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LOCAL HISTORY: Salem’s hanging grounds

This column was originally written for the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society’s publication in a slightly different form and is shared here with permission.

There’s a fear walking in the empty SAIF parking lot after dark. Located near Pringle Park, on the banks of Salem’s Mill Creek, rumors of ghosts have been reported. It is the location of Salem’s 19th century “hanging ground.” I count at least four public hangings on this site:  

April 18, 1851 – William Kendall 

Diane Goeres-Gardner in her book “Necktie Parties: Legal Executions in Oregon” covers these trials and executions in detail. William Kendall was the first official hanging in Oregon’s history.  

Goeres-Gardner tells us that William Kendall and William Hamilton had a long running feud about their pigs. Neighbors were expected to help each other during the slaughtering time and share the meat. Both men claimed that the other stole pigs.

Kendall had a short temper and was generally not a good neighbor. Because of the feud he refused to help Hamilton at the seasonal butchering. Locals often heard Kendall threatening Hamilton over pigs and other things. On the day of Hamilton’s murder, several farmer families had seen Kendall heading towards Hamilton’s farm with a gun. He was later seen returning down a trail on his horse following a distant gun shot heard by many.  

No one had actually witnessed the murder, yet circumstantial evidence led the Marion County Coroner to arrest Kendell on the night of the murder. The next day, a grand jury returned an indictment against Kendall for first-degree murder. The trial lasted a couple of weeks.  The 12 man jury adjourned for a half hour and returned a verdict of guilty. 

Kendall was sentenced to hang on April 18, 1851, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.  A gallows was erected on the current corner of Trade and Church Street. Even for a small town, the public execution drew quite a number of gawkers. Goeres-Gardner shares that Kendall maintained his innocence right up until the rope ended his life.

Sue Bell’s “Haunted Salem” article on the Williamette Heritage Center webpage adds a scary observation to this story:

“We can never know if the ghost of William Kendall still roams the premises. At present, this is the site of a covered parking lot for the SAIF Building; should there be any strange activities reported after dark in the parking structure, it could be a ghostly Kendall still trying to capture someone’s attention and protest his innocence”.

April 2, 1859 – Charles John Roe

Roe sliced open his wife Angelica’s throat with a knife while she held their two year old son.  

Roe was one of the earliest white arrivals to the Hudson Bay post at Fort Vancouver in 1834.  He stated that he murdered his second wife Angelica, to keep any other man from enjoying her. Goeres-Gardner states in her book that his wife prior to their marriage had affairs with several men representing all colors and creeds. She was reported to be a beautiful woman.

He did not try to escape from the murder site and was quickly arrested and lodged in the new brick Marion County Jail.  Roe confessed to the murder and a trial found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. Almost 1,000 people watched his execution. Women and children were in attendance.

You can wonder if his ghost now haunts the hanging grounds, a large knife dripping with his wife’s blood, proclaiming his love for his wife and child to anyone he meets there.

May 17, 1859 – George Beale and George Baker (a double hanging)

George Beale (tavern owner) and Baker (hired hand) were convicted of the murder of Daniel Delaney, Sr., at his home south of Salem (Delaney Road) They had discussed, several times, a rumor spread around Salem, that Delaney was thought to keep several thousand gold dollars in a keg underneath the floor of his cabin. The two men planned robbery at the Delaney farm.  During the confrontation with Delaney they both shot and killed him and attempted to kill his African-American son, Jackson. 

Ben Maxwell, an early 20th century journalist shared the details from contemporary newspaper stories that followed the trial and the hangings. After their capture they were convicted and sentenced to be hanged in Salem, near the area now known as Pringle Park. 

Eighty years after the crime and punishment, Maxwell wrote the following story in the Capital Journal:

“Both murderers were confined in a small red jail at the northeast corner of the courthouse grounds. Wilbur Brothers went about building a double-gallows in a grove of small oak trees at the southeast corner of Church and Mill streets. chambers in the old Griswold building. Judge Boise sentenced the pair to be hanged on May 17, 1865. It was the first execution in Salem and none thereafter was ever better attended.

“Folks drove in from all parts of Marion County and others from Polk, Yamhill, and Linn. Some came on foot. They brought their women along and children too. Gentlemen were there in top hats and flowered waistcoats. Barflies who used to hang around Beale’s place turned out to see him die … the Marion Rifles of 25 or 30 men formed around this local hotel [horse] bus that came to the jail to pick up the condemned. Beale and Baker stood upon the scaffold facing a multitude. If they were repentant, they did not show it.

Mrs. JosieDelaney LaFore, then a child of 12 and a granddaughter of old man Delaney, recalled that one of them, just before swinging into eternity, tried to spit upon William Delaney, one of the old man’s sons. Hawker’s cries interrupted the last thoughts of Beale and Baker. A few days before the execution both confessed and tried to fix the blame on one another. Frederick G. Schwatka, a printer, seized upon the confession as a business opportunity and was selling his documents to the crowd as a souvenir. Sam Headrick was sheriff. It was his duty to spring the trap – which he did, and then dropped upon his knees in prayer to ask forgiveness.

In death, Beale and Baker had small interest for the spectators, who silently slipped halters and drove away. A few remained to arrange disposal of the bodies. No churchwarden was anxious to receive them within the sacred precincts of their cemetery. Baker’s relatives, some commentators relate, claimed his remains and removed them to a family plot.

No one claimed the body of Beale, not even his wife. Daniel Waldo, a local farmer was disgusted that no one stepped-forward to collect the body for burial. He retrieved his horse and wagon. Then he collected Beale’s body and drove to the Waldo farm 10 miles away in the Waldo Hills.  He gave Beale a decent burial in the Waldo Cemetery.  

It is rumored that the murderers buried the stolen gold near Salem. Many people, even to this day, have tried looking for it without “reported” success.  Can you hear the clang of a shove against dirt and rock, in the Salem area, on dark cold nights as the two men, in death, search for their buried lost gold treasure? 

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