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Oregon’s “International Murderer o’ Mystery”

He called himself James Cook, and spoke with an English accent. But when asked about his past, he spun fanciful and ever-changing stories full of world travels, tiger hunts, shanghaiings and the like; he went to his death a total enigma.

The historic First Wasco County Courthouse, built in 1859, was the scene of both of James Cook’s trials as well as the murder of George Craig. The courtroom was on the second floor, accessed by the outside stairway; the bottom floor consisted of the sheriff’s office in the front, and the county jail in the windowless back of the building. The courthouse originally stood where City Hall is today, but has since been moved to 410 West 2nd Place. (Image: Ian Poellet)

On the evening of December 1, 1878, all four prisoners in the Wasco County Jail, in the back of the county courthouse, were out of their cells and relaxing in the common area near a glowing woodstove. One, a horse thief named Tharp, was sitting by the stove with a Chinese man (whose name is not given in the newspaper account); James Cook, a great burly man with an English accent, was pacing up and down, dragging his heavy shackle (probably an “Oregon boot”), apparently lost in thought; and George Craig, a slender tow-headed young man of 22, was sitting on a bench contemplating his fall from grace.

He had indeed fallen a long way. Craig was in jail, and on his way to the state prison, for a crime three months before, when he and Cook had robbed Baldwin’s Saloon in The Dalles. Craig’s involvement in this crime had shocked the little community; he was the son of the late Polhemus Craig, M.D., a highly respected physician and druggist. The son hadn’t risen to the heights of his father, though, and had taken a job as a flatboat operator on the river, then fallen in with a bad and dissolute crowd — a crowd that included James Cook.

After the robbery, Craig had fled to Portland, and it had taken a month or two for authorities to catch up with him. When they had, he’d quickly confessed — and implicated Cook.

The news had traveled faster than the law, and by the time Deputy Marshall Haine was knocking on Cook’s door, he’d already heard they were looking for him. His Native American wife (or girlfriend; the newspapers don’t say) had told the sheriff he’d gone to Boise. Haine had thanked her kindly and then asked what was in the giant crate sitting in a corner of the room.

“Cultus ictas,” she replied — which is Chinook for “Bad things,” or “garbage.” This seeming suspiciously vague, Haine pulled his six-shooter and covered the box with it while directing the other deputy to tip it over.

“The box was upset and Cook stepped out, coolly remarking, ‘Well, you ‘ave got me coppered,’” the Morning Oregonian’s The Dalles correspondent wrote.

Cook’s coolness didn’t last, though. When he learned that Craig had ratted him out, it turned to hot fury. At his trial, he firmly denied any involvement; and when he was convicted, it was almost solely on Craig’s testimony.

But that was all over now. Craig and Cook both were on their way to the state pen to serve seven-year stretches. And Cook had finally gotten over his anger against Craig.

The original Wasco County Courthouse as it appeared before 1884, when the current courthouse was built. This view shows the sheriff's office on the lower floor; behind was the jail with no windows on the Third street side. The narrow door to the right leads to the outside stairway whereby the courtroom on the second floor was reached. The official posting board shown in black with two legal notices upon it. The one-story building farther to the right was the County Clerk's office. (Image: UO Libraries)

Or so it seemed until suddenly Cook, walking past Craig while pacing the jailhouse, suddenly pounced.

There was a terrible cry — a scream of “Oh God, take him off!” — and then came a horrible gurgle and a splashing sound.

Sheriff James B. Crossen hurried into the room from the front office, where he’d been working on some paperwork. By the time he got through the door, it was all over. Cook, with a straight razor he’d somehow gotten hold of, had seized his former partner by the hair and sliced his throat open to the spine.

Crossen pulled his pistol out, put it against Cook’s head, and demanded to know where the razor had come from. Cook refused.

“Go ahead and shoot,” he said. “I’d rather hang or have you shoot me than spend seven years in the penitentiary.”

