Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon News

Minnie Ensminger, the schoolmistress at Muddy Creek School, was young, smart and pretty, and nearly everyone in the North Powder area loved her.

Pleasant Armstrong loved her more than most. He was a strong, handsome miner and a gifted fiddle player. He had met Minnie in February of 1900, and the two of them had hit it off very well, and soon were engaged to be married.

But Minnie’s parents were not happy about the match at all. Pleasant, though he seemed a very nice man and was popular at all the dances, was not known for his intellect, and was barely literate and, to make matters worse, he was half Spanish. So when, in the fall of 1902, Pleasant went away for a few months to work at the Maxwell Mine, they started working on Minnie, and persuaded her to break off the engagement.

She wrote him a letter very firmly breaking things off, probably with her parents’ help, and posted it to him at the mine. Meanwhile, the parents got the local postmaster to intercept all Minnie’s mail so that they could inspect it, to make sure things didn’t get started again.

That last bit of interference — technically illegal, although well within the purview of what turn-of-the-century society considered a parent’s rights — was destined to have deadly consequences.

Upon receiving the letter, Pleasant replied immediately by return mail, begging her to reconsider and in any case asking her to meet with him one last time before Christmas. He knew he would be playing the fiddle at the Redding Ranch Christmas Eve dance in Haines, and she would of course be there, and it would be terribly awkward to see her there “ghosting” him all evening. “I must see you before Dec. 24,” he wrote.

There was, of course, no reply. So Pleasant quit his job at the Maxwell Mine and returned to North Powder. And on Dec. 16 he asked a friend to buy a Colt revolver for him. What he planned to do with the revolver is still not known. He maintained, through the date of his execution for Minnie’s murder, that he intended to use it on himself, goodbye-cruel-world style, after saying goodbye to his erstwhile sweetheart.

Just before the Christmas dance Minnie got Pleasant’s letter. It had, of course, been delayed for her parents’ inspection at the post office. She replied right away: “Dear Friend,” she wrote. “I did not get your letter until last night, so will reply this morning. I will be at Joe Henner’s tonight, and may see you there.”

But at the post office this letter also was set aside for the Ensmingers’ inspection, and although Pleasant dropped in several times that day to ask if there was anything for him, the answer he got was “no.”

So he loaded the Colt and made ready for the evening.

It was very early on Christmas morning when the dance ended. Minnie had been there, keeping company with another local swain. Pleasant had been sawing away on his fiddle, keeping the couples whirling. The newspaper reports don’t say anything about what happened at the dance, but most likely Minnie was waiting for Pleasant to approach her and ask to talk, as she’d invited him to do in her letter, and she must have been a bit puzzled when he did not do so.

As everyone left, Pleasant paused to chat a bit with Minnie’s sister Blanche, and then took his leave...and stationed himself in the bushes near where he intended to stage his Romeo and Juliet tableau.

But when Minnie emerged from the building, for some reason instead of presenting himself, speaking his piece, and shooting himself (as he claimed he’d planned to do), he raised the Colt and, without a word to anyone, shot Minnie twice with it. Then he turned the revolver on himself — but the length of its barrel made it hard to commit suicide. His shot from the long-barreled Colt ricocheted off his skull, gouging a groove in his scalp and stunning him. He was arrested without incident.

Minnie died two days later.

All of Baker County was outraged by Pleasant Armstrong’s deed. Sheriff Harvey Brown had his hands full keeping Armstrong from the more vengeful members of the local populace long enough to deliver him for trial. On one occasion, he had to lock the murderer in the county courthouse vault while a very large lynch mob — 150 angry citizens — trooped through the office and jailhouse looking for Armstrong. Baker County, in 1903, was still a frontier community without a strong law enforcement presence, residents were accustomed to taking care of themselves, and vigilante action had long been a part of that.

The lynch mob was frustrated that night, but they didn’t intend to give up. Brown ended up having to essentially smuggle his prisoner to Portland for safekeeping. He was kept there until the day of his trial when he was brought back to Baker City with a substantial and well-armed force of sheriff’s deputies on guard to stand trial.

In court Pleasant told his story between heavy sobs. There was barely a dry eye in the court after he was done. But not a single person in the court had any doubt of his guilt either. He had done it he told them — he freely admitted he had done it — and he seemed to almost welcome a death sentence to expiate his crime. He couldn’t explain his shooting of Minnie he said, that had not been what he’d intended to do.

A woman named Cora Rockwell, though, thought she could explain it. Shortly after the trial — which, of course, resulted in a guilty verdict and sentence to hang — she started visiting the sheriff with a startling story. She claimed to be a former agent with the United States Secret Service, and said she was working on a case involving a local gang of murdering hypnotists called the “Blue Beard Family.” The idea was, the mysterious hypnotist either impelled Pleasant to shoot Minnie or shot her himself and hypnotically convinced the somewhat-thickish young man that he had. Rockwell added that this gang of hypno-Crips was responsible for three other murders in Baker City, and said she would lead officers to the bodies if they would follow her.

The newspapers don’t say if they did so or not. If they did, no bodies were found, but being as there had not been three matching disappearances in Baker City during the time she specified, they may not have bothered. Ms. Rockwell was referred to the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. As for Pleasant, he had no use for her excuses. “Keep that woman out of here with her dope dreams,” he said to Deputy Bill Lachner.

Pleasant Armstrong was ready to go, as ready as any convicted murderer has ever been. The last 24 hours of his life almost seemed like a celebration of his coming departure as he dined with relish on a sumptuous turkey dinner, enjoyed a good cigar, and played for his visitors on his violin. Ministers and reporters came to see him and he met them all with forthright good cheer. He had been baptized into the Catholic faith a day or two before, and he spent a lot of time with the local priest, being shrived and preparing himself.

The morning of his execution, Pleasant ate a hearty breakfast of ham and eggs before stepping up onto the gallows platform.

“I had a sweet girl once whom I dearly loved — Minnie Ensminger,” he told the watching crowd while standing on the platform with the noose about his neck. “I killed her and I stand ready to die for that crime.”

And, a few minutes later, so he did.

As a side note, I have been unable to learn anything further about Cora Rockwell or her gang of hypnotist-gangsters. If any reader happens to have more details on her, I would love to know more.

(Sources: Goeres-Gardner, Diane L. Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon 1851-1905. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2005; back issues of the Athena Press (22 Jan 1904), Corvallis Times (29 Mar 1903), La Grande Observer (04 Mar, 22 Apr 1903), Portland Morning Oregonian (21 Apr 1903), Portland Daily Journal (29 Jul 1903), and Salem Statesman (28 Dec 1902, 23 Jan 1904))

— Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn2@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

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