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PINE VALLEY, UNION AND BAKER COUNTY; 1890s:

Neighbors’ gunfight left three dead, one hanged

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By Finn J.D. John
November 19, 2017

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 (it's part of Baker County today). 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, or at least he hadn't yet as far as anyone knew — 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 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 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. They may have had personal reasons to reach the conclusions they did — like I said, it's all still in dispute.

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 from one of the two 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.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: In "reader view" some phone browsers truncate the story here, algorithmically "assuming" that the second column is advertising. (Most browsers do not recognize this page as mobile-device-friendly; it is designed to be browsed on any device without reflowing, by taking advantage of the "double-tap-to-zoom" function.) If the story ends here on your device, you may have to exit "reader view" (sometimes labeled "Make This Page Mobile Friendly Mode") to continue reading. We apologize for the inconvenience.]

(Jump to top of next column)

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

 

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 decided there was something fishy about it. Dr. Lang figured out that Ben Sr. had actually been killed not by gunfire, but by being clobbered with something — a rifle butt, most likely, he thought. 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 apparently convinced the deputy that this was the real story: Cold-blooded, long-distance assassination.

And maybe it was; but the evidence still seems very circumstantial, and not all of it quite adds up. Given that his life had been threatened, Porter could have been expected to be watching for the Mache clan's comings and goings, and the roof would have been the best place to do it; it does seem a bit of a leap from “watching for the Maches” to “watching for the Maches in order to murder them.” Also, it's pretty hard to pull off a long-distance assassination by clubbing someone with a rifle butt. And how exactly was the doctor able to tell Mache had been clobbered, rather than having hit his head in the crash?

In the end, the jury in distant Union City bought the “assassination” story, and sentenced Kelsay Porter to hang for murdering the family. But many of the neighbors in Pine Valley were unconvinced, and outraged. Local historian Carmelita Holland remembers speaking with many people who were alive during the trial, and all of them characterized it as a railroad job. And maybe it was — it was certainly unusual, in 1890s Eastern Oregon, for a landowner defending his property from armed intruders to be even prosecuted for murder afterward, let alone convicted.

 

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.”

(Sources: Correspondence from Carmelita Holland; Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon, 1851-1905, a book by Diane Goeres-Gardner published in 2006 by Caxton Press; archives of Portland Morning Oregonian, Athena Press, The Dalles Times-Mountaineer and Eugene City Guard, January 1896; An Illustrated History of Union and Wallowa Counties, a book published without a named author in 1902 by Western Historical Publishing Co.)

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

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