Saturday, November 20, 2010

Baker Co. Sheriff Harvey K. Brown (1871- 1907): Small-Town Oregon Sheriff’s Role in Solving Murder of Former Gov. of Idaho May Have Cost Him His Life


Gary Dielman

A little after ten o’clock on the evening of September 30, 1907, as former Baker County Sheriff Harvey K. Brown entered the gateway of the picket fence surrounding his house at 1241 4th Street, Baker City, Oregon, a powerful explosion rocked the neighborhood. The blast destroyed the gatepost—there was no gate--just above ground and part of the wooden walk leading to the front of Brown’s house. Every window on the front of the house was blown out, as were many windows in nearby houses.

James Kenyon, Brown’s neighbor and mining partner, was the first to reach the still conscious Brown, who was lying in the front yard to the right of the walk. Kenyon’s wife, who arrived moments later, cradled Brown’s head in her lap, while her husband went inside the house to check on Brown’s wife, Dorcus, and ten-year-old daughter, Ethel, who were unable to the get the front door open.

Before he slipped into unconsciousness, Brown said to Mrs. Kenyon, “They’ve got me. They’ve got me. They’ve got me at last.”

Brown was rushed in a horse-drawn hack to the hospital, where he died the next afternoon.

Headlines on the front page of the evening newspaper read:




Harvey Kimbell Brown was born August 17, 1871, to William and Julia Brown. He grew up working on the family homestead located eight miles northwest of Baker City, Oregon, in the shadow of 9000-foot-high Elkhorn Butte just a mile west of the Brown place. As a young adult, Brown worked as a ranch hand and in mining in Nevada. For a while he owned a livery stable in Sumpter, Oregon, hub of hard rock mining activity in the Elkhorn Mountains. He acquired his own placer gold mine in Stices Gulch ten miles south of Baker City, which he worked in his spare time.

William Brown, a Baker County Commissioner as well as farmer, left office in 1902, the year his son was elected Sheriff and Tax Collector of Baker County. Julia Brown, a devout Methodist, insisted that on the Brown farm the Sabbath was a day of rest for the family and the farmhands.

Upon taking office July 1, 1902, Brown set about straightening out the tax collection books. By December auditors determined that the books turned over by Brown’s predecessor, Alfred H. Huntington, were $12,000 short (equivalent to about $250,000 today). Huntington, who had already admitted that he was $3,500 short, traveled to Chicago to raise money to pay back his debt by selling shares in mining property he owned in Baker County.

County officials feared Huntington would never return to Baker County once he learned he was being charged with a much larger shortage. Brown found himself in the rather awkward position of traveling to Chicago, where he arrested Huntington for embezzlement. One can only wonder what the two Baker County sheriffs talked about on the long train ride back to Baker City, where Brown lodged Huntington in the same jail Huntington used to run.

Two days later, Christmas Day 1902, Huntington was joined in the Baker County Jail by Pleasant Armstrong, charged with murdering his girlfriend, Minnie Ensminger, after a Christmas Eve dance at a farm house west of Haines, Oregon. The crime would prove to be the defining case of Brown’s tenure as sheriff.

Haines area men, fearing Armstrong might escape the hangman’s noose by pleading temporary insanity, conspired to lynch Armstrong. Around midnight on March 3, 1903, about 150 armed men with faces covered by bandanas showed up at the county jail demanding that Armstrong be turned over to them. Much to the lynching party’s dismay, Armstrong was not in the jail. Having received word of the plot, Sheriff Brown ordered Armstrong taken from his jail cell and hidden in the Clerk’s vault of the courthouse and later transferred to the Multnomah County Jail to be held until trial later that month.

The Haines men need not have worried about the outcome of the trial. The jury found Armstrong guilty of Murder in the First Degree. The judge sentenced him to be hanged on May 8, but an appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court put the execution on hold.

On January 22, 1904, at 7:00 a.m., the gallows stood ready within a thirty-two by sixty-foot snow-covered area next to the jail defined by a fourteen-foot tall board wall. A rope line and special deputies armed with Winchester rifles kept back a curious crowd estimated at 2000. The gallows compound was packed with upwards of 500 men who had received black-bordered invitations signed by Sheriff Brown, including Jacob Ensminger, father of murder victim, Minnie Ensminger. Among those standing on the gallows, in addition to Brown, the condemned man and his priest, were county sheriffs from Multnomah, Benton, Malheur, Union, and Washington (Idaho) counties, plus the superintendent of Oregon State Penitentiary, who was to conduct his first execution in Salem the following week.

After an emotional speech by Armstrong, a hood was placed over his head, and, at a signal from Brown, the hooded executioner sprang the trap door on which Armstrong stood. A few minutes later, he was pronounced dead by a panel of doctors, and all in attendance dispersed silently into the cold January morning.

