By Alecia Giombolini ::
On May 16, 1882, former Portland mayor and prominent local physician, James A. Chapman signed an illicit agreement with the powerful Republican politician, Lucerne Besser. In this contract Besser promised to nominate Chapman for the office of Mayor and then provide the money needed to secure Chapman’s election. If elected, Chapman agreed to nominate Besser for the office of Superintendent of Streets and to also nominate one of Besser’s associates for the position of Chief of Police.
As if the promise of serving as the Mayor of Portland was not a big enough incentive, the contract also stated that Besser would use his political connections to grant the mayor a significant pay raise. If Besser was unable to secure this raise, he promised to pay Chapman one thousand dollars annually.
“Compensate him for his time and trouble . . . and certain incidental expenses that will naturally occur in discharging his duties of the office of mayor of this city.”
Initially, everything went according to plan. Chapman defeated his opponent David Thompson and was sworn into office as Portland’s twenty-fifth mayor. Besser, as a prominent member of the Republican political machine, would have been able to use his connections in Portland’s impoverished North End to engage in vote buying and ensure that the area’s impoverished citizens gave their support to Chapman. Vote buying was an incredibly common form of election rigging in which political bosses would pay or coerce citizens to vote for a certain candidate.
In Portland, vote buying was most prominent in the city’s North End, where political bosses would provided the owners of local boarding houses and other vice establishments with the funds necessary to pay their patrons, often visiting sailors and loggers, to vote for certain candidates. While vote buying had long been discussed in the local newspapers, the citizens of Portland were shocked when only months into his term as mayor, Chapman admitted the entire scandal to the press. Apparently, Chapman had been unable to secure the promised positions for Besser and his colleague, who then decided to blackmail the mayor for his failure to hold up his end of the bargain. Due to his financial difficulties, Chapman decided it would be better to admit to the entire affair than to keep paying off his former accomplices.
Due to a bizarre series of events, the city council found themselves unable to remove Chapman from office, and while they mayor would be able to serve out the rest of his term, he would live out the rest of his life in disgrace. Three years after the election, in 1885, Chapman would be thrown from his buggy after driving into a low hanging telephone wire. A few days later, he would die from the injuries he sustained in the accident. Chapman’s death would receive little mention in the local press, with The Oregonian, burying a short paragraph about the story on its fifth page. Besser would also fall into disrepute following the scandal and would die in 1905 while living at the Multnomah County Poor Farm near Troutdale.
Because of the outrageous nature of this scandal, with the mayor openly admitting to election fraud, the 1882 election has become a high standard for political corruption in Portland politics. That being said, these kinds of backroom deals would continue for most of the nineteenth century, and the Chapman scandal should simply just be the 1882 mayoral election is one of the most blatant examples of political corruption in Portland history. This scandal would destroy the reputation of two of Portland’s most prominent figures and bring to light the day-to-day corruption that existed in local Portland politics during the late nineteenth century.
Want more? Check out:
- Jewel Lansing, People, Politics, and Power, 1851-2001 (Oregon State University, 2003)
- “Lucerne Besser” Portland Police Museum and Historical Society
- JD Chandler, Hidden History of Portland, Oregon (Arcadia Publishing, 2013)
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”
Alecia Giombolini, Project Manager
Will Schneider, Voice of James A. Chapman
Will Schneider, fact checker and editor