Heroes and rascals, shipwrecks and lost gold: Strange but true stories and secrets of Oregon's wild past | Offbeat Oregon History The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 While doing some cleaning-up around the Odd Fellows Hall in Scio, a local girl found a tiny coffin with this partial skeleton inside. Whose? We'll probably never know ... (Story No. 204, Oct. 14, 2012) The ever-elusive D.B. Cooper peeks into the page from behind his signature shades. The story of his skyjacking exploit starts with episode 237, from June 2, 2013. Meet Kitty Kat, the wealthiest feline in the state of Oregon and landlord to the City of Tangent. Kitty Kat, until he died at a ripe old age in 1995, owned City Hall. (Story No. 163, Jan. 8, 2012) This crazy-looking speedboat was the invention of Portland wizard Victor Strode. The city commissioned a harbor patrol boat based on his design, but it didn't work out. (Story No. 201, Sept. 23, 2012) The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho -- yes, THAT Osho) as he appeared when he lived in Wasco County with his followers. That's also him in the white Rolls-Royce surrounded by followers, in a scene from Rajneeshpuram. (Four-part story starts with Column No. 73, May 9, 2010 This is the roof of the Franz Bread Rest Hut at Pixieland, the Oregon Coast's ill-starred answer to Disneyland, which opened in 1969 and went out of biz in 1974. The Rest Hut consisted of a giant fiberglass loaf of bread sticking out of the top of this giant fiberglass hollow log, the whole thing towering over a log-flume roller coaster ride. It's probably the most campily awesome example of the proud display of crass commercialism that was Pixieland. (Column No. 52 - Dec. 6, 2009)
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Senator John H. Mitchell: Oregon's own real-life Snidely Whiplash

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Mysterious skeletons of Oregon: If these bones could talk ...

A long-dead dry-land homesteader ... a medical specimen in an Odd Fellows lodge ... what are their stories? We'll never know.

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Buck Rogers-style police boat didn't work out for city of Portland

A local inventor developed the "aerohydrocraft" design in the early 1930s. But when the city built one as an ambulance boat, it flopped.

The remains of the barque Peter Iredale as they appear today, jutting out of the beach sands on Clatsop Spit at Warrenton as they have since 1906. In 1960, the wreck nearly was lost to a man who claimed he owned it.

How the Oregon Coast almost lost the Peter Iredale to a scrap-metal shark

An Oregon City man claimed he'd inherited the rights from his father, and demanded to be allowed to cut it up and haul it away. He almost got away with this little swindle.

Commander Dave Scott salutes the U.S. flag, which has just been planted on the surface of the moon. A small piece of Oregon lava rock, carried to the moon by Scott's fellow astronaut Jim Irwin, lies within this photo, next to one of the many bootprints. (Image: NASA)

There's a piece of lava from central oregon in this photo, on the moon.

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Oregon’s first public execution still cloaked in dark mystery

Danford Balch got drunk and shotgunned his new son-in-law on the deck of the Stark Street Ferry. His diary and official records tell part of the story. But the real questions can only be guessed at — and some of the guesses are sinister indeed.

The Stark Street Ferry in the 1880s. The ferry on which the murder of
Mortimer Stump took place was a different boat; in fact, it was mule-
powered — a mule on a treadmill drove a paddlewheel, and the ferryman
urged it on by throwing rocks at it. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

On the afternoon of Nov. 8, 1858, 48-year-old Danford Balch was standing on the deck of the Stark Street Ferry, holding a double-barreled shotgun. Both barrels were still smoking. At his feet in a widening crimson puddle lay the body of his son-in-law, Mortimer Stump.

It was the crime that would lead, early the following year, to the first public execution in Portland’s history. And it happened so long ago — it’s so shrouded in the mists of time and of rough-and-ready frontier recordkeeping — that it’s hard to know exactly what happened, or why.

The lucky pioneer

Danford Balch had come to Oregon in 1847 on the Oregon Trail with his wife, a pretty young widow with two children, whom he’d married around 1842 when he was about 31 years old. They crossed the continent in the usual covered-wagon way with their several children — “hers and ours,” as it were. Upon arrival, they staked a claim that included most of what today is the Northwest Heights neighborhood and much of what’s now Forest Park — some of the most valuable real estate in the entire state.

A drawing of the first house to be built in Portland, a log cabin built at
what would soon become Front and Washington streets in 1844. Three
years later, Danford Balch arrived. (Image: Joseph Gaston)

At the time, it was pretty remote, and mostly thickly forested. But as a decade passed and Portland grew from a cluster of shacks into the preeminent city of the new territory, Balch found himself a pretty important fellow. And that may be at least part of the reason he reacted so poorly when the son of a less prominent neighbor asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The fatal proposal

The would-be bridegroom was a strapping lad named Mortimer, a son of the Stump family from the east side of the Willamette. Young Mortimer had been staying with the Balches as a hired hand, and during his time there he and the eldest of the nine Balch children, 15-year-old Anna, had fallen for each other. So Mortimer asked her father for his permission to marry her.

Old Man Balch, apparently deeply offended by the suggestion, rebuffed Mortimer forcefully, then fired him and ordered him off the property.

