Murdered man turned out to have been a stalker

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By Finn J.D. John
March 11, 2018

ON NOVEMBER 4, 1885, a 27-year-old man was strolling down an Albany street with a pretty 20-year-old brunette woman. He was wearing a disguise — fake mustache and sideburns, a heavy overcoat. He had introduced himself to the woman as “J. Blankhead.” And somehow, he expected her to be fooled by all this.

She was not. She’d recognized him immediately as her ex-fiancé, Charles Campbell. And she’d made arrangements for him to get a lively reception after walking her home.

The reception he got, however, was quite a bit livelier than either one of them had expected it to be. When they reached the front steps of her home, out of the shadows stepped her brother-in-law-to-be, a dark, sinister-looking war veteran named Capt. W. Wirt Saunders. Saunders had a Colt .45 revolver in his hand.

Whether Saunders and Campbell spoke or not is in dispute; the accounts differ. What is not in dispute is that the gun spoke — twice.

The woman, whose name was Mattie Allison, ran to find a doctor and soon found Dr. G.W. Maston.

“For God’s sake hurry up,” she sobbed. “I never thought it would come to this.”

Maston quickly recognized the case as hopeless. He made the wounded man as comfortable as possible and asked him what had happened.

“Mattie and I were coming up the street and Mattie was talking pretty loud,” he said. “Just then someone came up and shot me down like a dog without saying a word.”

He turned to Mattie. “For God’s sake,” he begged her, “forgive me before I die.”

“I don’t know,” she told him, “whether I can or not.”

THE KILLING GALVANIZED the town of Albany. It didn’t help that the town had a new startup newspaper, the Albany Bulletin, whose editor happened to be looking for a good hobby-horse. The other papers, the Albany State Rights Democrat and the Albany Herald Disseminator, covered the story fairly evenhandedly, at least at first; but the Bulletin went straight to the mattresses.

“A cold-blooded murder was perpetrated in this city a few months ago,” the editor wrote in March. “A young man was shot down without any warning, and leaning on his arm at the time was a woman named Mattie Allison. She put up the whole job, arranged the meeting, and after Charley was shot told people she was sorry she did not do it herself.”

District Attorney (and future Oregon governor) George Chamberlain drew up an indictment against both Allison and Saunders. Saunders, who didn’t deny the shooting, was promptly indicted on a charge of first-degree murder. But against Mattie Allison, the grand jury did not find enough evidence of her having “put up the whole job,” and declined to indict.

A wide-angle shot of the Marion County Courthouse as it appeared about 20 years after the trial of Mattie Allison was held in it. (Image: Postcard)

Chamberlain tried again. Again, the bill was declined. It looked like Mattie would go free. On his editorial page, the Bulletin’s editor howled like a blood-mad panther, calling the decisions “an attempt to whitewash the character of a woman whose hands are red with the blood of the innocent.” He even called (rhetorically, one assumes) for the arrest and prosecution of the editors of the competing newspapers, whose editorials he deemed insufficiently enthusiastic in asserting Allison’s guilt.

“They tore into Mattie Allison like a pit bull defending a butcher bone,” historian Diane Goeres-Gardner writes.

The result was that, when a new grand jury was impaneled later that year and Chamberlain tried for a third time to get charges to stick to her, they finally did.

By that time the waters in Albany had been so thoroughly poisoned by the Bulletin’s sustained campaign that the trial had to be moved to Salem. This meant that Chamberlain was off the hook for prosecuting the case ... a fact that, given the facts that came out at the trial, may have saved his political career.

got started in October 1886, just under a year after the killing. And the picture that emerged, as witness after witness took the stand, was at considerable odds with the one the Albany Bulletin had painted.

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The Linn County courthouse as it appeared about 20 years after Wirt Saunders’ first trial was held in it. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang, but the trial was overturned on appeal. By the time it was Mattie Allison's turn, the case had become too locally notorious, so the venue was changed to Salem. (Image: Postcard)

The newspaper reports of this trial were how most citizens of Albany learned just what it was that Charles Campbell had begged Mattie Allison to forgive him for, as he lay dying; and why she so coldly declined. He had been stalking her for three years, starting when she broke off their engagement, back when she was a girl of 17. Knowing her family had no male patriarch to stand up for her, as was then the custom in such matters, he had been very bold, and particularly cruel, in how he went about it.

Witness after witness recounted episodes when Campbell had been caught peering in the windows, the times he’d boasted that he was regularly sleeping with her, the times he got drunk and threatened to kill her. He’d pulled a gun on her at her mother’s hat shop; followed her to Eugene when she went to visit her aunt; pulled a pistol on her mother in a jealous rage when the elder Allison refused to support his suit for her daughter’s hand; and even once drunkenly tried to break into her home while they were inside.

Probably the most damning bit of evidence came from a friend who had spoken to Campbell the night he borrowed the overcoat and false mustache, who, according to the Morning Oregonian’s report, said Campbell “had often boasted that he had ‘slept with her’ and would ruin her that night if it cost him his neck.”

Saunders — who had, a month or two earlier, been convicted in an Albany courtroom and sentenced to hang — testified that she had approached him, her future brother-in-law, several weeks before, to ask if he would protect her from Campbell. She’d told him things were OK just then, but that she expected him to start more trouble soon, and she was afraid he would follow through on his threats to kill or rape her. Then a letter had arrived from “J. Blankhead,” a letter that appears to have been intended as a coyly worded proposition: “I am a stranger in your town and desire to see you and form your acquaintance. I wish you to do me a favor. It will be but a slight task for you to perform, and will afford me great pleasure.”

Mattie, not being in the business of doing “favors” for strangers, knew there was only one man who would send her a letter like that. So she’d sent for Saunders — who had promised he would have a little talk with Campbell and, if he would not agree to leave her alone, thrash him for her.

And that’s what Mattie Allison had expected him to do that night: give the would-be Lothario the beating of his life and tell him to stay away. But he’d brought his Colt with him, just in case ....

THE VERDICT WAS reached very quickly. After about 20 minutes, a “not guilty” verdict was announced, and the entire courtroom burst into applause and cheers.

The Salem Statesman lit into the Albany press with surprising savagery, accusing it of having essentially ginned up a lynch mob. Indeed, there had been an article in the Bulletin in particular that almost looked like an invitation to form one — an apparently made-up article about Mattie Allison begging the sheriff for protection from angry citizens who she was afraid might lynch her, and the sheriff telling her to get lost.

Of course, by the end of the trial the Albany residents who would have formed that hypothetical lynch mob knew the rest of the story, and chances are good that they didn’t appreciate the heavy spinning they’d been subjected to. Whether for that reason or some other, the Albany Bulletin did not last long after that; although the State Rights Democrat and Herald Disseminator are still around, having merged into today’s Democrat-Herald.

As for Saunders, his murder trial, which had been held in the poisoned atmosphere of the Linn County Courthouse in Albany, was overturned on appeal. Retried in Salem, he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Seven years later, Governor Sylvester Pennoyer commuted his sentence. He and Mattie’s sister Minnie, who had waited for him, married after his release and moved to Spokane.

(Sources: Goeres-Gardner, Diane L. Murder, Morality and Madness: Women Criminals in Early Oregon. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2009; Albany State Rights Democrat, 09 Jul 1886, 15 Oct 1886; Eugene City Guard, 14 Nov 1885)

TAGS: #Albany #LinnCounty #MattieAllison #CharlesCampbell #WirtSaunders #Shooting #YellowJournalism #LynchMob #NotGuilty #BadLove #Rape #WronglyAccused


Background photo of Crater Lake in wintertime as seen from the rim was made by WolfmanSF in 2012. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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