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“Unwritten Law” didn’t cover murder of in-laws

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By Finn J.D. John
April 29, 2018

ALFRED LESTER BELDING may have intended to try to claim the protection of the “Unwritten Law” when he made his plans for revenge. But, reviewing the historical record, it seems more likely he didn’t give a single thought to anything beyond the four murders he had planned.

It would have been a long shot anyway. The “Unwritten Law” was a social convention that “allowed” a man to murder another man if he sincerely believed the victim had been intimate with his wife, or had adulterously “ruined” a close female relative. It didn’t have much to say about murdering mothers-in-law, fathers-in-law, and/or the wife herself.

BELDING AND HIS wife, Sylvia Maude, had been married for seven years — long enough to produce one son, Eddie, now 6. Their marriage had been, to use a euphemism of the day, a stormy one, and by July 11, 1902, everyone knew it was over. Sylvia, after at least five years of everyone in her family urging her to do so, was finally suing him for divorce; moreover, she had been seen with another man, George “Gyp” Woodward. Belding was convinced that they were having an affair, cuckolding him. He himself had been carrying on an adulterous affair with a younger woman named Cora Dawson for a number of years, but that, of course, was different.

The McCroskey home, at Fifth and Flanders, where Alfred Belding staged his shooting spree, as shown on the front page of the July 13, 1902, edition of the Sunday Oregonian. (Image: UO Libraries)

So, Gyp Woodward had to die. And Sylvia had to die, because if Belding couldn’t have her, nobody could. And her mother and father, who had urged her to leave him and then taken her in when she finally had — they had to die, as accessories to the crime of home-wrecking.

And now, as the evening of July 11 wore on, it looked like Belding was going to get his chance. He had learned that Gyp Woodward had come over to the in-laws’ house for a visit. All four of them were there. The only way it could be better would be if her brother and sister were in the house too, but one couldn’t be too picky. Four was enough.

So after bracing himself up with a generous measure of liquor, he armed himself with a pair of revolvers, which he “borrowed” from his employer — he worked as a bartender at a saloon at 14th and Marshall. He didn’t know it, but the wheelguns — a Colt and a Smith & Wesson — weren’t fully loaded; there were only nine shells between the two guns, a fact that would quite possibly save at least one life that night.  

Then he headed over to Sylvia’s parents’ house, on the corner of Fifth and Flanders.

OUT ON THE PORCH Belding found his son, young Eddie. He paused for a few minutes to talk to the boy, then gave him a kiss goodnight and told him to go inside to bed.

Just then, Gyp Woodward stepped into the doorway. Belding lifted the Colt and let him have it. One shot, right through the head. The curtain had gone up.

Belding stepped past Eddie and over the dead body of his “rival” and stepped into the house. Startled by the noise of the shot, Sylvia now stepped into the hall, met his eyes. The Colt bellowed again, and Sylvia Maude McCroskey Belding died in her tracks.

The murderer now started down the hall, knowing his in-laws were both still alive and in the house somewhere. He found his mother-in-law, Deborah McCroskey, first. Again he fired one fatal shot.

Belding was obviously quite a good shot when his victim was standing there waiting to be murdered. But his skills weren’t nearly as good when his victim was shooting back, as his next victim, Lemuel McCroskey, was. Lemuel had had plenty of notice as to what was going on, and he’d gotten his own pistol out. When Belding found him, he was charging, firing as he came.

Luckily for Belding, Lemuel wasn’t a very good shot; none of his bullets touched their mark. Belding had better luck; of the three shots he fired, all three hit. The first one nicked his neck; the second one inflicted a minor flesh wound in his arm; and then the older man clinched with him. Belding got one more shot in, and this one did the trick — it would have been fatal had it not been deflected by the old man’s pocket watch. As it was, it put Lemuel out of commission for the night.

Knowing the house was now empty of targets that could shoot back, Belding now turned and opened fire on little Eddie, who was apparently still on the porch.

“Pa fired three times at me,” Eddie testified at the subsequent trial. “Once at my right foot and then at my left, but the third time it did not come near me. I was across the street.”

Leaving one of the now-empty pistols lying on the floor where he had dropped it wrestling with Lemuel, Belding now strolled leisurely across the street to the Lake Charles Saloon, throwing the other pistol down in the street as he did.

