I have no doubt that when Stephen Puter put two $1,000 bills on the Senator's desk, John Mitchell promptly picked them up. At his trial John denied he took the bribe, but nothing in his previous life even hints at the possibility that the Oregon scoundrel would have left that much cash unattended so close to his own pocket even for an instant. He was a garden variety sociopath, raised to high office by his ambition. Noted one Oregon newspaper, “His political methods are indeed pitched on a sufficiently low scale, but not below his methods as a lawyer.” That did not make him unusual for a gilded age politician. It was the reliability of his depravity that made him a star.
Senator John H. Mitchell grew up John M. Hupple about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1855, when he was twenty, John was fired from his teaching job after impregnating his 15 year old student Sarah Hoon. Forced to marry the unfortunate girl, John switched professions, and two years later he passed the state bar exam. However, the new lawyer beat his Sarah in public so often that a patrilineal grand jury was convened. John escaped being indicted by convincing his naive 19 year old bride into dropping the charges. Whereupon John stole $4,000 from his legal clients, abandoned Sarah and his three children and fled to California with his mistress, teacher Maria Brinker. A few years later, when Maria's medical expenses threatened to consume John's ill gotten grubstake, he abandoned her as well.
Arriving in Portland, Oregon in 1860 (above) with his new mistress, Mattie Price, John switched his moniker to John Hupple Mitchell and hung out his shingle. In a matter of weeks John was named the city attorney to the 1,000 inhabitants of what the locals appropriately called, “mud city”. His skills as a lawyer could be attested by the unfortunate Marcus Neff, an ambitious illiterate seeking help in expediting his 10 year old homestead filing. Neff had paid $2.50 an acre for his 160 acre property, occupied and worked it, and in May of 1862 Neff paid John Mitchell $6.50 to file an affidavit reaffirming his bonafidies. Then, in November of 1863, John Mitchell sued his own client for what he claimed were $253.14 in unpaid fees.
In court, the amoral attorney Mitchell (above) swore under oath that Neff could not be found, even tho in July of 1863 the Oregon land office successfully delivered the final homestead deed to Neff in California. In February of 1864 Neff's homestead was sold at sheriff's auction, where it was purchased by future governor and Portland mayor, Sylvester Pennoyer, aka “His Eccentricity”, AKA “Sylpester Annoyer”. John got the $294. 98 paid by Sylvester, and Sylvester got the 160 acre homestead. It would take a decade and require the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court, before poor Mr. Neff's stolen property would be returned.
As this episode demonstrated, John Mitchell was always willing to help the Oregon power structure get richer, to his own benefit of course. In particular there was his toadying with the “stagecoach king” Ben Holladay (above), who had just sold his California mail routes to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million ($24 million today). Beginning in August of 1868, and financed largely by distant German investors, Holladay began building a railroad along the Willamette river valley, from the capital of Salem north to Portland, and then south over Grant's Pass to California. It was Holladay who, in 1864, financed John's divisive election as President of the Oregon State Senate – it took 53 days and 27 ballots. And in 1872, Holladay supplied $15,000 in bribes to secure John's election by that same legislature as a U.S. Senator. So obvious was Mitchell's toadying for his patron, ( "Whatever is Ben Holladay's politics is my politics, and whatever Ben Holladay wants I want") that both offices were one term endeavors. But it remains a testament to John's grit and greed that when Ben Holladay went bankrupt in the “Panic” of 1873, John simply switched his loyalty to the next richest man on his horizon.
The 18 year old Friedrich Weyerhauser arrived in America in 1852. He so hated working on his cousins' Pennsylvania farm that he drifted west and landed a job on the Rock Island Railroad in Illinois, which led him to a job in a saw mill, making railroad ties. He ended up owning the mill, and started buying lumber mills until the Weyerhaeuser Syndicate controlled every tree processed on the upper Mississippi River. The only thing standing between Friedrich and total domination of the lumber industry was that he did not own the land on which the trees grew. Oregon offered him a remedy to that little problem.
Out on the Great Plains, railroads could be financed by awarding them a 20 mile wide swath of government land on either side of the rails. The builders could then sell this land to homesteaders who then became the completed railroad's customers. That was how Holladay financed his Willamette Valley line. But everywhere else in Oregon’s mostly vertical terrain, money grew on trees. The state has been selling lumber to China since 1833. By 1870 there were 173 sawmills in Oregon. And it was the combination of the well intentioned homesteader program and Weyerhaeuser's ambition which remade Oregon politics for the next hundred years.
