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Friday, September 29, 2023
Sept. 29, 2023

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Clark County history: Maud Johnson trial


Judge A. L. Miller opened a 1910 fraud trial with three hours of excruciating legal commentary. He was trying to unwind the knotty skein of facts involving multiple fraudulent actions perpetrated by Maud Johnson involving a chain of shakedown offenses. Between 1907 and 1909, she repeatedly fleeced most of the railroads west of the Mississippi, collecting thousands for bogus injuries.

Before his courtroom filled with Vancouver’s prominent men and women, Judge Miller explained Johnson claimed injuries in Seattle, Oakland, Calif., and dozens more cities across middle and western America. He explained she feigned multiple contusions while traveling between Vancouver and Yacolt. For those alleged injuries, he said railroad agent D.C. Davis doled out $1,250.

Johnson’s defense attorney qualified his client as poor, and therefore unable to defend herself against the 15 to 30 charges flung at her by as many states. He contended the Yacolt injury was real because Davis paid her voluntarily. Unstated was how frequently Johnson repeated her swindles, often casting herself as a wealthy wife or widow to warn railroad agents lawsuits and bad publicity awaited them if she were ill-treated.

Before the Yacolt incident, Johnson was carrying a suitcase. The conductor helped her board the train. She asked to be seated by the door and had him place her luggage where she might easily trip over it. The train pulled out at 4:30 p.m., leaving from the depot by the ferry landing. When the train made a scheduled, smooth and brief stop at Barberton, Johnson suddenly cried out, spitting blood and writhing in pain. The conductor, trying to comfort her, made her a cot. Then he straightened her ankle, which she claimed was wrenched by the footrest. Lastly, she said her wrist hurt.

As the train chugged to Yacolt, she swooned and fainted. When someone offered her water, she held the glass in her hurt hand. When an onlooker pointed this out, she let the glass slide to the floor. At Yacolt, she was taken by stretcher to see Dr. McMordo. But Johnson resisted his examination, feigned heart problems and complained any bodily review was too painful.

She’d told investigator Davis her name was Hazel Petterson and that she was a widow. She traveled to Yacolt to examine a timber tract her husband had owned. She also demanded officials return her to Calgary, Alberta, where she lived. Days after the alleged accident, she complained of problems with her eye without saying how it happened.

Dodging legal action, agent Davis paid Johnson quickly. With money in hand, she pretended helplessness, so people lifted her limp torso onto a train for Vancouver. On arrival, they carried the inert woman to a hotel. Two nurses were assigned to travel with her to Calgary. Distracting them, Johnson skedaddled to Oregon City. Months later, Oakland police arrested her and shipped her to Vancouver for trial.

During his three-hour unraveling of Johnson’s crimes, Judge Miller tilted her verdict toward guilty. And so declared the jury. He sent Maud Johnson to Walla Walla prison for five years. Nobody knows how she enticed Gov. Marion Hay to sign a conditional parole in 1913. But when released, she fled somewhere into the criminal shadowlands.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.