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)
menu bar 2012 articles 2012 articles About Offbeat Oregon 2012 articles 2011 articles 2010 articles 2008-2009 articles About me Store (the Finn J.D. John Centre for Crass Commercialism and Filthy Lucre)

you just might ALSO
enjoy ...

This is the type of bottle in which denatured alcohol was sold out of drugstores during Prohibition. The large, scary labels notwithstanding, the vast majority of denatured alcohol sold in bottles of this size was used for drinking, despite its terrible flavor and toxic additives.

A bad batch of 'Dehorn' alcohol killed 28 hobos

Skid Road alcoholics knew denatured alcohol might make you sick, but it wouldn't kill you. Until one day, it did.

A vintage movie poster for Buster Keaton’s “The General,” a 1926  silent movie shot, in part, near Cottage Grove. (Image: United Artists)

Iconic movies shot in Oregon

A three-part series covering 16 of the most influential Oregon films, from 1908 to 1989.

An illustration of a group of smugglers bringing opium and illegal Chinese immigrants into Oregon, from a 1889 issue of Portland-based magazine The West Shore. (Image: UO Libraries)

The forgotten world of urban opium dens

A century ago, the drug's mysterious, smoky allure held society spellbound. And Portland was the West Coast's main supply point.

The fully restored PT-658 as seen from the sidewalk on the Hawthorne Bridge during the 2011 Rose Festival. On this occasion, the PT-658 inadvertently intruded into the dragonboat races, which were then in progress, and quickly retreated back downriver – but not before giving the dragonboat-racing spectators on the bridge a spectacular view of its deck armaments. (Image: F.J.D. John)

The world's only working PT boat is docked in Portland

The PT-658 is among the last of its kind, and it's the only one that still goes out on the water.

The second pressing of The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" record, on the Wand label. This bodgey, lo-fi monophonic recording, with its inscrutable lyrics and driving yet languid style, got thousands of parents worried about possible obscene lyrics, and was even banned in Illinois.

Bad recording job led to an F.B.I. investigation for Portland band

No one could understand the lyrics in The Kingsmen's recording of 'Louie Louie," but many tried ... and some of them had rather dirty minds.

Actor Justus Barnes takes a shot straight into the camera at the end of a 10-minute silent Edison Films production called 'The Great Train Robbery,' the filming of which started in November 1903 – two months after Bill Miner’s gang tried to rob the train just outside Portland. It’s hard to miss the similarity between Barnes’ character and Bill Miner.

How Bill Miner learned to rob trains ... he learned the hard way.

But his botched Portland job appears to have inspired an iconic 1903 movie called 'The Great Train Robbery' a month or two later. Maybe he even watched it later ... in prison.

A scene from the Disney movie "Saludos Amigos" (1943), a sort of cartoon-character tour of South America. This scene is from the Argentina part, with Goofy dressed as a gaucho. In this cartoon and most others, Goofy was voiced by Pinto Colvig.

Goofy was from Oregon. Also Bluto, Grumpy, Sleepy, Bozo, dozens more.

Vance "Pinto" Colvig, from Jacksonville, was a pioneer in animated cartoons and a gifted show-biz man.

Earle Leonard Nelson, a.k.a. The Dark Strangler, as he looked a week or two before his execution in Canada. Nelson's hanging ended a cross-country and international murdering spree in which he murdered dozens of women.

When the 'Dark Strangler' preyed on Portland landladies

His M.O. was simple: While a woman was showing him a room or house for rent, he'd strangle her, take her jewelry and flee.

A breathless headline that appeared in the Portland Morning Oregonian after Lulu Reynolds revealed her clandestine lover's guilt in a particularly dramatic and creepy way.

The tawdriest love triangle in the history of the universe.

Lulu Reynolds was having a torrid affair with her music teacher. Her husband carried a .38 in his jacket pocket. It wasn't the kind of thing that ends well. It didn't.

A screen capture from an episode of ABC's legendary 1970s show "Happy Days." Because the show is set in 1950s Milwaukee, Wisc., "The Fonz" is actually breaking the law in this scene; pinball was outlawed in Milwaukee at the time.

Graft, corruption, racketeering, and ... uh, pinball?

