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Southern Oregon populist leader had plans for guerilla uprising

The “Jackson County Rebellion” faded away after political boss Llewellyn Banks shot a policeman with a .30-06 during an attempted warrant service. Coverage of the whole debacle won the Medford Mail-Tribune a Pulitzer Prize.

The front porch and entry door of the Llewellyn Banks residence, where Constable Prescott was murdered. (Image: Southern Oregon Historical Society)

The months that followed the election of 1932 in Jackson County were nerve-wracking ones for everyone involved. Newspaper publishers Llewellyn Banks and Earl Fehl, leaders of a belligerent populist uprising with distinctly fascist overtones called the Good Government Congress, had just taken over Jackson County — well, almost. Their party had failed to dislodge the sitting district attorney, George Codding.

Nonetheless, Banks and Fehl promptly and triumphantly proclaimed that the people had delivered a mighty mandate to oust Jackson County’s political establishment — what the two of them had come to call simply “The Gang” — and replace it with their organization, working on behalf of “the people.”

It was a point that they’d been working up to for two solid years of nonstop propaganda in their two newspapers. And the two of them surely believed they had indeed won a mighty mandate. The trouble was, the outgoing sheriff, Ralph Jennings, wasn’t buying it. He’d lost by less than 200 votes. His calls for a recount had gone unheeded, so he’d reached out to the state attorney general. A recount now appeared inevitable — and because of some deliberate ballot miscounting done by a friendly official in the Eagle Point area, there seems to have been no doubt in anyone’s mind but that a recount would reverse the election result.

To avoid that, the new sheriff, Gordon Schermerhorn, actually went on the lam so that once-and-future sheriff Jennings couldn’t serve papers on him. But this, of course, was at best a temporary expedient. One could not do one’s job as sheriff of Southern Oregon’s most populous county from an outlaw hideout somewhere in the Siskiyous. What was needed was some direct action.

So on Feb. 20, the very night the judge ruled that a recount must proceed, while a mammoth crowd of Good Government Congress true believers rallied and chanted in front of the Jackson County Courthouse, a small crew of Good Government Congress operatives broke out a side window, revving a Ford V-8 engine to cover the noise. They slipped inside, collected as many ballots as they could haul, and hustled them away — beyond the reach of recount.

The next day, when the election staff came downstairs to start on the recount, the burglary was discovered. Earl Fehl tried to blame ex-sheriff Jennings, and barely-elected sheriff Schermerhorn pledged a full investigation; but it was obvious who benefited from the situation, so nobody was fooled.

The Oregon State Police certainly weren’t. Officers were on the scene almost immediately, politely informing Sheriff Schermerhorn that his services would not be needed in looking into this crime, and that their agency, not his, would be conducting the “full investigation.” And after that, it wasn’t hard; they first found the charred remnants of a bunch of ballots in the courthouse furnace, and later some were found floating in the river.

Medford Police Constable George Prescott, who was murdered with a .30-06 rifle while trying to arrest Llewellyn Banks. (Image: Oregon Historical Quarterly)

Working backward from a small list of people with access to the courthouse furnace, the state cops picked up a Good Government Congress member who worked at the courthouse; they then spent a long time discussing the subject with him. This employee proved remarkably loquacious. By the time the conversation was over, they had a new list of people to arrest — a list that included Sheriff Schermerhorn, as well as Judge Fehl, the county jailer, and even the mayor of Rogue River.

Sheriff Schermerhorn, it turned out, had personally stood watch and signaled the burglars with a flashlight when the coast was clear. One of his deputies was leading the burglary team. And Judge Fehl hadn’t participated in the burglary, but was thought to have masterminded it.

The modern mind boggles at these developments. After all, even President Nixon had the sense not to actually participate personally in the Watergate Hotel burglary.

