Book Reviews

Murder & Scandal in Prohibition Portland

J.D. Chandler and Theresa Griffin Kennedy

The History Press

Juries were reluctant to convict people for liquor offenses, especially when the evidence disappeared. And the evidence did disappear. There were several cases of liquor evidence disappearing out of Central Precinct or Multnomah County Courthouse. There were at least two cases in Portland where juries drank the evidence during deliberations and then acquitted the accused bootleggers for lack of evidence.

 from Murder & Scandal in Prohibition Portland

 

Portland before Portlandia

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We think of that city to the south as funky, bicycle-happy, liberal and lay-back Portland. But as J.D. Chandler reveals in these two books, its history is much darker.

“Portland has a two-faced history,” he begins, and it is “the history we have been too polite to mention” that interests him. However, as he explores this dark history, what emerges are beacons of light, singular individuals like Charles Erskine Scott Wood, lawyer, poet, and early civil rights advocate for the underdog. As a young military lieutenant, Wood wrote down (or possibly made up) the eloquent words of Chief Joseph’s famous “I Will Fight No More Forever” speech, and became a friend of the Nez Perce leader for the remainder of their lives. Or like Abigail Scott Duniway, honored as one of the “founding mothers of Oregon,” a pioneer wife and pioneering feminist.

Beatrice Morrow Cannady graduated from the Northwest College of Law (later Lewis and Clark College), becoming the first African American woman to practice law in Oregon and a leading civil rights activist. This was no small feat. From its beginnings, Oregon was a “whites only” state, with black exclusionary laws written into its constitution. The Ku Klan Klan began organizing here in the 1920s, and by 1923 had more than 20,000 members in the state, most living in Portland. The city developed the reputation for being “the most racist city outside of the South.”

Alcohol has always been a powerful force in American culture. Portland’s crusade against alcohol, a key part of the feminist movement, involved women from the city’s leading families. Demonstrating in front of saloons, they put the police chief in an awkward position, resulting in their arrest for “disorderly praying.”

Prohibition always was a better idea in theory than in practice, and when it became Oregon law in 1916, it opened up new opportunities for organized crime and the Portland Police Bureau—the two often indistinguishable from each other—as competing distributors of illegal liquor. But this was only the latest illicit activity in the city’s freewheeling style of governing by corruption. In 1924, the Multnomah County commissioners arranged for the location of the proposed Burnside bridge to be moved so it required property they owned, and which they sold to the county at an inflated price.

Lily Tomlin once noted, “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.” And yet, in reading these histories, the effect is not cynicism. They remind us that even during times when the KKK marches openly in the streets and corruption is the usual way of doing business, there are individuals of courage, integrity and passion who continue to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June 15, 2019.) Reprinted with permission.