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The Legend of C.E.S. Wood, Portland’s Anarchist Founding Father

Artist and lawyer, poet and soldier, patrician and anarchist, Portlander Charles Erskine Scott Wood was a jack of all trades—and master of quite a few.

This story was published in the Sept. 17, 1984, edition of Willamette Week.


In his later years he looked like Zeus, with wild white hair and an untamed beard. Like the Greek god, he had a reputation for womanizing. And, though no deity himself, he was no ordinary mortal. His name was Charles Erskine Scott Wood, and it's unlikely that Portland was ever home to a more colorful or versatile citizen.

Wood was a soldier who turned pacifist, a lawyer who preferred poetry, a rich man who blasted privilege. A self-proclaimed anarchist, he was a large landowner and a lover of rare art, fine food and expensive clothes.

He was a pal of Chief Joseph. He did a brief turn as Mark Twain's publisher. He offered advice and money to radical journalist John Reed. When Portland needed a fountain, he called his New York sculptor friend, Olin Warner, and the city got its Skidmore Fountain. When anarchist Emma Goldman and birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger needed legal help, he provided it. His circle of friends included artists and agitators, businessmen and barkeeps. One day he'd negotiate a large land grant for a French banking firm; the next, he'd inflame public passion at a rally for the International Workers of the World. As a lawyer, he argued on behalf of the port, banks and utilities (for huge sums), and defended unionists, pacifists and socialists (for free).

Given that few Portlanders were unaware of Wood during his 35 years in Portland, it is puzzling that today he is virtually unknown. However, he is likely to regain recognition with several forthcoming events celebrating Wood and his achievements.

Wood may have seemed out of step with the times. Consider, for example, his defense of those accused of sedition during the patriotic days when Portland was leading the nation in the sale of Liberty Bonds during World War I; or his strident support of women's right to vote long before many women thought it proper. He was able to get away with it partly by virtue of his personality; as University of Oregon Professor of History Edwin Bingham notes, Portlanders "who detested his radical doctrines liked his company, admired his style and respected his judgment." But his popularity stemmed more from the fact that he exemplified the classic tradition of most great Oregonians, including, most recently, Tom McCall and Wayne Morse: a cultured, mannered and educated human being of independent thought and a willingness to buck tradition. As his friend Henry L. Corbett once remarked, "I know I owe to him most of whatever appreciation I have of fineness and niceties, but then, hell, the whole of Portland as it once was owes much of its culture to him."

Even Wood's parents were exceptional. His father, William Maxwell Wood, was the Navy's first surgeon general, and a chum of Ulysses S. Grant. His mother. Rose Mary Carson Wood, was descended from the Erskine family, which had founded a Scottish church devoted to free thought.

Their son, born in 1852, spent most of his childhood in a comfortable suburb of Baltimore. At 17 he won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, but he proved to be a mediocre student and a chronic cut-up. In letters to his parents, he threatened to quit. He even talked of joining the Mexican foreign service, which offered better pay and lighter discipline. The notion particularly galled his father, who had helped the United States take California from Mexico. In a heartsick reply, he scolded his son and begged him not to become a "renegade" in a "semi-barbarian service."

Wood stayed, and in 1874 he graduated near the middle of his class. As a second lieutenant, he was assigned to Fort Vancouver, where he became an aide to Gen. O.O. Howard. During the next four years, he mingled with Portland's social set, and came to love the Oregon desert. He participated in three Indian wars, and was the officer who recorded Chief Joseph's moving surrender speech at Bear Paw Mountain, Mont., now reprinted in virtually every American history text.

By 1878, Wood was back in Baltimore, a first lieutenant with a new wife, Nanny Moale Smith. The couple soon had a son, Erskine. At West Point. Wood played host Mark Twain, who was a regular visitor. Though Twain offended Wood's wife by telling her how much he hated children, Wood was impressed enough to offer the author help with his unpublished satire 1601, which was considered obscene. (It's about breaking wind in the queen's court.) Having access to the West Point press, Wood agreed to print a few copies, using old English type and weathered parchment paper.

Associating with a livewire like Twain must have heightened Wood's impatience with Army routine. He grew increasingly restless, dissatisfied by the slow pace of promotion and meager pay. And, as the government broke treaty after treaty, he became disgusted with his country's shabby treatment of the Indians. He began looking for an out.

