This an excerpt of Law and Order at the End of The Oregon Trail, Copyright 2015 Ken Bilderback.
William Barrett was lucky. He had shared in another man’s land claim when he married Eliza Purdin. But not every land baron was so magnanimous. As the children of the early settlers matured, some were sent off to make their own way in the world, just as their parents had. By now, however, there was no free land left to be claimed, and the people with money, the landowners, still didn’t need to hire many helpers. Agriculture remained small-scale. There was not yet much demand for commercial lumber, and the few mills and factories were family operations. Accustomed to a life free from want, some of these castaways turned to crime to continue to live in the manner to which they had become accustomed.
The combined Barrett-Purdin family looked as though it would avoid such a fate. Even the offspring who didn’t inherit land built lives of their own, such as Eliza’s cousin, Charles Purdin, who became a decorated Spanish-American War hero and successful Portland businessman. Unfortunately, in 1921, Charles would make the Purdin name famous in a spectacular murder trial, but for most of his life he was an upright citizen. One of William and Eliza Barrett’s boys, also named William, would outshine even Charles Purdin. This Bill Barrett did not want to be either a farmer or carpenter. He opted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by studying law. He made his way through the Tualatin Academy and then Pacific University in nearby Forest Grove. When he graduated, he apprenticed under Thomas Tongue, a Congressman and one of Oregon’s foremost attorneys, and then a famous judge. Sadly, the name Bill Barrett would become internationally famous for a very different reason.
Indian War hero William Barrett had a son named William Barrett who became a famous judge. William Barrett the famous judge had a son named William who by now was the third-generation scion of two famous families, accustomed to the good life. This William Barrett had inherited his forebears’ intelligence, charm and good looks, but little else. The free land was all claimed and there still were relatively few good jobs in rural Oregon. Even the inheritance he someday might receive from his father was not huge by the time it was split among siblings. In the early 1900s, lawyers, even good ones such as William Barrett, didn’t typically become rich. Still, the third generation Bill Barrett could have parlayed his intelligence, charm and good looks into a career in law or any number of other professions, and this Bill Barrett started off in fine form, joining the Navy, which sent him to San Francisco. Once there, he applied his charms in a very different fashion. In 1911, he walked into a famous jewelry store, perusing diamonds for his “wife.” Unable to decide from among several, he sweet-talked the jeweler into letting him borrow $2,000 worth of diamonds to show his imaginary spouse. Back home in the Tualatin Valley, $2,000 was enough to buy two or three good-sized farms, so his powers of persuasion must have been impressive.
From there, Bill Barrett went to a pawnshop, where he pawned the stones for $1,500. From there, Bill Barrett strolled to another of San Francisco’s finest jewelry stores and persuaded a clerk to let him borrow another $1,500 worth of diamonds to show his “wife.” Along the way, he used his real name and explained that he was visiting from Portland, Oregon. When the stones were not returned, San Francisco police put out an all-points bulletin for “Diamond Bill” Barrett. Portland police were notified, but they sent back word that they had no records of a criminal named Bill Barrett. The only Bill Barrett they would have known was a powerful state Senator from neighboring Washington County, who was old enough to be the young thief’s father. Finally, authorities connected the dots, and sailor Bill Barrett was arrested. But almost three-quarters of a century after Americans settled the West, the names of the pioneers still carried weight, and the midshipman was released after his father took the train to San Francisco and paid for the losses of the various jewelers and pawnbrokers. While the charges were dropped, the moniker “Diamond Bill” Barrett became famous up and down the West Coast.