Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Quarrel over watch leads to assault, suicide

A small island in the Columbia River midway between Wallula and Umatilla was the scene of an attempted murder and suicide in April 1908.

Switzler’s Island was the property of John B. Switzler, who took up residence on the island in 1882 and built a house, barn and outbuildings, and planted 40 acres of orchards. The orchards were abandoned in 1894, however, when flooding of the Columbia washed out most of the trees. At 105 feet above sea level and 25 feet above the river’s high water mark, the island contained about 750 acres of farmable land.

The ownership of the island was the subject of multiple legal battles, and in 1908 squatters had taken over part of the property. Two men, Fred Deitz and Joseph Paterman, were living in one of the houses on the island. Paterman had returned to the island on April 10 after several days of trying to find work. It was then Deitz’s turn to look for a job, but he refused to leave his watch for Paterman, and a quarrel broke out. Deitz had just stepped out of the house they shared when Paterman appeared behind him with a shotgun and fired at point blank range, hitting him in the shoulder. He then loaded Deitz’s unconscious body into a wheelbarrow, intending to dump him in the river.

Deitz soon came to, and a knock-down drag-out fight ensued during which the wounded man was severely beaten. Paterman then walked away, leaving Deitz on the ground, with the intent to get a hatchet and finish the job. When Paterman returned Deitz pleaded piteously for his life, and Paterman agreed to spare him. He placed Deitz in the shade of a tree and announced his intent to kill himself.

After Paterman left, Deitz made his way to another house on the island, where he told the story of the attack. He was taken by boat to Umatilla, and while on the water they heard Paterman fire two shots, and later saw the house go up in flames.

The wounded man was taken by train to Pendleton, and was treated while en route by Dr. J.A. Best, who happened to be on the train. It was believed Deitz would survive the brutal attack.

Searchers returned to the island and found the burned body of Paterman in the ashes of the house the two men had shared. Paterman was known in Pendleton by the director of the Salvation Army, who said Paterman had sought shelter there earlier in the month and had been angry at Deitz over $50 he had lent to his partner, and what he considered Deitz’s general mistreatment.

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