Although several men had been lynched in Baker County, Armstrong’s was the first and last legally sanctioned execution in the county. And it was the next-to-last public execution in Oregon, due to a new law requiring all future executions take place within the walls of the state prison.

In spring 1904, voters re-elected Brown to a second two-year term based on clearing up tax shortages, collecting a backlog of delinquent taxes, and conducting a flawless execution that received press coverage around the Northwest. He began his second term with a regional reputation as an honest and serious law enforcement man.

Baker City, however, had a reputation as a wide-open town allowing liquor sales on Sundays, gambling, and, in Chinatown, opium dens. City officials saw these illegal vices as a way to bolster city coffers by levying moderate fines and, it was alleged, by collecting payments under the table for not shutting down illegal operations.

With citizens complaining to him about lax law enforcement, Brown turned his attention to illegal activity within Baker City. After he conducted a few raids on gambling houses, gamblers were heard rhyming “Brown’s in town,” and “Brown’s out of town,” and finally, “Brown, Brown, terror of the town.”

After cleaning up Baker City and aware he had achieved a state-wide reputation as a strict law enforcement man, Brown decided not to run for a third term as sheriff and instead, in the spring of 1906, filed to run in the primary election as a Republican candidate for the office of Governor of Oregon. Brown ran on a platform that declared, among other things, “I am the only candidate for the office of chief executive of this state, on either the Republican or Democratic ticket, whose platform demands the rigid enforcement of all laws.” Brown’s campaign was short, vigorous, but ultimately unsuccessful. Only in Baker County did he win a plurality of votes.

Several months earlier, on the evening of December 31, 1905, former Governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberger, was blown up outside his residence in Caldwell, Idaho, by a dynamite bomb attached to the gatepost. Sheriff Brown by chance on business in Boise was invited to board a special train to Caldwell containing the present Governor of Idaho and law enforcement officials.

The investigation of Steunenberg’s assassination soon focused on Harry Orchard, a supposed sheep man. Upon seeing Orchard, Brown said he was sure he knew Orchard by another name as a miner at the Bourne mining camp in Baker County. Brown subsequently participated in a search of Orchard’s hotel room, where bomb-making materials were found. Authorities arrested Orchard on a charge of murder.

Orchard soon made a full confession, not just to Steunenberg’s murder but to numerous other murders of enemies of the Western Federation of Miners at the behest of its leadership. Steunenberg’s murder, according to Orchard, was revenge for his having busted a miners strike in northern Idaho in 1898.

Brown’s connection to the Steunenberg case did not end upon his return to Oregon. Orchard implicated Steve Adams as involved in the plot to kill Steunenberg. Idaho authorities needed Adams to corroborate Orchard’s story in order to convict the Federation’s leaders. Adams, it so happened, was located at a ranch in Baker County. Brown arrested Adams and convinced him to waive extradition to Idaho and to cooperate fully with Idaho authorities. Initially Adams corroborated Orchard’s story but later recanted.

Brown was murdered during the Boise trial of Federation official William Hayward, a trial that drew national attention. But without Adams’ corroboration, Hayward was found not guilty. Orchard, however, was sentenced to be hanged, a sentence later commuted to life in prison.

Although no one was convicted of the murder of Frank Steunenberg, even the judge in the Hayward trial was convinced that the Federation had ordered the hit. But who murdered Harvey K. Brown? Had the Federation ordered Brown murdered as revenge for his assistance to Idaho authorities in the Steunenberg case? The identical modus operandi of the murder certainly threw suspicion on the Federation. However, authorities never developed any solid leads. Brown’s murder remains unsolved.

© Gary Dielman
1515 4th St.
Baker City, OR 97814
August 24, 2010

Thank you Gary for allowing me to publish this article about Sheriff Harvey Brown. The article appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of the Oregon Sheriff's Association Magazine. Gary also provided the top photograph of the fence to Sheriff Brown's home and I added the one of the fence/gate to the Steunenberg home. You can click on the photos for larger views. Gary is working on a book about Sheriff Brown and you can bet I will snag a copy and talk about it here when it happens. John

From Online:

1907 Bomb Murder of Sheriff Harvey Brown

Who Killed Harvey Brown
Harvey Brown excerpts in Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas

From my Spotlights:
(Sheriff Harvey Brown) Charges Bomb to Miners
Bomb Injures Ex-Sheriff Harvey Brown
May Be Victim of Miners' Union
Idaho Detective Bomb Victim

More articles/links of interest from Gary:
James W. Virtue article in Oregon Historical Quarterly

Library's Historic Photo Collection article in Oregon Historical Quarterly

Oregon Encyclopedia article about William H. Packwood

Oregon Encyclopedia article about Virtue

Oregon Encyclopedia article about Dan Kelly, 100-yard dash world-recorder holder for 23 years.

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