Monday, June 15, 2015

The Saga of Handsome Hans

John E. Fagerlie, better known as Handsome Hans, was a star of Mayor Baker's secret police until his career was ended by a bullet.
             During Prohibition the Portland Police Bureau found itself in a precarious situation.  With intense public pressure from Temperance groups and church leaders to enforce the laws against alcohol, Chief Leon Jenkins had to keep up a good front while keeping the liquor flowing to about one hundred speakeasies and an equal number of beer and wine shops approved of by the mayor and protected by the police force. Jenkins managed to walk his tightrope expertly, but at the cost of morale among police officers.  Already low paid many of the officers on the force depended on the two to five dollars per month they were able to collect from illegal businesses on their beats, but they resented the reputation they got as crooked cops from the practice. Most police officers take the job out of a desire to help people and enforce the law, but under the corrupt system that dominated the Portland Police Bureau they found themselves frustrated at every turn. Officers like Floyd Marsh, who served on the Portland vice squad from 1926 to 1929, resented being forced to make illegal liquor deliveries to City Hall and having his cases thrown out of court because the booze he seized disappeared out of the evidence room.  Independently wealthy from his career as a gold miner in Alaska, Marsh was as close as Portland ever came to an untouchable; immune to bribery he was still manipulated into illegal activity by a corrupt system.  Marsh describes some of the illegal acts perpetrated by the police in his memoir, published in 1976, but he said that if he told the whole story no one would believe him.  One story he didn’t completely tell is about the “secret agents” employed by the police bureau
            These secret agents, who Marsh and the Oregonian referred to as Mayor Baker’s secret police, were an interesting group of people.  Because of the secrecy involved in this police unit it is difficult to know who worked as a “secret agent” for the Bureau, but there are a few who can be identified. Anna Schrader was an informant for the vice squad, as were John E. Fagerlie and Roy Million.  Marsh refers to two “special plainsclothesmen” named Roy Cox and John Seeley, but those seem to be false names.  Cox and Seeley performed special operations, including “frame ups.” In his memoir Marsh says that he could find men to do “anything short of murder,” but historical evidence shows that some didn’t draw that line.  It is impossible to know how many special operatives there were and most of them practiced discretion in order to keep their cover.  The special agents did their work for personal reasons, for example Anna Schrader was having a sexual affair with police Lt. William Breuning and her work for the police gave their relationship good cover and allowed her to earn extra money.  John Fagerlie was dragooned by the vice squad after he was arrested in a speakeasy, but he did his job with style and he seemed to enjoy it very much.
            John or Johan E. Fagerlie was born in Norway in 1895 and brought to America as a child around 1905 where his family settled in Duluth, MN.  Hans worked his way west as a logger and arrived in Portland about 1920.  Like the majority of men who worked in the woods he spent the “off season” in Portland living off of the wages he had earned that year.  Like many of his fellow workers he frequented the bars and gambling dens of the North End, which despite Prohibition continued to operate wide open. “Handsome Hans” was very popular with the working girls of the Tenderloin and he was known to all of the bartenders who kept speakeasies, or secret drinking parlors.  Arrested during a police raid in 1924 Handsome Hans soon went to work for the vice squad as a “stool pigeon.” The controversial “stool pigeon” system, in which certain criminals were allowed to continue criminal activity if they provided information the police could use to arrest other criminals, had been notorious at the Police bureau as early as 1903.
Lillian "Blondie" Foley fell into the clutches of Handsome Hans and took him to her room at the Arcade Hotel.
            Handsome Hans continued to frequent Portland’s nightspots and enjoy the company of the ladies, but now he was gathering evidence that provided search warrants for Sgt Casey O’Hara’s raiding squad.  O’Hara’s squad, which included Floyd Marsh for a time, followed up on Fagerlie’s intelligence, making arrests and seizing stocks of liquor.  This activity, which occurred regularly for years, provided the arrests that gave Chief Jenkins the reputation as one of the best Prohibition enforcers in the country, while providing booze for the city hall crowd and income for the city in bootlegging fines. It was also a good tool to control competition in the underworld, running rivals out of business and collecting taxes from approved speakeasies by forcing them to submit to arrest occasionally. Leon Jenkins always claimed that he had nothing to do with the payoff and Floyd Marsh said that he was an “honest chief,” but even if he collected none of the payoff, Jenkins got great benefits from the corruption and used his power recklessly for both personal and political reasons.  Others benefited from the corrupt system as well. For example Handsome Hans had accumulated a fortune of nearly $25,000 (more than $300,000 in 2015) by 1925.
