The life and death of a Portland gangster and his “moll”
Drug addict and convicted robber Ray Moore was in his cheap hotel room on the corner of 12th and Morrison when his burglar friend Jimmy Walker pounded on the door.
Jimmy desperately needed help. He told Ray he’d shot a man, and was sure he’d be “burned for it.” He needed to get out of town.
Ray said he’d help. He told Jimmy to check into the hotel and wait for him while he made some arrangements, and he grabbed his hat and he headed out the door.
Soon he was back, and introduced Jimmy to a friend and fellow ex-con — Larry Johnson, the man who was going to get him out of town. Soon it was all settled. Johnson’s friend was going to come by just after nightfall and pick Jimmy up and take him out of town. All he had to do was wait until it got dark.
Then Ray headed back out the door, leaving Jimmy at the hotel. He headed straight for the nearest jewelry store. He knew bad things were going to happen that night. He knew who Jimmy had shot. Jimmy hadn’t told him, so he hadn’t told Jimmy that he already knew. He also knew that, yes, Jimmy was going to be “burned” for it. When he was, Ray intended to be safely locked away where nobody could possibly think he had anything to do with it.
He found what he wanted at Zell’s Jewelers: a tray of watches behind a plate-glass window. Brazenly he smashed through the glass, grabbed the tray of watches, and hustled off down the street to hail a cab. He was under arrest a few minutes later, and his alibi for whatever happened later that night would be unbreakable.
Meanwhile, Jimmy was sending word to his girlfriend, Edith McClain, to let her know what had happened. Edith packed a small suitcase and hurried to join him.
Edith was the real source of the problem Jimmy was facing that day. She was, in the lingo of the day, a gun moll, and until a month earlier she’d been the steady girlfriend of an influential but low-key crime boss named “Shy Frank” Kodat.
Shy Frank was an aging safecracker, 50 years old, and he’d spent quite a few of those years doing hard time for burglary. For a guy like Frank, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Frank was a born networker, and prison was full of guys a safecracker could get to know and network with and make plans for when they got out again. And everybody liked Frank.
His most recent stint in the hoosegow had been a bad one, though. He’d picked up tuberculosis, which was slowly killing him with the help of kidney disease, and on top of that he had bad arthritis.
So Frank had announced he was going straight and devoting his remaining years to helping other crooks get their act together as well. He opened up a sort of informal halfway house for them, deep in the industrial district of northeast Portland, except that it apparently offered goods and services that a more traditional halfway house would not — including certain refreshments (remember, Prohibition was still on in ’33) and the attentions of friendly ladies.
The beauty of running a speakeasy/bordello as a charitable organization was soon clear. There were always seasoned professional crooks there, and Shy Frank could direct their professional activities without having to get directly involved. Plus, it offered a harmless explanation for the presence of so many known crooks under one roof.
So Shy Frank had a pretty sweet deal, except for the fact that he knew he was going to die soon. The trouble was, sometimes the ex-cons who came to stay at Frank’s place were more trouble than they were worth.
Case in point: Jimmy Walker.
Jimmy had come to Frank’s place fresh from the state pen, a small-time business burglar with a big-time attitude. Almost immediately he had horned in on Frank’s dame, Edith. Soon Jimmy and Edith were spending a lot of time together, and Frank’s blood was boiling, and other guys in Frank’s place started worrying about how it would end.
Finally one of the other roomers accused Jimmy of stealing his watch. Shy Frank eagerly seized the excuse to kick Jimmy off the premises. Jimmy left, had a few drinks, came back and got in a screaming row with Frank. Frank, who tired quickly because of his T.B., soon retired from the battlefield and stomped off to his bedroom to rest, leaving Jimmy there, apparently alone in an office or den.
Well, it’s no surprise what happens when you leave a burglar alone in a room belonging to somebody he doesn’t like. Jimmy apparently got right to work. But one of the first things he found, probably in a desk drawer or something like that, was Shy Frank Kodat’s .38 Special — loaded and ready to go.
And then somehow, apparently by accident, Jimmy popped off a round, right there in Frank’s house. The bullet zipped through the wall, entered Frank’s bedroom and lanced into his back as he sat there on the edge of his bed.
Jimmy’s ears must have been ringing, but apparently he could still hear Frank screaming in pain as other boarders ran to see what had happened. Jimmy knew as soon as they figured out he’d shot Shy Frank, accidentally or no, he was a dead man. They loved Shy Frank. They did not love him. He dropped the gun and ran for his life.
And that’s how Jimmy Walker ended up hunkered down in a cheap motel, Shy Frank’s girlfriend by his side, waiting for darkness and a ride out of town.
The ride arrived right on schedule. It was a big maroon seven-passenger Studebaker President with two men in it. One, in a wine-colored suit that almost matched the car, helped Edith into the back seat, and then the other one let the clutch out and with a discreet murmur from the luxurious car’s straight-eight engine, they glided away into the night.
Early the next morning, logger L.W. Morgan was driving to work on Dutch Canyon Road just west of Scappoose when he saw what he thought was a drunk man passed out in the ditch. He stopped to look.
It was Jimmy Walker. And he wasn’t drunk. Neither was Edith McClain, who lay nearby.
Ray Moore, it seemed, had double-crossed Jimmy, and Shy Frank’s friends had taken the opportunity to take him and Edith for a ride — gangland style. It had ended with four shots, fired from Shy Frank’s .38 Special: two shots for each of them.
Police didn’t have too much trouble putting the pieces together, but hard evidence was in short supply because nobody would talk. Eventually the driver of the big maroon Studebaker, a hotel operator named Jake Silverman, was convicted of manslaughter for the job, and served three years for it. Everybody else walked free.
Shy Frank survived both the gunshot wound and his T.B. for years, finally getting sent back to prison on bootlegging charges in 1942.
(Sources: Chandler, J.D. Murder and Mayhem in Portland, Oregon. Charleston: History Press, 2013; Portland Morning Oregonian, April 23-24, 1933)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.