1859: Danford Balch, inadvertent PDX benefactor

Add comment October 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1859, five to six hundred folks braved a dreary Portland morning to witness the first execution in the state of Oregon — Oregon having graduated into statehood just that very year, as it says on the flag.

Danford Balch, who would surely merit an entry in these pages for his name alone, had staked out a 345-acre land claim near the small settlement of Portland, but all that money couldn’t buy his daughter’s love.

Anna, the eldest of nine kids at a blossoming 15, was amenable to a suit by the farmhand, one Mortimer Stump — this is a Dickensian roster of characters — and in the face of Papa Balch’s opposition, eloped with him over the Columbia River to Vancouver, Wash.

So Danford Balch stewed, and drank, and was allegedly incited by his shrewish wife Mary Jane — this one has an ironically innocent moniker — until, encountering the Stumps in town for supplies one day, Danford Balch tried to retrieve his daughter and ended up shotgunning his unwanted son-in-law, right in the face.

Ka-blamo.

Bystanders tackled Balch immediately, though it took nine more months to bring the killer to trial: in these sparsely-populated frontier precincts justice was being administered on the old “assize” model of wandering judges who dropped in for a spell to try everything at one go. It was enough time for Balch to bust out of a rain-rotted jail cell once and get recaptured (once on the lam, he returned to his own home).

When court was finally in session, conviction was a mere formality. He’d done the deed in public, after all. But the offended father seemed genuinely bewildered by the outcome: apart from the shooting being accidental (so he said), he clearly expected that a court would uphold the dominion of the family patriarch over his wayward progeny.

Heaven knows what fumes he was fuming by the time he climbed the scaffold and beheld that naughty daughter Anna turned up to witness his hanging — sitting in the front row with the [rest of the] Stump family in what you have to think was a somewhat uncomfortable party for all concerned.

Little more affectionate was the post-mortem behavior of the allegedly un-alienated part of the Balch clan.

That widow Mary Jane, whom Danford hinted gave him quite a goading over their wanton daughter, shafted the remaining rugrats out of inheriting their chunks of the family land and instead routed most of it to her next husand.

Balch Creek in Lower Macleay State Park. (cc) image from Brad Reber.

Though pretty difficult to admire by the yardstick of human decency, that behavior turned out to be Danford Balch’s redeeming legacy.

Having passed through several hands, the lion’s share of his former land was in 1897 donated to the city by its then-owner Donald Macleay, who was sick of paying taxes on the unprofitable parcel. That was the time the famously green PDX received its first land gift designated by the donor for parkland: Macleay Park. (Including a Balch Creek.)

Today, it’s all part of the larger Forest Park, and it’s a lovely hiking space for a city that grooves on its outdoor rec … complete with a gorgeously ruined Depression-era stone ranger station that’s popularly believed to be haunted, maybe by the spirit of poor old Danford Balch himself.


The haunted house … (cc) image from Adam Gaumont.

There’s a Balchipedia for chronicling Balch family notables, so you know the first guy executed in Oregon is going to rate a mention.

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1859: Ormond Chase, casus belli not quite

2 comments August 7th, 2009 Headsman

Every foreign policy adventure needs its pretexts, even adventures that never happen.

Quite marvelously, this illustration appeared in the same issue of Harper’s as Sydney Carton’s beheading in the last installment of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities serial.

On this date in 1859, forces of Mexican General Miguel Miramon provided the United States such a pretext by executing American Ormond Chase in Tepic during the Mexican War of Reform.

This incident, said to have ensnared the luckless Portland (Me.)-born sawyer “for reasons entirely unknown,”* became elevated into the foreign policy calculation of U.S. President James Buchanan.

Buchanan rates as one of America’s worst chief executives for fiddling as the conflagration of Civil War began, but he kept himself busy eyeballing other dark-skinned folk in the hemisphere over whom America ought to claim suzerainty.**

So, in December of 1859, Ormond Chase was name-checked in a State of the Union address further to pressing Buchanan’s case for Mexico as a (to use a modern coinage) failed state — “a wreck upon the ocean, drifting about as she is impelled by different factions.”

