It was about 11:00 pm on November 19, 1919, a little over
a week after the Great War ended, that a black, or dark gray Hupmobile crossed
the Interstate Bridge from Vancouver, WA to Portland. The large convertible with the top up and
side curtains buttoned pulled off the road just south of the bridge and a tall
man with dark hair got out and walked back up the bridge approach to the toll
booth. C.G. Herrman, 54 year-old
long-time Portland resident, was on duty as bridge tender. As the man approached the tollbooth he thrust
two handguns through the window and forced Herrman to hand over about $123 in
change. There was more money in the
booth’s cash register, but the robber found the bag of change heavy and
unwieldy and left the rest. The robber
forced Herrman to accompany him as he walked back down the bridge approach.
|The Portland Police Bureau's first motorcycle "speed squad" was organized in 1915. Two years later the Multnomah County Sheriff's Department added motorcycle "speed cops" to enforce the traffic laws on the Interstate Bridge between Portland and Vancouver, WA. Portland Police Historical Society.|
Traffic around the bridge was pretty heavy for so late at
night. A group of soldiers returning
from a night on the town were walking toward the bridge on their way back to
Vancouver Barracks and the headlights of cars could be seen approaching from
both directions. “I’d kill you anyway if it wasn’t for that other automobile
approaching,” the robber snarled, motioning toward the car coming from Portland. He cautioned Herrman to keep his mouth shut
and quickly returned to the idling Hupmobile.
The walking soldiers spotted a woman waiting in the car at the base of
the bridge, but couldn’t get a good look at her. The Hupmobile drove back onto the road and
speeded south toward Portland.
The speed limit on the bridge approach was 20 mph and the
Hupmobile was going significantly faster than that as it passed the Standard
Oil filling station at the corner of Darby St. and Vancouver Rd. Behind a large billboard at the filling
station, Frank Twombley, a young father and six month veteran of the Multnomah
County Sheriff’s Department, and his partner Jack La Mont, sat on motorcycles
as “speed cops.” Twombley laughed as he
saw the dark sedan speed past. “There’s a good one,” he said. La Mont was
having some trouble with his motorcycle.
“You chase him, Frank,” La Mont said, “I’ll have my machine fixed by the
time you get back.” Twombley took off in
pursuit of the speeding car, knowing nothing about the robbery that had just
Twombley overtook the Hupmobile near the corner of Union
Ave. (now Martin Luther King Jr. Ave) and Portland Blvd. (now Rosa Parks
Blvd.). Still on a wartime schedule of
round the clock-work, there were several people on the street who witnessed
what happened next. The motorcycle drew
up alongside the sedan and Officer Twombley motioned for the driver to pull
over. One witness saw the driver’s hand,
holding a revolver, as he fired three shots at the pursuing speed cop. One bullet struck Twombley in the side and
passed through his heart and both lungs.
The motorcycle wobbled and hit the curb, spilling the mortally wounded
officer onto the roadway.
The Hupmobile didn’t even slow down as it sped south into
the city. Two passersby rushed Twombley
to the Emergency Hospital, but he was dead by the time they arrived. A Military Police car, alerted by the walking
soldiers, crossed the bridge in pursuit and was soon joined by Officer La Mont
on his repaired motorcycle. Radio, as a
tool of police, was still in its infancy, so it was not possible for officers
to radio in reports yet. The pursuing
officers found no trace of the Hupmobile and soon gave up, but it was the
beginning of one of the biggest manhunts in Portland up to that time. Multnomah County and the Interstate Bridge
Commission jointly offered a reward of $2000 for the capture of Twombley’s
killer; an all-points bulletin went out with descriptions of both the car and
the man; and, detectives obtained a list of all Hupmobiles registered in the
area and began an intensive search for the car.
