John Hipple Mitchell: Oregon’s Career Criminal Senator

John H. Mitchell - Brady-Handy.jpg

In my last post, I wrote, “The rise of the Republicans produced some highly accomplished and notable legislators.” However, there were also scoundrels who came with this rise, such as Oregon’s John Hipple Mitchell (1835-1905). Indeed, the popular history YouTuber Mr. Beat included Mitchell as one of the “ten” worst senators in his list about two years ago, yet he managed to get elected to the Senate a whopping four times in his political career. 

First thing to mention, Mitchell’s name was not originally “John Hipple Mitchell”, it was “John Mitchell Hipple”. As a young Pennsylvania schoolteacher he seduced a 15-year old student of his, Sadie Hoon, and they married and had three children. Hipple conducted numerous extramarital affairs and when Hoon found out she confronted him, but he threatened to kill her if she told anyone and proceeded to openly bring his mistresses home (Perry). He subsequently abandoned his wife and children for a mistress in 1860 and fled to California with his youngest daughter and $4000 in client funds he “borrowed” from his law firm, which he did eventually pay back. Hipple would not long after take his daughter and abandon the mistress in California for Oregon, where he would live under the assumed name of “John Hipple Mitchell” and portray himself as a widower. He got remarried to Mattie Price in 1862 and that year he was elected to the State Senate. Two years later, he was elected Senate president. In 1865, he managed to swindle client George Neff through legal technicality out of land and sell it to future Governor Sylvester Pennoyer. However, Neff managed to recover the land after the Supreme Court found in his favor. George Neff would not be the only client he swindled. In 1867, Mitchell tried to get elected to the Senate but was defeated by party rival Henry W. Corbett. The following year, he pulled off the Caruthers swindle that benefited him and his friends immensely. Elizabeth Caruthers regarded herself as a widow as her husband had disappeared and was presumed dead, however not too long after she and her son died, sans heirs and will. The widow Caruthers had owned 640 acres of land south of downtown Portland that was soaring in value. Mitchell and his friends managed to persuade a St. Louis man named John C. Nixon to commit perjury in swearing his identity as the missing husband, for which he received an $8000 payoff, and then deeded the land to Mitchell and friends who proceeded to develop the land (John). As the personal attorney of transportation magnate Ben Holladay, he built up enough support by 1873 to oust Corbett. Accusations abounded that Holladay had bribed legislators to vote for Mitchell, but one of his allies, Attorney General George H. Williams, killed the investigation at Mitchell’s request. Williams himself would face multiple scandals in his long career but never convicted.

Although a leading figure in Oregon’s Republican Party, Mitchell never had full support in the party, and his faction would battle the Corbett faction throughout his career. As a senator, he had still not divorced the woman he married in Pennsylvania, making him a bigamist. In 1874, he officially changed his name to John Hipple Mitchell, but this didn’t prevent the scandal of his bigamy being reported in 1878. His foes tried to get him expelled, but the Senate Committee opted not to act as they thought it wasn’t relevant. The Oregon public was forgiving too after Mitchell admitted to acts of youthful folly but asked them to consider his service since moving to Oregon. Indeed, while he had employed his skillset to seduce women and to swindle, he also employed it to bring home the bacon for Oregon, including securing funding for the construction of multiple lighthouses and the Cascade Locks. Mitchell stood for certain regional interests, such as timber logging as well as supporting the Chinese Exclusion Act, a popular position at the time among white workers in the West. However, he also served transportation magnate Ben Holladay and the Southern Pacific Railroad, promoting their interests without fail. Mitchell, consistent with his character, had no qualms about pushing the federal government to break agreements with Indian tribes to gain their timber-rich lands.

Despite the Oregon public excusing his past actions in light of his Senate service, he lost reelection to a Democrat in 1879 as Democrats had gained control of the state legislature. In 1883, Mitchell tried again but he couldn’t get enough support, thus he had his supporters vote for his law partner and ally Joseph N. Dolph, who was elected. He succeeded in securing election in 1885 despite a news story revealing love letters from him to his wife’s younger sister. Although not a strongly conservative Republican (MCI: 69%), he opposed many reforms of the Populist Party, as did the Old Guard, but backed free coinage of silver. A popular figure, Mitchell was reelected in 1891. However, his stance on silver cost him among conservatives and in 1897, his opponents managed to deny him reelection by refusing to provide a quorum for the Oregon legislature to conduct business for the whole session. This caused the state to have only one senator for over a year. Finally, in a special 1898 session, Joseph Simon, part of the Corbett faction, was elected. But Mitchell was not done yet! In 1901, he succeeded in getting enough supporters elected to win election to the Senate for a fourth time and the following year got George H. Williams, the attorney general who stopped the investigation into his first election, elected Portland’s mayor. In 1903, Mitchell succeeded in getting another ally, Charles W. Fulton, elected as his colleague. He had yet another victory when in the following year he secured funding for the Lewis and Clark Exposition and Oriental Fair, which was a resounding success and much of this is credited to the funding (Tatom). However, the end of the road was near.

In January 1905, Mitchell was indicted in the Oregon Land Fraud scandal based on the testimony of defendant Stephen Puter the previous month, who stated that he had bribed him $2000 to advocate for fraudulent land claims through the United States General Land Office for private interests wanting to secure public lands for their timber (Langeveld). Although he protested his innocence, the evidence piled up against him. A 1901 dated letter used as evidence to exonerate Mitchell was discovered by investigators to have been a sloppy forgery created as the scandal was breaking in late 1904, and an incriminating February 1905 letter was discovered in which he instructed his law partner, Judge Albert H. Tanner, on what to say about him regarding the case and ended with “burn this without fail” (Langeveld). Both Tanner and Mitchell’s secretary testified against him and he was convicted, being sentenced to six months imprisonment and a $1000 fine, half of the bribe he accepted. Despite the conviction, Mitchell continued to have supporters who thought this prosecution was unfair and politically motivated. While his case was on appeal, he died from complications of dental surgery. Looking at Mitchell’s astounding lack of scruples, it is no surprise he made Mr. Beat’s worst list and it makes me think I should reevaluate my list of ten awful senators.

References

Allen, C. (2006). Land Fraud Trial of Senator John Mitchell. The Oregon History Project.

Retrieved from

https://www.oregonhistoryproject.org/articles/historical-records/land-fraud-trial-of-senator-john-mitchell/

John, F.D.J. (2021, August 5). Oregon’s own Snidely Whiplash. McKenzie River Reflections.

Retrieved from

https://www.mckenzieriverreflectionsnewspaper.com/story/2021/08/05/history/oregons-own-snidely-whiplash/3835.html

Langeveld, D. (2009, May 3). John H. Mitchell: scandal smorgasbord. The Downfall Dictionary.

Retrieved from

http://downfalldictionary.blogspot.com/2009/05/john-h-mitchell-scandal-smorgasbord.html

Perry, D. (2019, January 9). How a sex-crazed, corrupt and charismatic 19th century senator put Oregon on the map. The Oregonian.

Retrieved from

https://www.oregonlive.com/history/2016/08/how_a_sex-crazed_corrupt_and_c.html

Tatom, O. John Hipple Mitchell. Oregon Encyclopedia.

Retrieved from

https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/mitchell_john_hipple_1835_1905_/

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