Frontier Oregon murder case was more complicated than it looked
When first reported, it looked like a simple murder-suicide. But it quickly became clear that it was something far more sinister — and the motives of the killer were uglier and more sordid than anyone had thought possible.
By Finn J.D. John — August 27, 2017
One year after the Civil War ended, a double murder happened in Linn County. And it was one of those stories that seems to peel away like an onion, layer by layer, or like one of those Russian nesting dolls — in fact, even today, it’s almost certain that the full story isn’t known.
Here’s how it got started:
On March 9, 1866, a resident of the Brownsville area named James Cunningham saddled up and paid a visit to his neighbors, Sidney and Barbara Presley Smith.
The Smiths were a particularly prosperous pioneer family. Sidney was 42, Barbara 30; the couple had four children, ranging in age from 16-year-old Rhoda Ann to baby Edward.
They were especially prosperous just then, because it was the height of the Idaho gold rush of the early 1860s, and Sidney had just returned from the gold fields — where he had been very successful.
Sidney had been able to go to the gold fields because his brother Thomas had been around, to stay home and run the farm while he was gone. Thomas had lived on the farm, taking care of business, until Sidney’s return, at which time he’d moved out to stay with a neighbor.
Upon his return, Sidney had hidden his gold on the farm — banks were few and far between in 1860s Oregon, and those that did exist weren’t always trustworthy.
So, with a successful farm and a big stash of cash, the extended Smith family seemed to have it made.
Which was just one of the reasons Cunningham was surprised to learn, from Thomas Smith, that Sydney had suddenly gone nuts, pulled a revolver, murdered his wife, then shot himself — all in front of Thomas and the kids.
The sheriff was called in, and took everyone’s statements. The kids, understandably, were terrified — having just witnessed what they had.
But then one of the two older girls overcame her terror and asked the sheriff a simple question: “How could Papa kill Mama when he was dead already?”
The implication that she knew more about the sequence of the murders than she had previously said was not lost on the sheriff. He questioned all the kids again, closely and by themselves, and a new story emerged:
It turned out that Thomas and Sydney had had an argument earlier in the day. This had been an increasingly common thing since Sidney had returned from the gold fields, and probably had led to Thomas moving out of the house. Remember, Thomas had stayed behind to run the farm while Sidney went to the diggings, and Sidney had come back with a lot of gold. Thomas felt, not unreasonably, that some of that gold should belong to him, since without him it would not have been possible for Sidney to go dig it up; Sidney disagreed. It had become a source of some tension.
Today, that tension seemed to have come to a head. In the account given by the children, Thomas, snarling “This will not do me,” stormed out of the house. And then, several minutes later, Rhoda Ann, sitting with her back to the door, was startled out of her chair by the roar of an indoor gunshot, and saw a dark spot appear on her father’s forehead, right between the eyes. Sidney Smith fell forward, dead.
Thomas fired again, and this time the bullet sped past the baby’s head and hit Barbara in the chest. Barbara, wounded badly but not fatally, laid the baby on the floor and ran out of the house; Thomas followed, caught her up at the woodpile, dragged her into a smokehouse, and stabbed her to death.
Then he came back into the house and promised to kill all the kids if they didn’t swear that their father had killed their mother and then shot himself.
The terrified children did as instructed — but at least one, probably 10-year-old Leora, didn’t fully understand what Thomas was asking them to do; hence the inconvenient (for Thomas) question about how Papa could have killed Mama when he was already dead.
But by the time this question was being asked, the sheriff was already suspicious. He’d noticed an absence of powder burns around the hole in Sidney’s forehead, which absolutely ruled out the suicide theory. He had already decided maybe Thomas ought to be questioned again.
Thomas was — and when he confessed, a third layer of this awful onion was exposed:
Thomas told the sheriff that the whole thing had come about because he had been having “an affair” with his oldest niece, Rhoda Ann, then 16. Rhoda Ann had, he said, “confessed the affair” to her mother, who had told Sydney about it when he came back from the gold fields. Her father, furious, had staged a confrontation. Rhoda Ann had refused to cooperate, so Sydney had started beating her; and Thomas, in defense of his incestuous “lover,” had murdered her father, after which he’d gone ahead and murdered Barbara too.
Obviously, this left a few questions unanswered. The peculiar savagery with which Thomas attacked Barbara — slashing her face and hands before fatally stabbing her in the neck — argued for more personal feeling than he was admitting to.
A modern reader can hardly fail to draw certain conclusions from Uncle Thomas’s story, especially in Oregon in the aftermath of the Neil Goldschmidt case. It’s clear that the “affair” was child molestation, started by Thomas after Sidney left for the gold fields and left the Smith women and children in his care.
(Knowing this, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the reason for Thomas’s savagery in cutting up Barbara with the knife was that he had tried to make a move on her, and been rejected.)
Then Sidney had returned, and learned what he’d done. Now both his victim’s parents knew what he’d done … and what he was. So he’d murdered both of them so that they could not expose him. Then, when he’d been exposed anyway, he’d tried to paint poor Rhoda Ann as a “scarlet woman,” a teen-age temptress who had seduced him.
It’s hard to say from the newspapers’ accounts whether or not anyone bought this. It seems likely they did not. But, it would be nice to know what became of Rhoda Ann after all her family’s dirty laundry was aired in the newspaper and she was publicly accused of seducing her uncle.
Regardless of whether people understood the true nature of the “affair,” there was widespread agreement that Uncle Thomas needed to die, and the outcome of the trial was never in doubt. A hanging was scheduled for May 10, 1866 — and on that very morning, the newspapers carried the word of Thomas Smith’s other brother, Calvin, who was still in the gold fields of Idaho. He had, apparently, committed suicide. Thomas was the only surviving Smith brother.
That changed a little later that day, just 62 days after the double murder — still a record in Oregon history. That’s when, nattily dressed in frock coat and leather boots, Thomas Smith dropped through the gallows trap door into eternity.
There is a postscript to this story, though. Sometime after the execution, the orphans were out playing on the Smith farm, and one of them found a leather bag with $25,000 in gold dust — obviously the proceeds from the gold prospecting trip that had taken Sidney away from his farm, his wife, and his daughter. In 1866, $25,000 was a tremendous fortune; but it’s surely safe to say that if Sidney could have turned back time, knowing what it would cost him to acquire it, he would have turned that money down.
(Sources: Goerdes-Gardner, Diane. Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon 1851-1905. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2005; Albany State Rights Democrat archives, March 1866; Portland Oregonian archives, March and May 1866)