Famous Cases: The Story of Oregon’s Scandalous Senator Returns to the Pioneer Courthouse

The Famous Cases series made an appearance on December 1, 2017 at the historic Pioneer Courthouse, the 1875-1933 home of the U.S. District Court. The three-hour program co-sponsored by USDCHS and Oregon Women Lawyers included an elder law presentation by Gabrielle Richards, of Martin & Richards, LLP, and a lecture on the 170-year history and origins of federal Indian policies in Oregon by Professor Stephen Dow Beckham, Emeritus Professor of History at Lewis & Clark College.

The final presentation by Doug Pahl of Perkins Coie LLP was a biographical review of the colorful and infamous life of John Hipple Mitchell, Oregon’s four-term Republican U.S. Senator and lawyer to Marcus Neff of Pennoyer v. Neff fame. According to historian E. Kimbark MacColl, “[w]hile a litigious, economically swelling Portland probably needed rough-and-tumble lawyers in the 1860s and ‘70s, the city received more than it expected in the person of John H. Mitchell.”

Hipple or Mitchell?

Senator John Hipple Mitchell of Oregon. Photo by Matthew Brady, ca. 1865-80. Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpbh-04276

John Mitchell Hipple was born in 1835 in Butler, Pennsylvania. He took up teaching and rather inauspiciously started a family after seducing his 15-year-old student, Sadie Hoon, who became pregnant. They married. John began practicing law and he and Sadie had three children. Unhappy in his marriage, John suddenly disappeared in 1860 with his mistress, his daughter, and $4,000 in client funds held by his law firm.

On Independence Day, 1860, John and his daughter (but not his mistress) showed up in Portland. He changed his name to John H. Mitchell and, claiming he was a widower, he married Mattie Price of Oregon City. Mitchell came to the frontier to disappear, to make a new start, but his successes in law and politics—often by questionable methods—brought him more national acclaim than a man with his past could afford. In 1872, just three months after being sworn in as Oregon’s U.S. senator, Mitchell’s Pennsylvania past caught up with him.

Senator Who?

Oregonians suddenly realized they’d elected a man living under an assumed name, who had seduced and was forced to marry his 15-year-old student, who abandoned his family, who stole a significant sum of money from his law partners, and who was a bigamist. Mitchell did not deny the allegations. Instead, he asked his constituents to judge him on his actions since arriving in Oregon, not for his youthful mistakes in escaping a bad Pennsylvania marriage. Surprisingly, it appears they did. Moreover, a Senate committee looked into the matter and declined to open a formal investigation into such dated allegations.

Gibbs 1873 Election Fraud Investigation

After escaping one scandal, Mitchell launched almost immediately into damage control on another. The special congressional election in October 1873 was a dirty one, and Mitchell, as the senior elected Oregon Republican, was closely involved. Vote buying was widespread, but more so on the side of the so-called Mitchell Republicans. Within three weeks of the election, Oregon’s aggressive U.S. attorney, Addison Gibbs, opened an investigation and sought indictments. To Gibbs’ surprise, despite the strong evidence, the grand jury declined to issue indictments. Gibbs suspected the grand jurors had been bribed so he empanel a new one.

Mitchell began to feel the heat. He went over Gibbs’ head, asking the U.S. Attorney General, George H. Williams, to direct his subordinate to back off. Williams, an exceedingly prominent Oregonian who was then President Ulysses Grant’s nominee to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, directed Gibbs to terminate his investigation. Gibbs, who was known to his friends as “Guts,” refused, so the Attorney General fired him. Although Grant withdrew Williams’ Supreme Court nomination as a result of Williams’ financial improprieties at the Department of Justice, the uproar over the Gibbs firing did not help his cause.

Love Letters

Mitchell’s adopted state overlooked many of his other brushes with scandal. Four days prior to his Senate election in 1885, the Oregonian published a number of Mitchell’s love letters to his current wife’s younger sister, Carrie Price. Mitchell called it fake news—the imaginings of his political enemies and a biased media. Mitchell weathered the storm and was again returned to the Senate, this time for two terms.

Pennoyer

Mitchell, as a lawyer, became the focus of the Famous Cases series as a result of his roles in two cases. The first was Pennoyer v. Neff, in which Mitchell played an often overlooked role as the instigator. In 1850, Marcus Neff filed a claim to 322 acres in northwest Portland under the Donation Land Act of 1850. Twelve years later, the federal government had taken no action on the claim. Frustrated, Neff retained Mitchell. Within two years, Neff received word the government would grant the claim.

No longer required to remain in Oregon, Neff moved to California. After Neff had left Oregon, Mitchell sued him in Multnomah County Circuit Court for an unpaid $254 legal bill. The court approved notice by publication in the Pacific Christian Advocate. When likely illiterate Neff predictably failed to appear, the Court entered a default. At the subsequent sheriff’s sale, Mitchell purchased the property for $341. Three days later, he sold the property to Sylvester Pennoyer “for good and valuable consideration” of an undisclosed amount. Pennoyer lived on the property, improved it and paid taxes on it for eight years, at which point Neff returned to Oregon and sued Pennoyer for ejectment, the action that resulted in the famous case of Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714 (1878).

Oregon Land Fraud Trial

The second Famous Case, Mitchell found himself ensnared as a defendant in the 1905 Oregon Land Fraud Trials, which took place in the Pioneer Courthouse. Senator Mitchell’s return to the Senate in 1901 roughly coincided with Progressive reformer Theodore Roosevelt’s ascension to the presidency. Roosevelt and his administration believed the federal land claims system in the Northwest, intended to benefit individual settlers, was instead rife with fraud, and simply funneling large swathes of land to timber barons and land speculators. Roosevelt suspected members of the Oregon congressional delegation, including Mitchell, were facilitating the fraud. Mitchell had met his match.

The sensational two-week trial in June and July 1905 consumed Oregonians and was front page news across the country. Mitchell was done in by a self-righteous Senate speech condemning one of his co-conspirators, the discovery that a 1901 document that appeared to exonerate him was actually created in 1904, by cancelled checks evidencing illegal payments for his benefit, and an incriminating letter he’d written to his law partner with the post script “Burn this without fail.”

After eight hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty at 11:00 p.m. on July 3, 1905. After the jury was dismissed, Mitchell broke down, his political career was all but over.

The End

Mitchell appealed but would not live to see it through. A few months later, on December 8, 1905, he died in Portland as a result of a dental procedure gone wrong. He was 70 years of age and still a sitting U.S. Senator. Yes indeed, Portland had “received more than it expected in the person of John H. Mitchell.