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Alfred Belding as he appeared the day after he murdered his wife, mother-in-law, and their houseguest, sketched by Oregonian artist Harry Murphy for the Sunday, July 13, 1902, edition. (Image: UO Libraries)

Then he telephoned the police to let them know what he’d done, ordered a drink, and waited for the cops to arrive.

AT TRIAL, BELDING'S attorney didn’t have much to go on; but he tried to argue his client had been temporarily insane, driven thence by the sad news that his wife was moving on and his happy home was lost and gone. This proved to be a really tough sell. For one thing, when Belding had learned that his fourth victim — Lemuel McCroskey — was still alive, he’d become visibly enraged. That didn’t strike the jurors as consistent with a claim that the crime had been done in hot blood during a temporary bout of rage-induced insanity. It was, however, very consistent with the prosecution’s claim that Belding was a cold-blooded monster who had tantrums when he didn’t get what he wanted.

Another blow came from a police detective, who testified to having seen Belding smoking in opium dens several times. Opium was legal in 1902, but in mainstream Portland society, indulging in it was regarded in much the same way injecting methamphetamine is viewed today: as the ne plus ultra of trashiness and vice.

The most damaging bit of testimony, though, came from young Eddie Belding, Alfred’s six-year-old son.

Portraits of three of Alfred Belding’s victims, published in the Sunday Oregonian on July 13, 1902: his wife, Sylvia Maude McCroskey Belding; his mother-in-law, Deborah McCroskey; and his father-in-law, Lemuel McCroskey. No portrait of George “Gyp” Woodward was published. (Image: UO Libraries)

“He talked to me and kissed me, and said I had better go in the house,” the little tyke testified. “Then he shot the man on the porch, and went inside and shot some more. I saw him shoot Mamma and heard Grandma say ‘Oh!’ Then he wrestled with Grandpa and shot at me.”

And it was lost on no one that, having murdered (or, in Lemuel’s case, tried to murder) Eddie’s entire family, he had coldly crossed the street for a drink in a bar, leaving his six-year-old son to deal with the loss of his “mamma and grandma” in whatever way he might.

Even today, in far less bloodthirsty times, even a stellar lawyer would be hard-pressed to keep a defendant like that from drawing a death penalty. In 1902, it was a no-brainer. Prosecutor George Chamberlain (the future governor and U.S. Senator) had only charged him with one of the three murders, holding the other two in reserve in case something should go wrong with the case. But he need not have bothered. The jury was out for less than an hour before coming back in and declaring the young rake guilty.

WHILE WAITING IN jail for the inevitable appeals to be heard, Belding’s blood finally started to cool, and his bravado slipped away. In desperation he hatched a scheme to escape. His young mistress, Cora Dawson, had been coming to see him frequently, and the jailers had started to get a little careless about searching her. She could, he figured, smuggle all sorts of things into the joint for him.

So he slipped a note to a fellow prisoner who was about to be released, to be given to a friend. It asked the friend to buy about $50 worth of guns and bullets and hide them in a place where he could get to them; then, to give Cora a package containing ground cayenne pepper and two heavy blackjacks. The friend was to ask Cora to blow the pepper in the guards’ faces to blind them, grab the keys, let Belding and his cellmate out, and give them the blackjacks. They would then clobber their way to freedom, retrieve the guns, and start a glorious new life on the lam, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or something.

But the cops found the note. So they made plans to be ready when Cora showed up the next time. But, unfortunately, the Oregonian burned them by publishing the details of the attempt before it was made (scooping the upstart Oregon Journal, which respected the embargo and waited to publish until the following day). Cora, who said no one had said anything about the plan to her, was mortified, and left for San Francisco the next day, never to return.

Finally, on March 27, 1903, the Supreme Court having affirmed the verdict, Alfred Lester Belding mounted the scaffold and was hanged. He declined to say anything, but left behind a letter in which he expressed no contrition for what he had done.

“Why should I not prefer to see her (Sylvia) in the grave than know that she was living in shame?” he wrote.

Little six-year-old Eddie apparently wasn’t a factor for him when he made that choice.

(Sources: Goeres-Gardner, Diane. Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon 1851-1905. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2005; Portland Morning Oregonian archives, Jul 1902-Mar 1903)

TAGS:#Portland #MultnomahCounty #AlfredLesterBelding #BadLove #Wifebeater #Shooting #UnwrittenLaw #Saloons #Gunfight #BadParent #Rake #Hanging

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