Until just a few dozen years ago, pinball was illegal, and the mobbed-up characters who supplied the games played for keeps.

The front cover of the May 1946 issue of 44 Western Magazine shows a scene vaguely reminiscent of the downtown gunfight between feuding newspaper editors in 1871 Roseburg.

The Roseburg "newspaper war" that was settled with a gunfight

The owners of rival papers escalated their war of words when they went for pistols on a downtown street one morning in 1871.

An artist's sketch of what D.B. Cooper may have looked like, from an FBI bulletin sent out shortly after the skyjacking.

The legend of cool-cat skyjacker
D.B. Cooper:
What happened?

The man calling himself Dan Cooper parachuted into legend, and 40 years later the case remains unsolved ... but there are plenty of theories.

The front cover art of "For Men Only" Magazine showed a scene that bore some resemblance to the scene on the day Dave Tucker robbed the bank of which  he would, 32 years later, be named Vice-President.

The bank robber who became vice-president of the bank he robbed

After he got out of prison, Dave Tucker spent 30 years rebuilding his reputation in his hometown of Joseph, and it seems he succeeded.

A detail from the movie poster for the 1915 racist move 'Birth of a Nation,' which inspired and propelled the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the years just after the Great War.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Klux in Oregon

A slick marketing campaign and a taste for political power marked the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which spread through Oregon like a racist virus — and then collapsed.

This cover illustration from "Masked Rider Western," published in 1950, bears an uncanny resemblance to the events that kicked off Vigilante rule in Crook County.

When prineville was ruled by masked vigilante riders

In Crook County, the early 1880s were like a Louis L'Amour novel. And it all started with the lynching of an innocent man.

The classic melodrama villain, with sleek silk hat and waxed handlebar mustache, in the act of evicting the poor widow and children from their freshly foreclosed family homestead. Except for the mustache, Oregon's longest-serving 19th-century senator fit the trope with remarkable precision.

Senator John H. Mitchell: Oregon's own real-life Snidely Whiplash

He abandoned his family, changed his name, moved to Oregon, bilked widows and orphans in two big real-estate swindles ... and was promptly elected to Congress.

The skull of the skeleton found in the Odd Fellows hall in Scio, which is now at Oregon State University. The skeleton was that of a hard-working man who died sometime between 1860 and 1890.

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.

Oregon inventor Victor Strode’s revolutionary boat, the 'aerohydrocraft,' made the front cover of the March 1931 issue of Popular Science. The design didn't prove a useful one for the City of Portland, though, and the larger model the city commissioned to function as a harbor police boat didn't work out.

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.

It was left there by astronaut Jim Irwin at the request of a friend from Bend — who gave him a sliver of Oregon lava to leave on the moon's surface. And so he did.

The Motel 6 on Mission Street in Salem as it appeared in the mid-1970s, when Carl Cletus Bowles made his run from its back door. Don't laugh, at least not too loudly ... two innocent people would die before Bowles was back in prison.

During a conjugal visit at a cheap motel, the prisoner escaped

It had to be the most awkward prison-break scenario in the history of the universe. But it really did happen. Here's the story.

James Lappeus, former Portland Chief of Police. He eventually was fired over allegations that he'd offered to 'accidentally' leave the jailhouse door open for a convicted murderer if his wife paid a $1,000 bribe.

gambler, swindler, gunfighter, liquor man ... oh, and also police chief.

James Lappeus came to Portland to open a saloon and "theater." Despite his checkered past — or maybe because of it — he was named city marshal and, later, Chief of Police. Here's the story.

This postcard picture of Cannon Beach was created in 1966, which means just off to the left of the frame is a beach with a fence around it and "no trespassing" signs.


A Portland real-estate guy found a loophole in the law and claimed a patch of beach for his own, and his friends in the state Legislature tried to keep it that way. Here's the story.

A color lithograph of George and Kate Ann Williams’s Victorian  mansion, located at 18th and Couch streets downtown.

This spooky-looking Portland mansion was home of a 'starvation cult'

A prominent Portland socialite led a sect called "Truth," with the motto "Pray and Be Cured," that required 40-day fasts. It vanished after its leader starved herself to death during a 110-day fast. Here's the story.

