Monday, May 28, 2012

Nancy Boggs Debunked

I suppose every town has local legends that are fabrications that turn into "hard fact" with the multiplicity of their retelling. Portland has many of these, which is a shame because they detract from a fascinating history that is far more interesting than worn out fictions. In this post I will mention only one. There are many more, but I have to start somewhere.

Here is the tale of Nancy Boggs as it was related to Stuart Holbrook by "Spider" Johnson, the loquacious bouncer and bar keep from Erickson's Working Man's Saloon that once stood on 3rd and Burnside. If you enjoy fiction you can read it a number of other places with varying details, this is the bare bones version:

Nancy was a madame who kept a "whiskey scow" that was a bawdy house as well. It was a two-storied affair that she painted "Nile green and bright red." She would keep it on the west side until the police started harassing women of her sort, then she would move the scow across the river to East Portland until thing settled down.

Since all good tales needs and ending, this one ends with an enterprising police officer cutting the ropes on the gilded palace of sin, causing it to float down to Linnton--where Mrs. Boggs lived happily ever after.

This ludicrous tale has be repeated more times than there are stains on a whiskey scow's bar room floor. It has even been repeated in several history books, including Jewel Lansing's history of Portland. So why do I think it is ludicrous? Here are my reasons:

1. The scows of Portland were lowly houseboats that gathered around the east side bridges and hard to access locations on the west. The scows were places for homeless squatters, not fancy women like Mrs. Boggs.The west shore in the 1880s was unbroken working wharfs all the way up to the O. R. & N. boneyard north of the city. There would be no place for such a scow on the west side.
Scowtown north of the boneyard 1901

2. I say "Mrs." Boggs because that is what she put on the advertisements for her stamping business in Portland in 1869 when she lived on First street between Main and Madison.(Oregonian 3-22-69) I presume she was a new widow at this time, but that is a presumption. In 1873 she had a daughter old enough that she was able to be seduced. Mrs. Boggs brought charges against her seducer. (Oregonian 5-8-73)

3.  From 1874 through 1878 Mrs.Boggs ran a dressmaking business from two separate locations. Then in 1879 she opened a "saloon" (meaning brothel) at 46 Pine street that she would keep going until 1886. (City Directory) In 1888 she married a fisherman who owned an island on the Columbia river.(Oregonian 6-28-03) During her years of running her brothel she had minor run ins with the law. Once she was nearly killed by a customer. (Oregonian 12-22-77)

4. The most compelling argument against this tale is that, as anyone familiar with Portland history knows, Portland was "wide open" during that period. This means that there was no need to hide out in scowtown. The only inconvenience was the payoff to the "special" police the city sent around.

This info is from the Oregonian and the Portland City Directory. There are no whispers of "whiskey scows," Nile green and red, or otherwise in Portland in anything earlier than the stories of Holbrook in the 1930s. Nancy Boggs was no angel, but she was probably trying to survive on her own after the death of a husband. I am sure she would be amused by the postmortem attention. It's an old writer's trick to throw in a vivid detail, like "painted Nile green and red," to detract from a lack of substance.

Oh, and if you might think there were two ladies named Nancy Boggs in Portland, the City Directory named everyone down to the char ladies and ditch diggers--there was just one lady by that name.

It is too easy to repeat the things that have become "history" by repetition. But notice the history that is being overlooked, the extreme corruption at every level of city government, the unabashed mistreatment of minorities. and the hypocrisy of the "upper classes." Below is a clipping from an 1884 Daily Astorian detailing the names of the Portland Police "special officers" and the amount of money they collected from each whore house, gambling den, or other business. The article is a reprint from the Sunday Welcome, a Portland weekly.

The was an old madame named Boggs,
Who emitted sweet perfume in fogs.
She would kiss any fellow
In her floating bordello,
Still sober enough to walk logs.

(Just made this up. If anyone can think of a better ending line, let me know)

Dear avid reader of history blogs. Keep your eyes peeled and notice if the Fat Billets thing doesn't start showing up in other blogs after this.

Posted May 29, 2012