|In the 1870s and 1880s Portland attracted a large number of immigrants from all over the world. Picture Courtesy Portlandwaterfront.org|
Andersen, 20, an immigrant from Norway, arrived in Portland in 1874 and began a
career as a seaman on steamboats. In the 1870s Portland was becoming an
important Pacific coast port, but it was still difficult to get the large ocean-going
vessels all the way to the city with the narrow and dangerous channel down the
Columbia River. Portland historian Barney Blalock explains the process in his
book Portland’s Lost Waterfront.
Steam tugboats ran between Portland and Astoria to ferry freight and people
between the city and its closest seaport. This provided lots of good jobs for
both boat crews and longshoremen in Portland. Andersen worked the steamboats
for eight years, but he never managed to earn much money. Like most of Portland’s
seamen he lived a hand-to-mouth existence, alternately flush and broke. His
friends remembered that he often had to borrow money from them.
1881 Alfred had saved enough money to finance a trip back to Norway to visit
family. He was gone for nearly a year and returned to Portland broke, as usual.
While he was away Alfred heard about the success of his brother Charles who had
gone to Chicago around the same time that Alfred came to Portland. Charles, two
years older than his brother, ran a successful saloon in the Windy City and was
rumored to be wealthy. When Alfred returned to Portland he began writing to his
brother; extolling the virtues of muddy Portland and inviting him to
|Steamship traffic between Portland and Astoria was heavy, providing a lot of jobs. Picture courtesy of Portlandwaterfront.org|
Charles decided to check Portland out he did it in style. He sold his Chicago
saloon and convinced a young Swedish girl, Bertha Nelson, to quit her job as a
housemaid and travel with him. Charles and Bertha arrived in San Francisco on
September 28, 1882 and registered as man and wife at the American Exchange
Hotel. They were on their way to Portland and Charles let it be known he was in
the market to buy a saloon. He was not shy about being seen with “an inch thick”
wad of greenbacks that he carried in an ornate leather wallet. He was a little more
secretive about the wide leather belt he wore around his waist, stuffed with
twenty dollar gold pieces. He also had an open-faced gold watch and wore a
large gold ring with a flat dark stone.
didn’t recognize his brother when he met Alfred. The two men hadn’t seen each
other for more than eight years, but soon he was convinced that the man was
really his brother. Alfred and his friend George Reid, a North End saloon
keeper, took Charles all around town looking for a saloon to purchase. On
October 7 Charles found a place he liked and signed a lease with a man named
Marshall. The successful saloon keeper liked the prospects for business in the “wide
open town” that Portland had become. His brother had other plans for him,
Island is a large sand bar in the Columbia Slough near the mouth of the
Willamette River. Sand bars and snags were numerous in the Columbia and in the
Columbia-Willamette Delta causing a lot of difficulty for navigation. In the
1860s U.S Senator Henry Corbett, a Portlander, convinced the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers to begin dredging the Columbia Channel in a process that historian Blalockcalls ‘The Big Dig.” Dredging of the Swan Island and Post Office channels added
to the area of Swan Island and in 1882 it was a marshy island covered with
vegetation. It was a popular spot for bird hunters who would row out to the
island to shoot game.
|Swan Island was a hazard to navigation that continued to grow as the channel was dredged. Map Courtesy of Portlandwaterfront.org|
told his brother about the great hunting on Swan Island and offered to rent a
couple of shotguns and take him hunting. Charles was interested, but he
had an appointment in McMinnville on Sunday to look at another saloon. He
wanted to check out conditions in the smaller town before making a final
commitment to the bar in Portland. The brothers agreed that they would go
hunting Monday morning, October 9, 1882. That night Alfred complained to his
friend George Ried that his brother had changed his mind about Portland and
gone to look at the place in McMinnville.
morning was a little misty on the river as the two brothers rowed out to the
marshy island. They had rented two muzzle-loader shotguns for the trip. The
clerk at the gun shop couldn’t remember for sure, but he thought that Alfred
had taken some buckshot along with the birdshot and powder he bought to go with
the rented guns. Captain William H. Whitcomb, a veteran of thirty years as a
seaman, was aboard the steam tug Wonder,
smoking his pipe and watching the river. He saw two men reach Swan Island in a
row boat and disappear into the bushes.
a half mile upriver Whitcomb heard two gunshots and looked back at Swan Island.
