Friday, September 03, 2021


The Lives of Nancy Boggs

Nancy Boggs and her floating brothel are firmly established in Portland's mythology.  Writings on her range from unquestioning acceptance to well-reasoned debunking.  Most commentary dates prior to exponential increases of online archives and improvements in OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software.  Through those developments, the story's evolution is traceable and a determination can be made of its relative truth.

The best known version of the story was written by Stewart Holbrook as part of The Three Sirens of Portland, in American Mercury magazine's  May 1948 issue.  It was republished in 1992 in Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistlepunks, Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest:

"...but the fact is that in 1880 Miss Boggs was the owner and proprietor of a floating hellhole that was anchored in the Willamette River, which is Portland's harbor.  At that time there were two cities, Portland and East Portland, with the river between them, each seeking to outdo the other.  The lovely and alert Miss Boggs, learning that there some doubt as to who should administer the laws in the harbor, sought to make capital of the situation.

Dredging up sufficient cash to purchase an old sawdust scow, she had erected on its deck a two-story house.  The lower section was provided for the devotees of Bacchus and Terpsichore,  the upper was totally devoted to Venus.  She painted it bright green and stationed it in the middle of the river.  In the meantime, she had it stocked with the best she could find of what came in bottles and corsets.  Miss Boggs's floating palace of sin was a success from the night it opened.  On both east and west shores, she stationed boatmen-pimps charged with seducing, then rowing customers to the middle of the stream, where Nancy and her girls took care of the rest".

"...Then in 1882, came one of those great moral waves that sweep over American cities every decade or so.  Egged on by reformers, the police of both Portland and East Portland made a combined raid on the scow.  Do not for a moment believe Miss Boggs was not ready.  She herself in person met the combined police forces with hose in hand, and out of the hose issued three terrific blast of steam straight from the scow's heating plant.  Cursing and screaming like all the harpies alive, Nancy poured life steam over the bluecoats, who got out of there quickly".

The scow's lines were then cut by the police, sending it down river,  "...A woman of decision and quick action, Miss Boggs first attempted to wake the one man on board.  But he was still heavy in his cups.  So, bidding her frightened girls to be calm, Nancy lowered away a small rowboat, got into it, and rowed as for dear life to the shore at Albina ".  There she enlisted a steamboat to provide assistance.  The barge was towed back to its original moorage.  "I doubt that it was gone long enough to have lost a dollar in trade".  Holbrook concluded.  "Miss Boggs continued in business until conditions warranted a move to dry land, and even there did very well, it is said, but with less gusto than in her scow days".


Stewart Holbrook has been criticized in Portland as a historian, but viewed as a folklorist his stock rises.  His source for the story was Ed "Spider" Johnson, a barroom raconteur, gambler, former prize fighter and denizen of the old North End in the 1890s.  Johnson's stories of Shanghaiing, Bunco Kelly and other colorful characters provided a rich vein for the journalist's columns.  

A consummate recycler, Holbrook published two earlier versions in the Oregonian during the 1930s:

"Where Nancy Boggs came from, no one seems to know.  She appeared first on the scene here as the owner and operator of a whiskey scow in the Willamette River.  This was in the early 80's when the east side was separate municipality known as East Portland, and the middle of the river was a sort of no-man's land, where one didn't bother about obtaining a city license to do business.

Nancy's scow was really a two-story houseboat, some 80 feet long and 40 feet wide.  The lower part was a saloon and dance hall, while the upper floors were for the dance hostesses of the ship.  Nancy would anchor mid-stream and would move north or south from time to time, depending on the docking of sailing ships come to town, the changing currents of the river, and the changing attitudes of the Portland police force.

But the scow business went out of fashion in the '90s.  Lots of customers fell overboard and were drowned; every now and then police from both cities would stage a raid; and many folks wouldn't bother to hire a rowboat to get a drink or have a dance when there were plenty of drinks and dancers on dry land.  So, Nancy sold her vessel and moved ashore to the North End, where she continued to do business for a number of years". -The Morning Oregonian, July 29 1934.

The 1934 telling contains details not included in the 1948 version, such as the dimensions of the vessel and its changing locales.  Other details: "the lovely and alert Miss Boggs", the boat's bright green color, "boatman-pimps" and "her frightened girls" that would appear in 1948 are absent.  The cutting of the scow's lines and its retrieval by steamboat are not mentioned.  The barge is not unique, but part of a larger "scow business"  Both end with Nancy setting up again on dry land.

