Mystery surrounds Portland’s first public execution

By Finn J.D. John

Portland's Stark Street ferryOn the afternoon of Nov. 8, 1858, 48-year-old Danford Balch stood on the deck of the Stark Street Ferry, holding a double-barreled shotgun. Both barrels were still smoking. At his feet in a widening crimson puddle lay the body of his son-in-law, Mortimer Stump.
It was the crime that would lead, early the following year, to the first public execution in Portland’s history. And it happened so long ago — it’s so shrouded in the mists of time and of rough-and-ready frontier recordkeeping — that it’s hard to know exactly what happened, or why.

The lucky pioneer

Portland's first houseDanford Balch had come to Oregon in 1847 on the Oregon Trail with his wife, a pretty young widow with two children, whom he’d married around 1842 when he was about 31 years old. They crossed the continent in the usual covered-wagon way with their several children — “hers and ours,” as it were. Upon arrival, they staked a claim that included most of what today is the Northwest Heights neighborhood and much of what’s now Forest Park — some of the most valuable real estate in the entire state.
At the time, though, it was pretty remote, and mostly thickly forested. But as a decade passed and Portland grew from a cluster of shacks into the preeminent city in the state, Balch found himself a pretty important fellow. And that may be at least part of the reason he reacted so poorly when the son of a less prominent neighbor asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The fatal proposal

The would-be bridegroom was a strapping lad named Mortimer, a son of the Stump family from the east side of the Willamette. Young Mortimer had been staying with the Balches as a hired hand, and during his time there he and the eldest of the nine Balch children, 15-year-old Anna, had fallen for each other. So Mortimer asked her father for his permission to marry her.
Old Man Balch, apparently deeply offended by the suggestion, rebuffed Mortimer forcefully and then fired him and ordered him off the property.
But a few days later, Anna stole away and met up with Mortimer, and together they secretively eloped across the Columbia to Vancouver to marry.

Danford Balch as “Clifton Clowers”

Danford Balch did not take the news well.
“The night I came home and found the girl gone, it struck a pain to my heart, like a knife cutting me,” Balch later wrote. “I ate a little supper and went to bed, but did not sleep a wink all night. In the morning, at once after getting up, I started for town, and it seemed as if my stomach would burst from anxiety and grief, which were more than I can express.”
Keeping in mind that Balch had eight other children and a wife at home, the question of why Balch reacted in such an extreme way is the central mystery of his story. His vivid description of emotional desolation introduces a really disturbing note into this story. Historian Diane Goeres-Gardener comes right out and says what you are probably already thinking: “The description he gave of his emotional, physical and psychological state sounded more like a man describing the loss of a lover than a daughter,” she writes, in Necktie Parties.
Her observation takes on a particularly sinister tint in light of the fact that Anna was probably Danford’s stepdaughter — not related to him by blood. The dates are fuzzy, but remember, Mary Jane Balch had two children already when Danford married her in ’42. Was Anna one of those? It’s impossible to say for sure, but she was the oldest child in the Balch home in 1858 when all this happened.
Balch also, by all accounts (including his own), had started drinking heavily several years before this incident.

Belligerent, drunk and heavily armed

So on that fateful November day, Balch apparently was in Portland having a drink at a saloon when the newlyweds came to town to buy supplies so that they could set up housekeeping. A confrontation ensued in front of the store kept by Multnomah County Sheriff and former Portland mayor Addison Starr.
Here’s what Balch had to say about that encounter: “He (the elder Stump, Mortimer’s father) cursed a great deal and said I was making a great fuss about my child; that she was an ordinary little bitch, and (he) did not know what (unknown expletive) I wanted of her,” Balch wrote. “There was more said. I do not recollect saying another word.”
After this encounter, Balch apparently ran for home, poured himself another big drink, grabbed his double-barreled shotgun, and hustled back to town with it. He later claimed his plan was to use it to demand the return of his lost property — viz, Anna. Obviously, he was not thinking very clearly, and witnesses to the incident that followed confirm he was by then quite drunk.
The Stumps almost escaped from his clutches. They were on James Stephens’ mule-powered ferry, ready to take off across the river, when Balch ran up with his shotgun and dispensed the contents of both barrels directly into his new son-in-law’s face.

Arrested, jailed, tried, convicted, hanged

Balch was, of course, very roughly taken into custody on the spot by outraged fellow passengers, and lodged in the rickety rented building that the new city was using as a jail. He escaped and was on the lam for a while, hiding out in the woodsy part of his land, but a few months later was recaptured by city marshal James Lappeus.
At his trial, to his evident astonishment, Balch was convicted and sentenced to hang. Several people testified at his trial that they’d heard him threaten to kill Mortimer Stump; apparently he was in the habit of going to Portland saloons, drinking to the point of blackouts and then making belligerent verbal threats that he didn’t remember the next day. His confession, written just before his hanging when it wouldn’t do him any good at all to lie, is full of bewilderment at all the Portland residents who testified at his trial to deadly drunken pledges he didn’t remember making.
Balch was hanged on Oct. 18, 1859, ten months to the day after his crime. As a side note, there were rumors — fairly credible ones — that Marshal Lappeus had offered to let him escape from the city jail for a $1,000 bribe, which the widow had been unable to raise; these rumors haunted Lappeus for the rest of his law-enforcement career.
At the hanging, Portlanders were shocked to see a dry-eyed Anna Balch Stump there with her in-laws. They were there to watch Danford die. And they did.
The reporter from the Portland Oregonian was aghast. “The idea of a daughter, by her own volition, attending the execution of a father upon a gallows, is a disgrace to the intelligence of the age, and to every principle of filial affection manifested or exhibited by every species of the brute creation, in the sea or upon the earth,” he wrote in the following week’s paper. “This fact is of a character that we cannot pass unnoticed, and must meet with the surprise, reprobation and detestation of the whole community.”
This surely seemed like a reasonable inference. But then, maybe the Oregonian reporter just didn’t know the whole story. And that’s probably all that should be said about that.
(Sources: Kenck-Crispin, Doug & al. “The Hanging of Danford Balch,” Kick Ass Oregon History (podcast), vol. 1 No. 4; Goeres Gardner, Diane. Necktie parties: Legal executions in Oregon. Caldwell: Caxton, 2005; “Execution of Balch,” Portland Weekly Oregonian, 22 Oct 1859)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn@offbeatoregon.com, @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.

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