Friday, June 21, 2013

The Case of the Disappearing Ancestor

I spend quite a bit of time poring over the archives of the East Oregonian each week, partly for the “Days Gone By” feature but also to help genealogists with their family research. Last year I got a call from a man in California who, he said, was a descendant of William F. Matlock, mayor of Pendleton at the turn of the century. He said Matlock’s daughter Nellie was his ancestor, and the family had plenty of documentation to that effect. But information about Nellie’s husband, from whom this gentleman also descended, was relatively unknown and the family didn’t even know the man’s first name. Now I love a good mystery, so armed with a few dates, names and places I dove into what turned out to be one of the biggest news stories of 1899 in Pendleton.

I started with a vague family rumor that this Mr. Mims had left town in some fashion after shooting a man. The date of this shooting was pretty nebulous as well, so I first turned to to get some background on my mystery man. I discovered that Nellie Mims and two children lived with her parents in Pendleton during the 1900 census, but her husband was not listed. I worked backward from there, paging laboriously through the old newspapers, until I caught a break: a story from 1900 that talked about the original shooting, and a date of August 1899.

In turn-of-the-century Pendleton, local news generally was not printed on the front page of the East Oregonian. But the shooting of J.H. Miller, the proprietor of the State saloon, was such a big deal that it was front and center of the Aug. 24, 1899, paper. As the story goes, Miller was shot after an argument with Edwin Mims in the saloon at closing time. It seems that Miller told Mims that some of the other customers were objecting to his playing cards with them. Tom Means, the bartender who witnessed the argument, said “Miller had intimated that some of his customers objected to having Mims come there to play, as they worked for their money, and Mims was not in their class as a player.” Mims was offended, and the two men each laid down bets of $20 in gold over whether one of two card players would object to Mims’ presence at the games if asked.

The argument grew more heated, and Mims threatened to have all the card players arrested. Miller claimed he could run his own business without outside help. Soon the altercation turned physical. As Means came around the bar to break up the fight, he heard a pistol shot and saw Miller slump to the floor. Mims had a .38 caliber pistol in his hand, which Means took from him. Mims denied accusations of murder, saying that Miller had attacked him verbally and physically and he was just defending himself when he shot Miller.

The grand jury took up the case Oct. 10 and Mims was indicted on first-degree murder charges the next day. The trial commenced on Aug. 20 and lasted eight days. Witnesses supported the defense’s claim that Miller had been the aggressor in the argument, and also had been threatening for weeks prior to the altercation to bar Mims from the saloon, something that witnesses also said Mims claimed he would never stand for. The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, with a recommendation of extreme mercy; Mims was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary and a fine of $1,000. By the time Mims finished his sentence, Nellie had divorced him and moved to Portland, where she eventually remarried. And Edwin Mims disappeared from the family story for more than 100 years.

Considering Mims was the son-in-law of a very influential man in Pendleton, one can assume the scandal was a huge embarrassment to the Matlock family. Did his personal and political connections also contribute to his downfall? The bartender’s statement that J.H. Miller didn’t want Mims in his bar and the other card players didn’t want him in the game because, unlike Mims, they worked for their money leads me to think that Mims was probably used to a privileged lifestyle and wasn’t accustomed to being told “no.” It came out at the trial that Miller had “staked” money to Mims to play poker, splitting the winnings with him if he won, but Mims’ luck at the table was bad and Miller no longer wanted to prop him up. Mims’ threat to have the card players arrested, and his assertion that he would not stand to be barred from Miller’s saloon, smacks of the arrogance of a hot-headed young man who thought he could get away with ... well, not murder, but certainly throwing his weight around. Instead, he became a sad footnote to a well-respected family’s story.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Prostitution “almost a necessity” in early Pendleton?

A couple of news articles caught my eye for “Days Gone By” last week about an attempt by agents of Gov. Oswald West to shut down bordellos in 1913. West dispatched a “moral squad” headed by Jack Key to clear out houses of ill repute and send the ladies and their keepers packing from Oregon. In the 1913 stories, it was said that the bordellos had been consolidated in 1902 by then-Mayor Thomas G. Hailey on the west side of Cottonwood street (present-day Southeast First Street between the Umatilla River and the railroad yard). Prior to that these houses had been scattered around the city.

