Midnight murder of a logger
By Finn J.D. John
At around 2 p.m. on a sunny Monday afternoon in August 1911, Klamath Falls resident John Hunsaker was driving past the Oak Avenue Canal when he saw something in it — something that looked like a man.
Now, this canal was the waterway that carried the pioneer city’s untreated sewage out to the Link River. So although some things were occasionally observed floating in it, they usually weren’t people.
Hunsaker took a closer look.
It was a man, all right. Or, rather, the body of a man.
There was no mystery as to how he had died. The right side of his head showed two massive wounds, apparently inflicted with an ax. But as to where this had happened, and by whom — that was another story.
A logger on a spree
The body, as it turned out, belonged to a man named Charles Lyons.
Lyons was a logger working in a camp at Stukel Mountain, just a few miles outside Klamath Falls. On the previous Friday morning, three days before his body was found, Lyons had drawn his pay — a whopping $80 in cash, the equivalent of about $2,100 today — and headed for town to “blow ‘er in” with Ben Robbs, his buddy from work at the logging camp.
The two of them arrived in Klamath Falls and checked into a hotel before sallying forth to paint the town.
The two of them first stopped at a watering hole called The Road House, where they got the night started off with a few drinks, and Lyons had the house barber give him a shave — he clearly wanted to look and smell his best for the ladies later that night.
Then he and Robbs made their way to the swankiest, fanciest, swingin’est bordello Klamath Falls had to offer: Faye Melbourne’s “Red House,” located near the Oak Avenue Canal at the foot of a small bridge known to locals as the “Bridge of Sighs.”
The Bridge of Sighs was named in a joking reference to the famous Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice, the covered and fortified bridge across the Rio di Palazzo canal which connects what was once Venice’s prison with the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s palace. The condemned, being conveyed across the bridge, supposedly got one last chance to peer out through the stone-barred windows at the beauty of Venice before being hustled down the hall to their execution or imprisonment.
Klamath Falls’ Bridge of Sighs, on the other hand, crossed from the city’s thriving red-light district on one side of the canal to the city jail on the other. The name is a joking reference to the frequency with city cops escorted drunken, rowdy revelers across the bridge to be lodged in the city joint.
Lyons and Robbs now hurried across that bridge in the other direction, eager to get to Miss Melbourne’s place and continue the party. They got there around 7 p.m.
The evening wore on and the two furloughed loggers burned through their money.
By midnight, Robbs had had enough and was ready for bed. Lyons, though, was just getting started. He was drunk, but not dead drunk, and not yet ready to call it a night.
So Robbs left him there in the care of the friendly ladies of the Red House and headed for the hotel.
He never saw Charles Lyons alive again.
At first, authorities thought perhaps the drunken Lyons had simply fallen off the Bridge of Sighs into the unsanitary water of the canal and drowned. This theory, however, lasted only until the body was lifted from the water and they saw the massive wounds on his head.
Such wounds would have let out quarts of blood. But police scrounged all along the banks of the canal for clues, and on the bridge, and — they found nothing.
Police ran a fine-toothed rake along the bottom of the canal, hoping to find the weapon. An unfortunate assistant was drafted to dive to the bottom of the filthy waterway every time they snagged something, and bring it to the surface. But again, nothing.
The public recoils
The unsolved murder of a logger near the red-light district intensified public pressure for the city to do something about the brothels; after all, prostitution was supposed to be illegal.
Another highly publicized incident in December at another openly-secret bordello, the Comet Lodging House, whipped the public up even more. It happened just before Christmas, and it involved the arrest of the town’s most notorious septuagenarian, a disreputable and disorderly Civil War vet popularly known as Old Man Haley.
“Several nights ago in the Comet Lodging House, Old Man Haley ... was making Rome howl,” the Klamath Falls Evening Herald reported. “He was disrobed, in bed, full (drunk), and waving a $10 bill in his hand.”
Apparently all the Comet’s employees had declined to earn Old Man Haley’s $10, and he’d taken offense; so the Comet had called the cops to escort him and his $10 across the Bridge of Sighs to spend the night in the drunk tank.
Prodded by the citizens, City Hall ordered all the ladies of the evening to close up shop. They, of course, ignored the edict. And so it was that in January 1912, Miss Faye Melbourne found herself in the dock, facing charges of operating a bawdy-house.
Miss Faye on trial
Now, this was not a new situation for Miss Faye. In that era, Oregon was full of bordellos pretending to be something else, and their proprietresses frequently had to face charges. Usually, it was part of the cost of doing business — a way to transfer some of their income over to City Hall while giving the impression of rigorous law enforcement.
But something was different this time. For one thing, Miss Faye’s lawyer, in court, accused Police Chief Samuel Walker of collaborating with and shielding the town’s bordellos in exchange for a cut of the take. Walker was actually forced to admit that Miss Faye had solicited his advice about where to build the Red House. Clearly, the gloves were off.
The verdict in the trial was a hung jury: eight to four. A new trial would have to be scheduled. Posting $200 in bail money, Miss Faye walked out the door ...
... and was never seen again.
Behind her she left her palatial, richly furnished real estate — which, unlike most bordello madams, she actually owned outright. She left her mail piling up at the post office. She even left her lawyer in the lurch for his court fees. The newspapers concluded that she’d skipped town to avoid prosecution.
But, prosecution for prostitution — an offense worth, at most, a month or two in jail? Why would she do a thing like that? Lake County historian Melany Tupper suggests it might have been because she’d learned she was about to be indicted as an accessory to the murder of Charles Lyons. After all, it was her place in which he’d last been seen; could that be where he was murdered?
It’s an intriguing theory: Lyons, after getting really drunk, tries to force himself on one of the girls; in defense, one of the other employees steps up behind with an ax and lets him have it, right behind the ear. Miss Faye’s terrified employees quickly mop up the blood, wrap Lyons in a blanket, hustle his body out onto the Bridge of Sighs and drop him in, hoping he’ll sink out of sight ....
Well — maybe. But there is a darker possibility — darker and, given that Miss Faye clearly had some dirt on several powerful people in Klamath Falls, probably more likely. It involves a blackjack and a shallow grave somewhere in the woods outside of town.
But, of course, we’ll probably never know.
(Sources: Tupper, Melany. The Trapper Murders. Christmas Valley: Central Oregon Books, 2013; Portland Morning Oregonian, 23 Aug. 1911; Klamath Falls Evening Herald, 18 Nov. 1911)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.
Images above: OSU Archives. A hand-tinted postcard image of downtown Klamath Falls as it appeared around 1911, when the murder of Charles Lyons took place.
The famous Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) in Venice, after which the bridge connecting Klamath Falls’ red-light district with the city jail was jokingly named.
McKenzie River Reflections