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Governor Martin’s goons were dirty but incompetent fighters

One-term governor had a team of secret agents working for him, trying to subvert labor unions and ferret out communists; but most of their efforts seemed to end up scoring points for the “other team.”

Former Oregon governors (left to right) Oswald West, Ben W. Olcott, Albin W. Norblad and Charles H. Martin pose for a photo with Gov. Charles Sprague (right) during a luncheon hosted by Gov. Sprague in 1940. (Image: Salem Public Library/Ben Maxwell)

In August of 1937 when Stanley Doyle called on her, Gwendolyn Ramsey can’t have been too happy to see him.

Doyle had been the key figure behind framing her husband, Ernest Doyle, and two of his fellow union leaders, for the murder of a ship’s officer the year before. And although Doyle had been working undercover, chances are pretty good that she knew exactly who he was.

But what he wanted to see her about — that interested her a great deal. He was there to offer her a special deal: All she needed to do, he told her, was “sign a statement that Harry Bridges was a Communist and that she had seen him at Communist meetings.”

“All you have to do is sign it,” Doyle told her, “and your husband will be released from San Quentin.”

Ramsey wasn’t interested in perjuring herself to help Doyle take down Bridges, the controversial Australian-born labor-union leader whom the entire West Coast seemed to be trying to get deported. But she was very interested in how he proposed to get her husband released. Ernest Ramsey’s conviction might have been a corrupt fraud, but a conviction was a conviction. So she played along a little, and asked him the question: How did he have the power to overturn a conviction and get Ernest sprung?

Harry Bridges testifies before Congress in 1939. (Image: Library of Congress)

It was because, he told her, he was “a secret service agent for the Immigration Service and the governors of California and Oregon” — and he flashed a fancy gold badge that read, “SPECIAL AGENT — STATE OF OREGON — No. 280.”

Stanley Doyle was essentially a personal undercover operative answering directly and personally to the governor of Oregon — the ramrod-straight, demonstrably paranoid, ferociously anti-communist Major General Charles H. Martin (USA-Ret.), Governor of Oregon.

And although there was widespread consensus among the governors of all three West Coast states as well as the executives of every major shipping company on the subject, it was Martin who seemed to most hate Harry Bridges. At the very least, it was he who devoted the most taxpayer resources to the decades-long fight to have him deported — a goal that would have gotten a lot easier if he could be identified as a “red.”

Evidence today is pretty strong that Bridges had been a member of the Communist Party at one time, probably in the early 1930s. However, in 1937, that evidence wasn’t yet known — but it was fervently wished for. And Stanley Doyle’s mission was clear: Either find or fabricate that evidence.

It was a mission he went about with a clumsy unsubtlety that would have shocked anyone who didn’t already know his methods. An attorney, he first came to the governor’s attention in 1934 as the prosecutor in the case of a man named Dirk DeJonge, a newly enrolled Communist Party member who, a few years earlier, had been prosecuted for making an anti-police speech at a Portland rally. This, of course, was an activity protected under the First Amendment, but the judge found him guilty and sentenced him to prison for it anyway.

Along the way to that outcome, though, some rather startling things happened, all on the record and in open court. First, undercover State Police agent Laurence Milner, who had provided the key information in the case, sought to preserve his cover by testifying in court that he didn’t know if DeJonge was a communist or not. Doyle, during a break in the case, tried to persuade him to change his mind and recant his testimony — basically, admitting to perjury — and when Milner refused, Doyle actually stated, in open court, that he had tried to get him to do so. So Milner had to get on the stand and perjure himself again to claim (with rather less believability this time) that he had not. Nonetheless, if any labor unionists ever trusted Milner again after that display, they surely deserved whatever they got as a result. His cover was effectively blown.

(As for DeJonge, his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court two years later on grounds that throwing somebody into the cooler for making a speech was conduct unbecoming an American court of law.)

The following year, in his new role as “special agent,” Doyle blew the lid off another laboriously constructed piece of anti-union James Bondery when he traveled to California to get heavy with a man named Charles Bancksy, a private undercover agent working for a San Francisco shipping company. Bancksy had a beach house in Carmel stocked with hidden cameras and microphones and with a secret fingerprint lab; he hosted parties in it, in which he essentially dragnetted leftists trying to find evidence against Harry Bridges and other persons of interest. Doyle essentially ordered Bancksy to expose himself as a spy by testifying against Bridges; if he didn’t, Doyle would get him fired. Bancksy, quite naturally, figured he was as good as fired anyway if he let his cover be blown, so he declined — and, true to his word, Doyle got the governor to intervene and have him fired.

Doyle carried out other operations to suborn perjury using either cash bribes or threats throughout Gov. Martin’s term. By the end of it, though, he’d forged for himself such a terrible reputation that, according to a Department of Labor investigation in 1939, he’d “taken so much money from so many people” in bribes and payments for illegal services that any testimony he might have been able to offer would be useless.

Nor was Doyle the only rogue agent Martin’s administration employed. Convinced that what he faced was nothing less than a threat to the very existence of the American way of life, Martin was hiring almost anyone as a “special police” agent.

“My brother was appointed Special State Police Officer several months ago by you,” wrote William Schmitz of Portland in 1937. “My brother has no right to have this power, as he is irresponsible, inclined to be rattle-headed and is just as apt as not to shoot somebody for no just reason.”

Another “special agent” was stripped of his badge after he was caught using it to shake down an Italian businessman, whom he subsequently was prosecuted for pistol-whipping.

Meanwhile, Martin seemed completely oblivious to how all this was playing with the public. In 1938 he started gearing up for his re-election campaign. But by this time, most Oregonians — and not just the union members, either — had had enough, and Henry Hess had emerged as a strong opponent in the Democratic primary. The aging ex-governor Oswald West, who was still playing Karl Rove to Martin’s George W. Bush, realized that getting his guy re-nominated was going to be no mean feat. He engineered a clever gambit in which he encouraged conservative Republicans to switch parties to help.

This would likely have worked, but at the last minute came some direct intervention from the very top. On May 18, two days before the election, several members of the President Roosevelt’s “brain trust” released endorsements of Hess. Roosevelt himself, as was his wont at such times, remained coyly silent on the matter, other than to publicly deny Martin’s campaign claim that the president had told him, during a tour of the Bonneville Dam, “You and I make a good pair.”

Two days later, Martin was defeated in his primary. Bitterly and petulantly he blamed everything on malicious conspirators and envious pinko-libs: “Hess, … that son-of-a-bitch Elton Watkins … and Dave Beck of the International Teamsters … hatched their conspiracy … to buy off the candidates then running against me so as to concentrate the labor vote … and the subversive elements in the state headed by the so-called Commonwealth Foundation, against me,” he said, in a conference just after his defeat.

In the election, Hess in turn was defeated by Republican Charles Sprague. After four years of strident squabbling between Martin’s furtive authoritarianism and the allegedly-communist trade-unionists, as far as most voters could see the Democratic Party was split between crazy socialists and paranoid fascists. The damage would linger for decades.

(Sources: Murrell, Gary. Iron Pants: Oregon’s Anti-New-Deal Governor. Pullman, Wash.: WSU Press, 2000; Murrell, Gary. “Hunting Reds in Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, winter 1999)