Offbeat Oregon

George H. Williams as he appeared shortly after the Civil War. By the time he was inaugurated as mayor of Portland, Williams was in his 80s.

Today’s article continues our round-up of colorful mayors in Oregon’s largest and most powerful city – starting with one of the most famously dubious politicians ever to grace the office: Dr. James Chapman.

When Dr. Chapman was elected mayor in 1882, it was his third non-consecutive stint as P-town’s top executive. His previous two mayoralties had been relatively unremarkable. This one, his third and final stint, would be different.

Things started out reasonably well, although a careful newspaper reader at the time might have detected some odd occurrences as Chapman began his term of office. For one thing, a 22-year-old scandal involving the police chief was suddenly in the news again.

The police chief was James Lappeus, the old “blackleg” gambler and saloon owner who’d been in Portland since shortly after he and his gang of thugs (“The Hounds”) got chased out of Gold-Rush-era San Francisco by a vigilance committee. He was, in fact, Portland’s first chief of police.

Arriving in Portland in the late 1850s, Lappeus had promptly managed to get hired as the city marshal. Shortly after that, a fairly credible rumor surfaced that he had made the soon-to-be widow of convicted-and-sentenced-to-death murderer Danford Balch an offer: Cross my palm with one thousand dollars, and I’ll accidentally leave the jailhouse unlocked one of these nights before the hanging.

Lappeus had denied it, and there was no proof; but several citizens had filed affidavits swearing that they’d been approached by the widow in the resulting fundraising frenzy. It was pretty clear that he’d done it, and it cost him his office at the next opportunity; but, time had gone by and people had moved on, and eventually he’d been rehired, and the old sins were forgiven if not forgotten.

Until now, 22 years later, when suddenly everyone was talking about the case again.

The City Council responded by revisiting the case, and clearing Lappeus of all charges. But, new mayor Chapman was undeterred, and fired Lappeus forthwith.

Then, before Chapman could do anything, the Council hauled off and hired a replacement police chief: William A. Watkinds.

A few months went by. Then, suddenly, Mayor Chapman made a public confession.

It seemed that as a Mayoral candidate, he had accepted a $1,000 bribe from former police chief Luzerne Besser in exchange for a written promise to hire Besser as superintendent of the streets and one of his cronies, Thomas Connell, as chief of police.

Upon winning the election, Chapman had obediently dug up the Balch scandal and used it as a pretext to can Lappeus. But then, before he could take the next step, the City Council (members of which may have had some idea what was going on) pounced, hiring Watkinds with a veto-proof majority before Chapman could act.

Having no way to deliver the promised police-chief job, Chapman apparently gave up on the whole thing, and told Besser to go pound sand. Besser responded by blackmailing Chapman, who put a stop to that by publicly confessing his crime.

And resigning in disgrace, right? Right?

Nope.

“You know that such bargains are made before every election,” he said, by way of claiming that what he’d done had been no big deal. “Presidents of the United States do it too.”

According to the bargain, Besser had agreed to nominate Chapman for mayor and give him the $1,000 bribe; in addition, Besser had promised to use his influence to get the mayor an annual salary of $5,000. Should this lobbying effort fail, he’d promised to hook Chapman up with an annual payment of $1,000 out of his own pocket “to compensate him for his time and trouble and loss of time and certain incidental expenses that will naturally occur in discharging the onerous duties of mayor of this city.”

All Chapman had to do was deliver two plum city jobs for Chapman and his pal. This he had failed to do, though, for either of them.

Well, now the city council had a problem. It could hire a lawyer and sue to force Chapman out of office – essentially, impeach him. But that would take money, money the city didn’t have; and there was no interest in passing a kitty to raise funds for something like this.

Of course, the City Council had the power to fire him. But there weren’t enough votes to override the inevitable mayoral veto.

So Chapman was allowed to finish his term in office and leave quietly, with some pretense at dignity, with no questions asked and no charges filed.

Chapman’s admission was pretty much the high point of blatant corruption in Portland City Hall in the 19th Century. But he certainly wasn’t the last colorful character in the office.

Sylvester Pennoyer (1896-1898) and George Williams (1902-1904) both were established politicians with national reputations who more or less retired to the job in their golden years.

Pennoyer was most famous for feuding with sitting U.S. Presidents (“Washington: I will attend to my business. Let the president attend to his.”). In an ironic twist, it fell to him to emcee the dedication of Portland’s then-new Bull Run water-supply system, the construction of which he had opposed as governor. Virtually the entire city was looking forward to the change, as the city’s water had always been taken directly out of the Willamette River; it was already cloudy and nasty, and was getting more so as more and more people lived (and – ahem – flushed) upstream at Oregon City, Salem, and beyond.

If forced to be frank, Pennoyer would no doubt have admitted he’d been wrong to oppose and try to block the Bull Run project. But admitting he was wrong was not a thing Sylvester Pennoyer did – ever. So as he raised the glass and took a drink from it, he went for humor instead:

“No flavor. No body,” he grumbled irascibly. “Give me the old Willamette.”

George H. Williams was commonly called “Wide Open Williams” for his permissive attitude on vice. But he had probably the most impressive political resume of any Oregonian in the 1800s.

He had been U.S. attorney general under President U.S. Grant just after the Civil War. Williams was in charge of the Justice Department during Reconstruction, and prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan with commendable vigor throughout the 1872 election season – just long enough to ensure that African American votes were not suppressed (the black voters, of course, went for Grant almost to a man). Once his president was safely re-elected, though, he lost interest in keeping the Klan down.

The next year, Williams had been nominated chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court – but his wife, Kate Ann, had made so many enemies among the wives of the U.S. senators in Washington, D.C., that they undertook a highly effective and coordinated “pillow-talk lobbying effort” that resulted in her husband being forced to decline the nomination and, in 1875, to slink back home to Portland with his tail between his legs.

Kate Ann had then further added to the dark lustre of her reputation by becoming the founder-prophetess of a starvation cult called “Truth,” which met in her living room. She and at least one of her followers died of starvation, in 1894, by following its strictures.

As mayor, Williams was only slightly controversial. He was indicted, along with police chief Charles H. Hunt, for failure to enforce gambling laws in 1904; acquitted, he served out the remainder of his term and, at the ripe old age of 84, retired from public service for real.

In next week’s column, we’ll talk about the 20th century, and especially about the two mayors who probably did the most to shape postwar Portland: Dorothy McCullough Lee and Terry Schrunk.

(Sources: Merchants, Money and Power: 1843-1913, a book by E. Kimbark MacColl published by Georgian Press in 1988; Portland: People, Politics and Power, a book by Jewel Lansing published by Oregon State University Press in 2003; “Life of George H. Williams: Almost Chief Justice,” an article by Sidney Teiser published in the Fall 1946 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly.)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

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