Forty-day debauch made Oregon legislature nationally notorious
The six-week-long drunken party was thrown by the notoriously rascally Jonathan Bourne Jr. to keep the state Legislature from convening, so it couldn't elect John H. Mitchell to the U.S. Senate. It worked — well, sort of.
Jonathan Bourne as a young man. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)
By Finn J.D. John — January 29, 2012
The 1896 election had been good to Portland businessman and politician Jonathan Bourne Jr. He had gotten himself elected to a seat in the Oregon House, with a good chance to become speaker.
Of course, there had been some — ahem — irregularities. But then, of course there had. This was Oregon, after all.
Bourne was in his early 30s, outgoing and well liked, with cocky eyes and a moustache that had to be seen to be believed. His father owned Bourne Mills, a clothing manufacturer in New Bedford, Mass., and also a small fleet of whaling ships. Young Jonathan had dropped out of Harvard and gone to sea on one of those ships, and ended up shipwrecked off China. It was on his way home from Hong Kong, in 1885, that he discovered Portland.
Something about the town’s wide-open character appealed to young Jonathan. According to a letter from fellow legislator Abraham Lafferty, upon arriving he arranged to tour the town by hiring a cab and driving around town “accompanied by the leading lady of a traveling show, and with an ice bucket filled with champagne bottles sitting in front of them in the cab.”
As you can imagine, Bourne soon had a motley collection of good friends and kindred spirits along the town’s shady waterfront — especially its notorious “North End” north of Stark Street, where by popular consensus all the hard-core vice operators were supposed to stay, tucked out of the sight of more respectable Portlanders. Sailors’ boardinghouse operator and shanghai artist Larry Sullivan was probably the best known of the bunch; the owners of numerous seedy waterfront saloons and whorehouses and opium dens made up the others. Together, these shady entrepreneurs and entrepreneuses catered to the lowest caste of people in Portland — sailors and hobos, along with itinerant loggers and lumbermen.
Stuffing the ballot boxes
Clever lad that he was, Bourne quickly figured out that those desperate wastrels, scorned by many as the dregs of society, were the source of tremendous political power. In the election of ’96, Bourne tapped that power to the fullest.
John H. Mitchell in 1898, two years after Bourne’s machinations had
successfully ousted him from his seat in the U.S. Senate. (Photo:
Oregon Historical Society)
Hundreds and hundreds of sailors, just-passing-through loggers, hookers and saloon bums were eager to earn the price of a drink or six by casting ballot after ballot for Bourne and his friends — a plan that propelled Bourne to power in the House of Representatives accompanied by enough friendly faces to make it pretty likely he’d be named speaker.
Ensuring the re-election of his pick for U.S. Senate, John Mitchell, was quite a bit more expensive, but just as easy; in those days, the state legislature picked the state’s senators, so all he had to do was secure written pledges of support for Mitchell from a majority of legislators and pay for those pledges with fat campaign contributions underwritten (to the tune of $225,000) by the Southern Pacific Railroad. Easily done, and quickly too.
All in all, it had been a big success. But shortly after the election in November, Bourne learned something was about to happen that would utterly ruin it for him.
Soon after the election, he started hearing rumors that U.S. Senator John Mitchell planned to abandon his support for the silver standard for U.S. currency, and switch his allegiance to gold.
Double-crossing on a bribe
Sen. John Mitchell as he looked when, as a young railroad
attorney, he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, in the 1870s.
(Image: Joseph Gaston)
Why, you may ask, would Bourne care about something like that? Well, Bourne was the owner of several silver mines in Eastern Oregon and Idaho. He was passionately committed to the silver standard because, well, it was great for the silver business. Hearing that Senator Mitchell was about to switch allegiance and throw his lot in with the “gold crowd” was a shocker. The next time Bourne saw Mitchell, he asked him straight out, and Mitchell reluctantly admitted it.
It was a serious double-cross, and both men knew it. But elder-statesman Mitchell must have been a bit taken aback by the youthful Bourne’s reaction:
“I looked him straight in the face and I said, ‘You are not going to be elected by this legislative body that meets next January,’” Bourne recalled, according to former governor Walter Pierce’s account.
