Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon News

Note: This column is part three in a four-part series on the Portland temperance riots of 1874.

It was April Fools’ Day of 1874 when saloonkeeper Walter Moffett, proprietor of the Webfoot Saloon and sworn antagonist of the ladies of the Women’s Temperance Prayer League, escalated the conflict to the levels that would lead, within a week or two, to street riots.

The “Temperance Crusade” ladies had visited his saloon the day before, and for the first time, rather than leaving when he refused to let them in, they’d arranged themselves like a hymn-singing picket line outside of the place. It had not been good for business. Now here they were again, the very next day, ready to do it again.

This time, though, he was ready for them.

As soon as they arrived, Moffett and his employees sallied forth to meet the enemy, beating big Chinese gongs in their faces and tossing lighted strings of firecrackers under their feet.

It was a Rubicon crossed. Before this day, the only truly ungentlemanly behavior Moffett had engaged in had been a private conversation with two ladies whom he was ejecting from his bar, and some off-color Scripture readings the day before. Now, in front of the whole city, he and his thugs were not only being very disrespectful, they were putting the ladies in danger of a broken ankle or even immolation — much of the clothing of the day was highly flammable. The crowd of onlookers was shocked. Then it started murmuring ominously and moving closer. The police, sensing that something ugly was about to happen, hurried in and persuaded the ladies to break off the engagement.

The tone-deaf Moffett seems to have taken precisely the wrong lesson away from this episode. Spared from the consequences his tactics were about to bring down on his head, he concluded that they were exactly the ticket to get the ladies to leave him alone.

In fairness, it probably seemed to be working, at least in the short term. The ladies gave him a whole week — the longest break from their attention that he had yet enjoyed — before returning on April 7. A force of 15 of them stationed themselves in front of the Webfoot and started singing and praying.

Word spread like an electric current through Portland and in minutes the crowd of onlookers was blocking the streets and sidewalks, effectively shutting down the bar. But Moffett, in a swift change of tactics, merely got out his police whistle and started blasting on it, summoning Portland Police Chief (and fellow saloon owner) James Lappeus to the scene.

Upon Lappeus’s arrival, Moffett demanded that he disperse the praying women. They were, he asserted, “disturbing the peace” by attracting an unruly crowd of onlookers.

Obediently, Chief Lappeus approached the ladies and asked them to leave. They declined. The chief told them that if they stuck around and a riot broke out, people could get hurt. They replied that that was up to God and to those people; they were just there to pray and sing.

So the chief arrested them.

Now remember, as the ladies themselves surely were well aware — Chief Lappeus was also Saloonkeeper Lappeus. In today’s world, of course, this kind of conflict of interest would be outrageous — one saloon owner helping out another by arresting a dozen ladies whose perfectly legal activities he found inconvenient.

The ladies surely also knew Chief Lappeus’s reputation. He was a little notorious — an old gold-field gambler and saloon swindler with a reputation for easy virtue, who would eventually lose his job over charges of bribery and corruption.

Even so, they were upright, law-abiding women. So off went the ladies in one of the most remarkable impromptu parades ever seen in a Portland street: the police chief in the front, in the full dignity of office, and fifteen corseted Victorian ladies in their finest attire gliding fabulously along behind — and a dangerously huge crowd of onlookers bringing up the rear.

Almost magically, husbands and sons and fellow temperance workers materialized at the police station, all eager to bail the ladies out. The ladies, who had started singing hymns again, refused to take or give a nickel. They were accordingly loaded into the jail, where they spent another two or three hours singing and praying. Meanwhile, court authorities, eager to get them out as fast as possible before the crowd got any uglier, frantically rounded up the requisite magistrate and officers of the court.

The ensuing hearing was very brief. Judge Denny dismissed the complaint almost immediately, ruling that standing on a public sidewalk singing hymns did not constitute “disturbing the peace.”

The ladies visited the Webfoot saloon a week later, but stayed only for half an hour — just long enough to hold a prayer service undisturbed. Presumably, Moffett was not yet ready to join battle. But two days after that, on April 16, he was.

Moffett had tooled up for this showdown, getting bigger and louder gongs and hiring a couple of young boys to beat on them. He’d also acquired a hand organ, the kind organ grinders used to crank away on while a trained monkey danced.

