers; after her departure, Mr. Bowlsby had somehow heard a report that she had secretly met up with Jennings at a lodging house in Astoria prior to going to her brother’s house. Immediately Bowlsby had journeyed north to pursue — and, of course, to avenge.

He found his wife easily enough; but Jennings, he learned, had traveled on to Portland. Bowlsby followed, but was unable to find his rival in Portland after several days’ search, so he booked a ticket back home to North Bend, via Astoria, on the steamer Alliance.

It had been during the passenger loading at Astoria that Bowlsby had spotted his rival, who apparently was also journeying home to North Bend.

And that is how the two of them came to be on the deck of the steamer Alliance that morning, taking part in a dramatic tableau of assassination and revenge.

No regrets

From the very start, Bowlsby based his defense on The Unwritten Law. He told reporters he regretted nothing. “I believe I did no more than any other man would do under similar circumstances, as there appears to be no law to protect a man’s home and family unless he does it himself,” the unrepentant assassin told the Oregonian’s correspondent the next day. “The only regret I have is the disgrace to my son and daughter. For myself I do not care.”

He blamed the affair on Cleve Jennings’ aged mother, who, he claimed, encouraged the affair, and on another “meddlesome old woman”; both of them, he said, “were constantly urging my wife to leave me.”

The picture Bowlsby painted clearly resonated with the coroner’s jury, which not only opined that the killing had been justified, but excoriated its victim at the same time.

“The evidence shows that the defendant and his wife had lived together in peace and happiness for a period of over 15 years until the serpent entered their household in the shape of Cleve Jennings and destroyed their home,” the jurors wrote. “We are furthermore of the opinion, on account of the lack of statutes covering crimes of this character, that said Bowlsby was fully justified in shooting the said Jennings.”

The district attorney nonetheless filed charges against him; but one gets the distinct impression that this was done as a courtesy, to secure for Bowlsby a record-clearing acquittal and an official declaration of innocence. Certainly the outcome was never for a moment in doubt. Mrs. Bowlsby had confessed to having been intimate with Jennings, and although it’s possible that she was lying to keep her husband out of prison, that seems fairly unlikely. To that jury in 1907, the case for acquittal seemed as clear and obvious as the case for conviction would be to a jury today.

The Unwritten Law was actually discussed by name in court during this case, until the judge interjected that there was no such thing as The Unwritten Law, and ordered the jury to give it no consideration in the verdict. Nevertheless, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet — and when the verdict came in after just 30 minutes of deliberation, it was a clear victory for The Unwritten Law: “Not Guilty on Account of Insanity.”

But the headline the Morning Oregonian chose to apply to its final article on the Bowlsby-Jennings affair nicely sums up the growing ambivalence the newspaper was feeling about The Unwritten Law: “ANOTHER SLAYER ACQUITTED.”

It was an ambivalence that would ripen into full-blown revolt  later that same year, in an event involving a jealous wife-beater, a philandering policeman, a saloon and a gunfight. We’ll talk about that case next week.

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian archives, June 15 & 20 and Oct. 13, 1907)