Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon News

In the late 1800s, the standard courtroom defense of murderers who wanted to claim the protection of the “unwritten law” was “temporary insanity.” The idea was, one tried to convince the jury that the killer was driven so completely out of his head by the prospect of some marauding Lothario coaxing his wife into infidelity, or seducing his sister or daughter, that he lost his grip on sanity and killed the interloper in a murderous rage.

For a few years, this worked more often than it didn’t. But it never worked very well for women, and it surely didn’t work very well in the late 1870s for Caroline Briggs — who, arguably, really was temporarily insane.

Here’s the story:

Caroline Briggs was in her late 50s, and she and her husband George were basically the first family of Josephine County. They’d been among its earliest settlers, they were very prosperous and they lived in a big stockaded log cabin compound on the banks of Sucker Creek known locally as “Fort Briggs” (built, originally, to resist Indian attacks). They had two sons, four daughters, and by now several grandchildren as well.

Then in late June 1874, one of their daughters — 31-year-old Julia Briggs Floyd — died in childbirth while trying to deliver her third baby. Caroline, the family matriarch, was crushed by this — and, by all accounts, unhinged.

Three days later, with quite possibly the worst timing in the history of the universe, one of her other daughters — 17-year-old Carrie, the baby of the family — came tearfully to her mother to tell her that she’d been seduced by the local schoolmaster, John Dalmater, who was now refusing to marry her.

Dalmater had been courting Carrie for some time, and Caroline and George had been very encouraging, believing that Dalmater would be a fine match for Carrie. But, apparently Dalmater wasn’t endowed with as high a moral character as they had thought.

This news — the imminent prospect of her youngest daughter having a baby out of wedlock — seems to have pushed Caroline over some sort of a threshold. Around 9:30 a.m. on June 30, she proclaimed her intention to go down to the little one-room schoolhouse and settle the matter on the spot. So she seized her walking cane and headed for the door. One of her sons, David, came with her — and brought along his father’s Henry rifle, just in case.

The two of them found Dalmater in front of a classroom full of children and teenagers. They marched right in.

Some of the newspaper reports of this incident say Caroline started out by demanding that Dalmater agree on the spot to marry Carrie, and that his refusal prompted her assault. This would make sense — but historian Diane Goeres-Gardner, after reviewing the court transcripts, writes that the assault commenced almost immediately. “It’s time this matter was settled!” Caroline screamed, and started hammering on him with her walking cane. “Shoot the son of a bitch!” she yelled to David.

Dalmater, no doubt knowing he could soak up a lot more punishment from a cane than he could from a Henry rifle, made a grab for the weapon and the two men wrestled over it while Caroline continued raining blows down on Dalmater’s head.

The fight spilled out into the front of the schoolhouse. Finally Caroline got in a really solid hit, knocking Dalmater down, and David got control of the rifle. Dalmater tried to crawl away from David, trying to reach a tree that he hoped to hide from David behind. He made it most of the way to the tree before David got a clear shot, and then — Caroline continued beating Dalmater after the fatal gunshot, and this may be what finally galvanized some of the neighbors and older students to seize her and pull her off him.

Dalmater wasn’t dead, but he was mortally wounded. He lasted just a few hours, basically just long enough to write and sign a final sworn statement. In it, he swore he had not seduced Carrie Briggs.

But it hardly mattered. If Dalmater hadn’t “ruined” Carrie, her mother certainly had by proclaiming her seduction in front of an entire classroom full of witnesses. And, on top of that, shooting a man in the back as he crawls painfully away is extraordinarily dishonorable behavior. The Briggs family went, on the instant, from being the first family of Josephine County, to social pariahs.

Mother and son were thrown into the county jail and held without bail. It seems unlikely that they were denied bail because authorities thought them a flight risk — more likely, they were worried that someone might lynch them.

It took several months to empanel a grand jury and hear testimony from the 18 witnesses, but when the inquest was done, the grand jury voted to charge both of them with murder.

The Briggs family was shocked but they should have expected this. Feeling against Caroline and David was running so high in the county that the prosecutors were forced to move the trial to Jackson County. Every potential juror in the Kerbyville area, it seemed, was already convinced of their guilt.

Caroline’s trial came first in late June 1875. She had filed an affidavit that she was being treated for mental illness, apparently in support of a temporary-insanity plea. But when the verdict came in, it was Manslaughter, with a five-year prison sentence. So, it certainly could have been worse — but it wasn’t the “not guilty by reason of temporary insanity” verdict that she’d hoped for.

Ironically, the “temporary insanity” play got quite a bit more traction at David Briggs’ trial, held in November 1875. His defense team presented an expert witness, Rev. S. Skidmore of Ashland, who assured the jury that when David fired the fatal shot, he did so at the direct command of his mother, and in that moment he didn’t know right from wrong. The reporter from the Oregon Sentinel thought it sounded like a game-changer, and would result in acquittal.

But, unfortunately for David, his case had been built around a claim of self-defense. David had already claimed that Dalmater had been drawing a pistol when he fired. It had to be one or the other — either he shot Dalmater because his mother said so — or he shot him because he was afraid the schoolteacher would draw on him.

The jury, in the end, opted for “none of the above.” David drew the same verdict, and the same sentence, as his mother: Manslaughter, five years.

A petition for a pardon for Caroline Briggs was drawn up right away. The local newspaper got hold of a copy and published it. Most Southern Oregon residents were still pretty hostile to the idea.

But, a little over two years later, Gov. Stephen Chadwick did pardon her and Caroline Briggs’ three-year self-inflicted nightmare was finally over.

David was pardoned by Gov. Chadwick a little later, after serving roughly 21⁄2 years. He stayed in Josephine County where he became a miner. He married a local girl and they had three children — one of whom, working the family vocation, struck a huge vein of gold. The family promptly staked a string of mining claims that made them quite rich.

Carrie Briggs married a Jackson County man the following year. They had five children. But, whatever her mother thought or assumed on the morning she took her cane to town, it appears Carrie was not pregnant with John Dalmater’s child. So regardless of whether she and Dalmater had been intimate, the whole affair at the schoolhouse had been for nothing.

(Sources: Goeres-Gardner, Diane L. Murder, Morality and Madness: Women Criminals in Early Oregon. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 2009; Portland Morning Oregonian, 06 Jul 1874; Salem Oregon Statesman, 27 Nov 1875)

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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