Offbeat Oregon: by Finn JD John

Continued from the Aug. 24 edition

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.
(Sources: “The Murder of Cyrenius C. Hooker,” an article by Thomas Branigar published in the December 1974 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; “Back to the Past: No jail? Auction the prisoner,” an article by Scott McArthur published July 13, 2021, in the Polk County Itemizer-Observer)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.