“The Senator replied, ‘Jonathan, you can’t [stop me],’” Bourne recalled. “’ You took the pledges from the men who were candidates when you gave them the money for their expenses for the campaign, and you took those pledges to the Southern Pacific Railroad which put up the $225,000 that you distributed among candidates for the legislature. Those pledges have been signed. They are locked up in the Southern Pacific Railroad safe. … You can’t help it. I will be elected.’”
Bourne’s scheme: The “Hold-Up Session”
Bourne knew Mitchell was right about one thing: There was nothing he would be able to do to change the way the vote would go when the subject of Mitchell’s re-election came up. Odd though it sounds to the modern ear, the politicos who signed those pledges at Bourne’s urging considered that to be their word of honor as gentlemen, even though in signing them they had been violating several federal laws and essentially swindling their constituents. Regardless of Mitchell’s changed plans, they would vote for him.
However, if the Legislature failed to elect anyone in time for inauguration day, the governor was supposed to appoint somebody. And the governor at that time — Republican William P. Lord — was a friend of Bourne’s. All Bourne had to do was figure out how to prevent the Legislature from voting until inauguration day. How might he do that?
He did it with classic Bourne flair. First, he collected together about $80,000 — including $10,000 skimmed from the operations of his North End friends’ waterfront gambling joints, opium dens, brothels and shanghai boardinghouses — and used it to throw a massive, six-week-long drunken party for his fellow legislators in the state House of Representatives.
Forty days of “Bourne’s Harem”
The party would rage for forty days and forty nights, in an unholy if unconscious parody of the Biblical account of Jesus’ time of temptation in the wilderness.
“I … hired the best chef in the state of Oregon; sent him to Salem to fix up apartments in the Eldridge Block; things to eat and drink and entertainment,” Bourne later recalled. “I said to the chef, ‘I pay all expenses. I want to take care of all my friends in the lower House who signed pledges with me, the friends of silver.’”
The chef probably didn’t come from the North End, but some of the “entertainment” clearly did. The Eldridge Block quickly developed some colorful new nicknames: “Bourne’s Harem” was one; “the Den of Prostitution and Evil” was another. State Senator George C. Brownell of Oregon City wrote disapprovingly that legislators at Bourne’s party “were kept drunk and intoxicated for days.”
This was the 40-day debauch that went down in song and legend as “the hold-up session.”
Success! Well, sort of
By Inauguration Day, nothing had come out of the state House at all — on Mitchell’s re-election or any other topic. So, as Bourne had planned, Governor Lord announced the appointment of one of Bourne’s closest political allies, Henry Corbett, to Mitchell’s Senate seat.
Corbett was delighted, of course. He had long cherished hopes of being elected to the Senate again (he'd been one of Oregon's Senators many years earlier, until Mitchell — with the backing of railroad tycoon Ben Holladay — defeated him in 1873). Alas, when he arrived in Washington he met a chilly reception. Stories of the hold-up session had preceded him and Capitol Hill was a-twitter with them. The U.S. Senate refused to seat him.
A crestfallen Corbett had to return to Portland, and Oregon’s second Senate seat remained vacant for two full years. Finally, in late 1898, a special session of the Legislature elected Joseph Simon — another close associate of Bourne’s — to Mitchell’s seat.
Mitchell was done for. Bourne had won — and had earned for Oregon a reputation for political corruption that wouldn’t fade for decades.
Editor's Note: This article was rewritten and expanded into one of the chapters of Wicked Portland. For more details on Bourne's gambit, and on his adventures as an Oregon politician — particularly on his abrupt transformation from corrupt politician to earnest reformer — please see chapters 2 and 9 of Wicked Portland.
(Sources: MacColl, E. Kimbark. Merchants, Money and Power: The Portland Establishment, 1843-1913. Portland: Georgian Press, 1988; Pierce, Walter M. Memoirs of Walter M. Pierce. Portland: OHS Press, 1981)
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