The archway monument leading up to the Wallowa County Courthouse,  built in 1936. The bronze plaque on the inside left of the arch includes  the name of murderer and horse thief Bruce “Blue” Evans.

A monument in honor of a horse thief and mass murderer?

Bruce "Blue" Evans led the gang that slaughtered over 30 innocent Chinese miners in 1887. So why is his name celebrated on a monument to Wallowa County Pioneers? . Here's the story.

Title screen from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Mel Blanc, the legendary Looney Toons voice man, grew up in Portland.

The voice of Bugs Bunny went to high school in Portland

Legendary Hollywood voice man Mel Blanc's teachers weren't too impressed with his voice talents, but Oregon radio listeners and cartoon fans sure were. Here's the story.

Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Oregon’s most notorious shanghai artist: “Bunco” Kelley

He was Portland's most notorious bad guy, with his fingers in everything from shanghaiing sailors to smuggling opium. But ironically, when he was finally sent to prison, it was for a murder he clearly didn't commit.

Notorious shanghai artistJoseph "Bunco" Kelly, as drawn by the
Portland Evening Telegram's staff artist during his trial for murder
in 1894. (Image: Portland Evening Telegram)

In the shadowy world of late-1800s Portland waterfront folklore, there’s nobody who quite cuts the figure of a man named Joseph Kelley — better known by the nickname he carefully cultivated: Bunco Kelley.

Kelley was a crimp — that is, one of those tough waterfront characters involved in the trade of furnishing sailors, willing or not, to ship captains in need of a crew.

And he was also an easy liar with a real flair for a dramatic story — which means it’s often difficult to tell his fact from fiction.

In today’s article, we’ll explore the facts of Bunco Kelley’s life as best we are able to know them. Next week, we’ll turn to the spectacular legends that grew up around this unusually colorful bad guy.

Bunco comes to Portland

Kelley came to Portland on a sailing ship, from somewhere back east — either Liverpool or Dublin or somewhere in Connecticut, depending on whom you asked — with his brother, William. Almost immediately, he went into the sailors’ boardinghouse business.

Sailors’ boardinghouses were dingy, unsanitary hovels kept close to the waterfront, in which sailors, visiting loggers and vagrants were invited to stay on “credit.” Typically, a man would run up a bill for room and board that he couldn’t pay off, and he’d be more or less forced to discharge the debt by signing onto a sailing ship, whose captain would pay his lodging bill as an advance against his meager future earnings.

To be successful in the boardinghouse business required a few key elements, chief among which was a pair of hard fists; there was a reason all boardinghouse owners were prizefighters or legendary brawlers. Rarely did a sailor go to sea voluntarily.

A sailors' boardinghouse operator (known to his friends as a "boarding master" and to his enemies as a "crimp") also needed to have a very high degree of what you might call moral flexibility. After all, the business was basically a human trafficking operation based on swindling people into indentured servitude — a whisper away from outright slave trading.

That Kelley met both these requirements isn’t in any doubt at all, as a number of appearances in the cops-and-courts listings of the Morning Oregonian during that time will readily show.

Kelley kept a boardinghouse for a while, but seemed to prefer the life of a freelance underworld entrepreneur, chasing after anything that smelled like easy money.

Kelley the shanghaier

Through the late 1880s and early 1890s, he developed a reputation as a boarding master of last resort. When the usual boardinghouses were empty, you came in desperation to Kelley, who would go out and find somebody to fill out your crew — often by finding, befriending and shanghaiing some luckless hobo.

This appears to be how he came by his name; in 1887, the skipper of the British barque Jupiter wrote a letter to the Oregonian complaining that the seaman he hired through Kelley’s good offices (probably delivered to him unconscious and wrapped in a tarp, although he does not specify) was “a perfect cripple by rheumatism,” and referring to Kelley as “Bunco Kelley.” The name stuck — with, it seems, considerable encouragement from Kelley himself.

As the late 1880s ripened into the early 1890s, the Portland crimping scene came increasingly under the control of a remarkably well-connected, socially polished prizefighter named Larry Sullivan (here's a link to the Offbeat Oregon story on him). Sullivan and Kelley worked together for years, with Kelley representing Sullivan’s boardinghouse as a “runner” (going out to ships and talking the incoming sailors into staying at Larry’s place).

