Hello from the History Department –
She just wanted to finish her drink! Read this great story by The Oregonian’s Douglas Perry about Phyllis “Torchy” Jessing, the redhead on the left in McMenamins artist Lyle Hehn’s mural that hangs in Zeus Café.
This true-crime tale has everything: a drunken stabbing, a bloody weapon, a lovesick boyfriend, extortion, corruption, a gasping jury, breathless media coverage and the mob who used to congregate at what is today’s Zeus Café at the Crystal Hotel. You’ll never look at Torchy the same way again.
Oh, and by the way, Torchy’s sister was married at what’s now McMenamins Chapel Pub and her niece worked for McMenamins and helped open the Grand Lodge in 2000.
Phyllis “Torchy” Jessing sat in a holding cell, shoulders slumped, head drifting toward her knees. Earle Skow, a defense attorney, gazed through the bars at the drunken gangster moll. It was early in the morning on July 13, 1958, a day after Alfred Kiefer, Skow’s client and Jessing’s boyfriend (shown below with Torchy), had been rushed to Portland General Hospital with grievous stab wounds in the stomach.
Skow had heard that Jessing saw the attack up-close. Two small-time hoods, Willard Fent Jr. and Slim Jenkins, had lifted the blood-drenched Kiefer off the floor of a downtown Portland tavern. Fent, turning toward the door, spotted Jessing sitting at a nearby table. He told her to come along.
Torchy said she wanted to finish her drink.
On his way out of police headquarters after seeing Jessing, Skow came upon Deputy District Attorney Oscar D. Howlett. The defense attorney said Jessing was in no condition to talk to the police or the district attorney’s office.
“Is that so?” Howlett replied.
A few minutes later, the deputy D.A. had officers pull Jessing out of the cell and dump her in an interview room. He and fellow deputy district attorney Glenn Guerts launched an interrogation. Torchy, a nickname born from the 28-year-old’s signature flowing red hair, didn’t need to be pushed hard.
“I stuck it in him,” she admitted. “I didn’t think he was hurt — you know, real hurt. And then I saw all that blood and realized the guy was hurt.”
Howlett and Guerts asked her why she did it. Jessing stared at them. “I don’t know,” she said. “I was plastered.”
Police officer William DeBellis entered the room and placed a spring-blade knife on the table in front of Jessing. Torchy picked it up. What happened next would become a matter of much dispute in court. The prosecutors claimed that Jessing, while sitting in front of them, methodically scratched a “T” on the blood-stained blade. They said she was signing her work. The state’s version of the interrogation would help make Phyllis Jessing a local celebrity. “Initial ‘T’ (for Torchy?)…,” The Oregonian headlined.
Of course, everyone in Portland’s underworld already knew Torchy. She had been the ward of the notorious James B. Elkins, who ran the city’s vice rackets. She called him “J.B.” And she’d proven over the years that she had learned at J.B.’s knee. She’d been arrested for stealing, passing bad checks and, time and again, “vagrancy,” which meant she’d been on the scene when the cops raided illegal “private clubs.” A month before the stabbing, police had banged on Alfred Kiefer’s front door in Southeast Portland, seeking to arrest the 35-year-old hoodlum on extortion charges. They found Jessing in Kiefer’s bed.
Now Torchy was trying a little extortion herself. In the interview with Howlett and Guerts, she mentioned the name of a former cop who had worked for Elkins for years. She called the man a “phony.” The prosecutors ignored the reference to police corruption — it certainly wasn’t news to them.
The assault trial of Phyllis Jessing began in October. The jury avidly watched Torchy as she sat at the defense table. She was a wreck, there was no denying it. She squinted and blinked a lot; she seemed to struggle with her concentration. But there was something about her, a bemused hauteur or suppressed hilarity — plus that flame of hair. You couldn’t take your eyes off her.
Jessing’s attorney, Larry Landgraver, insisted that his client’s confession was bunk. He pointed the finger at the 30-year-old Fent, a “rival for Jessing’s affections.” Fent supposedly flashed a knife a couple of hours before the stabbing and told Jessing: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of Al.” Kiefer, a gangly puppy-dog of a man, then took the witness stand and testified that he loved Jessing and planned to marry her. He admitted he was paying her attorney fees.
“I don’t know who stabbed me,” he said. “I didn’t see the knife. I just felt the hot sensation as it went in.”
The prosecution countered by telling jurors that while Fent and Jessing were headed to the hospital that night — Jessing had been convinced to abandon her unfinished drink — she pulled a blood-stained knife from her purse and tossed it out the car window. She said in her police statement that Fent wouldn’t stop “yakking at me to get rid of it.”
Then came the killer evidence: the knife itself. A man walking his dog had found it on the side of the road. The jury gasped as Deputy District Attorney George Van Hoomissen displayed the knife, but Landgraver scoffed. The defense attorney declared he couldn’t see a “T” scratched onto the blade.
Van Hoomissen told the jury they could examine the knife and decide for themselves. “If you can’t find the ‘T’ you can acquit this girl with my blessing,” the prosecutor said.
Ultimately, the jury couldn’t decide, and a mistrial was declared. As a second trial geared up in January, Jessing changed her plea to guilty in exchange for a suspended 12-month sentence. But even though Torchy dodged prison time, she and Kiefer didn’t ride off into the sunset together.
In December 1958, Jessing secretly married a different gangster, George E. Hoffman, in Stevenson, Wash. She gave her name as Phyllis Schak and claimed she was a barmaid from Bend. A few weeks after the wedding, The Oregon Journal showed photos of Jessing to Skamania County’s auditor and deputy auditor, and both identified her “as being the same woman as ‘Phyllis Schak.’” To no one’s surprise, the marriage didn’t last long. Torchy had no interest in being a doting, subservient wife. She wanted to play by her own rules, just like the gangsters she grew up around.
Elkins, her father figure, knew this better than anyone. On the night Alfred Kiefer was stabbed, the crime lord had showed up at the hospital and “berated” his former ward for bringing such unwanted attention down on herself — and, by extension, him. Torchy rolled her eyes at him. She shrugged the whole thing off as a “drunk mess.”
By now, Elkins’ criminal empire had begun to collapse. He faced an endless string of court battles. That meant Jessing didn’t have a protector anymore. Torchy would have to find a new way to survive. In the years ahead, she reportedly became a “reliable [police] informer, despite being beaten up a number of times by hoodlums.”
She didn’t survive for long, however. An ambulance service received a mysterious phone call one June evening in 1964. The responding driver found Torchy unconscious in her isolated northwest Portland home. She died a couple of hours later, from an overdose of barbiturates. She was just 34. The police called her death an “apparent suicide.”