That time a President died in Oregon … the tale of a psychic ghost

The following is an excerpt from Creek With No Name: How the West Was Won (and Lost) in Gaston, Oregon, Copyright 2011, Ken Bilderback. All rights reserved:

Creek With No NameLouis Rader was the subject of many stories in The Oregonian after his arrest, but the basis of his story is revealed in the cascading headlines on the very first article, which appeared on the doorsteps of Portlanders on the morning of June 27, 1923. The story involved a planned visit to Portland by President Warren G. Harding, and the main headline blared: “Farmer Threatens Life of President.” The first subhead elaborated on the evidence against him: “Rancher of Gaston Arrested for Writing Letter.”

On the surface, a letter threatening the life of a President about to visit the area sounds pretty damning. Upon closer inspection, however, the letter seems more a statement of confusion than confession. The letter was written to the Portland Chamber of Commerce and contains this threat, or possible threat: “Now friends this nice morning I have a hunch here it is President Harding will be called this month on a Fryday to a high court where he will give account to the above mention.”

OK, so maybe the letter itself left a little doubt about his motives, but this is where Mr. Rader’s small-town neighbors enter the drama. Rader is described as “a grizzled (sic) little German, short of stature, stockily built, with a cheerful, good-natured disposition.” But neighbors told investigators of a darker side to this immigrant from Europe who, they said, was hiding a past as a radical in his faraway homeland of Germany. While he had managed to escape to America, neighbors said, many of his fellow radicals remained imprisoned back home, and he hoped to avenge what he saw as injustices perpetrated against them. Rader was, his neighbors in Gaston told the agents, much too dangerous to remain free while Harding was in the area. Another of the subheads in the Oregonian story summed up the neighbor’s accounts: “Louis Rader, Elderly German, Who Is Said to Be Erratic, Forecasts Death of Harding.”

Louis Rader, however, was never charged with any crime, freed in part by the meaning of the word “forecasts.” The final subhead elaborates: “BLAME LAID TO SPIRITS.” The spirits that led to Rader’s arrest were not the kind being distilled in the steep hills of moonshine territory across the valley, either. They were “celestial spirits” who spoke regularly to Louis Rader, guiding every aspect of his life. It seems that while his nosy neighbors were speculating about him conspiring with radicals, he really was conspiring with unseen apparitions to lay bare the future. These spirits had sent him a prophecy that Harding would die in Portland.

It was ghosts, not Rader, who predicted this foul turn of events, but the Feds had no jurisdiction to arrest the ghosts so Rader was the one who found himself in jail. Rader’s luck improved while he languished behind bars, however, when he got yet another message from his guiding spirits, telling him that they had been wrong about Harding’s impending doom in the Rose City. Louis Rader shared the good news with prosecutors and was released to return home to Gaston.

Of course Warren G. Harding did not die on his visit to Portland, where he gave a triumphant speech to nearly 30,000 people at Civic Stadium on the Fourth of July before continuing on to British Columbia and then north to Alaska. He even visited Portland again on his return train trip, but this time he had to cancel a planned speech because he unexpectedly fell ill between Seattle and Portland. So no, Warren G. Harding did not die in Portland. He died a couple of days later in San Francisco from the sudden illness that thwarted his second Portland appearance.

Louis Rader was wrong on another count: Harding did not die on a “Fryday”; he died late on a Thursday night. Nonetheless, Rader felt vindicated and a few days later wrote a letter to The Oregonian from his farm in Gaston. In it, he said: “You know now I did not miss it very much.”

We don’t know if Louis Rader ever was an agent provocateur as his nosy neighbors alleged. Regardless, it wasn’t his life before arriving in Gaston that made him interesting. It was his life on his little ranch that earned Louis Rader a spot in history.