Who needed enemies with friends like AC Edmunds?

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By Finn J.D. John
January 1, 2020

One of the most dramatic things that can happen in a soccer game is an “own-goal.” Not the kind where a player on offense bounces a shot off a defender and into the net, but the full-on kind in which a defender gets excited and confused and blasts a barn-burner straight past his own goalie, scoring a point for the other team.

If Oregon history were a soccer club, and kept stats on such things, there is one particular man who would stand head and shoulders above all the others in the “own-goals” category.

Abraham Coryell “A.C.” Edmunds, throughout his several careers in Oregon and California, was almost like a cartoon — a larger-than-life loser in the vein of Wile E. Coyote, with a little Carrie Nation mixed in along with a whole lot of Don Quixote.

Nor were his “own-goals” minor affairs. A.C. Edmunds was almost singlehandedly responsible for the demise of the early Universalist Church in California, the temporary collapse of the Universalist congregation in Portland, and for the sudden death of the temperance and women’s suffrage movements in Oregon in 1874. Before he got involved, Oregon was on track to become the first state in which women could vote. His efforts to help make that happen set the process back almost 40 years.

All in all, A.C. Edmunds was an especially important historical character — but for all the wrong reasons.

“His impact was in fact sometimes significant,” historian George Belknap writes, in his 1983 Oregon Historical Quarterly article. “But his impact was usually the ruin of sometimes worthy and promising causes through his unfailing skill in antagonizing his publics.”


Abraham Coryell Edmunds was born in 1827 in the Toronto area, and grew up in the Northeast — New York and later Ohio. In 1846 he joined the Army to fight in the Mexican-American war, but apparently by the time his Ohio regiment got to the scene, the war was over. On his return, he later recalled, he and his comrades collected an assortment of well-shaped sticks from along the banks of the Mississippi, which they sold to new recruits as walking canes captured from Mexican officers.

When the Gold Rush broke out, Edmunds headed for California to join the throng, but didn’t get there until 1850. This may be because he walked the entire way, on foot, from his then-home in Michigan. This would become something A.C. would be known for, in his youth: he walked everywhere. He later claimed to have logged 34,000 miles on foot.

What Edmunds did upon arriving in California is unknown. He probably started out, as so many did, mining for gold. Whatever it was, it left him with a nice cash balance that he seems to have been very good at stewarding — because he would spend the rest of his life, for the most part, starting and abandoning money-losing ventures of various sorts.

This drawing, from an 1874 issue of Frank Leslie's Weekly, shows the Ohio ladies who were the Portland temperance workers' primary inspiration, singing and praying before a saloon. This scene, drawn by S.B. Morton, is set in Logan, Ohio. (Image: Library of Congress)

Whatever it was, he was done with it by 1857, because we know that year Edmunds was working as an itinerant preacher spreading the gospel of Universalism among the mining camps of the West. Universalism, in the 1840s, was a strain of evangelical Protestantism that argued that every human soul would be saved — that there was no “elect,” and that Hell was a temporary posting to which souls were sent to square their accounts before admission to Heaven.

Edmunds would set out in the early morning, walk 20 or 25 miles to another mining camp, preach a harsh but rousing sermon, and do it again the next day; he composed and refined his sermons as he walked.

Edmunds’ combination of boundless energy and enthusiasm, plus his passion for righteousness, smoothed his climb into prominence in the growing Universalist church. He moved to Marysville, founded a Universalist Society, and launched the first of what would become a long string of short-lived publications: The Star of the Pacific.

It was in this magazine that the reading public got its first taste of Edmunds’ rhetorical style. It was cocky, self-righteous, savage, and Manichean — there were no shades of gray in it. One was either in full agreement with Edmunds and right, or irredeemably evil (or, rather, as irredeemably evil as was possible under Universalist doctrine).

Nor did he reserve such invective only for important topics. A.C. Edmunds seemed ready, willing, and able to die upon every hill. A pious newspaper writer’s reference to a group of ladies supposedly saved from a tornado by the power of prayer drew this little gem:

“We are surprised that a man, claiming a decent respect for intelligence … should send forth, before an enlightened world, such nonsensical trash …. If prayer had such a magical, miraculous influence over the elements, it would be wisdom in our city fathers to employ their services, thereby saving the enormous expense of organized fire companies … If our gill of brains could not father a more noble sentiment, we would blow them out, and fill the vaccum with cabbage seeds.”

This kind of style, of course, had the effect of turning every potential ally into an implacable enemy. And this was especially true as he started increasingly mixing religion and politics in the runup to the Civil War — taking up the hatchet against the pro-slavery “Copperheads” with a ferocity and savagery that made most of his readers uncomfortable, whatever their political leanings were.