He saw a man run out of the bushes carrying two shotguns. The man dropped one
of them into a patch of bright yellow mud and struggled with the guns before
throwing them into a waiting row boat and rowing away across the river. “Wonder
what he needs two guns for,” thought the old steamer Captain. He shrugged his
shoulders and went back to work, not thinking of the incident until a dead body
was discovered on the island nearly three weeks later.
next morning Alfred Andersen returned the guns that he and his brother had
rented the previous day. The gun store clerk, William J. Riley, was annoyed to see
that the barrels of one of the guns were jammed with yellow mud and its ramrod
was broken. He remembered Charles from a conversation they had about a mutual
acquaintance in Chicago and he was surprised that he hadn’t returned. “Where’s
your brother?” he asked.
seemed distracted and hurried as he answered. “He’s gone back to Chicago,” he
said and hurried from the store. He went to the Depot Hotel where Bertha Nelson
was still waiting for Charles to return. Nelson, a very friendly and hard
working young woman, had taken a job as a housemaid with a Portland family in
the few days she and Charles had been in town. Alfred told her that Charles got
tired of Portland and went back to Chicago without her. Alfred proposed that
she continue her travels in his company and the congenial twenty-year-old
Swedish woman went along.
|Prosperity in Portland, fueled by the grain industry among others, was very attractive to immigrants looking for jobs. Picture Courtesy of Portlandwaterfront.org|
took a large packet of money, some clothes and some jewelry from his brother’s
trunk and then got rid of it somewhere. It was never found. He and Bertha took
a steamer to Kalama, Washington Territory and from there they went to Tacoma by
train. On their “vacation excursion” they stayed six days in Tacoma before
taking ship to Victoria, British Columbia where they stayed another week before
heading for San Francisco on the steamer Dakota.
Alfred and Bertha shared staterooms and hotel rooms along the way as man
and wife and Alfred introduced himself as a successful saloon keeper from
Chicago looking for a saloon to purchase.
Alfred Andersen lived in a house near the Willamette river that had a view of
the spot where J. Nelson Brown’s body was found after he was killed by brothel
keeper Carrie Bradley. It is amazing that his “vacation excursion” with his
brother’s mistress followed nearly the same trail that Bradley and her gang had
taken when they fled the city after bribing Police Chief James H. Lappeus.Maybe it was because he hadn’t paid a bribe that Lappeus wired a warrant for
the arrest of Andersen and Nelson to San Francisco and requested assistance
from the police chief there.
Andersen’s body was found on October 29 by a couple of hunters. It was so badly
decomposed it could only be identified by the clothes it wore, especially the
hat. The hat had been perforated by buckshot from the two blasts the dead man
had received. The dead man’s money belt, ring and watch were missing, although
a rusted cheap watch was found on the corpse. It was thought that the watch had
stopped at the time of death, but when it was wound it ran perfectly well.
Lappeus soon determined that Andersen’s brother had left town suddenly around
the time that the victim was last seen alive. He found a photograph of Alfred
in Davidson’s gallery and dispatched Detective Hudson with copies of the photo
on the killer’s trail.
arrived in Victoria, B.C. two days after Andersen and Nelson had shipped for
San Francisco. He was able to find out that they had left on the Dakota and wired Portland for further
instructions from Lappeus. The chief told him to come home and then wired the warrant
to San Francisco. The San Francisco police met the Dakota when it arrived and took the two suspects into custody.
Lappeus went to the City himself to bring the pair back to Portland.
claimed that he thought his brother had gone back to Chicago and Bertha backed
him up, but it didn’t take long for the prosecution to put together a strong
case against the seaman. Alfred Andersen was executed by hanging on July 20,
1883 in the same stockade that held the gallows when Archie Brown and Jack Johnson were hanged in 1879. Diane Goeres-Gardener in her book Necktie Parties describes the execution
and gives excellent information on the case. It is from Ms. Goeres-Gardner that
we get the rest of the story on Bertha Nelson, as well.
was held for several days in the Multnomah County jail as a material witness in
the case against Andersen. She was never charged as an accessory and she was
seen as a naïve party who was deceived. During the trial she made the
acquaintance of Antoine Anderson, a friend of Alfred’s and a witness against
him. Anderson had also been held in jail as a material witness before the trial
and he had struck up a friendship with the friendly young woman. In February
1883 Bertha and Antoine got married and moved to Slabtown, which was then still
a real neighborhood in northwest Portland; presumably they raised a large
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