By Mark Baker
For The Register-Guard
An example of a more modern approach to crime coverage and extensive story treatment can be found on the pages of the Daily Eugene Guard in 1898 and 1899 with the story of Claude Branton.
“MURDERER EXECUTED” read the all-caps, two-column headline of May 12, 1899.
“The Death of John A. Linn Is Avenged – Life of Claude Branton the Penalty – His Accomplice, Courtland Green, Is in the Oregon Penitentiary for Life,” read the subhead.
Perhaps reflecting the sensational “yellow journalism” of the era, the story of Branton’s fateful day led with this somewhat creepy rhyme:
The air is fresh and bracing mother; the sun shines bright and high
It is a pleasant day to live – a gloomy one to die.
Readers were surely riveted over the course of 11 months, – from the June 15, 1898, murder of Linn, a Gilliam County rancher, by Branton and Green at the foot of the Cascades and 14 miles east of McKenzie Bridge, to the news of Branton’s execution.
Branton was hanged in front of about 50 spectators, with many others wandering about out of sight at the new $74,000 county courthouse – dedicated just 11 days earlier – at East Eighth and Oak streets on May 12, 1899. These were Branton’s final words:
“I haven’t much to say. I hope for God’s sake no one will try to run my folks down on account of this. They are innocent. I hope people will learn a lesson from this and tread on the right path. I hope to meet you all in the other world. I ask this for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
Among those observing the execution, which was news up and down the West Coast with even the Los Angeles Times carrying the story, was jury foreman Silas Yoran, the Eugene City Register founder whose paper had since sold, as well as Branton’s family, seven newspapermen and 12 physicians.
The story described in matter-of-fact detail the moment Branton’s life abruptly ended:
“The noose was placed over Branton’s head, the black cap adjusted, and at 10:46 Sheriff Withers pulled the lever, the body dropping straight for a distance of 7 feet. Not a quiver was made, the neck evidently being instantaneously broken.”
Branton, Green and Linn, along with Branton’s mother, brother Clarence and a few children, had traveled in the spring of 1898 from Gilliam County in north-central Oregon, helping Linn transport 60 horses to Will Seavey’s pasture near Hayden Bridge.
After the rest of the party went ahead, Claude Branton, Green and Linn camped near present-day Alder Springs. Branton shot Linn in his sleep, and Green helped him burn the body. Prosecutors said the motive was money, Branton believing Linn had $1,000 on him. But he only found $60 in gold coins after the deed was done.
Branton fled the state after delivering the horses to Seavey. Green’s conscience, however, apparently got the best of him. He told officials he knew of a killing that had occurred and led them to the scene of the crime.
Branton was arrested at Eighth Avenue and High Street on July 20, 1898, upon returning to Eugene.The Guard still carried plenty of ads on its front pages at the turn of the 20th century, but other examples of a cleaner, more modern approach, can be seen.
The Mergenthaler Linotype machine had been perfected in the 1880s and would reach Eugene during these years, allowing an entire line of hot metal type to be set at once.
The Guard, now costing $6 a year for Monday-through-Friday afternoon delivery (there was no Sunday Guard until 1930, and the weekly still ran on Saturdays), began using not only rare two-column headline spreads in the late 1890s, but previously unheard-of four-column spreads, especially for its coverage of the short-lived Spanish-American War that ran from April to August in 1898.
Other major happenings for Eugene and the rest of Lane County during this decade included the opening of Eugene Hospital (Sacred Heart would not arrive until 1936) in 1898; Associated Press service coming to what was now called The Morning Register in 1902 and the Daily Eugene Guard in 1906; and the ever-growing timber industry making a serious move in 1900 with the Booth-Kelly Lumber Co. building a high-production mill at Wendling in the Mohawk Valley.
In 1902, Booth-Kelly bought 1 million acres of land to timber harvest. That same year, Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved the ballot measure that created the state’s initiative and referendum process that allows residents to place measures on the ballot and recall existing laws by popular vote.
After Eugene Daily Guard (as the paper now called itself) publisher Ira Campbell, only 48, died of a stroke in 1904, his brother, John Campbell, ran the paper solo for two more years before selling to Charles Fisher.
Fisher, born in South Dakota in 1865, moved with his parents to Roseburg when he was 12. He attended the University of Oregon and, although he didn’t graduate, his studies spurred his interest in journalism, according to Warren Price’s book.
Fisher ran newspapers in Oakland, Ore., and Roseburg, starting the Roseburg Herald, a semiweekly. He later consolidated it with the Roseburg Review, which today is still Roseburg’s daily newspaper, The News-Review, and one of the few remaining (weekday) afternoon newspapers in the country. Fisher then ran the Idaho Capital News, a Boise weekly, before buying the Guard.
Fisher immediately installed a new “two-revolution press” at the Guard.
“It is we believe the largest, fastest and best machine of its kind in Western Oregon, south of Portland,” the paper reported on July 28, 1906. The new press’s 5-horsepower motor replaced a water motor used to drive the typesetting machines of the Guard’s old Campbell cylinder press.
Mark Baker, who researched and wrote the stories for this special section, is a former Register-Guard reporter and a member of the third generation of the Baker family.