Still, it was a rough era, and Edmunds’ style worked well enough in the mining and logging camps where he continued to travel and preach. Historian Belknap suggests that his constant motion was actually a mechanism he employed to cope with the inevitable eventual failure of his enterprises — that before the pigeons could come home to roost, he’d have moved to greener pastures — and there may be something in that; but, anyone with more than a smattering of the AD/HD ("Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder") cognitive style will understand that the “outrunning failure” theory isn’t the only possibility here.

Then, in 1860, Edmunds organized the first statewide Universalist Convention in California. He drew up an ambitious and exciting plan for the event, including the establishment of a Universalist college. Edmunds was, it seemed, on the cusp of becoming a very important person indeed.

But before the convention members could meet to get things started, the American Civil War broke out. Edmunds dropped everything, ran to the recruiting office, enlisted in the California militia, learned that his company wasn’t going to go and fight, quit in disgust, and moved to Portland.

The Universalist Convention, abruptly deprived of its leader, vanished.


Meanwhile, that leader was diving headlong into the rhetorical battle over slavery and the secession of the South. Edmunds plugged back into the Universalist circle, of course; but by mid-1862, barely nine months after his arrival, the Portland Universalists were already wishing he would go away. He leaped back into journalism by founding the Portland Daily Plaindealer as a stridently pro-Union paper, and for a while it looked like a winner; but Edmunds eventually got around to insulting enough people that his investors pulled out, and he was forced to close up shop.

He then moved to Eugene and did it all over again, launching the Herald of Reform, renaming it the Union Crusader, and then — in case anyone thought that was too subtle — subtitling it “Copperhead Killer.”

This was very inconvenient for the Eugene Republicans, who really wanted to reach out the olive branch to the less strident “Copperheads,” the Douglas Democrats, who opposed slavery and were pro-Union but were not idealogically pure enough for Edmunds. Having a literal death threat printed at the top of a newspaper does not do much for its ability to win the hearts and minds of those on the fence about such things.

So the city fathers in Eugene got together with Edmunds’ print-shop foreman, Harrison Kincaid, and bought Edmunds out, renaming the paper the Oregon State Journal.

The Journal went on to a prosperous 50-year run in Eugene, and was on at least one occasion “borrowed” by Edmunds as a success story (he called himself a “co-founder”).

But now, at last, it was 1864, and Edmunds decided it was time to volunteer for war service for real. He went back east to do it, and finished the war as an Army hospital administrator.

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A portrait of A.C. Edmunds which appeared in Western Life-Boat, one of the mug-books he published back east just before his return to Portland, in early 1873. The portrait is accompanied by a phrenological reading (phrenology is the “science” of extrapolating human type and character based on the shape of one’s head). (Image: Oregon Historical Society)

Edmunds stayed back east
for a few years after that, settling in Iowa and Nebraska and engaging in more publishing ventures. He attempted to revolutionize the business of publishing mug-books — which are, basically, collections of fawning articles about important community members illustrated with pictures of their subjects, usually paid for by the subjects. Edmunds’ mugbooks, though, mixed fawning articles about paying subjects with not-so-fawning articles about people not only hadn’t bought profiles, but probably wouldn’t have if asked. These “freebies,” of course, came with the full A.C. Edmunds style of personal savagery.

Paying customers soon grew loath to be associated with this enterprise, and it petered out. By the early 1870s, he was back to seeking out unburned turf where he might have another go … and that’s what brought him back to Portland, where his biggest and most history-shaping own-goal waited to be scored.


A.C. Edmunds’ experience in Portland before the Civil War had been so short, and by his personal standards so uneventful, that the turf there was for all practical purposes unburned.

And when he arrived, late in 1873, his timing could not have been better. The city was alive with the fervent spirit of reform — just the sort of environment in which Edmunds most thrived. Plus, the topic of reform was one of his regular hobby-horses: Temperance.

The society ladies of Portland, inspired by reports of the great temperance movements back east, had organized themselves through the main downtown Protestant churches into the Women’s Temperance Prayer League. The plan: Members of the League would fare forth into the city each day and visit a saloon. There, they would hold a prayer service, plead the cause of temperance to its owner and patrons, circulate a pledge to abstain from alcohol consumption in future, and move on.

It took a little while for the ladies to get their program dialed in just right, but by the spring of 1874 it was hitting nicely on all twelve cylinders and sending ripples of fear through Portland saloon owners.

