Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2007
Oregon Legal Heritage
Fire(d) Storm:
U.S. Attorney Dispute Has Echoes in Early Oregon

By Fred Granata

The recent storm over the attorney general’s firing of eight United States attorneys brings to mind a similar episode in Oregon history. It involves a cast of colorful characters, all Oregon lawyers. First, some background on who these lawyers were:

John Hipple Mitchell aka John Mitchell Hipple. A Republican who served four non-consecutive terms as U.S. senator from Oregon, he was born John Mitchell Hipple in Pennsylvania in 1835. He attended public and private schools, studied law and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1857. Moving first to California, he assumed the name John Hipple Mitchell, probably to hide his whereabouts, and then came to Oregon in 1860, where he started a law practice devoted largely to corporate law and entered into Oregon politics.

This was the era of the freewheeling Ben Holladay, an early Portland entrepreneur and builder of railroads. Mitchell joined practice with Joseph N. Dolph (who later also became United States senator). The firm of Mitchell and Dolph represented Holladay’s vast interests, and in a short time they acquired a large practice representing commercial interests and, most importantly, Holladay’s railroads, even in their later incarnations as they failed and were absorbed by other railroad enterprises.

In 1872, the Oregon legislature elected Mitchell to his first term in the United States Senate. His opponents tried to prevent his being seated, charging him with bigamy, desertion and living under an assumed name. The Senate committee, however, decided that the charges did not merit investigation.1

Regarding him a scalawag and totally unscrupulous, the Oregonian leveled against Mitchell the most scurrilous of allegations and literally challenged him to sue:

We say now feeling conscious of the responsibility we incur in doing so, that the following charges against Mitchell are true and we will prove them in the courts of justice whenever he desires to call us to task, or we will make them good before any committee, hereby engaging that every charge shall be substantiated, not by mere rumor or common report, but by evidence such as fills the technical requirements of the legal rules. 2

Mincing no words, the Oregonian laid out a nine-count indictment. It alleged that in Pennsylvania Mitchell had seduced and impregnated Sarah Hoon, a 15-year old girl whom he married and with whom he fathered still more children. During the four years they lived together, Mitchell beat and maltreated her to such an extent that he was indicted by a grand jury and tried. Although the evidence of his guilt was overwhelming, he and Sarah settled the matter, and the prosecution was dismissed. Then, having abandoned the family and fleeing to California, where he assumed the name John Hipple Mitchell, he met and lived with Maria J. Brinker as her husband. He left her and moved to Oregon, where two years later he married a local woman although he had not divorced his wife. Mitchell also was accused of taking with him large amounts of his Pennsylvania clients’ money and leaving behind substantial unpaid debts.

Mitchell’s reputation was well known throughout the community even prior to the Oregonian’s exposé. In his diary Judge Matthew P. Deady remarked, "Talked with Gibbs about the Hipple affair — also Bellinger. I think he must go down. Seduction, desertion, theft, clandestine change of name, absconding and bigamy are too much for a man to carry in to the Senate."3 Deady described Mitchell’s election to the Senate as "a disgrace to the state and a reproach to humanity." Throughout his life Mitchell lived a personal, political and professional career fraught the whole time with scandal and corruption. He died in 1905. The town of Mitchell, Oregon is named after him.

George H. Williams was a Republican U.S. Senator from Oregon who, over the course of his life, held several high political offices. Born in 1823 in the Hudson Valley of New York, Williams began the study of law at age 17 in the office of Daniel Gott, a New York lawyer. He was admitted to practice four years later and moved to the territory of Iowa, where he established a law practice. When Iowa was admitted to statehood in 1847, he was elected judge, a position he held for five years.

In 1852, President Franklin Pierce nominated Williams to be chief justice of the Oregon Territory, a nomination that Williams never sought or even knew about. He accepted, but not without some hesitation, and arrived in Oregon in June 1853. Earnestly and actively opposed to slavery, then the burning political issue throughout the country, Williams in one of his first cases granted freedom to a slave brought to the free Oregon Territory. In the Oregon constitutional convention, to which he was a delegate, Williams strongly opposed the establishment of slavery in Oregon.

