Miss Hobbs and the Gunslingers
February 24, 2016 7:21 PM   Subscribe

A photograph of the petite secretary was sent to every Oregon newspaper - Her image appeared to be that of a teenage schoolgirl. Could she confront a ruthless and lawless town and shut it down? - A tale of the Old West and the New America.
posted by Slap*Happy (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
so...did she weigh "less than 100 pounds", or did she weigh "104 pounds"...
posted by HuronBob at 9:07 PM on February 24, 2016

Well, there's the "soaking wet" factor to consider.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:29 PM on February 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

posted by dersins at 10:40 PM on February 24, 2016 [31 favorites]

Well sure, her accomplishments. But I suspect the five heavily armed National Guardsmen standing behind her probably had something to do with it, too.
posted by darkstar at 11:18 PM on February 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Let's also see if we can discuss this without suggesting that it was really the men wot did it. Please?
posted by jonnyploy at 11:32 PM on February 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

Her main accomplishment seems to be distracting the saloonkeepers and causing them to underestimate the threat her party posed. Of course, what the governor did was illegal and completely unconstitutional, but we were rushing to the grand disaster of prohibition anyway, so I doubt the saloonkeepers got much chance to attempt legal redress.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 11:36 PM on February 24, 2016 [8 favorites]

It is a cool story, no doubt!

jonnyploy, I didn't mean to offend. I just don't see that it is in any way inappropriate to point out she had some serious muscle helping her out. It's clear that the article is trying to sensationalize her into a particular kind of fierce woman but that in doing so, it kind of downplays the armed National freaking Guardsmen that were enforcing her mission, or the threat of the soon to arrive additional Guardsmen with the Governor's backing.

Credit where it's due, and all. I mean, if the genders were reversed, I suspect we'd be howling at giving a man the lion's share of the credit for taming this town if he was sent under orders by a female Governor and backed up by a squad of heavily armed Guardswomen. :-)
posted by darkstar at 12:40 AM on February 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

By the way, this story reminds me of this woman - one of my personal heroes - who would have been born one year after the Oregon incident. I aspire to her bravery in the face of pressure from politicians and corrupt businessmen. She sadly passed away last year at 101.
posted by darkstar at 12:58 AM on February 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yeah, I'm kind of with Mr. Encyclopedia and darkstar here.

In 100 years will someone be posting a blurb about the accomplishments of that plucky waif Ann Coulter or recounting about how some diminutive firebrand rode into Texas to shut down the last abortion clinic backed by the governor's vision and a wave of public sentiment?

This woman educated herself, obtained a law degree at a time I imagine it was rare for women to do so, clearly earned the trust and confidence of both private and public leadership with whom she worked through her excellence at her job... But I think the triumphant narrative that she single-handedly shut down the town and *cough* illegally *cough* closed down those dens of iniquity is a little bit grasping.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 3:49 AM on February 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

"Some people joked about Governor West, saying he was just bluffing to get attention. But the majority of people in Oregon loved and supported Oswald West."

A parable for our time?
posted by Devonian at 4:09 AM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had never heard of the town, which makes sense since it has been uninhabited for almost 100 years. From wikipedia:
Copperfield was platted around 1898, along a Northwest Railway Company line that never developed.[3] Soon the locality was known as "Copperfield" and a post office established in 1899.[1] The population grew to 1,000 by 1910 because two tunnels were being dug near The Oxbow by the local railroad company and by the predecessor of the Idaho Power Company.[1] This railroad activity was described as a "brawling railroad construction camp" during this period by Barbara Ruth Bailey.[3]

As Holbrook describes it, "early in 1913 the construction jobs began to peter out. Fewer men were employed. Competition for the remaining trade became stiff. The saloon keepers began feuding."[4] With stories of arson, the town acquired a reputation for lawlessness. When the county authorities failed to get control of the situation, Governor Oswald West announced he was sending his secretary, Fern Hobbs, with a signed declaration of martial law to clean up the place.[1] The locals, who had been led to believe she was travelling alone, were surprised by state militia who had accompanied Hobbs and enforced martial law on the town after she read the declaration to its inhabitants. A few months after Hobbs' intervention, a fire "of unknown origin destroyed a block or two of the jerry-built structures. No saloon ever reopened."[5]
The article in the FPP seems to be entirely focused on the novelty of the petite Hobbs and in doing so leaves a lot out. This ghost town also isn't far from where the Chinese workers were massacred in 1887 (and with other killings around the region around that time), and there have been plenty of other conflicts over the years. 1913 was around the end of the railroad boom, and while the first of the big federal dams had been built, most weren't constructed until later in the century.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:13 AM on February 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

