April 5 came and went in the ordinary way for most people, but at Ashland author Kay Atwood's house it was a day of remembrance.
April 5 came and went in the ordinary way for most people, but at Ashland author Kay Atwood's house it was a day of remembrance, the day each year that Kay and her husband observe the anniversary of Dr. David Sisson's death. Murdered in 1858 after only two years in residence, Sisson was Ashland's first resident physician and its first homicide. This grim chapter in the early history of the town then known as Ashland Mills, is a story with an unsatisfying ending, for as Southern Oregon historian A.G. Walling wrote 26 years after Sisson's death, "Deliberation and coolness "¦ in the planning and execution of the deed were the only things developed by the investigation of the case. Many theories regarding the crime were advanced, but the murderer was never apprehended, nor the cause of the assassination brought to light."
Cold as they come after 150 years, Sisson's case seized Atwood's attention as she was working at the Jackson County Historical Society Museum, mounting displays after a year in the set department at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Like a good detective, Atwood burrowed into archives of court proceedings, deed records, census reports, tax rolls and diaries to assemble a picture of what really happened that spring day in 1858. She put together a slender history, Mill Creek Journal: Ashland Oregon 1850-1860, detailing the chilling facts of the crime and its puzzling aftermath — the apparent lack of any attempt by Ashland's legal establishment to find and prosecute Sisson's killer.
The story of Sisson's two years in Ashland Mills is short and sad. In August of 1856, the British immigrant doctor and his wife Celeste arrived from California. They decided to stay, bought the Ashland Mills Boarding House and set up a general store. Sisson practiced medicine and prospered, acquiring 160 acres east of town, expanding the boarding house and building a hospital house the following summer. Concurrently, the fortunes of Abel Helman, who opened the Ashland Flour Mill in 1854, were declining. He was forced to sell the mill to James Russell who purchased it for $12,000. After settling his debts, Helman netted only $1,258.65 on the sale, paid partly in flour.
On March 11, 1858 Jacksonville's Oregon Sentinel reported that a man named Beckett ambushed David Sisson as Sisson walked from his house to Mill Creek to draw a pail of water. Sisson was wounded in the hand and Beckett was never arrested. Several days later the barn behind Sisson's boarding house was burned, the work of an arsonist. On April 5, Sisson was again shot while on his way to draw water, this time fatally. Celeste buried her husband and took up residence on the farm outside of town with her twelve-day-old daughter Augusta. Jackson County Coroner Burrell Griffin had the body exhumed. He extracted a lead bullet but inquest jurors ruled that the post mortem added no information as to the identity of the killer. On July 20, the Sentinel reported that the house on Sisson's farm had been burned by an arsonist, observing, "it would appear that the cold-hearted villain who waylaid and shot the doctor is now visiting his demon-like malice on the defenseless widow of his victim."
Sisson's property, valued at $10,000 in 1857, was assessed by the probate court at only $1,000 as a result of the seemingly systematic attacks. Homeless with an infant, Celeste rented out the boarding house in town and moved in with neighbors. The financially beleaguered Abel Helman left Ashland Mills to return to Ohio in October, perhaps to seek assistance from his family. About a year later, the Ashland Boarding House burned to the ground. Two weeks after the fire, a new hotel was erected near the boarding house site on land owned by Abel Helman. In 1860 the map of Ashland Mills was redrawn with reassignment of block and lot numbers. The lot where David Sisson's boarding house had once stood was no longer clearly identified, but Sisson's widow, now remarried, did not contest the situation.
In 1880, following another fire that destroyed several buildings near the hotel and the flour mill, David Sisson's daughter Augusta, now twenty and a weaver in a woolen mill, brought suit against Abel Helman and others to recover the tract upon which her father's boarding house had once stood. The suit alleged that the defendants had conspired to kill Sisson and fire his buildings to destroy documents relating to land ownership, then redrew the map of Ashland Mills to bilk the plaintiff out of her inheritance. In 1882 the suit was dismissed at plaintiff's cost, but Augusta's action succeeded in openly raising the question of whether murder, arson and fraud were perpetrated by a ring including the financially-strapped Helman to recover lucrative business property.
A hundred years after Augusta filed suit, while researching the Sisson case, Atwood made an important find. She was going through a box of papers donated to the Jackson County Historical Society by the Anderson family, long time residents of Talent for whom Anderson Creek is named, and Ashland Flour Mill owners after Helman and Russell. Among the papers was a letter written in 1858 from short-term Ashland resident, S. B. Olmstead. Addressed to E. K. Anderson, it discussed the identity of Sisson's murderer. On the morning Sisson was killed, Olmstead wrote, he heard shots, ran to the creek and saw a man he recognized running from the scene. Olmstead maintained that boot tracks left at the spot where the shooter waited to ambush the doctor matched the boots of the man he dared not name, just as the fatal bullet matched the type of gun this man was known to carry. The letter closes, "Had my situation been different from it was when in Oregon these facts would be before the world. You therefore see the difficulty in prosecuting as it would be impossible for me to swar [sic] to a description." This reticence, Atwood feels, adds credence to the idea that a powerful, well-known person was behind Sisson's murder, someone that a drifter like Olmstead dared not provoke. In the end, she points out, the story shows that in spite of the tendency of history to make saints out of our forebears, they were simply people, then as now motivated sometimes by high-mindedness and good will, sometimes by greed and desperation.
An Ashland resident since 1969, Kay Atwood is the author of numerous historical publications including Illahee: The Story of Settlement in the Rogue River Canyon and Chaining Oregon: Surveying the Public Lands of the Pacific Northwest, 1851-1855. Mill Creek Journal is available through the Friends of the Ashland Public Library.