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Murderer surprised when Unwritten Law doesn’t “work”

R. Thomas Dickerson, after gunning down the chief witness in his wife's upcoming suit for divorce, clearly expected the jury to buy his claim that the man was a “home-wrecker” and deserved what he got. He miscalculated.

This sketch of the murder scene appeared in the Portland Morning Oregonian the day after the shooting. (Image: Oregonian)

The Unwritten Law had quite a run in Oregon during the first decade of the 20th century. But by the time R. Thomas Dickerson made his attempt to claim its protection, the signs of it having worn out its welcome were there for those who looked.

It had certainly worn out its welcome at the city’s newspapers. Probably the best demonstration of the Morning Oregonian’s attitude toward The Unwritten Law was the lead sentence in its story about Dickerson:

“Charged with the commission of a cold-blooded murder,” the reporter writes, “closely guarded in a cell in the county jail, believing his act will be excused by a jury of his countrymen through invocation of the Unwritten Law, R. Thomas Dickerson, a street contractor, of 512 Patton Road, Portland Heights, his voice shaking with vindictive rage, openly told the story while in the custody of officers of a tragedy yesterday morning shortly before 6 o’clock, which ended in the death of Harry A. Garrett, one of his teamsters, and disclosed to the world a shocking scandal of an allegedly faithless wife and the punished wrongs of a home destroyer.”

Case No. 6:
The Unwritten Law Files

Today’s column is the last in 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 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 the case that fairly definitively put the would-be honor killers of Oregon on notice that they could no longer expect The Unwritten Law to protect them.

What’s most noticeable about this sentence, other than its astonishing length, is the clear hostility it shows toward both Dickerson and the Unwritten Law.

The article goes on to detail the full story, or as much of it as was known at the time. Dickerson was inside a stable when he caught sight of one of his teamsters, Harry A. Garrett, walking out in front of the building. Dickerson immediately exited the stable, pulled a revolver out of his pocket, and fired five shots into Garrett.

Garrett then fell to the ground and died, and Dickerson went to surrender himself to the police.

He freely admitted what he’d done, telling them he’d done it because Garrett had wrecked his happy home by getting frisky with his wife, Martha Messner Dickerson — who had, in consequence of Garrett’s depredations, moved out of the family manse with the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, Pearl, and sued for divorce.

He also claimed Garrett had threatened to kill him as soon as the divorce case was concluded and then run away with Martha, and added, “I have heard of his breaking up other homes. He boasted of this, and some of my wife’s folks said, so I heard, that she told them she was going to leave with one of my men as soon as the divorce hearing was over.”

But Martha stoutly denied that there was anything going on with Garrett, and suggested another possible motive for her husband’s actions — one that was easy to document: Garrett was to have been the lead witness in her suit for divorce.

And there was another thing, too: This was the Dickersons’ second marriage to each other. The first one had ended when little Pearl was 5 years old, when Martha had sued for divorce on grounds of physical cruelty and verbal abuse. The court had not only granted her a divorce, but had given her sole custody of little Pearl.

They’d been separated for a little over a year when they reconciled and remarried. This time, though, Dickerson got his wife to sign a pre-nuptial agreement to the effect that if the marriage failed again, he would get custody of Pearl.

The new marriage lasted just a few months before Martha was once again suing for divorce. But this time, she needed more than just her freedom. She needed to make a strong enough case to the judge for her pre-nuptial custody contract to be set aside. It was clear that this detail was where Garrett came in. As one of Dickerson’s more trusted employees, he’d seen and heard a lot — and Dickerson mentioned in his testimony that he had asked Garrett for advice on the case. Clearly Garrett knew, and was preparing to reveal on the witness stand, something that might very well take Pearl away from him, pre-nup or no pre-nup.

This didn’t prove anything, of course. But it did establish another possible motive for Dickerson’s shooting him. And it also created some problems with the story Dickerson tried to tell in court.

“She begged me to take her back,” he testified. “I told her I would take her back if she had learned her lesson, and would treat me right, as I had always treated her.”

Dickerson then tried to paint a picture of the happily remarried couple before the arrival into their connubial Garden of Eden of the wicked serpent Garrett — apparently keen to make sure the jury knew a contented, happy home had been wrecked by his predations.

It was clearly a tough sell — especially considering that the couple’s plans for re-divorce had been covered prominently in the Oregonian less than a month before. As every newspaper reader happened to know, the divorce had been precipitated by Dickerson coming home drunk, accusing his wife of infidelity, firing a rifle shot through the roof of the house and threatening to kill her. All of this was a matter of public record, along with the testimony of drunkenness and abuse that had resulted in the couple’s first divorce.

On the other hand, there were some letters that had been found in Garrett’s trunk, which Martha had written to him, which made it very clear that she was quite fond of him. There was nothing to support Dickerson’s claim that they’d had an affair, but plenty to suggest that Garrett planned to woo Martha after the divorce was finalized. It wasn’t much — but for Dickerson’s defense team, it was all they had to go on.

In closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney Fitzgerald unleashed a rhetorical broadside that clearly resonated: “When a man goes out in broad daylight and shoots his victim down like a dog he has to get his lawyer to concoct some sort of a defense for him,” he said. “If there ever were any criminal relations between Mrs. Dickerson and this poor devil Garrett, Dickerson never knew anything about them except by idle rumors. Dickerson never saw those letters written to Garrett by Mrs. Dickerson until after the murder was committed.”

Against this, defense attorney Seneca Fouts had little to offer besides the now-shopworn Unwritten Law exhortations: that, in the Oregonian’s words, “the verdict of this jury (would) be watched by all the libertines in the country” and “the verdict ought to be such that it would be a warning to such men.”

Dickerson’s other defense attorney was even less subtle: “I do not think you men will declare by your verdict that the seducer of women and smasher of homes can ply his wicked vocation unrebuked right here in Portland.”

It wasn’t looking good for Dickerson as the jury retired to think on his fate. Seven of the twelve were for throwing the book at him with a conviction of first-degree murder — which would have meant a hanging — against five who favored acquittal. But over the subsequent 11 ballots, compromises were suggested — first second-degree murder, and then manslaughter — and the jury finally decided to convict him of manslaughter.

When the verdict was read, Dickerson was visibly shocked. “He evidently expected acquittal,” the reporter wrote. “He paled a little as he stood while the verdict was read.”

He was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary — a sentence which, although not as stiff as it could have been, sent the first clear message out that The Unwritten Law could no longer be relied upon to justify murder.

(Sources: Portland Morning Oregonian: 26 May; 22 and 23 June; 10, 15 and 16 Sept., 1909)