In 1882, he was given leave to study law at Columbia University. His days in New York were to have a profound effect on his life. Not only did he prepare for his new career, but he became a friend of the artist J. Alden Weir, whose father had taught Wood at West Point. In turn, Weir introduced Wood to some of his soon-to-be-famous friends — the sculptor Olin Warner, the Impressionist Childe Hassam and the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. Intoxicated by talk of artistic rebellion (to say nothing of the German beer he favored), Wood resigned his Army commission in 1884. "I left the Army," he was later to say, "because I hated military methods. There was blind authority on one side and blind response on the other. I couldn't stand that."

Though he loved to write, Wood was also a pragmatist. Having quit one poorly paid profession, he wasn't about to take a vow of poverty and become a full-time poet. Instead, armed with a new law degree, he set out for Oregon.

As counselor of big banks and rich estates and as frequentor of aristocratic, exclusive social strata, [Wood] might seem disqualified from being the boon companion of rowdy, fetid Have-nots of the street, who howl for free anarchy, free land, and free speech.

— Editorial. The Oregonian, 1909

Wood was 32 years old when he moved his wife and three children to Portland in 1884. A handsome man, he aged into a heavy-lidded sensualist. He was a sharp dresser who favored shirts with soft collars and loose-flowing pleats (no starch for him, though it was the day's fashion). His opal cufflinks were from Tiffany's.

At the time of his arrival in Portland, the city was already on its way to becoming wealthy. It was also relatively corrupt, with its share of gambling and prostitution. Ownership of the waterfront was dominated by the railroads, and government, particularly in the first 20 years of Wood's stay, was used mostly by ambitious businessmen looking for public subsidies. There were few parks, and even fewer municipal services (at the time, Portland had a tax base that was half that of Seattle or San Francisco, as evidenced by its poor roads and overworked police force). Through the end of the century, bribery was an accepted practice. As Gov. Oswald West would later note, the price of a Republican politician at the time was $4,000; a Democrat would settle for $3,000.

Wood's move to Portland was logical not only because he had friends in the area from his early Army days, but because a frontier town like Portland represented the perfect tonic to the strict regimen of West Point. It's easy to see how he would have fit in: a handsome former officer, he had wonderful tales to tell of his Indian war days, and of his artist friends.

He joined a conservative Republican, George H. Williams — a former member of Grant's cabinet, and Portland's most prominent citizen at the time — in starting a law partnership (now known as Wood Tatum Mosser Brooke & Holden). The firm's base practice was in maritime and corporation law; in addition to the port and the big banks. Wood represented some of the city's wealthier citizens, including the Ladds, the Corbetts, and the German beer king. Henry Weinhard.

Yet by the end of the century, Wood had become a populist reformer, and a frequent contributor to Pacific Monthly magazine, the only Northwest periodical at the time with cultural and political pretensions. Writing in his column "Impressions," he supported William U'Ren's push for the Oregon system of initiative and referendum, which was eventually passed in 1902.

He was also an early advocate of a woman's right to vote. "As women are, in fact, purer than men," he wrote in 1906, "so their influx will make politics purer, but this is not the real point . . . . The real point is that now every male blackguard and ignoramus can vote if he wants to, and no woman, however cultured and intelligent, can vote if she wants to . . . . Give all of them the chance all men have and justice will have been done." (It was to be six more years before Oregon women could vote, and 14 years before women could cast a federal ballot.)

In supporting the initiative and women's suffrage. Wood was riding a popular, if progressive, wave. But some of his ideas were clearly more radical. In 1909, in a speech before Portland's IWW, he publicly declared himself an anarchist, and began taking stands few of his peers would risk. He supported the right of Spokane socialists to rally in the streets. He quit the American Bar Association when it refused to admit a Black lawyer. And when England asked that a Hindu scholar be deported from the United States for his advocacy of Indian independence, Wood defended the man passionately and publicly.

Still, using his charm and banking on his reputation, Wood managed to hold on to his wealthy friends, and even win the respect of his enemies. As a government prosecutor of war spies was later to admit, "He is a man of pleasing personality, has a host of friends, and a great deal of influence in the community. I think the upshot of the whole thing is that he rather likes to pose as being erratic, unusual and obstreperous." Wood was never more obstreperous than in his defense of radicals — and of women radicals in particular.

The persistent efforts of one man in Portland, Oregon exerted an influence that for its potency could hardly be equalled in any other American city. I refer to my friend Charles Erskine Scott Wood.

