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Charity Lamb was Oregon’s most misunderstood ax-murderess

Abusive husband Nathaniel Lamb probably didn't really plan to kill his wife, but when he aimed his rifle at her that morning, he clearly wanted her to think he did. That night, over supper, he learned the hard way how successful he'd been.

The Hawthorne Asylum in Portland as it appeared in 1872. The asylum was located just off Hawthorne Boulevard, which was then called Asylum Street, near the intersection with 12th Street. (Image: oregonencyclopedia.org)

For many years, the case of Charity Lamb was looked at like a crime-fiction yarn from a pulp magazine like Spicy Detective. It seemed to have it all: illicit sex, a mother-daughter love triangle, conspiracy — and, of course, a brutal ax murder committed by a woman with the most ironically innocuous name imaginable.

“Charity Lamb and her seventeen-year-old daughter shared a passion for a drifter named Collins,” pop-historian Malcolm Clark Jr. explains breezily, in his 1981 book Eden Seekers. “When (Nathaniel) Lamb, as outraged father and cuckolded husband, strongly protested, Charity cut off his objections with an ax.”

The real story, of course, is not only more nuanced, but — well, totally different. In actual fact, the only part of Clark’s account that’s historically supportable are the names of the involved parties, the words “strongly protested,” and the word “ax.” Its original source appears to have been a newspaper article in the Oregon Weekly Times headlined “Revolting Murder,” the only sources of which were a gossipy neighbor and an interview with the embittered and dying Mr. Lamb.

The true story of the Charity Lamb murder will never really be known. But here, as closely as I can pick it out, is the story of how she became Oregon’s first-ever convicted murderess:

 

Nathaniel and Charity Lamb journeyed out to Clackamas County on the Oregon Trail in 1852 and staked a land claim about 10 miles up the Clackamas River from Oregon City. There were few friendly faces in their new neighborhood, especially for Charity; they had left all her close friends and relatives behind when they left.

The Lambs had five children, ranging in age from a newborn baby to a 19-year-old daughter. They also had, according to the testimony of their children, a very stormy relationship. The winter after they arrived, Nathaniel knocked Charity down with a punch and kicked her several times for not helping him carry a log; she probably was pregnant at the time.  Later that same year, he threw a hammer at her and it clipped her on the forehead, cutting a big gash. He once held her at gunpoint when she was trying to leave.

By the late spring of 1854, things had gotten even worse. In part, that was because of the mysterious Mr. Collins. Mary Ann, the 19-year-old daughter, was much smitten with Collins, who had stayed with the family earlier in the season before moving on to California. He apparently quite liked Mary Ann, too, but Nathaniel wouldn’t hear of the match and had forbidden her to communicate with him. So Charity helped Mary Ann write him a letter — and then Nathaniel caught Mary Ann with the letter.

This letter brought things to a head. The children testified that Nathaniel was scolding and shouting at Charity all week. And a sinister new element now entered the abuse: death threats.

“He said she had better not run off,” 13-year-old Abram Lamb testified in her trial, “for if she went when he was away he would follow her, and settle her when she didn’t know it. I heard her say that morning, before I went out with Pap hunting, that he was going to kill her, and she didn’t know what to do.”

By “that morning,” Abram was referring to the fateful morning which was to end in bloody murder. On that morning, as Nathaniel was setting out on a bear hunt with Abram and a neighbor, Nathaniel stopped at the end of the yard as he walked away from the house. Apparently thinking no one but Charity was watching, he turned, set his rifle down on the railing to steady it, and carefully drew a bead on his wife.

“I was in the house and saw it,” 9-year-old Thomas Lamb testified. “When Mary Ann rose up and saw it, he turned away the gun and shot it off at a big tree.”

It seems likely that Nathaniel didn’t intend to actually kill his wife, even if he wanted to. Theirs was a large family, including a nursing baby who would be very hard to keep alive without his mother. But by the time he returned from his hunting trip, having bagged a bear, she appears to have been utterly convinced that he did — and she (and, probably, Mary Ann) had formulated a desperate plan to ensure her survival:

Murder.

And so, when the family was gathered around the table for dinner and Nathaniel was happily talking about the hunt, Charity excused herself and stepped away from the table, as if to see to something on the fire. Then she returned with an ax — and let him have it.

She hit him twice with it. Even then, Nathaniel was still alive, on the floor, screaming, covered with blood. Her ax head had gone two inches into his brain, but the wound hadn’t been immediately fatal.

Charity promptly fled the house, closely followed by Mary Ann. She made her way to a neighbor’s house a half mile away, and they let her spend the night; meanwhile, Dr. Presley Welch came to do what he could for Nathaniel.

Nathaniel died a week later, probably of an infection. During that time, he gave some fairly damning testimony against Charity, and denied all claims of spousal abuse.

In the wake of the act, the community was shocked and outraged, and prosecutors threw the book at both Charity and Mary Ann, the eldest daughter. Once the Lamb children started testifying about Nathaniel’s cruelty, though, that attitude softened from cold righteousness to a kind of miserable sympathy. Mary Ann’s trial was first, and she was quickly acquitted of all charges, but Charity proved a tough one for judge and jury alike. What she had done did not qualify under any then-existing legal defense. It was sort of self-defense, but not really; he’d been sitting at the dinner table when she did it. It was kind of like insanity, but that didn’t fit either; she was clearly not a lunatic. Her defense attorneys made things worse by trying, ridiculously, to claim she’d intended only to stun Nathaniel with the ax rather than kill him.

In the end, the verdict was for second-degree murder, a charge which carried a sentence of life in prison. The prosecution had been hoping for first-degree murder, which would have meant the gallows.

Sobbing and clutching the baby who would shortly be taken away from her, Charity Lamb was remanded to the primitive territorial prison, where she was for many years the only female inmate. Eventually she was sent to the insane asylum on what today is Hawthorne Street in Portland, where occasional visitors found her quietly knitting, apparently contented with her life there. She died in 1879 at the age of about 65.

It would be many years before spousal cruelty became a recognized legal defense in murder cases. But the extreme discomfort with which the judge and officers of the court looked on as Charity’s case was unfurled before them showed clearly that such a thing was needed, and may have had something to do with some other high-profile murder cases in Oregon — possibly including that of Mary Leonard, who went on after her acquittal to become the first licensed female attorney in both Washington and Oregon.

(Sources: Lansing, Ronald B. “The Tragedy of Charity Lamb, Oregon’s First Convicted Murderess,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, spring 2000; Clark, Malcolm Jr. Eden Seekers: The Settlement of Oregon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981)