“Little less shocking,” the Chief Executive intoned, crowning a litany of injuries “upon persons and property,” “was the recent fate of Ormond Chase, who was shot in Tepic, on the 7th August … not only without a trial, but without any conjecture by his friends of the cause of his arrest.”

And, of course, we know what happens to failed states.

Mexico ought to be a rich and prosperous and powerful Republic. She possesses an extensive territory, a fertile soil, and an incalculable store of mineral wealth. She occupies an important position between the Gulf and the ocean for transit routes and for commerce. … Can the United States especially, which ought to share most largely in its commercial intercourse, allow their immediate neighbor thus to destroy itself and injure them? Yet without support from some quarter it is impossible to perceive how Mexico can resume her position among nations and enter upon a career which promises any good results. The aid which she requires, and which the interests of all commercial countries require that she should have, it belongs to this Government to render, not only by virtue of our neighborhood to Mexico, along whose territory we have a continuous frontier of nearly a thousand miles, but by virtue also of our established policy, which is inconsistent with the intervention of any European power in the domestic concerns of that Republic.

The wrongs which we have suffered from Mexico are before the world and must deeply impress every American citizen. A government which is either unable or unwilling to redress such wrongs is derelict to its highest duties.

I recommend to Congress to pass a law authorizing the President under such conditions as they may deem expedient, to employ a sufficient military force to enter Mexico for the purpose of obtaining indemnity for the past and security for the future.

“The meaning of all this is clear enough,” observed the London Times, an ocean away and correspondingly less euphemistic.†

Before long another Mexican war will sever new provinces from the unhappy Spanish Republic, and give them to the Anglo-Saxon race. In one sense this is a gain to humanity. Beautiful and fertile regions, now desert, will pass under the hands of the cultivator, mines will be worked, harbours will be filled with shipping, and a new life will animate that vast region. It is not likely, however, that the Americans will seek to annex the whole Republic. The Mexicans are not the stuff to make citizens of, and another generation of discord and decay must elapse before their time comes to be improved off the face of the earth. Although we have not the slightest wish to interfere with the Americans, it is but right that an adequate force should be at hand to protect British interests in those quarters.

In the event, Congress actually turned down Buchanan’s use-of-force request — that actually used to happen! — and with Abraham Lincoln’s election the next year, poor Ormond Chase’s purchase on historical significance was dashed by the fierce urgency of the Civil War. His death was a wasted root of an intervention that never was.

As it happens, and as the London Times article’s closing allusion suggests, Buchanan’s suspicion of European interference in the New World was not without foundation. The Mexican Civil War that Buchanan here proposed to join evolved — while the Yankees were busy shooting one another — into a badly botched French‡ attempt to establish a foothold in Mexico.

We have met the most famous casualty of that affair in these pages before: imported Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I.

Shot along with him were two of his loyal generals: one of them was Miguel Miramon, whose men had put Ormond Chase to death eight years before.

* Per a deposition in the U.S. Consul’s investigation.

** More on Buchanan’s Mexican project in this 1883 biography.

† January 11, 1860

‡ Spain and Britain had made the initial foray with France to collect their own debts as well, but soon thought better of the project.

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1859: Tantia Tope, Indian independence hero

2 comments April 18th, 2009 Headsman

This is the sesquecentennial of Tantia Topi’s hanging for what is sometimes called India’s First War of Independence.

Tantia Topi — there are many variations of the name — commanded Indian troops when a mutiny mushroomed into outright revolt.

Putatively in the service of a rebellious lord, Topi immediately established himself as the cause’s most capable commander. His forces bloodily seized Cawnpore (Kanpur) in a heady surprise victory during the conflict’s opening stages.

A British counterattack overturned that promising development. The Indian lord was captured, but “all the capacity for resistance that he ever displayed” had been supplied by Topi. Now, Topi found a more impressive liege in Rani Lakshmibai, and deployed his genius for soldiery in a fast-evolving war — harrying the occupiers in both conventional and (increasingly) guerrilla-style combat.

The rebels were outclassed; the time was not yet ripe — but Topi’s was the model of anticolonial guerrilla insurgency that would figure so prominently in the next century.

