On the morning of Nov. 25, 1881, two men were walking to work along the North End waterfront when they saw something incongruous in the river, just off the foot of Everett Street.
It was a pair of bare legs, sticking straight up out of the river, tied together with a piece of wire.
The two of them hurried on to work and reported what they’d seen to their supervisor, who promptly called the cops, and the coroner had to get a rowboat and paddle out to retrieve what was obviously going to be a very dead corpse from the drink.
The body turned out to be that of a man in his early 50s, with a trim gray mustache and crescent-shaped scars over each of his eyes. He was wearing nothing but a shirt and collar, and had a hand towel loosely knotted around his neck. And it couldn’t have been more obvious that he’d been dumped there — in addition to the wire around his feet, another wire had been used to tie a big rock around his neck to weight his body down.
The coroner soon discovered that the wires binding the feet had been attached to a rock as well, but it had slipped free, leaving the body free to float upright at the top of its tether after decomposition had filled its abdominal cavity with gas. So it had wound up with its feet and legs pointed straight up, sticking out of the river for all to see.
They also found that it had been beaten pretty severely with something heavy and blunt, but not badly enough to have been the cause of death.
Although this sure looked like a murder victim, after the body went unidentified for several days the coroner had it buried — remember, there was no refrigeration technology in 1881, and the body had already smelled pretty ripe when it arrived.
But by the time it was buried, one or two people had come to view the body who knew exactly who it was.
One of those was Portland Chief of Police James Lappeus. If he didn’t recognize the vic, he certainly would have recognized his name. This was the body of James Nelson Brown, the county prosecutor’s star witness in a prosecution against Portland’s most notorious bordello madam, Carrie Bradley — who was a good friend of the chief’s, and had (according to a fairly credible rumor) paid him $500 to let her slip out of town on the quiet if the prosecution got too hot.
Which, it looked like, it would not, seeing as how its main witness was here stinking up the morgue instead of in the dock singing like a canary.
The other in-the-know visitor was one of Carrie’s bordello girls, 21-year-old Dolly Adams, and she definitely knew who he was. She was the prostitute whom James Nelson Brown had pressed theft charges against after he woke up following a night of passion with $6 missing from his wallet.
Dolly not only recognized Brown, she also recognized the towel that was knotted around his neck. She immediately hurried back to the brothel and told Carrie Bradley — who responded by rounding up all the towels in the house and throwing them into the parlor stove.
Well, Chief Lappeus may have been in on the swindle, but now that there was an obvious murder victim slabbed out in the morgue, there was a limit to how helpful he’d be able to be. The other city cops soon were working the case. Constable Sam Simmons started wandering around asking hotel clerks if they’d had a guest with scars on his forehead, and pretty soon he stopped in at the National Hotel on Yamhill, and then the cat was out of the bag.
Carrie Bradley, eager to get her hands on Brown to shut him up, had sent her boyfriend, Pete Sullivan (who was also her “recruiter” of new prostitutes for her staff), out on the town with instructions to find James Brown and do whatever it took to get him back into Carrie’s place. Pete had gone out, accompanied by his young sidekick Asa “Ace” Nisonger (who was dating one of Carrie’s girls), and soon found his mark drinking and gambling at one of the other joints downtown — the Grotto Saloon on Morrison Street.
A casual suggestion that they all head over to Carrie Bradley’s place for a good time went over with a dull thud. No way, Brown said, was he going back to that place. So Pete surreptitiously sent Ace back to the “Court of Death” to fetch Carrie.
Carrie soon arrived, accompanied, for some reason (maybe to identify him?) by Dolly Adams.
Brown, seeing Dolly, said, “That’s the girl I had arrested.” Carrie, now that the identification had been confirmed, turned on the charm. She apologized profusely to Brown for all the trouble her girls had caused him, chatted him up, bought him a drink or two, and soon the four of them were carousing like old friends.
They got a bit loud about it, though, and when the saloon owner asked them to keep it down, Carrie suggested that they go back to her house, where they could sing and dance all they wanted. Brown said he’d rather not go back there, whereupon Carrie Bradley set her femme-fatale-sexiness phaser on “kill” and let him have it: “But tonight, you go with me,” she purred, batting her eyes at him.
The upshot was, Brown walked into Carrie Bradley’s house for a second … and final … time.
Soon Brown was carousing in the whorehouse parlor, guzzling brandy laced with opium. “Professor” Otto Jordan was hammering away on the piano, as usual, and the other girls were around as well — so if Carrie wanted to put the ice on Brown that night she’d have to be subtle about it. She pulled Ace Nisonger aside and, claiming an attack of rheumatism (surely an odd affliction for a 28-year-old woman), asked him if there was any chloroform around. Ace told her they were fresh out. She handed him a dollar and sent him down to a late-night drugstore to buy some.
It took a lot of opiated brandy to do it, but eventually James Nelson Brown passed out. Carrie and Dolly carried him upstairs to bed with a little help from Pete Sullivan, and tucked him in. Then Dolly and Pete left the room … but Carrie stayed behind. She got out a hand towel and one of the two fifty-cent bottles of chloroform that Ace had brought back for her, soaked the towel in it, and tied it securely around Brown’s face.
Then she left him to die in her bed.
Meanwhile, Pete Sullivan and Ace Nisonger had left the house and were off gambling and drinking elsewhere. They hadn’t been ready to call it a night when Brown passed out — and apparently they weren’t aware of what Carrie had in mind for him — so they’d taken the party down the road. Around 3 a.m. they staggered home, headed off to bed with their respective ladyfriends, and were rudely awakened at around 9 a.m. after Dolly knocked on Carrie’s door and said, “He’s dead.”
Sullivan rushed to Brown’s room and, sure enough, there Brown was, dead in bed with a chloroform rag knotted around his face.
Then the door burst open and Carrie Bradly stormed in, a pair of brass knuckles wrapped around her right fist. Straight to the corpse she went, and started savagely pounding it with the knucks.
“You two are in this as deep as me,” she told Pete and Ace. “You have to help me get rid of him.”
So Pete went down to the cellar with the fireplace-ashes shovel to try to dig a grave. He got just a few inches into the ground before giving up. Carrie sent Dolly to fetch her ex-boyfriend, Charley Hamilton — they’d split up fairly acrimoniously some time before, and she’d tried to get him arrested for assault and for trying to light her house on fire, but apparently they’d patched things up.
Hamilton took over corpse-disposal duties. He waited for dark and then, calling in a hack driver he knew, he propped up the dead guy in the back and they took him down to the river, tied him neck and feet to a couple big rocks, and heaved him overboard.
The ensuing murder trial had Portland spellbound. Carrie tried to pin it on Dolly, but nobody believed her. Dolly turned state’s evidence and got off with a few weeks in jail. Carrie was sent up the river for a 12-year stretch on a manslaughter conviction. Released after five years, she moved with Sullivan to Mount Shasta, Calif., and set up a new brothel there. They lasted about five years, but eventually Pete was arrested and sent back to prison for enticing girls into prostitution — and Carrie shot herself.
(Sources: Murder & Mayhem in Portland Oregon, a book by J.D. Chandler published in 2013 by The History Press; archives of Portland Morning Oregonian, 12 Feb 1882 through 19 Jun 1882)