Elected as United States senator from Oregon in 1864, Williams quickly rose to national prominence. He was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s pallbearers, and accompanied the body to Springfield, Ill. A member of the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, he drafted and introduced historic legislation, the Reconstruction Act, the Tenure of Office Act and, most noteworthy, Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Williams served only one term, but soon after was appointed attorney general of the United States by President Ulysses S. Grant. Charged with enforcing the Reconstruction Act and tarnished with the scandals of the Grant administration, as well as his own personal scandals, his tenure as attorney general was filled with controversy. Following his nomination by Grant to be chief justice of the United States, the scandals raged, forcing Grant to request his withdrawal, which Williams did reluctantly.

After several years practicing law in Washington, D.C., Williams returned to Portland, entered into a law partnership with C.E.S. Wood and maintained a large and lucrative practice. Late in life, at age 79, with the backing of the John H. Mitchell political machine, Williams in 1902 was elected mayor of Portland. His administration was noteworthy both for its progressiveness and its scandals. Williams died in 1910, but despite his prominence there are no schools, buildings or monuments dedicated to him. Williams Avenue in Portland does bear his name, but that is because he named it.

Addison C. Gibbs, Republican governor of Oregon and later U.S. district attorney, was known to his friends as Guts Gibbs. Also a New Yorker, Gibbs was born in 1825. He taught school, studied law and was admitted to practice in New York in 1849. Arriving in Oregon in 1850, he first settled in Southern Oregon, from which he served as a member of the Oregon legislature in 1851-1852, and he later held two appointive offices.

In 1858, Gibbs moved to Portland and joined George H. Williams as a partner in the firm of Williams and Gibbs, which lasted until 1862, when Gibbs was elected governor of Oregon. In 1866, a time when such elections were done by the state legislature, Gibbs came within one vote of being elected to the Senate. Gibbs had been the choice of the Republican legislative caucus and believed he was a "shoo-in." But in a double-cross engineered by John H. Mitchell, Henry W. Corbett was elected instead. The devious Mitchell through a deceptive practice had previously caused Gibbs to lose $15,000 in a land transaction, and there was no love lost between the two.4 In 1872, upon the recommendation of Matthew P. Deady and Senator Henry W. Corbett, President Grant appointed Gibbs U.S. district attorney for Oregon.5 It is curious that Deady in his diary sometimes refers to Gibbs as "stupid" and "dumb." Addison C. Gibbs died in December 1886 in London where he spent the last two years of his life representing persons selling lands in the United States. Gibbs Street in Portland, the site of the OHSU tram, is named after him.

Matthew P. Deady, U.S. district court judge for Oregon, was born in County Cork, Ireland. He emigrated with his family to the United States and lived variously in Maryland, Virginia and Mississippi. He left home at the age of 17 and fortunately fell in with persons who nurtured him and helped him to become educated. He acquired a teaching certificate, taught school, studied law, was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1847 and commenced to practice law. Hearing of the California gold strike in 1849, he chose to go west to Oregon, not California. Arriving in April 1849, he settled in Lafayette, again taught school and was admitted to the Oregon bar in 1850. He was elected to the Oregon legislature, where he became an active and leading member. Deady codified the Oregon law and had a modest practice. In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed him associate justice of the Oregon territorial supreme court. He served with Williams as a delegate to the Oregon constitutional convention, in which he distinguished himself and of which he was elected president of the convention. Unlike Williams, Deady was pro-slavery. He gave no consideration that slavery was morally wrong and supported slavery simply because it was lawful.6 When Oregon became a state in 1859, Deady was offered the federal judgeship. Deady would often sit as a pro tem judge on the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. During his tenure as judge he achieved a national reputation for the legal scholarship of his opinions and other papers. Deady Hall at the University of Oregon bears his name.

Our story begins in 1872, when the Oregon Republican Party was controlled by John H. Mitchell and Ben Holladay. Recent disclosures of what Mitchell called his "youthful indiscretions" were problematic for the party. Still, Mitchell’s supporters voted their confidence in his integrity, ability and patriotism. Fearing that the story of Mitchell’s misdeeds would cause the Republicans to lose the election of a seat in the House of Representatives, Mitchell began to buy up the Portland vote. His vote buying was on such a scale that afterward the Oregonian estimated that one-fourth of the votes cast in Portland were illegal.

Because this was a federal election, jurisdiction over the irregularities was in the United States District Court — Addison C. Gibbs, district attorney, and Judge Deady presiding. They moved swiftly.7 So did Mitchell, who tried to remove Deady. This only served to harden Deady’s resolve, and when a grand jury was empanelled, just three weeks after the election, Deady read them a strong charge about illegal and corrupt voting.