The Great War had brought huge changes to Portland. The economy was booming as shipyards and
lumber mills worked twenty-four hour shifts to supply the war machine that had
finally defeated the Germans. Two years
of Prohibition, and the innovative crime policies of Mayor George Baker, had
made the city a safe haven for criminals of all kinds and crime rates were
rising. This meant that there were
plenty of “usual suspects” for the police to round up in their dragnet, but
Twombley’s killer laid low at the Dennison Apartments on SE Belmont until he
felt safe and then drove north out of town on a leisurely trip to Seattle.
|Jack Laird as he looked when he entered the Oregon State Penitentiary in 1919 to serve a life term for murder. Oregon State Archive.|
At the wheel was Jack Laird (real name John Knight
Giles), recently released from Washington State Penitentiary, and nearly out of
money after a successful train robbery at Mukilteo just weeks before. Laird was accompanied by a pretty young woman
named Augusta Carlson. The two of them
would stay away from Portland for about a week, before foolishly returning to
the city where their car was quickly recognized. By that time Portland Police had already
identified Laird from a laundry mark found on an overcoat he had discarded on
the night of the murder. The laundry mark took them to the Dennison Apartments
where they found a trunk that led them into the strange and twisted mind of
Jack Laird. Laird was an intelligent young high school dropout who saw himself
as a brilliant criminal mastermind, but his career had been extremely
disappointing so far.
Laird was born in Georgia, but moved with his family to
Everett, WA at a young age. The
intelligent young man with a soft southern accent did well in school, skipping
a couple of grades and dropping out at the age of fifteen. His parents divorced that year and the
troubled young man “left home for good” heading north into British Columbia
where he quickly found work on a surveying crew. Laird, who’s IQ was measured well-above
average at 116, learned skills easily and soon was a master with surveying
equipment. Along the way he was
introduced to the writing of Frederich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who
was just gaining popularity in the United States. Nietzsche’s writing convinced the young man
that he was superior to average people and that he was not subject to ideas of
morality and law. He decided that
working for a living was boring and that he was really cut out to be a criminal
After four years as a surveyor Laird headed south and
shortly after his twentieth birthday pulled his first job in Centralia,
WA. It was a disaster. Robbing a saloon the young hoodlum had
trouble getting away. He took a local
doctor hostage and forced the man to drive him out of town. After a couple of blocks the doctor tried to
get the gun away from the nervous criminal and Laird fired several shots before
running from the car. The doctor was
unharmed, but Laird was picked up less than an hour later and began his
education at the state prison in Walla Walla.
Drawing a five to ten year sentence for armed robbery,
the young crook was pardoned on August 14, 1918. Three years in the state
prison were not a waste for young Jack Laird.
On his release he was a confident criminal with newly learned skills and
the ambition to be the leader of a gang of desperadoes who could make a mark on
the Pacific Northwest. On September 23rd
Laird pulled the most successful job of his career, single-handedly robbing the
Great Northern railroad near Mukilteo, WA. The young train robber made what at first
seemed like a huge haul, over $76,000 in liberty bonds and certificates. On further examination it turned out that
more than $70,000 of the haul was non-negotiable, so Laird only had about
$6,000 to advance his nefarious plans.
He decided it was enough and headed for Portland.
Laird rented an apartment on SE Belmont near 34th,
carefully choosing rooms located close to the fire escape in case he had to
make a quick get-away. He began collecting outdoor and camping equipment,
firearms and other equipment, like surveying gear and a portable machinist’s
kit. Evidently he was equipping himself
to live self-sufficiently away from a city.
He recruited two brothers from Southeast Portland for his “bootlegging”
scheme. Using Liberty Bonds from the
Great Northern robbery he purchased two Hupmobile sedans and dispatched Jerry
and George Noltner to California where liquor was still legal. With a major chunk of his money tied up in
the bootlegging scheme and equipment, Laird turned to his search for a “moll.”
|Augusta "Amy" Carlson was a milliner and shopgirl when she caught Jack Laird's eye. She didn't seem to mind that he was a train robber and she liked the shopping sprees he funded. Oregonian Historical Archive, Multnomah County Library.|
Augusta Carlson, a pretty young shop girl at Olds,
Wortman and King Department Store, caught his eye immediately. He began to hang around the Department Store
and one evening managed to follow her home to the Hillcrest Hotel. Amy, as
Augusta preferred to be called, had a bit of a hard look to her face, but her
soft brown eyes and long dark hair went with an olive complexion to give her an
exotic look. Her affected French accent,
elegant dress and romantic lies about her past were very alluring. Jack took a
room at the Hillcrest Hotel and began to court Amy, who was already “engaged”
to a Portland doctor and widow of a young husband who killed himself three days
after their divorce was final. She
didn’t seem to mind that Jack was a train robber and she liked how generous he
was as she furnished his Belmont apartment with everything she could think of
at his expense. Three days after they
met Amy and Jack were engaged and two days later she moved into the Dennison
Apartments with him on the promise they would be “married very soon.”
