Sunday, May 3, 2009

John H. Mitchell: scandal smorgasbord

Image from

In the years following the Civil War, the United States began to fully capitalize on its resources and entered into a period of wealthy industrialists and excess. Humorist Mark Twain referred to the time, marked in large part by corrupt government officials, as "The Gilded Age." John Hipple Mitchell, a United States Senator throughout this period, is a good example of this age; it seems there was hardly any point during his career that wasn't touched by political turmoil and scandal.

Mitchell was born John Mitchell Hipple in Washington County, Pennsylvania in 1835. After graduating from the Witherspoon Institute, he worked as a teacher before being admitted to the bar in 1857. Two years later, he departed for California, staying only briefly in that state before moving up the coast to Portland, Oregon. Once there, Mitchell started practicing law again, albeit under the name John Hipple Mitchell.

Mitchell's rapid change of fortunes continued. After only two years in Oregon, he was elected to the state senate as a Republican in 1862. He served until 1866, and was named the senate president in 1864. The state legislature was charged with making appointments to the U.S. Senate in those days, and Mitchell missed the 1866 nomination by one vote. When the nomination came around again in 1872, Mitchell was successful in getting it.

The first accusations of political corruption against Mitchell involved his association with Ben Holladay, a transportation magnate whose interests had evolved along with the industry to include stagecoaches, steamships, and railroads. Mitchell was a legal advisor to Holladay, and supposedly turned down a $15,000 offer from the man during the 1872 Senate race to allow Holladay to capture the spot. Despite this action, Mitchell's opponents charged that Holladay had paid off members of the legislature, and that Mitchell was so much in the pocket of Holladay that he had declared, "Whatever is Ben Holladay's politics is my politics, and whatever Ben Holladay wants I want."

Mitchell was further dogged by opponents when he went to the capital. One issue was the transposition of his middle and last names, which some trumped up to "living under a false name." The more serious charges involved his past. Mitchell was accused of abandoning his wife and two children in Pennsylvania when he went West with a mistress, abandoning her in California and taking another wife in Oregon before divorcing his first one. His trip across the country, opponents charged, had also been sweetened by $4,000 stolen from his former law office.

The Oregon Historical Project states that Mitchell repaid the $4,000. However, Mitchell firmly denied the theft allegations when they surfaced, even producing dispatches from his former law partners as proof. "No man in Pennsylvania ever lost a cent by you," former partner John M. Thompson said. On the charges of bigamy and desertion, Mitchell was vaguer. He admitted to "domestic troubles of painful character, resulting in separation and divorce," but denied any wrongdoing. He referred to his decision to change his name as a way of trying to leave his past behind, "an indiscreet, ill-advised, and injudicious act; a great blunder, a foolish mistake." He was satisfied enough with his new moniker to legally change his name in 1874, however.

A Senate committee decided not to investigate the charges against Mitchell. Ironically enough, Mitchell was at the forefront of a debate on whether or not to seat the other Senator from Oregon in 1876. In that matter, he advocated that Lafayette Grover not be seated based on charges that bribery and fraud had brought Grover to office, as well as the basis of Grover's actions in the controversial Presidential election between Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes and Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden. Grover, who had been Governor of Oregon before resigning to take the Senate appointment, had tried unsuccessfully to disqualify a Republican elector due to his employment as a postmaster and replace him with a Democratic substitute. Grover was able to overcome the opposition and serve one term in the Senate.

Mitchell served until 1879, unsuccessfully ran for re-appointment in 1882, and was again sent to the Senate in 1885. Holladay still had two more years to live, and may yet have had some influence over the legislature's decision. Specifically, Mitchell was charged with giving payoffs financed by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company to 17 Democratic legislators to gain their votes. The New York Times printed a brief, bitter response to the affair from the Portland Oregonian in 1887: "'No United States Senator could keep his seat a single day if it was found that he had used money to secure one vote.' Thus says a Washington dispatch. It sounds well, but it won't go down in Oregon so long as John H. Mitchell is a Senator." Mitchell was re-appointed in 1891, but dissatisfaction with him and the legislature's politics prompted the formation of a populist People's Party the next year.

Despite the accusations of complicity with a transportation baron, Mitchell nevertheless served on numerous committees while in the Senate, including several related specifically to the nation's infrastructure. These included the Committees on Railroads, Transportation Routes to the Seaboard, Claims, Privileges and Elections, Coast Defenses, and Interoceanic Canals. He secured federal funding for the construction of lighthouses and the Cascade Locks in Oregon, as well as navigational improvements on the state's rivers. In what may have been a prelude to the final scandal that befell him, Mitchell also advocated the withdrawal of federal treaties for the Coastal Indian Reservation to open the land up for settlement.