In an article in the Jan. 20, 1902, East Oregonian, Mayor Hailey was interviewed about what he intended to do about prostitution in Pendleton. He answered: “They run places that I do not approve of, but are almost a necessity in a town. I cite as an example the case of Irons and Boyd, who were in court today, for seducing the Wilson girl in Milton. I shall not bother these women, unless complaint is made to me, but I will see that they do not flaunt their vices boldly, and that all drinking and carousing is stopped in their houses. I have tried to overlook these things in the past, but I will not do it any longer.”

In 1902 it was understood amongst the city fathers that suppressing vice in Pendleton, including prostitution and gambling, was a losing proposition in more ways than one. The men of the town would not easily give up their recreations and the activities would just be driven underground (as illustrated by Prohibition). Also, the city of Pendleton received quite a bit of income from license fees and fines stemming from these activities. An editorial in the Jan. 18, 1902, EO stated, “... it is believed by any rational men that an attempt to root out the games and bawdy houses would utterly fail for want of support from the people of the community. This is deplorable, but true. Many persons who inveigh against the allowing of such things would not themselves have the ‘nerve’ to publicly back a movement for suppression, pleading that they could not afford to antagonize the elements that would be so antagonized. It was in the knowledge that such was the case that the mayor and council determined to form some plan whereby the city would reap financial benefit from the situation.”

Mayor Hailey’s compromise with the bordellos was confining the houses to Cottonwood Street and keeping the women off the street. In fact, a city ordinance prohibited the women from coming out to the sidewalk or becoming an annoyance to passersby, and the doors to the establishments were required to be kept shut. The mayor himself made an unofficial visit to the area in October of 1903, and eight women were arrested and fined $5 each for sitting in the open doors of the houses and talking to people on the street.

Thomas Hailey was intent on ridding Pendleton of vice during his tenure as mayor, and he staged many raids on gambling establishments and bordellos to enforce the city ordinances. However, he was forced to work within the framework of the times, which meant compromising his principles to a certain extent to keep the peace between city government, those who wanted to keep their recreations and the citizens who were appalled by them. Unfortunately (for some, I guess), gambling and prostitution are almost impossible to eradicate, and bordellos continued in one form or another in Pendleton until the 1950s before the doors were shut for good.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Boy genius or meddling father?

This week’s look at the past is an Associated Press story from June 13, 1988, that caught my eye and piqued my interest. Adragon Eastwood De Mello, an 11-year-old boy who had graduated from college in three years with a degree in mathematics, was in a conundrum: If he was not admitted to a graduate program he would be required by California state law to attend junior high school in the fall. His father, Augustin De Mello, was prepared to send him abroad to escape that fate. Mr. De Mello was a single father that started his son on a special learning program almost from birth.

Adragon knew the alphabet by age 2, could read and write by 3, and received an associate’s degree with highest honors by age 10. He spent just one year at Colwell College at the University of California-Santa Cruz to earn his bachelor’s degree. “I want to start learning scientific programming next year,” he said. “I want to go into astrophysics or particle physics, which hopefully will lead to the discovery of the creation of the universe, which is what I’m interested in.” He said he wouldn’t mind picking up a Nobel Prize along the way.

I read this story and thought, “I wonder what happened to this kid?” So I took to the Internet and did a little research.

According to an article in the June 3, 2003, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Adragon’s mother gained custody of him not long after his story appeared in news media across the country in 1988. The boy admitted his father “pushed him and pushed him hard to succeed,” the article said. After Adragon went to live with his mother, his father began exhibiting bizarre behavior and eventually died of cancer.

A Wikipedia article said Adragon opted to enroll in Sunnyvale Junior High School under an assumed name and eventually graduated from Homestead High School in 1994. In 2003, De Mello was working for Home Depot after training to be an estimator for a commercial painting company.

Follow-up articles from 2003 portrayed the father as a obsessive man who used his son to manipulate schools, universities and the national media to feed his own need for recognition and attention. Adragon survived and reclaimed the life his father had denied him — interaction with kids his own age and the chance to decide for himself who he wanted to be. A cautionary tale, perhaps, for parents who are so intent on their child attaining an idealized construct of success that they ignore the child’s own dreams and potential.