Losing friends in high places

But at some point in the early 1890s, Sullivan discovered that he could make serious money by selling the services of every sailor in port at election time as a “repeater,” or serial voter. Keeping that illegal money train chugging along meant keeping Portland’s ruling Republican elite happy with his services, something it was getting hard to do with the flashy, notorious, proudly Democratic Kelley on his payroll.

And Kelley really became a liability in 1893, when the doors were blown off the Blum-Dunbar opium smuggling gang, an industrial-scale operation that for a time supplied most of the opium to the West Coast with the help of Portland chief customs official James Lotan — who happened also to be the head of the Oregon Republican Party. (Here's a link to the Offbeat Oregon story on the gang.)

In the trial that held Portland spellbound throughout December of 1893, Lotan found himself facing serious federal corruption charges, and the whistleblower accusing him, Nat Blum, was one of Kelley’s cronies. To make matters worse, Kelley, called to the stand as a witness for the prosecution, testified that he was “in partnership” with Sullivan.

Lotan’s party friends saved him from prosecution. But Kelley’s involvement had probably cost Sullivan a great deal of money, and the two of them were bitter enemies after that.

Kelley goes to prison

The end of Kelley’s career as a Portland underworld figure came in 1894, when Kelley was accused of having murdered an old man named George Sayres — a generally well-liked former saloonkeeper. Significantly, his co-defendant was Bob Garthorn, who had been one of the other key lieutenants in the Blum-Dunbar opium gang. The prosecution alleged that the two of them had been involved with Sayres in a scheme to swindle some Chinese people by selling them a large shipment of fake opium. Things had gone sideways, and Kelley had tried to solve the problem by shanghaiing Sayres; the attempt was bungled, and Sayres ended up dead — that was the prosecution’s story.

Kelley maintained to the last that it was a frame-up engineered by Sullivan, and that he had nothing to do with the killing — and there are compelling reasons to believe him. Sayres’ body, when fished from the river, was still carrying his gold watch and some jewelry; neither Kelley nor Garthorn was the type to let that sort of loot get just thrown into the river. Also, the suggestion that an experienced shanghaier like Kelley would be unable to handle kidnapping a 73-year-old man is highly dubious. And it also seems unlikely that a pair of longtime opium pushers like Kelley and Garthorn would burn their bridges in Chinatown by selling fake dope, even if they’d had the skills and resources to make the little cans that opium came packaged in and to label them with the proper Chinese characters.

But, innocent or no, the verdict was guilty, and after that Kelley was shipped off to the state penitentiary in Salem.

Portland's most notorious bad guy

This moment was the apex of Kelley’s notoriety. Crowds thronged at railroad stations, hoping for a glimpse of Portland’s most notorious bad guy.

Kelley spent 13 miserable years in the joint before being pardoned by the governor in response to a petition signed by some of the same people who’d sought to put him away years before.

He promptly set out to capitalize on his reputation with a book tour. Unfortunately, in the intervening 13 years, so much water had rolled under the bridge that few people remembered him, and he soon found himself crawling back into the underworld — this time in San Francisco. Historian Barney Blalock found a reference to him in coverage of a 1908 trial of a San Francisco gangster for whom he was apparently working. What became of him after that, I have not been able to learn.

And that, in broad strokes, is the life of Joseph “Bunco” Kelley, the most notorious shanghai artist of 1890s Portland. You will immediately notice that there’s not much to this biographical sketch that would justify such notoriety, other than his wonderful nickname. That justification would come from less historically rigorous sources — from the tall tales, myths and stories of the old Portland waterfront, cleaned up and augmented and carefully spun by one of the most skilled storytellers who ever hung his black deerskin gloves and snappy Fedora in the Beaver State: Stewart Holbrook.

We’ll explore these myths and legends in next week’s article.

(Sources: Blalock, Barney. Portland’s Lost Waterfront. Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2012; Portland Morning Oregonian, Oct. 1894-Jan. 1895; Portland Evening Telegram, December 1893)

TAGS: #PEOPLE: #schemers #rascals #conArtists #hookers #largerThanLife #charismatic #promoters :: #CRIMES: #shanghaiing #corruption #swindling :: # #cultureClash #irony #famous #fail #political :: LOC: #pdx