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.

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