Topi’s exploits and elusiveness, maintaining his freedom in the field long after every other pillar of the uprising had collapsed, made him a domestic hero, and formed a continuing theme in the British press in 1858 and 1859. He was genuinely admired by his enemies as a soldier, however much his cause was abhorred. (The stiff-upper-lippers dinged him for inadequate personal courage, however.)

Topi was taken, at last, by betrayal, and dead at the order of a drumhead military court within days.

But the day after the London Times published its report of the popular hero’s hanging (“a great scramble was made by officers and others to get a lock of hair, &c”), it editorially eulogized* Topi with the gusto of victor catching, perhaps, the foreshadow of Indian resistance awaiting in generations still to come.

He raised armies as fast as we could disperse them, took up one position after another to our infinite annoyance, and led us a chace which, despite of unexampled efforts on the part of our soldiers, seemed to be really endless. Our troops pursued him without intermission, contrived more than once to surprise him, repeatedly captured his artillery and scattered his troops, but could never deprive him entirely of followers or guns. He seemed to summon forces from the earth as if by magic. As the pursuit grew hotter and hotter he mounted his men on ponies and camels, and marched, it is said, at the average rate of 60 miles a-day. Wherever we found him he had always cavalry and guns, and these he posted with remarkable skill.

Be it remembered that for half a century we had been training soldiers, and that in Bengal alone there were 150,000 natives under arms when this revolt broke out. Now, in all this enormous host there was not a single man who, when the bonds of allegiance and discipline were abruptly removed, displayed the intuitive capacities of a military commander. … The two years of the revolt, with all their opportunities, never produced one native General. … One man alone reproduced the old Indian character, and that man was TANTIA TOPEE — an obscure civilian, without place or power. He, by the light of nature alone, discerned the strong points of the rebels’ position and our own weak points. By the exercise of that faculty with which heroes are gifted he could always, even in his most desperate straits, draw followers to his standard. …

Nothing could more forcibly illustrate the reputation which this man had acquired than the fact that his fate has been attended with some regret … if he had not met his match in those opposed to him he might have founded a dynasty.

* May 21, 1859. Information moved a little slower.

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1859: John Brown’s body starts a-moulderin’ in the grave

11 comments December 2nd, 2008 Sarah Owocki

That line between “martyr” and “terrorist” is often a matter of historical perspective or even accident.

Were the person’s actions justified?

If not justified, were they at least historically significant?

If not historically significant, did they at least inspire some really great songs?

Or, movies?

John Brown, abolitionist, father of 20 children, advocate of armed insurrection as a direct means of ending slavery, is just such a figure. Before looking at how his actions influenced history, however, it is instructive to consider how history influenced him.

Born into a devout family opposed to slavery on religious and moral grounds, Brown grew up in a vehemently anti-slavery district of Ohio and, as a young man, began training in New England to become a Congregationalist minister.

When money ran out, he returned to Ohio and began a series of variously successful business ventures and married his first wife, with whom he would have seven children. When his businesses failed, he moved to Pennsylvania, buried his wife, married his second, and started a tannery, which began to founder as one of his sons died and Brown fell ill. He moved his family –- now with more than a dozen children –- back to Ohio, where he was hit hard by the economic crisis of 1839 (PDF link). In 1842, he was declared bankrupt; the following year, four more of his children died of dysentery.

In spite of these setbacks, Brown remained dogged in his pursuit of ventures to get himself out of debt, becoming a seasoned expert among small sheep farmers and acting as a self-appointed crusader for their empowerment against the encroaching interests of manufacturers. While this backfired and Brown remained impoverished into the 1850s (thought not as much as when he was declared bankrupt), it solidified his interest in helping the underdog.

Bleeding Kansas

Moral and religious interest in the abolition of slavery had been part of Brown’s upbringing, but it wasn’t until 1855, when five of Brown’s adult sons began sending word of often violent pro-slavery machinations in the Kansas territory, that Brown first became committed to drastic action on behalf of the cause. His strategy wasn’t at first overtly violent, but was rather convinced that the anti-slavery cause could win by the ballot box; over the course of the next year, however, he became convinced that the only sure way of preserve Kansas as a free territory was by “fighting fire with fire” (historical opinion as to the precise extent of the pro-slavery violence in relation to Brown’s later actions is divided).