— Emma Goldman, Living My Life

Admittance to the public library may not seem much of an achievement today, but Wood helped secure that right for anarchist Emma Goldman. The year was 1914, and America was just beginning its slow slide into World War I. Already, anarchists and socialists were a scorned breed.

A Russian-born Jew radicalized by her experience as a garment-industry worker, Goldman had become a leading U.S. radical, a much-traveled speaker and publisher of the Mother Earth journal. Though Wood had helped rent two halls for her to speak in, their owners backed out just before her arrival. When Wood offered to take legal action against them, Goldman scoffed, saying she never used the law against anyone — not even those who used it against her.

As Goldman relates in her autobiography, Living My Life, Wood told her, " 'So that's the kind of dangerous anarchist you are! Now that I have found you out, I shall have to take others into my confidence.' " And so he did, introducing her to a Mr. Chapman (an editor at The Oregonian, who agreed to report on her lectures); the Unitarian clergyman Thomas Lamb Eliot (who opened his church to her); and a number of prominent men and women who were persuaded to speak in favor of her right to be heard. "After this," Goldman writes, "it was easy sailing. A hall was secured and the meetings were attended by large and representative audiences. Mr. Wood presided at my first lecture and delivered a brilliant introductory speech."

One of Goldman's lectures was on the folly of prohibition, which was gaining wide public support. Like Goldman, Wood detested this curtailment of civil liberties. Nevertheless, despite their public attacks, in 1916 Oregon adopted its own version of prohibition. A federal statute was passed in 1919 — the year Goldman was deported — and Wood, who continued his attack until prohibition was repealed in 1933, left Portland.

On my return [to Portland] I found that the city council and mayor had met in secret and had passed an ordinance against that special pamphlet.

— Margaret Sanger, My Fight for Birth Control

In 1916, when Margaret Sanger came to Portland's Heilig Theater, the subject of birth control and Sanger's pamphlet "Family Limitation," were still not considered fit for public discussion.

Sanger, who coined the term "birth control," was at the time the nation's leading proponent of the right to use contraceptives. Before her visit to Portland, she had been' arrested for sending pamphlets on the subject through the mails, and had been jailed for opening a birth-control clinic in New York. Wood shared the podium when she came to town. Though he introduced her as a "quiet and cultured woman," the Portland police didn't agree. They arrested her, and five others, in supposed violation of the city's hastily concocted obscenity ordinance.

Before the court, Wood argued that the ordinance was unconstitutional, and, after referring to Portland as "a backwoods town," ended his defense on an emotional pitch. "If Portland's statute is legal then the Holy Bible is obscene . . . . Rabelais would be indicted and convicted under the laws of Oregon, yet his books are for sale in every well-regulated book store." Though the judge found the pamphlet "obscene" (he was convinced it would "excite, deprave and corrupt"), he was swayed by Wood's argument and freed all six prisoners; he fined three of them $10 each, but the fines were later suspended.

Wood's involvement with Sanger's travails and his stirring oratory skills piqued the public's interest. As Sanger recalled, "In the wake of our trial, letters supporting our cause besieged the press, and thousands of requests for the pamphlets were received." Though medical distribution of contraceptive information wasn't approved until the late 1930s, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (now Planned Parenthood) in 1921. Oregon was the first state — also in the '30s — to enact laws ensuring the quality of contraceptives sold to the public.

I started in this fight a socialist, but I am now an anarchist. I am going to speak when and where I wish. No man will stop me. The first man who touches me will die a lingering death. I'll stick him with a hat pin that contains a certain virus I can make.

— Dr. Marie Equi, Portland radical

One of those arrested with Sanger was a Portland physician, Dr. Marie Equi, who had lent Sanger medical credibility by helping her revise Family Limitation. A longtime radical who had joined with the Wobblies in a strike of a Portland cannery in 1913, she had been arrested before. And she would be arrested again — in 1918, for violation of the war-inspired Espionage Act. Wood served as her attorney, though she never had a chance.

By that time Portland had become the patriotic capital of the Northwest. A Liberty Temple was constructed, and "alien enemies" (any German citizen not naturalized) were forbidden to go within 100 feet of the waterfront. Then-Mayor George Baker (formerly an assistant manager at the Heilig Theater) ordered raids on IWW workers who, as "reds," were viewed with even greater alarm than German "Huns." Oregon's Liberty Loan drive was the most successful in the nation (ours was the first state to meet the government sales quota), and church leaders seriously suggested that pacifists be shot. In 1917 a mild-mannered librarian, Louise Hunt, was pressured to resign from her job at the Multnomah County Library for refusing to buy war bonds.

