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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,306


This is the grave of Sylvester Pennoyer.

Born in 1831 in Groton, New York, Pennoyer grew up wealthy. His father was a wealthy farmer who had served in the New York state legislature. I don’t really know if Pennoyer went to a traditional college, but he did go to Harvard Law, where he graduated in 1854. He decided to got the frontier though to make his own life, moving to Oregon in 1855. His first job was as a school teacher, not a lawyer. Soon he did both. Probably not enough legal work in early Oregon for a full time job. Maybe not enough teaching work either. It was in neither that he made his money. In 1862, he started a timber firm. That is what made him his money. At this time, most of the Northwest’s timber went to San Francisco. There wasn’t a ton of accessible timber near the city and it went through that quickly. There was of course a lot of good wood deeper into California, but this is before railroads really came much to the West. So it was a lot easier to throw it into the water, get it to a ship, and just send it south to San Francisco.

Pennoyer kept in the business until 1868, when he sold out, or at least ended his active involvement. I imagine he still had some investments. Anyway, he bought the Oregon Journal at this point to promote his own political ambitions, but he sold it a year later.

Mostly, he spent the next couple of decades just doing rich Gilded Age guy stuff. But there is one very interesting, although rather convoluted highlight. So…there was a guy named Marcus Neff. He hired a lawyer named John Mitchell for something or another and then didn’t pay. Mitchell used and Neff’s property was sold at auction. But Neff didn’t know that it was being sold. Pennoyer bought it at auction. Neff sued. And this case went all the way to the Supreme Court. And it’s actually a really important case, one of the most important of the 1870s. Now, by the time Neff even sued, Pennoyer had owned the land for eight years. The courts, all way from Oregon to the Supreme Court, sided with Neff, in what became known as Pennoyer v. Neff. The details of the case were about jurisdiction between states. The lower courts ruled for Neff because Matthew Deady, the racist who just had the building named after him at the University of Oregon renamed, personally hated Pennoyer and because Mitchell was by all accounts super sketchy. But the Supremes decided to go big and do a sweeping decision about personal jurisdiction, creating much of the law around personal jurisdiction. I grant you this is probably important, but I am falling asleep just writing about it. I will note that Pennoyer would despise the Supreme Court for the rest of his life, and this was a man who could carry a grudge.

Well, back in Oregon, Pennoyer had ambitions. He was a Democrat who became a Populist. Like a lot of Oregonians, even though most were from the North, Pennoyer was a huge Confederate sympathizer. That was a problem in the Oregon of the 1880s and he probably lost the 1885 race for mayor of Portland through a little waving the bloody shirt. To be fair, I would have waved the hell out of the bloody shirt myself.

Pennoyer was a like a lot of Populist types. He hated minorities and at least claimed to love the white working class. In Oregon, that meant hating the Chinese and Pennoyer was a huge anti-Chinese baiter. The mid-1880 was the peak of both the Knights of Labor and anti-Chinese violence and Pennoyer was pretty into both. That was his base. And that’s what propelled him into the governor’s office in 1886. His whole campaign was hating the Chinese. His actual campaign slogan: “Keep the Mongolians Out.” Good times Oregon!

Now, there wasn’t actually that much he or anyone else could do about the Chinese at this point. After all, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed four years earlier and effectively all anti-Chinese legislation would pass Congress for another six decades. So he needed something else and that something else was being a huge asshole. He had a real way of just dismissing and attacking anyone he didn’t like, which included presidents. When Benjamin Harrison showed up in Oregon, Pennoyer not only wouldn’t meet him at the state line, but kept him waiting for a meeting at the state capitol! He also claimed that the state Supreme Court had no power to throw out laws it ruled unconstitutional, which just flat wasn’t true, but we’ve already seen what Pennoyer thought about courts of last resort.

While he was initially elected as a Democrat, he left the party and governed as a Populists. He was a big proponent of the eight-hour day. He also supported the free coinage of silver. He was also the first major Oregon politician to support the graduated income tax. Now, Populists really hated Grover Cleveland. And if there was one time in American history when you could legit claim there was no difference between the two parties, it was the 1880s and 1890s. Pennoyer hated Cleveland as much as he hated Harrison or the Supreme Court. To be fair, these are all good people and institutions to hate–they all sucked. So when Cleveland won the presidency, he refused the Democratic Party the right to fire the state’s ceremonial cannon (this evidently was a real thing) in celebration, saying he was a Wall Street hack. His actual quote was “No permission will be given to use state cannon for firing a salute over the inauguration of a Wall Street plutocrat as president of the United States.” OK, not bad, though the Democrats just bribed the guy in charge of it and fired it anyway. God I love the Gilded Age.

But let’s be clear here, Pennoyer was so racist it was ridiculous. When Cleveland visited the state, he asked Pennoyer to ensure there would be no anti-Chinese riots during his visit. Pennoyer said, nope, not happening. Maybe we will kill some Chinese and maybe we won’t but we aren’t doing anything for you. Cleveland, who absolutely was a bought and sold man of Wall Street, then asked Pennoyer to use the state militia to stop people from Oregon from riding the trains to join that unemployed workers march. Pennoyer told him to jump off a bridge, basically.

After his two terms of nuttiness, Pennoyer became mayor of Portland. It got weirder. So, at this time, Portland, like cities across the nation, was finding a clean water supply for its residents. The level of disease from bad water was really high, cholera among other things. So this was a top priority for cities. Pennoyer basically opposed this. He had weird ideas about water. Because of course he did. The Portland water supply is the Bull Run Reservoir in the Cascade foothills. Some of this water originates as glaciers on Mt. Hood. But for some reason, he thought glacial water would cause women specifically to develop goiters. No, seriously, his reason for opposition was, in his words, that it would “cause goiter to the fair sex of Portland.” No one else in Oregon really listened to him, including his old enemy Matthew Deady. The reservoir was obviously built. When the reservoir was built, Pennoyer was still mayor. He was invited to take a ceremonial first taste as it reached the city. He sourly said “No flavor. No body. Give me the old Willamette.” Now, let’s be clear, by the 1890s, the Willamette River was becoming a sewer due to industrial effluent. But by god, you know that effluent had body and taste!

Oh he also fired the entire police department so he could name his own police chief.

Pennoyer was mayor until 1898 and then he died in 1902, at the age of 70.

Honestly, I was expecting this to be a kind of boring post, but nope, this was first rate Gilded Age lunacy! I enjoyed the hell out of this.

Sylvester Pennoyer is buried in River View Cemetery, Portland, Oregon.

If you would like this series to visit other people involved in key Supreme Court cases of the Gilded Age, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Peter Mugler, the brewer in Mugler v. Kansas, is in Red Bluff, California. Samuel E. Davis, the polygamist Mormon at the heart of Davis v. Beason, is in Saint Johns, Idaho. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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