(No one ever did figure out where Cook got that razor from; but his Native American wife had been in to see him the day before, and it seemed most likely that she’d slipped it to him then.)

Just a few minutes later, Craig’s aged mother arrived, intending to spend the night there in the jail with her son before his departure the following morning on the boat for Salem.

“Her cries would have melted the heart of any man not steeped to the very lips in crime,” the Oregonian’s correspondent wrote — almost certainly referring to Cook and his cocky heartlessness in the aftermath of the killing.

 

The gruesome nature of the crime made a great impression on the public, and the newspapers got right on the story, trying to learn as much as they could about this cold-blooded razor killer. Who was he? What kind of life would lead to such an end?

James Cook was ready for them — with a real whopper.

“My earliest recollections of life are of being among the Indians — the Sioux,” he told an Oregonian reporter in a jailhouse interview a few weeks later, lounging insouciantly on his bunk in the prison cell. “I never could find out who my parents were but I am under the impression that they were captured and murdered by the Indians while traveling ... I remained with the Indians for 16 years, and during that time was twice engaged in war against the whites. The Indians called me Laveris. ... While with the Indians an Englishman, a Dr. Roach, who was hunting on the plains, came into our camp ... I was selected to guide the intruder out of our hunting grounds. The doctor took a fancy to me, and I concluded to accept his offer to accompany him in his travels as a body-servant and leave the Indians.

“After journeying about six months in the United States we left for India, where for 20 months we remained tiger hunting in the jungles ... Tired of India, we left for Africa ... We spent portions of the time in Abyssinia, the country surrounding the Red Sea, after which we crossed the great desert; thence to Alexandria, and after a short stay in Egypt we sailed for England. Remaining at the doctor’s home for a short time, we left for Australia where I left the service of the doctor and started off on my own hook for America.

“I reached San Francisco all right, and after remaining there some little while I followed the crowd then rushing to Nevada ... then traveled through the state continuing my journey through Colorado and finally brought up in Texas where I was engaged as a stock driver. To this capacity I went to Arizona, and in 1865 found myself in Montana, from which place I returned to San Francisco.

“One morning I found myself on board the ship Yenisei. How I came there I could not comprehend at first, but shortly realized that I’d been shanghaied.

“We were bound for China, but never reached our destination. The ship ran on a reef, and myself and four others were the only ones that escaped to the mainland after being in an open boat for nine days without food and water. After our rescue we tooted it through South Anam, and then on to Canton. We were then sent to Hong Kong, from which place I returned to San Francisco. I came to Oregon about 16 months ago, and have lived in and about The Dalles during the time.”

Well, all righty then.

“Such is the history of his life that Cook gives,” the Oregonian writer dryly concludes. But, he adds, “there was not one of those present who listened to the recital that believed it.”

And yet this mouthful of malarkey is all there is about James Cook’s past ... except for one thing: a newspaper report from the Oregon City Enterprise a little over a year before the killing: “James Cook, for trying to aid prisoners to make their escape from the penitentiary, goes back to that institution for a period of five years for his trouble, by order of Judge Boise.”

This may refer to a different man, also named James Cook. And it doesn’t explain how Cook got out of the penitentiary just a year or so into a five-year stretch. But, given the conditions in the state prison in the 1870s, it might explain his decision to avoid a prison sentence by escalating the charges to Murder One with a bit of revenge, and getting hanged instead.

On the morning of Feb. 7, 1879, James Cook went through the floor of the gallows with his lips still shut tight. He’d eaten a hearty breakfast that morning, visited briefly and unproductively with a Catholic priest, and declined to say anything further when invited by the sheriff to do so. Seventeen minutes later, he was dead.

We still have no idea even what his real name was.

(Sources: Goeres-Gardner, Diane. Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon 1851-1905. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2005; Pendleton East Oregonian, 14 Dec 1878 and 15 Feb 1879; Oregon City Enterprise, 25 Oct 1877)