She was in charge of declaring and enforcing martial law. It's kind of a given she'd have soldiers to command. The point of the story is that she was a decisive and effective commander and administrator who brought order to a frontier town run by warring crime organizations in next to no time, and I'm not certain why anyone would want to give the men under her command, as the Governor's selected representative, credit for her work.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:21 AM on February 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

"Private secretary" is such a tricky title. Fern Hobbs' Wikipedia article introduces her as Fern Hobbs (May 8, 1883 – April 10, 1964) was an American attorney in the U.S. state of Oregon, and a private secretary to Oregon Governor Oswald West which gives a different emphasis to her achievements.

The article also says that she was first hired as West's private stenographer, and so impressed him that he hired her as his private secretary two years later; as private secretary she had a yearly salary of $3,000 and at that time in 1913 was the highest paid woman in US public service. That sounds to me as if the "private stenographer" post was the equivalent of what we now call private secretary, and the "private secretary" post was something much more important.

There's an interesting quote from someone who interviewed her in the 1950s:

“ She had much rather talk of her two years with the Red Cross in World War I, in France, and with the American Army of Occupation in Germany. That, she says, and her eyes light up, was a real adventure. One gathers that she considers the affair at Copperfield to have been a deplorable incident."
posted by Azara at 4:22 AM on February 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

With a pistol in the belt of her dress. And here.
Looking cool here and here.
Outside her home (possibly) in Portland. Is it still there?
posted by pracowity at 6:25 AM on February 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

This was a major moment for the forces of prohibition in Oregon under Oswald West. They painted this town as a lawless enclave run by saloon keepers. Then used public outcry to impose martial law. By 1915 Oregon had passed prohibition (4 years before the country went dry).
posted by humanfont at 7:28 AM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

and the "private secretary" post was something much more important.

Yes, "secretary" used to indicate much more powerful positions - someone you could tell all your secrets to, as it were - and you still see it in some long-running institutions. Remember that Stalin's most powerful title was "General Secretary of the Communist Party"; the "Secretary General" is the most powerful position in the U.N.; "Secretary of State" is an important position in any government.

A secretarius was a person, therefore, overseeing business confidentially, usually for a powerful individual (a king, pope, etc.).
posted by clawsoon at 8:00 AM on February 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think the problem is it's hard to see the story without getting irritated at the framing of the time of "lol look at this tiny woman making order". It is way more impressive that she was able to accomplish becoming his private secretary, than that she took some soldiers and declared martial law this one time.
posted by corb at 8:40 AM on February 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

On a less serious note, this takes me back to Corman's "The Gunslinger," which I have an odd fondness for despite its deserved MST3K treatment.
posted by praemunire at 9:05 AM on February 25, 2016

> "Yes, 'secretary' used to indicate much more powerful positions ..."

Alexander Hamilton, for example, served as Washington's secretary, sometimes called aide-de-camp, during the Revolutionary War.

(It's really the first example that occurred to me, so I'd like to ask everyone to please not use this as an excuse to derail a thread about an interesting person into an unrelated musical.)
posted by kyrademon at 9:38 AM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure why people are calling Copperfield a "ghost town". It may not be incorporated any more but there's clearly permanent residents and businesses there. I passed rather close to there on my way from Seattle back to Chicago. I wonder if there's anything there commemorating this story now? Probably not.

Anyway, this woman was brave enough to walk directly into an unknown and dangerous situation and swiftly take control from potentially violent men with zero bloodshed. That deserves praise. I'd be a bit more enamored with her command skills if her first act after the town was secured wasn't to skedaddle, but you can't deny she got the results she wanted.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:47 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

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