Holbrook's earliest version was published in the Morning Oregonian on October 8 1933 as part of the multipart series Shanghai Days in the City of Roses.  It drew directly from interviews with "Spider" Johnson, one which was broadcast over the radio on KGW.  The 1933 and 1948 incarnations have some similarities.  Both include the police being met with steam, the scow's lines being cut and the stern-wheeler rescue.  They even share some verbiage.   A significant difference is that the story is presented as a direct quote from Johnson:

"Along the time Tony Arnold was active, or maybe it was a little bit before, there was Nancy Boggs.  And she was good!  Nancy ran a whiskey scow in the river where the Burnside Bridge crosses it.  In 1881, or 1882, there was one of those moral crusades that happen every once and awhile.  The police, egged on by newspapers, went out to the scow.  Nancy pumped them all over with all over with boiling water with a rig she had all fixed up for such an occasion.  The cops went back to Second and Oak for reinforcements.  They went back to the scow and cut the hawser.  The Willamette was at high water at that time and Nancy's scow started down the river fast.  Nancy got into a rowboat and rowed over to the Albina shore, where she chartered a stern wheeler.  They tell me Nancy's whiskey scow was tied up near the Burnside bridge inside of two hours and doing business.  Nancy later ran a place on shore, and I under stand she did very well.

Nancy, I guess was a real hellion when it came to business but she was a square guy.  Yes, perhaps some fellows were shanghaied out of her place.  That was Portland's leading business when Nancy was going strong, but if she owed you money she paid it, right on the nail.  Her place on shore was on Second and Pine streets.  Bridget Gallagher was operating at the same time.  Bridget was never so well known as Nancy".


Portland in 1879.  The Burnside Bridge would later cross near the steamship at the center of the picture.


There is no doubt that a woman named Nancy Boggs lived in Portland during the second half of the nineteenth century.  But who was she, and how does she relate to her legend?


Nancy Veazey was born in 1833 some fifty miles northwest of Pittsburgh in Hopewell Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania.  By 1850 the Veazey family lived in Gallia County Ohio, near the Virginia border (present day West Virginia).  There, on March 17 1853 she married Isaac Boggs, a laborer.


Isaac Boggs's and Nancy Veazey's marriage record.

Within a year they had a son, Alexander, and emigrated to Oregon in the vicinity of Silverton, where Nancy's brother had obtained a pioneer donation land claim.  In Silverton, Isaac was the town's first blacksmith.  Their daughter Eliza was born in 1856.  The couple parted prior to the end of the decade.  Isaac moved with their son to Astoria where he remarried.  By 1860 Nancy lived in Portland.

The 1860 US Census lists Nancy Boggs working as a domestic.  She lived with her five-year-old daughter at a hotel ran by James W. Going.  (The Howard House at 5 North Front).

In city directories during the 1860s she was listed as a dress maker, or a cloak and dress maker.  In 1869 she advertised stamping with indelible ink.

The 1870 US Census.

Nancy Boggs was listed as keeping house with her fourteen year old daughter in the 1870 US Census.  That same year she began to appear in newspaper stories.  In January she was convicted of larceny and fined $25 or 30 days in jail.  She was acquitted on appeal.  Then on August 5 1870 the Morning Oregonian, adapting a quote from Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, reported:

"A "lone lorn creetur"* of the name of Boggs has bought suit against a faithless lover named Morrill to recover the value of a $5,000 heart smashed all to smithereens, as is alleged, by his promises".

The suit, against saloon keeper Ira Morrill, over the collapse of their marriage agreement, was found in her favor.  She was awarded fifteen dollars for breech of promise.

On March 8 1873 she charged the city pound master Charles Lawrence with seducing her seventeen year old daughter.  Lawrence was jailed.  The charges were dismissed and he was released.

A year later on March 3 1874 the Morning Oregonian reported: "Wm Palmer was arrested late last evening on the complaint of Mrs. Nancy Boggs".  Albany's State's Rights Democrat cryptically provided more details: "William Palmer of Portland, tried to kill Nancy Boggs with his little hatchet.  He now languishes in dungeon damps".  No resolution of the charges was reported.

The tone of the press coverage points to her being well known.  But what of saloon keeping and a brothel?