To everyone’s astonishment, especially Gibbs, the grand jury refused to indict even in those cases where the evidence of guilt was overwhelming. Gibbs investigated and learned that the jury list had been prepared by unnamed but interested parties. Upon Gibbs’s motion, the grand jury was dissolved and a new one empanelled by selection at random from the assessment role.

Senator Mitchell had already found out that he could not touch Deady. He now attempted to get to Gibbs by going to Attorney General George H. Williams and demanding that he force Gibbs to cease the prosecutions or be removed from office.

This was a delicate and difficult time for Williams. Williams’ nomination as chief justice of the United States was not a popular one (some have said that the Eastern legal establishment could not stand the idea of a chief justice from the Wild West, that is, Oregon). The nomination was already wracked with several scandals, one involving alleged misappropriation of Justice Department funds, another involving the conduct of Williams’ wife who had treated the Senate wives with arrogance and condescension. There also were rumors that Mrs. Williams had taken bribes to persuade her husband to terminate some litigation, and there were doubts about Williams’ competence because of his losing the Credit Mobilier and Whiskey Ring law cases. And, at home in Oregon, still another scandal was brewing, not of Williams’ making, but one into which he was being drawn by the scoundrel Mitchell, who knew that if Williams was going to be confirmed as chief justice, he badly needed Mitchell’s support. Mitchell made his move. He threatened to withhold that support unless Williams would halt the prosecutions of the vote bribery cases.

Williams was not a crooked politician, but Mitchell caught Williams at a time when he was weak and vulnerable. So, on Nov. 27, 1872, Williams ordered Gibbs, his former partner, to cease presenting the cases to the grand jury. But Gibbs refused and continued to secure indictments but had not yet reached the ring leaders. He never had that opportunity, because Williams summarily fired him, charging insubordination.8 Deady’s diary makes mention of this episode: "They found 8 indictments for illegal voting and the DA (Gibbs) informs me that they would have found more if the Ring had not run off the witnesses."9

The Oregonian, which had strongly supported Williams’ nomination to be chief justice, now turned against him.

Because we said that unless Hon. Geo. H. Williams could explain his course in connection with the removal of the District Attorney for prosecuting the ring bribers, so as to show he had no criminal complicity with the ring, his appointment to the position of chief justice of the United States would be a national calamity …

… and no explanation has been offered — Mr. Williams attempted to use his official power to obstruct the administration of justice in Oregon, in order to shield a number of persons who had violated the laws of this country by bribing voters …

Is it best, is it safe, that a person who can be led into such interference with the administration of laws of the country by the courts of justice, should be made Chief Justice of these United States? … Judge Williams is a man of intellectual ability. He is a talented man. But he is not a man to walk alone against a strong pressure … Who is it that has abused the friendship of the Attorney-General … we all know. It is the anomalous Senator from Oregon — the Senator who answers at roll-call with an alias.10

As we know, Williams requested Grant to withdraw his nomination.

In 1903 an investigation by the U.S. Department of Interior revealed that tens of thousands of acres of prime federal timberlands in Oregon and Washington had been obtained by commercial timber interests through a widespread fraudulent scheme involving hundreds of persons. Mitchell, true to form, was in the middle of it. With Mitchell’s help, for which they paid him $2,000, three Oregon businessmen filed false land claims. Along with the three men, two Oregon congressmen, three state senators, a U.S. attorney and several other prominent businessmen, Mitchell was indicted and convicted. He was sentenced to a six-month term in the county jail. While the appeal of his conviction was pending, on Nov. 8, 1905, Mitchell died of a diabetic coma. This later scandal is the one alluded to in the motion picture, Reds, the story of John Reed.


1. Biographical History of the United States Senate, http://bioguide.congress.com.

2. The Daily Oregonian, Dec. 23, 1873.

3. Clark, Malcolm, Jr. The Diary of Matthew P. Deady 1871-1892, Pharisee Among the Philistines, Oregon Historical Society 1975, hereinafter referred to as Deady’s Diary p. 128.

4. Deady’s Diary p. 480.

5. Deady’s Diary pp. 38 and 41.

6. Clark, op cit, p. xxxv.

7. Deady’s Diary p. 154.

8. Deady’s Diary pp. 154-155.

9. Deady;s Diary p. 142.

10. The Daily Oregonian, Dec. 23, 1873.

The author is a member of the Oregon State Bar. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming biography of George H.Williams.

© 2007 Fred Granata. All rights reserved.

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