The middle man between Oregon's past and its future was one time surveyor Stephen A. Douglas Puter. In his book, “ Looters of the Public Domain” Stephen described a process which began on board foreign vessels tied up at Portland's docks. “I have known agents of the company to take at one time as many as twenty-five men...to the county courthouse”, he wrote, “where they would...declare their intention to become citizens...(then) they would proceed direct to the land office and make their filings, all the location papers having previously been made out. Then they would appear before Fred W. Bell, a notary public, and execute an acknowledgment of a blank deed (transferring the land to the lumber company), receive the stipulated price of $50, and return to their ships...As fast as this land came into the market, the company gobbled it all up.”
All told, it cost "entryman" like Puter about $320 for each 160 acre homestead. Then, instead of land hungry farmers, Puter sold the parcels to Weyhausser through his railroad or lumber companies for a hundred dollar profit. The Oregonian newspaper estimated that between 1870 and 1904 75% of all land transferred in Oregon was sold in this fraudulent way. The great scam only came to an end because in 1903 Stephen Puter was convicted of fraud, and after serving 18 months was pardon by President Teddy Roosevelt after agreeing to turn state's evidence. With Puter's testimony, Federal grand juries indicted more than 100 people, and convicted 33 of them. But no where on any legal papers did the name of Friedrich Weyerhauser appear, and his corporation's titles to the land were never questioned. However, John H. Mitchell's name did show up.
When John had first arrived in Washington, D.C. back in 1874, he found the capital abuzz with stories about his abandoned Sarah, back in Pennsylvania. Since John had married Mattie Price in 1862, without divorcing Sarah, he was now a bigamist. But the Senate decided morality was a matter for the voters back in Oregon, and allowed John Mitchel to sit on the Senate Railroad Committee, which is just where Ben Holladay wanted him. After his defeat for re-election in 1879, John tried for the state legislature, but lost. In 1885 he was campaigning for a return to the Senate when, four days before the election, "The Oregonian" published love letters John had written to Mattie's sister. What kind of a man carries on a five year sexual liaison with his wife's sister? Evidently, in Oregon, a re-elected United States Senator. An opponent called his election “a disgrace to the state and a reproach to humanity.”
And yet John was easily re-elected yet again in 1890, and tirelessly maneuvered to legally steal land from Indian reservations to benefit Weyerhauser's syndicate. In 1896 John ran yet again, but the opposition finally adopted John's own “political ethics (which) justified any means that would win the battle” The legislature was deadlocked for two years, leaving the state without a second Senator. Then, in 1901 the 65 year old Mitchell won his last campaign. And it was in Senator John Mitchel’s Washington office on Sunday, March 9, 1902, where Stephen Puter laid down those two $1,000 bills. And John picked them up.
The newly named Chairman of the Committee on Inter-oceanic Canals, now grown old and fat, responded to his indictment with a carefully worded press release. “I defy any man to charge me successfully with any conduct that is otherwise than honorable” he wrote, adding “I am sure I cannot be connected in any way with any land frauds”. No where did John claim innocence. He merely dared others to prove his guilt. So they did.
This first trial of the century for the 20th century was held in June of 1905 in the newly expanded Court House on Pioneer Square in downtown Portland. It had to compete for the public's attention with the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition out on Guild's Lake. While the fair, whose federal funding Senator Mitchell had pushed, attracted over 11,000 visitors a day, the courtroom could hold less than a hundred spectators. But it was the tribunal which attracted far more newspaper coverage. Testifying against Senator Mitchell was Stephen Puter, and John’s law partner, Judge Albert H. Tanner, and even John's personal secretary. The defense tried reminding the jury about the recent death of John's daughter, and the Senator's age – he had just turned 70. But on Monday July 3, 1905 the jury found him guilty, anyway. It was the climax to the Oregon Land Fraud Trials, and a fitting end to Mark Twain's Gilded Age. John was sentenced to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
He never served an hour in jail, of course. And he never paid the fine. Not because of his political connections, this time, but because of a visit to the dentist. Five months after the verdict, on Friday December 8, 1905, John had four teeth pulled, and the strain was too much for the old thief’s heart. He died, said the press, of complications after surgery. The old Republican was replaced by a Democrat.
John H. Mitchell – ne John Mitchell Hupple – was survived by a second daughter, Marie Elisabeth, who in 1892 had married the very wealthy Alfred Gaston, the 5th duke of Rochefouald and Duke of Anville. But the only place in Oregon which still carries his name is the tiny hamlet of Mitchell, with less than 200 residents. Three time in its history the town has been destroyed by floods, and three times by fires. But the residents keep rebuilding, making it a perfect monument to a man described as lacking either ethics or ability, but making up for that with “persistence and (a) desire for success.”
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