By 1877 she resided at 46 Pine on the south side of the street between Second and Third.  On October 29 of that year she was arraigned in State Circuit Court on the charge of keeping a house of prostitution to which she pleaded not guilty.  Two months later she was victim of a violent assault.  The incident, viewed in context with the reported hatchet attack, speaks of a dangerous livelihood beset with violence:  

"Shamefully Beaten"  Yesterday evening, a young man by the name of John Giffen** was arrested, charged with assaulting, in a very brutal manner, Nancy Boggs, proprietress of a saloon on Pine street. Giffen had an altercation with the woman, during which he struck her repeatably about the face, knocking her down and kicking her several times.  In his fury Giffen, seized a large beer glass and hurled it at the woman with tremendous force.  Fortunately, it missed her, and striking the wall, was shivered.  Had it struck the woman, it undoubtedly would have killed her.  During the assault Giffen kept applying the most foul epithets to the woman, and saying "I'll kill you".  He was placed in jail, and today will be examined on a charge of assault with intent to kill".  -The Morning Oregonian, December 21 1877.

The story drew to a close six months later:

"Yesterday morning at about five o'clock, John Griffin, lately employed as a bartender in the Hub saloon, committed suicide by leaping off the dock in front of D street and was drowned.  He had lived in Portland for some time, and a few months ago was engaged as a barkeeper in the "dive" run by a notorious woman of ill-repute called Nancy Boggs.  He frequently drank heavily, and during one of his sprees assaulted Nancy and inflicted bloody injuries which came near causing her death.  He was arrested for the offense, was tried before a justice of the peace and bound over to await the action of a grand jury on his case in the sum of $500.  John Casewell, proprietor of the Hub saloon, procured his release from confinement in the county jail by signing his bond, and gave him employment in his saloon as a bar tender.  The Morning Oregonian, June 15 1878.

That same year, on November 2, Abigail Scott Duniway gave a nuanced view of Nancy Boggs in her newspaper, the New Northwest:

"We learn that the "one more unfortunate" who died last night of drunkenness and debauchery at St. Vincent's Hospital, was taken in and cared for by Mrs. Boggs, as an act of charity, after the poor creature had been left to die without a priest or person.  Mrs. Boggs keeps a lodging house, and is a hard working woman, who, we are told, does not deserve the censure cast upon her by the city press, the NEW NORTHWEST included.  It is not the province of this journal to wrong man or woman.  The latter's way, if compelled to struggle for a livelihood, is hard enough at best, and the blessed truth is always bad enough about even the best of both sexes".

While Duniway refers to running a lodging house, as opposed to a saloon, or "dive",  "Mrs. Boggs" almost certainly refers to Nancy, the only person listed in city directories with that last name at the time and one who also had a high profile in the newspapers.

On December 12 1879 she was arrested for violating one of the provisions of the license act by allowing women to dance in her place.


 In the 1880 US Census, saloon keeper Nancy Boggs lived with her daughter and two lodgers at 46 Pine street.

"A Lively Row" reported the Morning Oregonian on February 19 1880: "About half past nine o'clock last night the ladies and gentlemen who attended soirees at Nancy Boggs' Palace on Pine street between Second and Third, became out of humor over some slight incident, and began to smash each other over the head with bottles, beer mugs etc.  Officer Brannon happened to drop in and escorted two of the gentlemen, Alex Kidd and John Fagan, to the city jail".

Very little was written about the women at Nancy Bogg's establishment.  An exception was Mary Sanders.  On May 30 1882 the Morning Oregonian  reported a double drowning on Ross Island.  A party of "rough men and lewd women and girls" rowed out to spend the day at the island.  Peter J. Sitko, keeper of a "saloon scow" docked nearby, invited Sanders "a habitue of Nancy Boggs' den on Pine street" into the water.  She refused, telling him that she could not swim.  Sitko offered to teach her and "took her into the water on his back.  He evidently went beyond his depth, and with the additional  weight carried sank.  Both went down twice..".

What of Nancy Boggs's scow?  Did it exist? 

On December 22 1882 a Portland news item appeared in the Corvallis Gazette:  "Two footpads on Pine street, recently stopped the wife of a well known lawyer of Portland and demanded her purse in front of the infamous dive of Nancy Boggs in that city, as the wife was passing the street on her way home.  The people of Portland should apply a little hemp without too much form.

Three weeks later the Morning Oregonian reported: 

"Albina, like any other thriving place, has not failed to attract the human parasites whose particular vocation is to pray upon the legitimate industry and prosperity of others.  Prominent among these are saloon keepers, who are not only infesting all parts of town, but have taken up points of advantage along the river from scows equipped for their nefarious business.  It coming to the knowledge of the city marshal that among the later were persons encroaching upon the territory of East Portland, that officer a day or two since proceeded to investigate the matter.  He discovered two scows, reputed to be engaged in the business stated, were located within the city limits, and thereupon endeavored to gain evidence against their occupants to secure conviction without liscence.  In company of two citizens, he boarded one of the crafts, kept by one Nancy Boggs, whose reputation and history it may not be necessary to dwell upon, by whom they were confronted.  But she proved too old a bird to be caught, refusing to sell in quantities less than those allowed under a county licensee.  -the Morning Oregonian, January 10 1883.


The last appearance of Nancy Boggs in a Portland City directory was in 1886 in the North End at 144 G street, across from the stable of the Transcontinental  Street Railway's horse car lines.

Today, the site of 144 G street is on NW Glisan between Broadway and the North Park Blocks, across from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Nancy Boggs's last domicile in Portland was located directly behind the tree in the photograph.  The Harlow Block  (colored pink on the map from 1889) still exists (the large building).


The following year she appeared in the Oregonian, not as the subject of a story but as an example.  Saloons had been banned in Rainier.  As a result "Barges, like that of the widely infamous Nancy Boggs, floated down the river, carrying not only whiskey but the worse evil of prostitution.".  The article, and a similar mention in 1894, establishes the vessel was well known in Portland three decades before "Spider" Johnson mentioned it to Holbrook.

At some point she married Ned Mullery, who resided on Emerald Island, aka Mullery's Island, on the lower Columbia in Cowlitz County Washington.  Mullery fell off a boat and drowned on June 24 1903.

Nancy continued to live on the island.  Despite her absence she still had interests in Portland, purchasing lot 1 in Block 24 in the Fremont Place plat from her brother, John Veazey.  She died on March 30 1906 at the age of 72.  Probate records indicate that the Mullery's lived a modest existence, not without small comforts, and left an estate with more debts than assets.

Nearly a half century after she died, Stewart Holbrook continued to polish her legend.  In 1950 he was commissioned by the Lipman and Wolf to write The Portland Story to mark the firm's centennial.  In that version, the colors of the scow were upgraded to "a bright Nile green, trimmed in dainty vermilion".   The story also gained a new coda.  After being being cut loose by the police in the moonlight , the vessel drifted "...away downstream, and so out of Portland's history, but to add immeasurably to that of the town of Linnton".

Holbrook's last retread appeared in Oregonian in 1957 in Forces of Virtue vs. Miss Nancy Boggs.  By then others had taken up the legend.  Oregonian columnist Jack Mahoney's 1945 variant was recast in 1950 for a national audience in True Police Cases magazine.  In 1984, she appeared in the book Portland, an Informal History and Guide by Terrence O'Donnel and Thomas Vaughan  under the misnomer Mary Boggs.  Her scow was painted bright crimson.

Viewed point by point, the legend of Nancy Boggs is more true than not.  However fragmentary, the preponderance of evidence confirms the following assertions by Johnson / Holbrook:  There was a Nancy Boggs in Portland.  She ran a saloon that fronted for a brothel.  The saloon was located near Second and Pine streets.  A "scow business" existed in the early 1880s.  Nancy Boggs operated a particularly notorious scow.  Afterwords, she took up business again in the North End. 

That said, years of barroom retelling and decades more of embellishment removed much of the reality of Nancy Boggs and her world.  Holbrook's stories reflect his favorite tropes and set pieces, spurred on by the preferences and expectations of his readership.  Miss Nancy Boggs (she was always a Miss to Holbrook) was cut from the same cloth as Broadway's and Hollywood's "Unsinkable" Molly Brown, another irrepressible heroine who drifted far from her basis in fact, and later Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty

Whatever happened on board the scow, it captured the attention and imagination of Portland.  "Spider" Johnson's statements are accurate enough to merit consideration that even the most outlandish episode, the steam-fueled confrontation with police and the paddle-wheeler rescue, might have some basis in truth. But while parts of the story may, or may not yet be proven, documented facts such as hardship, violence and survival never made it into the legend in the first place.


* The full quote from Charles Dickens in David Copperfield: "I am a lone lorn creetur and everything goes contrary with me".

** The name of the man who assaulted Nancy Boggs  is written as John Giffen in the first article and John Griffen in the second.

The breakthrough to Nancy's past and her eventual fate was the short article about Ned Mullery's drowning.  It lead to her whereabouts after leaving Portland and eventually to the probate records that listed Nancy's surviving relatives.  From that information it was possible to work backwards from what was already recorded about her in Oregon.




Unknown said...

Very entertaining. Great sleuthing and history clarification. Thank you, Dan.

Unknown said...

This is awesome!

Unknown said...

This is awesome