Their intervention led at least two saloon owners to quit the business. But, more importantly, it enraged one particular saloon owner — Walter Moffett, owner of the Webfoot Saloon. Moffett’s scandalously ungentlemanly behavior on the frequent occasions when the ladies came to see him not only inspired the ladies’ determination to wear him down, but also galvanized public opinion in Portland against the saloons, and in favor of the ladies — and temperance.

The ladies were still riding that wave of popular support and esteem as the election day for Portland City Council positions drew near.

There were at least two slates of candidates for the Council seats: a reform-oriented Republican one, and a “People’s Ticket” that was generally stocked with liquor-business-friendly candidates. (The Democratic party did not put forth a ticket.)

Several sources also claim there was a Temperance ticket as well. That’s probably not correct; the temperance crusaders, according to historian Belknap, made the practical decision to work with the reform-minded Republicans rather than trying to field their own slate of vote-splitting Temperance candidates. None of them were happy with this decision, of course; they would much rather have a slate of pure-hearted teetotalers to vote for; but they knew if they found and put one forward, the liquor ticket would ride to easy victory over a divided opposition.

But this was exactly the sort of practical compromise that always seemed to bring out the worst in A.C. Edmunds. And it seems to have, in this situation, done just that.

Shortly before the election, Edmunds stepped forward with a small essay that he proposed to have printed and circulated on Election Day, which he assured the ladies would tip the balance and assure them the win.

The circular was titled “The Voter’s Book of Rememberance.”

“Voters of Portland, the Book of Remembrance is this day opened, and you are called upon to choose ‘whom ye will serve,’” it starts out. “On one hand are found prostitutes, gamblers, rumsellers, whiskey topers, beer guzzlers, wine bibbers, rum suckers, hoodlums, loafers and ungodly men. On the other hand are found Christian wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the good people of Portland. You cannot serve two masters. You must be numbered with one or the other. Whom will ye choose?”

The first page of the “Voters’ Book of Remembrance,” A.C. Edmunds’ double-sided election’s-eve flyer, which insulted Portland voters badly enough to turn them off both temperance and women’s suffrage for nearly 40 years. (Image: University of Oregon Libraries)

It actually gets worse as it goes on, blatantly accusing Portland’s police of being “devoted to the protection of prostitution, drunkenness and debauchery, and the persecution and punishment of virtue” and claiming that “whiskey advocates employ prostitutes to insult Christian women while praying and reading the Holy Bible.”

By modern standards of campaign polemics, it’s not that far out of line. But when it was released, it put the entire city — the male half, at least, the half that was legally allowed to vote — into a cold fury.

The result was an electoral pounding for the ages. The least temperance-friendly slate of candidates was swept into office by a landslide. And the hostility was so bad that the Women’s Temperance Prayer League dissolved.

Unfortunately, while it had existed, the Prayer League had done a yeoman’s job of hitching its wagon to the women’s-suffrage star. The events of 1874 left most male voters with the clear belief that if women ever did get the right to vote, they’d use it to cram Prohibition down everyone’s throats. That’s why several historians, including Belknap, have suggested that the “Temperance Riots” set the cause of women’s suffrage back a whole generation, or maybe even two. (Editor's note: For what it's worth, my own studies on this topic have left me utterly convinced of the truth of this claim.)


Edmunds was, of course, persona non grata in temperance and suffragist circles after this. Not only had his tactic backfired, but some fairly credible rumors started to circulate that he had done it deliberately to punish his allies for having been willing to work with the ideologically impure Republican reformers.

So, back on the lecture circuit he went; by this time, he had turned against religion, and now he brought the same savagery and self-righteous fury to the cause of atheism that he had once rallied to the standard of “Black Republicanism” and Universalism.

In 1877 he took up the cause of trade-unionism, assumed the pen-name “Portland Mechanic,” and set about leading the effort to found what would become The Workingmen’s Club of Portland. The organization, though, once formed, ejected him from membership within six months.

Finally, in 1879, during a lecture tour in California where he was speaking on labor issues, A.C. Edmunds suffered a paralytic stroke and died. He was just 51 years old.

He left behind a remarkable record of negative achievement. Like the Stormy Petrel of marine mythology, he brought trouble with him everywhere he went, and his record of own-goals has yet to be topped. His heart may have been in the right place, but plenty of his fellow activists and co-religionists in Oregon, California, and back East must have wondered, “With friends like him, who needs enemies?”


(Sources: “He Was a Starter but Got No Further: Careers of A.C. Edmunds,” an article by George Belknap published in the June 1983 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; The Women’s War with Whiskey; or, Crusading in Portland, a book by Frances Fuller Victor, published in 1874 by Himes the Printer of Portland; “The War on the Webfoot Saloon,” an article by Malcolm Clark Jr. published in the March 1957 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly)



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