But a few days later, Anna stole away and met up with Mortimer, and together they secretively eloped across the Columbia River to Vancouver to marry. (Vancouver, in the Washington Territory, had less strict requirements for notification and waiting times for marriage, so it served eloping couples of frontier Oregon society rather the way Las Vegas does today.) Before her old man knew where she'd gone, Anna was a married woman.

Danford Balch as “Clifton Clowers”

A street scene in Portland in 1851, four years after Danford Balch came
and staked his claim in what’s now the Northwest Heights. (Image:
Oregon State University Archives)

Danford Balch did not take the news well.

“The night I came home and found the girl gone, it struck a pain to my heart, like a knife cutting me,” Balch later wrote. “I ate a little supper and went to bed, but did not sleep a wink all night. In the morning, at once after getting up, I started for town, and it seemed as if my stomach would burst from anxiety and grief, which were more than I can express.”

Keeping in mind that Balch had eight other children and a wife at home, the question of why Balch reacted in such an extreme way is the central mystery of his story. His vivid description of emotional desolation invites some really disturbing speculation about the Balch family. Historian Diane Goeres-Gardner comes right out and says what you are probably already thinking: “The description he gave of his emotional, physical and psychological state sounded more like a man describing the loss of a lover than a daughter,” she writes, in her book Necktie Parties.  

Downtown Portland in 1854, four years before the murder. This is the
era in which Portland became known for the whitewashed stumps that
dotted its streets. (Image: Oregon State University Archives)

Her observation takes on a particularly sinister tint in light of the fact that Anna was probably Danford’s stepdaughter — not related to him by blood. The dates are fuzzy, but remember, Mary Jane Balch had two children already when Danford married her in ’42. Was Anna one of those? It’s impossible to say for sure, but she was the oldest child in the Balch home in 1858 when all this happened.

Balch also, by all accounts (including his own), had started drinking heavily several years before this incident.

Belligerent, drunk and heavily armed

So on that fateful November day, Balch apparently was in Portland having a drink at a saloon when the newlyweds came to town to buy supplies so that they could set up housekeeping. A confrontation ensued in front of the store kept by Multnomah County Sheriff and former Portland mayor Addison Starr.

Here’s what Balch had to say about that encounter: “He (the elder Stump, Mortimer’s father) cursed a great deal and said I was making a great fuss about my child; that she was an ordinary little bitch, and (he) did not know what (unknown expletive) I wanted of her,” Balch wrote. “There was more said. I do not recollect saying another word.”

After this encounter, Balch apparently ran for home, poured himself another big drink, grabbed his double-barreled shotgun, and hustled back to town with it. He later claimed his plan was to use it to demand the return of his lost property — viz., Anna. Obviously, he was not thinking very clearly, and witnesses to the incident that followed confirm he was by then quite drunk.

The Stumps almost escaped from his clutches. They were on James Stephens’ mule-powered ferry, ready to take off across the river, when Balch ran up with his shotgun and dispensed the contents of both barrels directly into his new son-in-law’s face.

Arrested, jailed, tried, convicted, hanged

Balch was, of course, very roughly taken into custody on the spot by outraged fellow passengers, and lodged in the rickety rented building that the new city was using as a jail. He escaped and was on the lam for a while, hiding out in the woodsy part of his land, but a few months later was recaptured by city marshal James Lappeus.

At his trial, to his evident astonishment, Balch was convicted and sentenced to hang. Several people testified at his trial that they’d heard him threaten to kill Mortimer Stump; apparently he was in the habit of going to Portland saloons, drinking to the point of blackouts and then making belligerent verbal threats that he didn’t remember the next day. His confession, written just before his hanging when it wouldn’t do him any good at all to lie, is full of bewilderment at all the Portland residents who testified at his trial to deadly drunken pledges he didn’t remember making.

Balch was hanged on Oct. 18, 1859, ten months to the day after his crime. As a side note, there were rumors — fairly credible ones — that Marshal Lappeus had offered to let him escape from the city jail for a $1,000 bribe, which the widow had been unable to raise; these rumors haunted Lappeus for the rest of his law-enforcement career.

At the hanging, Portlanders were shocked to see a dry-eyed Anna Balch Stump there with her in-laws. They were there to watch Danford die. And they did.

The reporter from the Portland Oregonian was aghast. “The idea of a daughter, by her own volition, attending the execution of a father upon a gallows, is a disgrace to the intelligence of the age, and to every principle of filial affection manifested or exhibited by every species of the brute creation, in the sea or upon the earth,” he wrote in the following week’s paper. “This fact is of a character that we cannot pass unnoticed, and must meet with the surprise, reprobation and detestation of the whole community.”

This surely seemed like a reasonable inference. But then, maybe the Oregonian reporter just didn’t know the whole story. And that’s probably all that should be said about that.

(Sources: Kenck-Crispin, Doug & al. “The Hanging of Danford Balch,” Kick Ass Oregon History (podcast), vol. 1 No. 4; Goeres Gardner, Diane. Necktie parties: Legal executions in Oregon. Caldwell: Caxton, 2005; “Execution of Balch,” Portland Weekly Oregonian, 22 Oct 1859)

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