When Equi called World War I "The Big Barbecue," she was practically convicted upon her arrest. Wood took her case to a Circuit Court of Appeals, and though his defense of free speech wasn't popular or  successful, it was eloquent. Arguing that the court had admitted government-planted evidence, and that sedition laws violated individual rights, he accurately described the times: 'Truth was suppressed and lies knowingly published . . . because bonds must be sold and soldiers conscripted — till finally sauer kraut became 'Liberty' cabbage; German pancakes, 'Victory' pancakes. . . . This was the atmosphere." Wood ended with a heartfelt flourish: "The thought of man will continue to be uttered, though he may go to death for it. Truth will survive, though from the soapbox or the cross — and error, though from the Supreme Court of the United States, will perish." Equi was nevertheless convicted, and sentenced to three years in San Quentin.

His appearance was that of a patrician Whitman, for there was lineage in him as well as courage and resolution . . . . He had about him, too, a touch of Pan. And yet he was as American as Mark Twain, whom he had known and admired.

— William Rose Benet, 1948

By the time Wood retired in 1919, he seems to have tired of Portland — and Portland may have lost some of its tolerance for him. In 1911, Wood began a longtime affair with Sara Bard Field, a poet, a feminist — and the wife of a Baptist minister. Bard was to have a profound effect on Wood's life. She took Wood's poetry — then collecting dust in a trunk — and forced Wood to shape it, cutting the polemic from its descriptive passages of the Harney County desert. (The result, Poet in the Desert, was published in 1915.) And she surely encouraged Wood when, also in 1915, he began writing satire for Max Eastman's radical journal, The Masses. With the advent of World War I, Wood's politics — previously considered those of a gadfly — were probably regarded as a threat. Portland never approved of his affair with Field, who, besides being married, was 30 years his junior. As his son Erskine recalled, "He came to find the atmosphere in Portland unbearable. At home there was the quiet suffering of my mother. Abroad there was the disapproval of the community and many of his friends, even those who were most loyal to him. But he had come to have a compelling love for Mrs. Field and felt the urge to fulfill his lifelong desire to write . . . so that he felt he had to go."

And go he did, but not before winning a $1 million commission for his part in the sale of a land grant in Eastern Oregon. It was a classic Wood move: it made millions of dollars for the French banking firm he represented, and enabled him to provide for his wife and children and flee the city with a comfortable sum. With Field, Wood eventually settled on a large estate in Los Gatos, where the couple hosted an open-air salon, with visits from John Steinbeck. Ansel Adams, Lincoln Steffens, Robinson letters. And Yehudi Menuhin. There, Wood would devote himself to writing, finishing his best, and most lasting, work — a collection of satirical pieces called Heavenly Discourse.

At the time of his death in 1944, Wood was a month shy of his 92nd birthday. His faith in pacifism shaken (Nazism, he told The Oregonian, was more evil than war), he was the oldest living graduate of West Point. It was the least of his accomplishments. Yet in recent years, his name seemed consigned to oblivion. Why? It may be, as Wood's biographer, Edwin Bingham, suggests, that most important Oregonians of Wood's time are now neglected (he mentions the names of Thomas Lamb Eliot, who helped found Reed College; Harvey Scott, the powerful editor of The Oregonian: and William U'Ren).

As perplexing as Wood's lack of recognition is why conservative Portlanders suffered such a man. Bingham thinks that, "Wood was tolerated . . . because his views were considered too extreme to pose a genuine threat to society. More important, probably, Wood was a fascinating and polished personality, as much at ease in a banker's drawing room or at an Arlington Club banquet as he was on [an Eastern Oregon) ranch or at a mass meeting of the International Workers of the World." The real puzzle, which may never be answered, is how Wood pulled it off.

Special thanks to John Miller, of Wood Taturn Mosser Brooke & II olden: Edwin Bingham; and the Oregon Historical Society. Additional sources: The Shaping of a City and The Growth of a City, both by E. Kimbark MacColl: The Oregonian; The Oregon Journal; and Life of Charles Erskine Scott Wood, a collection of biographical anecdotes by his son. Erskine Wood.