In 1856, with tensions reaching a boiling point, Brown, four of his sons, and a band of other abolitionists killed five pro-slavery settlers in Franklin County, Kansas in what became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre. No legal retribution was possible or likely; Brown and his party escaped handily (although one of his sons was killed the following August), and Brown spent the next three years using various aliases to travel among abolitionists raising funds to launch an all-out assault on slaveowners back East.

“The crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

That he chose the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) for his historic attack was no accident; it “evinced federal power stained by slavery.”

Brown believed his actions would be the start of a lasting insurrection in which slaves would rise up against their owners in an insurrection that would quickly spread to neighboring counties and throughout the South. While violence was expected, it was to be minimized, and, after the initial raid, used only in self-defense.

Twenty-one men, in total, took part in the raid; Brown’s expected hundreds of recruits never materialized. The slave population never got a chance to rise up against their masters, as townspeople promptly began firing on the raiders; by the morning after the start of the raid, the invaders were surrounded by a company of US Marines.* Brown was captured, along with seven of his men; ten were killed, and four escaped.

Tried in Virginia for murder, treason and conspiracy, Brown was convicted on November 2, just weeks after his failed insurrection, and sentenced to be hanged within a month. His often-cited speech in Court in response to this sentence would become a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement:

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction… Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!

“Make the gallows glorious like the Cross.”

During his last month on Earth, Brown seemed well-aware that he was on his way to be a martyr. Refusing rescue by a supporter who had managed to infiltrate the prison, he wrote letters of valor and conviction which were increasingly picked up by the Northern abolitionst press, and attracted pleas of clemency from sources as removed as Victor Hugo.


Christ-like: The Last Moments of John Brown, by Thomas Hovdenden.

John Brown hanged at Charles Town, Virginia (present-day West Virginia — another thing Virginia lost during the Civil War). This 19th-century drawing is from the Virginia Military Institute archive of the event, which includes eyewitness accounts of soldiers who attended the hanging, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Hanged in the mid-morning of December 2, 1859, Brown stated ominously: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Brown’s dramatic enactment of an attempted armed insurrection –- even an abortive one –- stoked longstanding Southern fears of slave rebellions, leading the South to reorganize and equip its outdated militias, and the Union to increasingly valorize a man who held, with sheer and utter clarity, the very convictions in which they must needs believe to fight and win the coming War Between the States.

Called a “misguided fanatic” by the man who would lead that war, Brown’s actions nonetheless both hastened the inevitable schism already drawn so dramatically across a nation in which one out of every ten human beings was held in legal bondage, as well as gave moral and spiritual courage to those who would ultimately rise to eradicate it.

“His soul goes marching on…”

Or in the words of Frederick Douglass:

Did John Brown draw his sword against slavery and thereby lose his life in vain? And to this I answer ten thousand times, No! No man fails, or can fail, who so grandly gives himself and all he has to a righteous cause. No man, who in his hour of extremest need, when on his way to meet an ignominious death, could so forget himself as to stop and kiss a little child, one of the hated race for whom he was about to die, could by any possibility fail.

Did John Brown fail? Ask Henry A. Wise in whose house less than two years after, a school for the emancipated slaves was taught.

Did John Brown fail? Ask James M. Mason, the author of the inhuman fugitive slave bill, who was cooped up in Fort Warren, as a traitor less than two years from the time that he stood over the prostrate body of John Brown.

Did John Brown fail? Ask Clement C. Vallandingham, one other of the inquisitorial party; for he too went down in the tremendous whirlpool created by the powerful hand of this bold invader. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery, he did at least begin the war that ended slavery. If we look over the dates, places and men for which this honor is claimed, we shall find that not Carolina, but Virginia, not Fort Sumter, but Harpers Ferry, and the arsenal, not Col. Anderson, but John Brown, began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises.

When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared. The time for compromises was gone – the armed hosts of freedom stood face to face over the chasm of a broken Union – and the clash of arms was at hand. The South staked all upon getting possession of the Federal Government, and failing to do that, drew the sword of rebellion and thus made her own, and not Brown’s, the lost cause of the century.

For more John Brown:

* Under the command of future Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

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