Portland had a unique experience with alcohol prohibition. Oregon outlawed booze four years before the rest of the country and we had a very difficult time enforcing the law. George Baker was elected mayor in 1917, a year into Prohibition and he adopted a unique strategy to deal with the problem. Working closely with organized crime and the Portland police bureau to take control of illegal liquor distribution, Baker accomplished two major goals: giving Portland the reputation for effective enforcement of the Prohibition laws and keeping high-quality liquor readily available for himself and his friends. In our new book – Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland due out from the History Press in February – Theresa Griffin Kennedy and I examine the historical and sociological record to bring you a portrait of Portland in the early twentieth century.
Beginning with the Girl Rush, that started with the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition and brought more than 7,000 women per year to the Rose City, we examine the impact of expanded women’s rights and progressive politics on Portland. We investigate the criminals who brought illegal booze into Portland and the police officers and city officials who cooperated with them. We also look at the effect the protection of violent criminals had on the city in terms of rising violent crime rates and abuse of power. And we examine the Red Scare that destroyed the Portland IWW. We also found a wealth of exciting, interesting characters who make Portland’s history so fascinating and so fun. Here is a little sample of what you will find in the book. First the robbers:
The Pullman Porters Ring
The most persistent, long-running and successful bootlegring in Portland used the Pullman porters on the Southern Pacific Railroad, which made regular runs between Oakland, California and Portland, to bring a steady stream of high-quality whiskey into Portland. Originally run by businessmen from San Francisco and Portland, the ring’s leadership was arrested in a coordinated raid in 1918, setting off a struggle for control of the lucrative enterprise. After a violent struggle, described in the book, Tom Johnson, an ex-armed robber and World War I veteran, emerged as the ring’s leader. Johnson, who remained in control of a bootlegging empire well into the 1950s, became one of Portland’s most powerful and influential African American leaders.
Another armed robber, Roy Moore, seized control of a large still in 1924 and became the largest supplier of low-quality booze in Portland. Moore, known as the King of Northwest Bootleggers, was a violent criminal who ran an armed robbery and murder-for-hire ring after serving a term in McNeil Island Penitentiary.
A close friend of Mayor George Baker, Augustine Ardiss (aka Bobby Evans) grew up on the streets of South Portland and became a popular boxer, referee and sports promoter, before becoming the city’s Crime Chief. By the end of the 1920s Evans was the most powerful gangster in Portland and cooperated closely with the city government to “contain” crime in Portland. In 1932 his greed, and Baker’s desire for political revenge, inspired a dangerous grab for power that failed and touched off a violent struggle for control of crime in Portland.
And now the cops:
An effective enforcer of the Prohibition laws, Sammy Vessey seized gallons of illegal booze at Union Depot in the long struggle with the Pullman Porters Ring. In 1918, one of the leaders of the ring accused Vessey of being “fixed” and cooperating with the smuggling. While it is difficult at this late date to determine the truth of the charges, there is a very strong possibility that the bootleggers were attempting to frame a good officer in order to neutralize an effective enemy.
Originally an officer on the Motorcycle Squad, FrankErvin rose through the ranks rapidly, becoming head of the Traffic Division. Ervin became Police Chief Leon Jenkins’ right hand man; handling liquor distribution, anti-union activity and other dirty work for the chief. Ervin hired officers who were experienced bootleggers, at least one who spent time in jail, for his Traffic Division.
One of Portland’s most respected and effective Police Chiefs, Jenkins modernized the police force; inaugurating the city’s first Patrol Car Squad, Forensics Division and use of radio. Jenkins also cooperated with the corrupt city administration in the distribution of liquor and the use of police for political ends. We also present evidence that Jenkins abused his power occasionally to settle personal scores.
But wait that’s not all:
Anyone who has dabbled in Portland history from this period has heard rumors of “secret police” and “vigilantes.” Theresa and I have checked into these rumors extensively and we give you the inside story on how “private detectives,” “stoolpigeons” and vigilantes were used to not only gather evidence on bootleggers, but also to blackmail, frame, burglarize and threaten the Mayor’s “enemies.”
Industrial Workers of the World
From the 1917 Lumber Strike through the Centralia Massacre and the 1922 Waterfront Strike, the IWW was under attack. In our new book we explore the illegal tactics and unconstitutional laws that Mayor Baker used to target and destroy the Pacific Northwest’s largest, most popular and most powerful union. The Sedition Law, Espionage Act and Syndicalism Law were combined with outright lynching to intimidate, jail and murder the leaders of this movement. The result was to increase the power and influence of the nascent Communist Party, setting the stage for the Red Scare of the 1930s.
Ku Klux Klan
My co-author, Theresa Griffin Kennedy, and I chart the rise and fall of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan here in Oregon, where they had their greatest political success of the twentieth century. From their humble beginnings through their rapid growth and quick decline, we use the words of ex-Klansmen as our source to tell you the “Truth About the Invisible Empire.” We examine their anti-black violence in Portland and other Oregon communities as well as the financial scams against their own members and the general public which destroyed them as an organization here. We also look at how their crossover membership in groups such as the American Legion allowed them to continue working for their hateful goals. And we answer once and for all the age-old question, did Mayor Baker join the Klan?
There’s also murder, which I will preview on my SlabtownChronicle blog.
That’s just a small sample of what you will find when Murder & Scandal in Prohibition Portland is published by the History Press in February 2016. See you there.
|Welcome to Mayor Baker's Portland.|