When the Noltner brothers finally returned to Portland in
November, 1919 they brought bad news with them.
Their Hupmobile, loaded with a valuable and expensive stash of high
quality liquor, was stuck in mud and snow in the McKenzie Pass in the Cascades
far south of Portland. Desperate for
cash after a shopping spree with Amy and with the majority of his assets stuck
in the snow, Laird went to Plan B. Amy
had gained a good reputation as a lady’s milliner while working in the downtown
Department Stores and in an age of fashionable hats she had entrée into some of
the wealthiest homes in Portland. The wives of William M. Ladd, banker and
scion of the Ladd fortune, Frank J. Cobb, “millionaire-lumberman,” Arthur C.
Spencer, chief attorney of the O.W. R & N railroad/shipline, and J. D.
Farrell, president of the O.W.R. & N., invited her into their fashionable
homes to help them have the most stylish hats.
Amy’s knowledge of the homes of such important men gave Laird the idea.
Laird, who never seems to have understood that his real
talent was as a writer, made elaborate plans.
Typing detailed instructions and self-justifications while wearing
rubber gloves so as to not leave fingerprints on the keyboard, he concocted a
plan to kidnap one or more of the men on his list and hold them for $50,000
ransom each. The letters stated that the
kidnappings were being executed by a large gang that had kidnapping experience
all over the country. Laird signed his
epic instruction letter “nameless et al.”
Not trusting his incompetent henchmen, Laird hired a young jitney
driver, a sort of gypsy cab, named “Kid” Maples to drive him around on November
19, 1919 and put his plan into action. Telling the driver that he had important
information that had to be rushed to Salem as soon as he made several calls,
Laird went to the home of each man on his list, starting with William M.
Ladd. Like all of Laird’s criminal
capers, the Kidnap Plot was meticulously planned but had a fatal flaw. He had forgotten to learn the routines of his
victims so he could catch them. At each
house he found the occupants out and his Kidnap Plot was foiled before it
began. Returning to the Dennison
Apartments late in the evening Laird must have been in a foul mood and very
short of cash.
Around 8:30pm Jack and Amy jumped into their dark
Humpmobile sedan and drove north toward Vancouver, WA. Desperate for money Jack hoped to pull off
another train robbery and bring in a good haul.
In November, 1918 Vancouver was a military town and the train depot was
heavily guarded by armed soldiers. Amy
said that they spent quite a while in the parking lot looking for a weakness to
exploit, but finally headed back to Portland in disappointment. She said that the tollbooth robbery must have
been a spur of the moment decision, because he pulled off the road suddenly and
was gone for only ten minutes. She said
by that point he seemed wild and she was afraid of him. He was carrying two guns on his body and had
a third under the driver’s seat of the car.
After the shooting Jack, said, “What have I done?” and seemed to panic
when she told him he had killed a speed cop.
Jack was charming on the witness stand and had the jury
laughing along with him more than once as he told the crazy story of how he had
been “framed up” for the tollbooth job, but the evidence was solid. Amy testified against him and soon after the
trial married again. She remained in hiding from Laird and over the years ran two successful clothing businesses in small
southwest Washington towns. Jack was
sentenced to life in prison and soon moved into his new home, a tiny cell in
Prison was a good place for Jack.
He started working in the print shop and soon became editor of the prison
magazine. As a writer Laird was a bit
pedantic and preferred dense subject matter that the State Prison guards found
incomprehensible, but soon he hooked up with Elliot “Mickie” Michener, another
inmate serving a sentence for armed robbery.
Mickie and Jack, who both had discipline problems in their first days
at the penitentiary, soon became model prisoners. Between 1928 and 1931 they co-wrote more than
two dozen action/adventure stories, some with a humorous bent, featuring their
western hero Black Bill. The stories
were very popular and ran in Short
Stories and West pulp
magazines. Their editor, Roy de S. Horn,
of Doubleday & Doran estimated that the stories were read by more than a
million readers and he believed the two men, who wrote under the name Jack
Laird, could make good livings as writers and be rehabilitated into law abiding
citizens. Jack and Mickie had other
|Jack Laird in 1935. Oregon State Archive.|