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Vigilante’s gunfight left three neighbors dead, led to gallows

Although everyone agreed the Mache family had had it coming, evidence at the scene convinced the sheriff that Kelsay Porter had ambushed them in cold blood, and the jury sentenced him to swing for it.

The Portland Morning Oregonian’s staff artist published this sketch of convicted murderer Kelsay Porter shortly before his execution. (Image: Oregonian)

In the 1890s, 47-year-old Kelsay Porter lived alone on a remote farm in the foothills of the Wallowas, in a tiny Union County community called Pine Valley. He was a shy, timid bachelor who had moved to this remote place for privacy, sometime in the 1880s. And for many years, he got his privacy, and lived harmoniously with the few neighbors.

But then the Mache family moved in next door.

Ben and Mary Mache, with their 17-year-old son Ben Jr., had blown into Pine Valley a few months before, and already they had a reputation in the community as “hard characters.” This was especially the case with the younger Ben, who carried a six-shooter and used it far more than was considered appropriate. He didn’t use it to shoot to kill — but he’d been known to send bullets zipping past people’s ears to make his point. At Christmastime in 1895 he had just been released from the state prison, where he’d served a short stretch for rustling cattle.

For Porter the problem was, the most convenient road to the Mache farm was a shortcut across Porter’s land, which came within just a few feet of his barn.

Porter’s initial request that the Maches use a different route was ignored. So he built a fence across it. The Maches tore the fence down. Porter went to the justice of the peace to complain; the justice told him to just ignore them, because there was nothing the law could do about it.

But word of Porter’s complaint reached the Maches, and infuriated them. The elder Ben Mache threatened to kill Porter. Porter responded by having a judge put him in bond.

Young Ben Jr. was not under bond, though, and therefore could do as he wished without worrying about losing his money. So he decided to get even, and he and a friend rode out to Porter’s farm with their six-shooters drawn. They found Porter working in his field, and opened fire — sending bullets zipping by his ears and into the ground near his feet. Terrified, Porter ran and hid in his house; thereupon, Ben and his friend leisurely stole some horse tack from his barn and went on their way.

It was after this incident that Kelsay Porter borrowed a Winchester rifle. He figured if the law wouldn’t do anything, he’d better be ready to do something himself.

Then came New Year’s Day in 1896.

 

The events of that day are still in some dispute. There are two versions: the one Kelsay Porter gave when he turned himself in later that day; and the one the Union County coroner and sheriff developed after looking over the scene.

Here’s Porter’s version of the story:

On that day, the elder Maches were driving a sleigh pulled by two horses, returning home to their farm; Ben Jr. rode behind them on horseback. Porter was on the roof of his house, clearing off snow. As the sleigh passed his barn, Porter shouted at the Maches to stay off his land.

“You lie!” retorted the elder Mache. “This is a public highway. If you fence it up again, we’ll kill you!”

Ben Jr. apparently thought this was his cue to go into action, and he once again filled the air around Porter’s ears with buzzing lead. Porter jumped from the roof and again ran into his house — but this time, he didn’t stay in it. He came out with the Winchester ready to go, and he appears to have gone clear berserk.

Ben Jr., sitting high on his horse, was the first to go down under a hail of Winchester lead, but Porter didn’t stop there. The team bolted with the sleigh; Porter followed after, still firing. A stray bullet killed Mary Mache. Another hit one of the horses and it fell dead, pitching Ben Sr.’s body over into the creek.

Porter continued shooting into the now-dead bodies of his neighbors until all of his bullets were gone — there were 18 bullet wounds found in the Maches, plus the one that hit the horse.

So, that was Kelsay Porter’s story. But after traveling out to the farm from Union City, coroner E.R. Lang and sheriff’s deputy J.H. McLachlin started to suspect something fishy about it. Dr. Lang figured out that Ben Sr. had actually been killed not by gunfire, but by being clobbered with something — probably the rifle butt. So Porter had chased Ben Sr. down, and beat him to death? And then stood over his obviously dead victims thumbing cartridges into the side of the Winchester for a good 45 seconds, then squared off and blasted away some more. Why? Because he was still blind with battle fury? Or to stage the scene so it looked more like a gunfight?

Also, the deputy found, looking on that roof, that much of the snow on it was packed down, and it looked an awful lot like someone had been lurking there waiting for the sleigh to come along. From up on that roof, Porter would have been able to see, and shoot, a good long distance.

Had Porter actually waited there, shot the boy from ambush before he could reach pistol range, then chased after the parents as they tried to race away on the sleigh, picking Mary off and then shooting a horse to stop their flight? Had he then run up to the wreckage, clubbed Ben Sr. to death with his empty rifle, reloaded, and pumped eight more rounds into the dead body so that it would look like a fair fight?

What he saw at the scene convinced the deputy that this was the real story. The real turning point was the finding of how Ben Sr. had died. Had “Old Man Mache” been killed in an exchange of bullets, with his notoriously trigger-happy son involved, no one would have made much of a fuss — not in eastern Oregon in 1896. And they probably would have viewed the shooting of Mary Mache as a tragic accident. But chasing a man down and bashing his head in with a rifle butt was not the sort of thing a fellow can claim was done in self-defense.

In the end the jury agreed, and sentenced Kelsay Porter to hang for murdering the family.

 

As the day of the execution drew near, Porter remained true to his shy, quiet nature. He gave no interviews and declined to say anything to the crowd of gawkers that stared up at him as he stood on the gallows on Friday, Nov. 9, 1897; he went to his death silent as a sphinx. But he wrote a short letter, just before his execution, and handed it to a Presbyterian minister to be released after his death.

“This is my last request on Earth,” he wrote. “The real cause of my trouble is the way children are raised to live too easy, regardless of the law of justice and right. Parents, please raise your children with a principle that will defend their character.”

In other words, he was blaming everything on Ben and Mary Mache’s parenting style.

(Sources: Goeres-Gardener, Diane L. Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2006; archives of Portland Morning Oregonian, Athena Press, The Dalles Times-Mountaineer and Eugene City Guard, January 1896; Anonymous, An Illustrated History of Union and Wallowa Counties. Spokane, Wash.: Western Historical Publishing Co., 1902)

Tags: #CRIME: #murder #vigilante #gunfight #UNION