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Murder of policeman helped turn Portland against Unwritten Law

What started out looking like a clean-cut morality play, with a hero, a villain, an innocent victim and a bereaved widow, quickly turned into a tale of remarkable sordidness as the truth slowly emerged.

The mugshots of Officer John Gittings and his murderer, Melville Bradley, as they appeared on the front page of the Portland Morning Oregonian on Dec. 19, 1907. (Image: Oregonian)

When the story first hit the newspapers, it all seemed very clear and simple:

An Albina man got drunk and beat up his wife. Her brother went looking for him to teach him a lesson, and brought along a friend who happened to be a police officer. The wifebeater, tracked down at a local saloon, came out shooting, and moments later the innocent, luckless policeman lay dying on the sidewalk as the wife-beating murderer fled into the night.

For newspaper readers on the morning of Dec. 19, 1907, it was like a Vaudeville stage tragedy come to life. There was a good guy — brave, valiant Joseph P. Sivener, on a mission to deliver a much-deserved thrashing to his no-good, wife-beating brother-in-law; a bad guy — Melville Bradley, the aforementioned brother-in-law, whose surly, shifty-eyed mugshot appeared next to the story in the paper; the fair damsel — poor, battered Mrs. Bradley; and an innocent victim: the poor policeman, who was just doing his job when sudden and undeserved death came and bore him away from his devastated wife and four tiny children.

Case No. 3:
The Unwritten Law Files

This column is one of a series of case studies of the early-20th-century mania for honor killings in Oregon. 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 1907, and which may actually be the case that ended what had been widespread public approval of Unwritten Law killings.

But those newspaper readers would have just one day in which to savor that comfortingly familiar storyline. The very next day, the first of a series of revelations started peeling away layers that eventually revealed a drama that seemed to take every convention of the clean-cut crime-story genre and turn it inside out. When all was revealed to Portland's increasingly appalled and jaded newspaper readers, there was not a single adult in the entire story that most Portlanders could respect or relate to in any way — except, perhaps, in some small way, the murderer.

But it wasn't all bad news. Because the greatest loser in the whole affair seems to have been what had become a growing popular infatuation with “The Unwritten Law.”


Here’s the story police got on the night of the murder:

Melville Bradley had gotten into a fight with his wife, Kate, earlier in the day — a fight that ripened into “a beating administered to Mrs. Bradley by her husband in a fit of drunken jealousy,” according to the Morning Oregonian’s report.

After that, Bradley stormed off to a saloon, where he apparently had several more drinks. Meanwhile, Kate had gone to her brother, Joseph Sivener, and told him what had happened. Sivener, as brothers are wont to do when such news reaches their ears, rolled up his sleeves, stuck out his chin and stormed off to the saloon, intending to serve his brother-in-law a few hand-crafted knuckle sandwiches, with an eye toward improving the bum's treatment of his sister.

This headline and sidebar ran atop the Oregonian’s follow-up article on Officer Gittings’ funeral, the overall tone of which is perhaps best described as nonplussed. (Image: Oregonian)

A Portland policeman named John W. Gittings accompanied Sivener to the saloon, and stood on the sidewalk nearby as Sivener entered. Once inside, Sivener found his man. “Come outside,” he growled. “I want to see you.”

“You do, do you?” Bradley shot back. “Well, I can’t see you any too damned quick.” And he followed his brother-in-law to the door.

Sivener wasted no time. As soon they were both out the door, he hauled off and punched Bradley in the face. Bradley’s response was to pull a revolver out of his pocket and fire point-blank at Sivener. It was a clean miss, as was a second follow-up shot. Sivener turned and tried to flee, but tripped and fell into the mud by the street. There he lay, petrified with fear.

Meanwhile, Bradley had seen Gittings, and Gittings was probably already drawing his service revolver. Bradley turned his pistol on the policeman and fired his other four shots straight into the officer. Gittings managed to get off five shots of his own before collapsing to the sidewalk. None of Gittings’ shots, apparently, touched Bradley.

Bradley immediately took to his heels. After a few moments, Sivener picked himself up out of the mud and went to see to Gittings, who was still alive — but barely.

“I’m afraid I’m done for,” the fallen policeman said. “Send for a doctor at once. Here is my gun. There is only one shot left in it. Take it and get him if you can.”

He then struggled to his feet, tottered a few steps, then collapsed into Sivener’s arms and died.

Meanwhile, Bradley was running for home, where he got his hat and vanished. Authorities assumed he’d hopped a freight out of town. They angrily vowed to bend every possible effort to catching him.

 


The very next day, though
, this nice, clean morality-play narrative was already starting to show a few spots of tarnish. First off, it soon became clear that Gittings was more than just some random beat cop sucked into someone else’s domestic drama.

“There is plenty of evidence to show that there was very bad feeling existing between the two men,” the Oregonian reported; “that Gittings was friendly with Mrs. Bradley; that Gittings was friendly to and in sympathy with the members of Mrs. Bradley’s family, who were on bad terms with Bradley.”

Just how friendly Gittings was with Bradley’s family — and with one member in particular — became obvious at the policeman’s funeral, held the following day. The funeral service was a fairly short one, and just as it was ending, a closed carriage raced up to the funeral home and three heavily-veiled women burst forth. It was Kate Bradley with her sister, Aggie Vanders, and one other woman whom the reporter didn’t identify.

“My God, are we too late?” sobbed Vanders noisily. Upon being told that they were, Kate Bradley asked where the interment would be held. Upon being told, the three ladies bounded back into the carriage and raced away.

The carriage caught up with the funeral procession, then passed it and raced on to the cemetery, where the three ladies installed themselves at the open grave to await the arrival of the casket. When it did come, they made a tremendous scene with noisy sobs and wails of anguish, as the dead policeman’s widow stood at the head of the grave, ashen-faced and trembling, quietly weeping and obviously trying to ignore them. Remember, these intruders were her husband’s murderer’s wife and sister-in-law. They were clearly the last people poor Mrs. Gittings wanted to see.

But if their arrival was unexpected, it shouldn’t have been. The funeral director told the Oregonian’s reporter that Aggie Vanders, in particular, had visited the funeral parlor twice before to view the body — the first time on the day after the murder, a Thursday, on which occasion she “cried over the body until requested to leave.”

“Friday she called again,” the article continues. “She threw herself across the casket, her sobs being audible throughout the building. After this scene she was not allowed to view the remains again.”

The reporter then puts the pieces together — almost — with the next paragraph:

“Mrs. Vanders has long borne the bitter hatred of Mrs. Gittings,” he wrote. “She lived next door to the Gittings shanty on Humboldt Street and Gittings spent much of his time in her company.”

And if that weren’t enough to clue Portlanders in on what was really going on, there was this small item, run as a sidebar to the main story:

“Last night it was learned that Mrs. Aggie Vanders … demanded of the policeman’s widow that she surrender certain papers, said to be in Gittings’ pocketbook. The woman also asked for the dead man’s watch and revolver. … Mrs. Gittings refused to give up the belongings.”

The story was starting to smell more than a little bit sordid. But the real weirdness had only just begun. We’ll continue the tale next week.

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian archives, Dec. 19, 20, 21, 22, 1907)