Offbeat Oregon: by Finn JD John

After frontier murder, suspect was auctioned off as a temporary slave.

IN THE FIRST month of 1852, everyone in the frontier community of Cynthian was talking about the big crime wave.
Well, it was big by frontier Oregon standards. Although it was (and still is) the seat of Polk County, Cynthian — which was renamed Dallas later that same year — was a tiny place, with no more than a few hundred residents.
But, it seemed, one of those few hundred people was a burglar, and had hit three different homes over the previous few months.
Folks around Cynthian had a suspect in mind, or at any rate they later claimed they did. Their suspicions centered on a laborer named Return Everman.
Return Everman and his brother Hiram were new arrivals in town, having traveled to Cynthian on the Oregon Trail the previous summer, and were living with the Goff family on their homestead claim as hired hands. The community’s impressions of the two were mixed — everyone seems to have gotten along very well with Hiram, but Return had a more squirrely reputation.
So nobody was very surprised when, in January of 1852, Return was spotted sneaking out of Cyrenius C. Hooker’s farmhouse when the family was away. And when Hooker came back home, and found that the unknown burglar had struck again, he was not slow to point the finger at Return Everman.
There wasn’t any proof. Everman, it later turned out, had hidden the pocket watch he’d stolen from the Hooker home under a log by Rickreall Creek, and he stoutly denied having done the burglary.
But Hooker didn’t back down. And Everman was afraid to back down. He figured that most of the community believed him to be innocent, but he thought if he tried to patch things up with Hooker, they’d interpret that as evidence of a guilty conscience and turn against him.
So he decided it would be best if he just went ahead and, well, murdered him.
“I would rather the news would get home that I had killed a man for trying to injure my character, than for news to go home that I had stolen a watch,” he wrote later, in his written confession.
Having decided to do this, he started talking about it very openly. He told his brother Hiram, as well as Samuel Goff (his boss, the owner of the farm at which he and Hiram were living and working) and another friend named David J. Coe. Nobody seems to have taken the threat seriously, though.
A few weeks went by, and a group of the neighbors decided to put together a party for a journey south to the gold fields — the gold rush was still in full swing in ’52, of course. Hiram Everman was going with them, along with Goff and Coe … and Hooker. Because Hooker was going, Return Everman refused to join them.

BACK IN CYNTHIAN, the fugitives were lodged in an upstairs room in the county courthouse — Polk County didn’t have a jail yet. Both the Everman brothers, along with Enoch Smith and David Coe, were put in leg irons under guard there. Return Everman, of course, was charged with murder; the others were all charged with being accessories before and after the crime.

Of the four, only one “copped a plea” — Hiram Everman pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact, for lending Return a horse, and the other charges were dropped. Then David Coe was tried, found innocent, and released.
That left Enoch Smith and Return Everman himself.
Return’s case came up first. It was over rather quickly, and he was sentenced to be hanged.
Smith’s case was more complicated. Lending Return Everman $250 after having offered to pay him that same sum as blood money, in front of witnesses, looked an awful lot like a murder-for-hire put-up job, which, of course, was definitely a hanging offense.
But one of the members of Smith’s jury balked. The juror believed him to be guilty, but thought the death penalty morally indefensible and refused to be a part of sentencing someone to hang. A new trial would have to be scheduled.
This brush with death scared Smith badly. In desperation he tried making a break from the “jail,” jumping out of the two-story window when his guard was getting a drink of water; but he hurt himself too badly to run, and was soon recaptured. Back to court he went, and was found guilty. He was sentenced to be hanged a week after Return Everman.
But it was not to be. Return Everman, a day or two before his hanging, wrote a full confession giving complete details of who did what — and completely exonerated Smith in it.
The confession changed the community’s sentiments completely. Everyone figured Everman had no reason to lie at that point, just days away from Eternity. Smith’s hanging date was postponed a couple times, and finally the territorial governor pardoned him.

BUT PROBABLY THE most interesting story from this early Oregon murder drama was that of brother Hiram Everman. Hiram, having entered a guilty plea, didn’t go on trial; they simply sentenced him to three years in the penitentiary. There was just one problem, though: Oregon didn’t have a penitentiary yet.

So in lieu of incarceration, Polk County literally auctioned Hiram off as a temporary slave — an indentured servant on a three-year contract. He was purchased by Theodore Prather, a farmer from the Buena Vista area.

Hiram reported stoically for his term of service to the Prather. He must have been an extraordinarily hard worker, because when, two years into his three-year sentence, he was pardoned by Governor George Curry, Prather didn’t hold the loss against Hiram. Instead, he shook Hiram’s hand, slipped $20 into it, gave him a horse and a saddle, and wished him all the best. (He did petition the county commissioners for a refund of the unused portion of his sentence, though, after Hiram left. But the commissioners voted to keep his money.)

Hiram ended up down in the Myrtle Creek area of Douglas County, where he settled down, started a family, and enjoyed a blissfully crime-free life.