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Local criminals helped shape justice system for women, minors

Bilderback duo will speak on gender and justice at county museum talk


A century ago, a few high-profile criminal cases in western Washington County played key roles in the evolution of Oregon law with respect to the treatment of women and children.

A 14-year-old Gaston girl, for example, made headlines across the Northwest in 1919 when she was convicted of stealing a car and sentenced to a decade of hard time in the all-male Walla Walla penitentiary, where women convicts were kept in separate quarters to handle laundry and other chores for the male inmates.

Alta Brooks had been adopted into one of Oregon’s most prominent pioneer families. Her adoptive mother was a descendant of David Lenox, who is credited with leading the first wagon train across the Oregon Trail. When the rebellious Alta stole a car in Vancouver in 1919, her sentence of 10 years at the Walla Walla penitentiary created outrage over the incarceration of both women and children.

On her way to prison, however, the train she was on had to pass through Portland, where child-welfare advocate W.G. MacLaren secured a court order to free her. Today, the Portland area’s facility for juvenile offenders is named in MacLaren’s honor.

Charles Purdin, scion of the prominent family for whom Purdin Road north of Forest Grove is named, found himself embroiled in multiple controversies when he was tried for murder in the death of his ex-wife.

A celebrated veteran of the Spanish-American War, Purdin killed his ex-wife after seeing her with another man through a window of their former home. Purdin argued that he had the right to enter the home and “defend” himself from the other man, whom he killed with a hatchet, because he was not aware that his divorce from his wife was final. He also argued that the three shots to his wife’s head were accidental.Ken and Kris Bilderback

The trial made headlines, not only because of its sensational nature, but also because it was the first murder trial in the region to include a female juror. It’s unclear how her presence might have influenced the jury, which became hopelessly deadlocked, forcing a second trial.

Back then, men were often treated leniently if the victim was a woman deemed to be of low moral standards. But in the second trial there were five women on the jury, which convicted Purdin of manslaughter in the deaths of his ex-wife and her male companion.

His supporters petitioned the governor for mercy, citing Purdin’s health, military service and his wife’s behavior as extenuating circumstances. He was freed after serving about a year in prison.

The Naylor family’s notoriety is perhaps even more complicated and seems to indicate that 100 years ago, Oregonians considered consensual sex with an unmarried partner much worse than rape or domestic abuse.

Thomas Naylor was an elder in the Congregational Church and a founder of Forest Grove. But his sons had a knack for sullying the family reputation.

Hiram, for example, was arrested for domestic violence. And Charles was arrested for pointing a gun at a man who was protecting his wife from an alleged rape by Charles. Hiram and Charles were each freed after paying a nominal fine.

Those cases made few waves, but in 1910, Edward was accused of having illicit sexual relations with a woman who was not his wife—a nurse who had cared for him after he was wounded in an attempted murder. Yet another son, George, was arrested for allegedly having an affair with a married woman. Edward and George were ordered to pay

stiff fines—much higher than those paid by Hiram and Charles, who were convicted of violent crimes.

Edward’s case became even more significant after he died, when courts ruled that the woman he lived with was entitled to part of his estate, despite the fact that they were not married. The case marked a sea change for women’s rights in Oregon, where women had previously been barred from inheriting property even from their deceased husbands and were not allowed to even be guardians of their own children.

Western Washington County also produced two of the first female attorneys in Oregon — Manche Langley from Forest Grove and Fern Hobbs from Hillsboro. Each played critical — and opposite — roles in the battle to allow women to vote. Langley argued vigorously against suffrage, while Hobbs served as Governor Oswald West’s top assistant during the 1912 initiative that finally secured the vote for women.

Ken and Kris Bilderback are local

history authors who live near Gaston. These stories are excerpts from

their book, “Law and Order at the

End of the Oregon Trail,” Copyright 2015.

Want to hear more?

Ken and Kris Bilderback will speak on “Gender and Justice in Washington County” at the Washington County Museum’s next Crossroads Lecture.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4

Where: Washington County Museum, 120 E. Main St. in Hillsboro

Cost: $3

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