            He needed that money to retire on, because February 1925 saw his career flare out in a spectacular raid at the Arcade Hotel on SW First Street.  The Arcade Hotel, built in 1877, had become very rundown over the years like many other Portland hotels.  Catering to traveling businessmen on modest budgets, the hotel provided easy access to women and gambling, but was really a “clip joint,” where one was as likely to get robbed as get laid.  The Arcade had the distinction of being the site of Portland’s first successful liquor raid on January 4, 1916, three days after Oregon’s prohibition law went into effect. It was the city’s second liquor raid, but James “Birdlegs” Reed had the Union Club on North Park Avenue clean by the time the police arrived.  Gus Anderson, ex-saloon swamper, was not so lucky.  He was arrested in room 62 of the Arcade Hotel, six quarts and fourteen pints of whiskey, along with several bottles of beer, champagne and wine were seized.  Anderson quickly pled guilty and was sentenced to three months in the county jail. A large spread appeared in the Oregonian on January 5, crowing over the “record prosecution” that saw Anderson convicted less than twenty-four hours after the raid.  The story featured a picture of sheriff’s deputies pouring the illegal alcohol down a drain in the courtyard of the hotel and sent a strong signal that Portland was serious about enforcing Prohibition.
Dan "Crip" Reardon was a career criminal.  His earliest known arrest came in 1899, but he had a good lawyer and was never convicted.
            The Arcade Hotel raid and prosecution of Gus Anderson set the pattern for Portland’s enforcement of the liquor laws for the next decade and a half, arrest and prosecution of low level and working class drinking establishments.  This policy had two advantages: it gave the police high profile arrests that could be used as evidence that the city was aggressively enforcing the law, and it did nothing to hinder the liquor business, which remained a large source of the city’s income.  The Arcade Hotel continued in business as a “clip joint” where it was easy for “denizens of the underworld” to find a woman and a drink.  Meanwhile Handsome Hans began his work and soon had quite a bit of success.  Hans received a lot of publicity in January 1925, when information he had gathered led to the arrest of sixteen people on charges of bootlegging, prostitution and gambling.  The publicity in the newspapers didn’t make Hans’ job any easier and possibly led to the shooting that took place on February 17.
            Handsome Hans was on his regular rounds that night when he encountered Lillian “Blondie” Foley, who was sometimes known as Lillian Cantrell. Blondie invited the tall stool pigeon up to her room where they could get a drink. As it had been arranged two uniformed officers followed the couple up the stairs and waited just out of sight. Blondie and Handsome Hans went into a hotel room where they met Dan “Crip” Reardon, a career criminal and ex-saloon keeper who sold them a bottle of “whiskey.” Handsome Hans pulled out his badge and arrested Blondie and Crip on the spot. Blondie screamed and her lover, William “Shorty” Smith burst in from the next room and fired several shots at Handsome Hans.  Patrolman Burt rushed through the door with his weapon drawn.  Shorty pointed his pistol at Burt and pulled the trigger, but the empty revolver only clicked.  He threw the gun on the bed and said, “”I’ll give up.”
            One of Shorty’s bullets penetrated Hans’ lung and left him on the edge of death for several days.  W.E. Smith, aka Shorty aka Wee Willie aka Smitty the Bootlegger, was one of Portland’s most colorful and violent underworld characters in the twenties.  Arrested for possession of liquor several times, Wee Willie usually paid his fine with a sneer.  He was also arrested several times for violent crimes as well, including a 1933 murder, but always acquitted by juries. After shooting Handsome Hans, Wee Willie was jailed on charges of assault with a dangerous weapon, but the newspapers almost seemed to be rooting for Hans’ death so he could go down for murder.  Smith claimed that he heard Blondie scream and thought the place was being robbed, so he fired in self defense.  The jury bought it and Smith was acquitted.  He and Blondie eloped to Vancouver and were married in August.  Mr. and Mrs. Smith would both be involved in the murder of Samuel Taylor, a logger and cousin of a Portland police sergeant, in 1933 in a remarkably similar set up.
Wee Willie Smith aka Smitty the Bootlegger drove a taxi and had a quick, violent temper.
            Handsome Hans lingered on death’s door, but slowly recovered.  He was soon overcome by other troubles.  During Fagerlie’s hospitalization publicity about his private life was published in the Oregonian, including the amount of his wealth his relationship with a local widow.  Before Willie Smith could come to trial, Hans found himself the defendant in a trial for “alienation of affections” brought by Guy Allmon of southeast Portland.  Hans denied having a relationship with Allmon’s wife prior to her divorce and the case was thrown out of court, but Fagerlie eventually married Mrs. Allmon and acknowledged paternity of her son, Donald Allmon. Fagerlie became a U.S. citizen in 1929 and he and his wife retired to live on his savings and a $40 per month pension he received from the city.  The only other time he made the papers before his death in 1970, was in 1949 when he found a seven-leaf clover while taking a walk.
            Mayor George Baker’s “secret police” were exposed by the Fagerlie case and a great deal of debate was stirred up over the methods that the Police Bureau was using to enforce Prohibition laws. The Oregonian concluded (September 25, 1925), “So in the end the law will have reached nowhere – being defeated by its own stupidity.”  Mayor Baker defended his system strenuously, even publishing the results of the “secret operative squad.” From December, 1924 until September, 1925 the squad had been responsible for 1422 arrests with 1333 convictions.  Fines paid into the city totaled $52,350 during that period and the city’s contribution to the squad’s budget was $50 per month. Although Mayor Baker didn’t mention where other funds might be coming from to support the squad’s work, it was clearly coming from somewhere.  Most of the Oregonian’s readers seemed to think that if it was stupidity, at least it made economic sense.  The tax commission turned its discussion to the purchase of a new car for the use of the Mayor and City Commissioners.
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2 comments:

  1. This was excellent JD. I'm going to read it again! :)

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  2. This was excellent. I'm going to read it again...:)

    ReplyDelete