And now things started to move fairly quickly. The Good Government Congress having resorted to extra-legal measures, its leaders were vulnerable to charges of criminal syndicalism. This made them far more amenable to working with investigators than they had been previously; and the investigation quickly led, through a series of inquiries of the “what did the president know and when did he know it”-type questions, straight to the ornate mansion of Llewellyn Banks.

Banks had made it clear that he would not go quietly. At the last Good Government Congress rally, held just after the burglary, he stood upon the courthouse steps shaking his fist at his opponents and shouted, “Unless justice is restored, I will lead the field in revolution against you people – now, make the most of it.”

But after that, he’d gone home and packed his stuff. Banks knew he was next. His creditors had finally managed to seize his newspaper, so he no longer had that outlet. His orchardlands were either going or gone. And his collaborators in the Good Government Congress were rapidly proving to have very big mouths.

Fortunately, a supporter — a miner named Geiger, if you can believe such a coincidence — had a rustic log cabin on a mining claim deep in the forest. It would be a perfect place for Banks to hide out for a few months until all the gunsmoke and horsefeathers settled out of the air.

Banks had just packed his valise and had his hunting rifle, a .30-06, loaded and sitting on the table by the door. All that was left was to pick it up, walk to the car, and leave town.

Then, with quite possibly the worst timing in Southern Oregon history, there came a knock on the front door. It was Medford Police Constable George Prescott and Oregon State Police Sgt. James O’Brien. And they were there with a warrant for Banks’ arrest.

Llewellyn Banks’ wife, Edith, opened the door just enough to throw some papers out at the officers — papers intended to challenge the officers’ right to make the arrest. Prescott stuck his foot in the door before she could close it. And then Banks came up behind Edith with his .30-06 and put a round into Prescott’s chest.

 

Prescott, shot through the heart, died almost immediately. O’Brien retreated ("retreated," in this case, is surely a synonym for “ran for his ever-loving life”) and called for backup. Dozens of cops swarmed the house, but a siege was avoided when Banks voluntarily surrendered into custody. He seemed utterly unrepentant, and claimed to be confident that he’d be vindicated when the investigation was done — that he had been fully justified in “defending his home” from the marauding constable with his foot in the door.

The force of some 30 state police officers now decided enough was enough, and spread out through the streets of Medford with shotguns and tear gas, and started rounding up Good Government Congress members.

Later investigation turned up evidence that Banks and his aides had actually made plans to kidnap the district attorney — the one official they hadn’t been able to defeat at the ballot box with any amount of cheating — and warehouse him at a remote cabin in the hills, where he could be quietly killed if it came to that.

They also had a contingency plan for launching an actual armed guerilla insurrection from the hills of Southern Oregon. Jackson County, and indeed the entire West Coast, had really dodged a bullet, it seemed.

 

Banks was convicted of second-degree (unpremeditated) murder at the ensuing trial, and sentenced to life in prison. For the rest of his life, his family tried diligently and sometimes shamelessly to arrange for him to be pardoned. One state prison official was fired for allegedly accepting a bribe to advocate for him. But all the various governors approached by the family and its agents declined to help ... we have to assume that, if nothing else, they recognized a political suicide rap when they saw one (“My opponent pardoned a cop killer!”).

Fehl drew a four-year sentence for his part in the ballot theft, and ex-sheriff Schermerhorn served three. Most other defendants were found guilty and were sentenced to various shorter terms.

At the end of the whole debacle, the Medford Mail-Tribune — the larger of Medford’s two daily newspapers, which had, under the leadership of owner Robert Ruhl, kept a remarkably cool and level head throughout the crisis — received the Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service in 1933. It was the first Pulitzer Prize won by an Oregon newspaper, and the Mail Tribune remains, as of 2016, the smallest Oregon newspaper to have won one.

(Sources: LaLande, Jeff. “The Jackson County rebellion,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, winter 1994-1995; Thorburn, Mark. “Llewellyn and Edith Banks Trial, 1933,” law.jrank.org)