Going against his own party, Mitchell was also a proponent of the free silver movement, which supported inflation and a withdrawal from the gold standard in favor of a less rigid monetary system. In a bizarre political move in his home state, a coalition of legislators opposed to the free silver movement refused to organize the state house in 1897. With no session to confirm him, Mitchell once again had to leave the capital.

The furor over the free silver movement had died down by 1901, when the legislature appointed Mitchell to a fourth term in the Senate. Three years later, investigators had discovered widespread land fraud in Oregon. Over the prior few years, such ignominious methods as false or forged affidavits and nonexistent persons had been used to lay claim to government-owned public lands, namely for timber uses. In December of 1904, a defendant by the name of S.A.D. Porter testified that he had paid Mitchell $2,000 to use his influence as a Senator to push the fraudulent claims through the United States General Land Office.

In January of 1905, Mitchell was indicted on charges of helping out Porter and others in the land fraud. Other government officials were also indicted, including a deputy sheriff of Multnomah County and Binger Hermann, who had been the Commissioner of the General Land Office when the fraud took place and had since become a Congressman. Other indictments came down against Mitchell, charging him with trying to fraudulently secure government lands, receiving $500 from Fred A. Kribs in 1902 and on six other dates to expedite timber claims on behalf of Kribs, complicity in an attempt to create a forest district in the Blue Mountains for the benefit of private individuals, and conspiracy in attempts to discredit the prosecutor, U.S. District Attorney Francis J. Heney. The New York Times reported that the state senate endorsed Mitchell for Senator in February 1905, despite the indictments (and despite the fact that Mitchell's term should have gone on until 1907).

Some of the most damning evidence against Mitchell came from his Oregon law partner, Judge Albert H. Tanner. A document provided to the grand jury showed that Mitchell had taken his return to government into account in 1901, and that the two men had altered their agreement to split the income to the firm and instead have it be paid solely to Tanner. However, investigators noticed that the document was a not-so-elaborate fake: it was printed on paper that had not been in production at the date of the purported document, had a different color of ink from that normally on the firm's correspondence in 1901, and had misspelled two words. With his son facing a possible perjury indictment for drawing up the document, Tanner crumbled and confessed that the document had been created when the accusations against Mitchell came out.

Mitchell was also not helped by a letter he wrote to Tanner in February, prior to one of his appearances before the grand jury. The letter strongly suggested to Tanner what the "facts" of the case were, including that Mitchell had no knowledge of the land fraud and did not benefit by any services. He conspicuously ended the letter with the instruction, "Burn this without fail."

Of the slew of accusations against Mitchell, it seems that only the ones related to Kribs' claims went forward. In July, Mitchell was found guilty of those charges; later in the month, he was sentenced to serve six months in prison and pay a $1,000 fine. Mitchell appealed the conviction. With a decision still pending in December, he died of complications following the extraction of four teeth. John M. Gearin, a Democrat, was appointed to replace him.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, The Oregon History Project, The Bethel Historical Society, "Oregon; The United States Senatorship" in the New York Times on Oct. 14 1872, "Oregon; The Weather and the Crops; A New United States Senator" in the New York Times on Jan. 3 1873, "Senator Mitchell; The Charges Against Him" in the New York Times on Jun. 14 1873, "Forty-Fifth Congress; Summary of the Day's Proceedings" in the New York Times on March 8 1877, "Not Believed in Oregon" in the New York Times on Jul. 12 1887, "Senator Mitchell Indicted for Fraud" in the New York Times on Jan. 1 1905, "Oregon Stands By Mitchell" in the New York Times on Feb. 8 1905, "Burn This Letter, Said Mr. Mitchell" in the New York Times on Feb. 13 1905, "Mitchell Indicted Again" in the New York Times on Feb. 14 1905, "Mitchell Guilty" in the New York Times on Jul. 4 1905, "Senator Mitchell Dead, With Appeal Pending" in the New York Times on Dec. 9 1905, "New Senator From Oregon" in the New York Times on Dec. 14 1905, The Green Bag: A Monthly Illustrated Magazine Covering the Higher and Lighter Literature of the Law, Volume XVII edited by Sidney R. Wrightington, Land of Giants: The Drive to the Pacific Northwest, 1750-1950 by David Lavender, Looters of the Public Domain by Stephen A. Douglas Puter and Horace Stevens, The Centennial History of Oregon, 1811-1912 by Joseph Gaston and George H. Himes, The Oxford Companion to United States History edited by Paul S. Boyer

No comments: