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In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, we’re taking a short break from our series profiling Canby’s sports heroes to tell you a story that’s…a bit more appropriate for the season.
A brief content warning before we begin: this segment does contain descriptions of murder and attempted suicide.
There are stories that make you feel good, that shed light on the human condition. There are stories that inspire, or that help your head rest easier on the pillow when you wake up, sweating, in the middle of the night.
This is not one of those stories.
This is not a happy story. It’s not a story where the events can be easily explained or understood, or where the narrative wraps themselves up in a nice, neat little bow.
All I can tell you is that it’s a true story. It really happened.
And it happened on a dark morning in mid-September of 1914, in a little cabin near Aurora, nestled among hop fields and fir trees.
William Sohn came home around noon on Tuesday, Sept. 15, to a quiet house. Unnaturally quiet. How could a house with a wife and two kids — Richard, a wily 2-year-old, and Dorothy Virginia, a squirming infant of only 6 months — possibly be so quiet?
William, tired after a morning of hard labor in the neighboring hop field where he worked, may have wondered if Florence had taken the children to play at his mother’s house down the road. If only that were the case.
William’s second clue that something was dreadfully wrong was that both doors were locked: front and back. He pounded on the doors, calling for his wife and son.
He was forced to enter his own home through a window. When he saw the horror that awaited him inside, I’m sure he wished he hadn’t.
The house was neat and orderly, everything in their proper place. But quiet. So quiet.
“Florence!” he yelled again.
He found his family lying on the bed. The small, still bodies of Dorothy and Richard lay on their mother’s lap. Dead. Florence, his wife for only two years, was barely conscious, clinging to life.
The gun that had killed the children — a 38-caliber revolver owned by William — was in Florence’s hand. She had killed them, then tried to take her own life with two shots to chest.
William called for the coroner and the sheriff, who summoned Aurora doctor B.F. Giesy.
What happened was obvious. Florence, who was conscious by then and able to speak, readily admitted to the crime. The mystery was why.
William told investigators that his wife had no history of depression or insanity, and that he had noticed nothing unusual in her behavior that morning.
He had married Florence in Portland in July 1912. She was 15 years old, and had been orphaned at age 5. What happened to her parents is unknown, but there is evidence she and her sister may have been raised by an uncle who was a police sergeant in Portland.
Florence had been aiming for the heart when she shot herself, but she’d missed — barely. When he first examined her, Dr. Giesy had offered the grave opinion that he did not expect her to live.
He was wrong. Over the weeks and months to come, Florence made a slow, steady recovery, gaining strength and, eventually, some form of mental clarity about the tragedy she had caused.
“Clarity” is probably not the best word. As I’ve said, clarity and understanding are not really on the table in this story.
She had killed her children out of fear for their souls. She would later tell friends “she shot her children to protect them from the sufferings and sins of the world,” according to a newspaper account. “She told them that she loved her children and shot them and herself because she loved them so much and dreaded to see them grow up.”
Thanks to her, they never would.
Florence never expressed remorse for what she’d done, and at least initially, “spoke of her children as if she had done nothing more than put them to bed,” newspapers reported.
“All is well now,” Florence was quoted as telling her husband and friends, two days after the tragedy. “Everything is all right.”
With a cold detachment that no doubt chilled the blood of investigators, she spoke of finding the gun, loading it, testing it, then turning it upon her helpless children. It would be two weeks before she would offer the slightest hint of emotion in discussing her crime.
Dr. Giesy, who continued to treat her, said the plan to murder her children came to her “in an instant” that morning, and that she carried it out “in a daze.” Even months later, she continued to insist the children were, “better dead” than alive, and expressed no grief over the tragedy.
It’s a sad, upsetting story — hey, I warned you — and it ends with another bizarre and disturbing twist.
By December of 1914, Florence had made what appeared to be a full physical recovery, and Sheriff E.T. Mass took her into custody, though a formal indictment and arrest warrant had not been issued.
Before the trial began, the district attorney transported Florence to Portland for a surgical procedure that had been recommended by Dr. Giesy.
We don’t know much about the operation, which took place at Good Samaritan Hospital on Dec. 2. It appears to be some early form of psychosurgery, such as a lobotomy, in which the connections are severed in the frontal lobes of a patient’s brain — though it would be over 20 years before the first lobotomy would be performed here in the U.S.
A short item in the Dec. 4 edition of The Oregonian noted that Florence was still at Good Sam and “progressing well.” It was the last time she would ever be mentioned, suggesting that she and her husband moved out of the state, or at least stopped talking to newspapers.
Later speculation would suggest that it was her lonely existence in the small, isolated cabin, her constant brooding over her difficult childhood as an orphan, and her desire to spare her children — especially her daughter — from a similar fate, that led her to do what she did.
The truth is, we’ll never know.
Photo by Sheila Sund. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
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