When the temperance gang rolled up in front of the joint a little after 2 p.m., Moffett & Co. were ready for them … and the fight was on. The boys whaled on the gongs. A local drunk hired for the event cranked furiously on the organ. Moffett’s trusty police whistle shrilled away. Even before the ladies had started their devotionals, the streets of Portland were ringing with an unbelievable racket that brought spectators sprinting to the scene from blocks around.

“This hideous clamor continued for an hour, the Crusaders meanwhile calmly saying prayers and singing songs which not even those closest to them could hear,” historian Malcolm H. Clark writes. “Fritz (the organist) grew arm-weary. The two boys, despite the encouraging shouts of their commander, were perceptibly weakening. Moffett’s face had acquired a purplish cast.”

The bartender, J.F. Good, ducked out the door and found a street hydrant with a hose attached to it, used to fill the sprinkler wagons that kept the dust down on the dirt street during dry weather. Picking the hose up, he opened the hydrant and blasted water onto the front of the saloon — it ran down the front of the building and soaked the temperance workers with dirty water. Dripping wet in clothes that were probably ruined, they sang on.

By late afternoon the gong boys had given out completely, so Good grabbed one of the gongs and the erstwhile organist seized the other. According to the Portland Daily Bulletin, one of them soon thereafter lost his gong — beating it as hard as he could inches from the face of one of the ladies, a Mrs. Stitzel, he was surprised when she acknowledged his presence for the first and only time by suddenly snatching the gong from him and “retain(ing) possession of it.” According to Frances Fuller Victor, Moffett actually tried to recover this gong robber-style — he pulled out a pocket pistol, pointed it at her head, and demanded that she give it back. But Stitzel silently called his bluff, and the gun went back in his pocket, and the gong stayed out of service.

The gongbeater involved in this little bit of pistol-waving was probably Mr. Good, because around 5 p.m. we know he was no longer operating a gong. We know this because that’s the point at which he — after several trips into the saloon for yet another quick bracer, and now quite drunk — started swearing bitterly and profanely at the line of singing, praying ladies.

It was too much. You never know what’s going to set a crowd off. In this instance, this display of drunken churlishness was enough for bystander William Grooms — who, by the way, had been Portland’s city marshal back in 1853.

Grooms now approached the sloppy, obscenity-sputtering Mr. Good, hauled off and flattened him with a powerful punch square in the middle of the face.

The crowd exploded. Fists and elbows flew. Uninvited guests surged into the Webfoot Saloon, and Moffett and his little band backed away as best they could and sought refuge behind the bar. Glass broke and chairs flew. Moffett got his pistol back out of his pocket, and several others did likewise. How this whole affair managed to end without anybody getting maimed or killed is a mystery, but the police must have been keeping a close eye on the situation, because they were on the scene within seconds. They didn’t shut it down and they didn’t ask the ladies to leave; they simply restored order and withdrew.

Moffett was down a gong and the crank organ had fallen victim to the mob as well. With a few tin cans and the one remaining gong, he and his crew carried on until 6 p.m., when the ladies quietly withdrew. On every possible level, they had won the day.

Pressing their advantage, the ladies were back the next day at 10 a.m., and word spread quickly; within minutes, the streets and sidewalks were jammed with spectators ready for the show. But inside the Webfoot Saloon, all was quiet. Instead of engaging the enemy, Moffett hustled down the road to the police station and swore out a complaint against the ladies for disorderly conduct, based on the riot that had broken out the previous day.

Chief Lappeus, never one to neglect to do a fellow saloonkeeper a solid, sallied forth once again to enforce it and soon the procession of the previous week was repeated.

This time the charges against the ladies would actually stick; but things wouldn’t turn out quite the way Moffett and Lappeus envisioned. We’ll talk about that in the fourth and final installment of this story, next week.

(Sources: The Women’s War with Whisky; or, Crusading in Portland, a book by Frances Fuller Victor, published in 1874 by Himes the Printer of Portland; “The War on the Webfoot Saloon,” an article by Malcolm Clark Jr. published in the March 1957 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; OHS Archive document folders MSS 1535 and 550; archives of The New Northwest and Portland Daily Bulletin, March–July 1874.)

— 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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