Off Beat: Reporting history when details are lost in time’s mists




Good reporters do all they can to check facts with living, breathing sources who can verify if they’re on the right track or dead wrong. But what happens when everyone in your story is long gone?

Four days after The Columbian told the tale of Edward Gallagher’s public execution (see “The hanging holiday of 1890,” Sept. 15, 2013), a Colorado man emailed me asking to compare notes on Clark County’s only legal hanging.

He was curious because his “great-great-uncle” was apparently former Skamania County Sheriff Clarence Walker, the man who tracked down Gallagher and sent him to his fate after the 27-year-old killed and robbed an old farmer in 1889.

The emailer found an article from the Nov. 11, 1949, Hood River News that seemed to contradict some of my story.

The 1949 column shared recollections from Eph Winans who said he knew “Ed Gallagher” before he was arrested for murder. I read through that piece with fascination to see what I could glean. And yes, a few parts did seem to contradict my story, which was researched by combing through a dozen or so newspaper articles from the time and other historical documents.

So it was time for some fact-checking:

• Winans said Gallagher was hanged in 1892. My story said July 11, 1890. I found newspapers from 1890 that reported his execution.

• Winans said 5,000 attended the public spectacle in downtown Vancouver. My notes said about 500. Various records gave numbers ranging from 500 to 1,000, but the number that popped up much more than others was 500; and it made more sense, considering Vancouver’s population at the time was about 6,000.

• Winans said Gallagher confessed to his crimes. But I read the opposite, that the convicted killer refused to admit guilt, even at the dire end. In response to his final opportunity to confess on the gallows, Gallagher’s infamous last words as printed in national and local newspapers were, “None of your damned business.”

Time tends to wash away many truths, leaving myths in the wake. As the famous quote from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

But I’m not in the business of legend. Five thousand locals lining up to watch the morbid show certainly packs more of a punch than 500 — it’s just probably not true.

So I stand by the story and the significant research it took to pull together. Yet I acknowledge that — no matter how many sources repeat the same thing — “truth” is always up for debate. Sometimes the best we can do is try our hardest to get our facts straight.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.