The family that vanished

Author JB Fisher talks about a 61-year-old Portland mystery, this week at Third Street Books in McMinnville

On Thursday evening, Portland author JB Fisher will return to his one-time home of McMinnville to read from and discuss his latest book, Echo of Distant Water: The 1958 Disappearance of Portland’s Martin Family. You’ll find him downtown at Third Street Books, which has proved over the years that small-town indie bookstores can not only survive, but thrive. The Sept. 26 event begins at 6:30 p.m., and the store has a plentiful supply of copies for purchase.

Fisher is the author of another Portland true-crime book, Portland on the Take: Mid-Century Crime Bosses, Civic Corruption & Forgotten Murders, written with JD Chandler and published in 2014. That volume tells the tale of how gangsters gained control of some of the city’s unions during the Red Scare that followed the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike.

It turns out his new book was born right under my nose.

The author, teacher, and historian and his family used to live around the corner from us in McMinnville before they moved to Portland about six years ago. Our kids played together occasionally, so it turns out that I’ve actually visited the house where Echo of Distant Water has its origins.

Portland author JB Fisher came to true-crime via a background in Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature. He notes that popular literature of that time is “full of sensational stories: infanticides and hangings and the seedy underworld of ‘rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.’”
Portland author JB Fisher came to true-crime via a background in Shakespeare and English Renaissance literature. He notes that popular literature of that time is “full of sensational stories: infanticides and hangings and the seedy underworld of ‘rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.’” Photo by: Robert Delahanty

Digging through boxes in the garage of the ranch-style home, Fisher found a stack of newspapers left behind by the previous owner, and that was where he first learned about the Martin family. That story goes back to 1958, and boiled down to the most basic facts, it goes like this:

A few days before Christmas of that year, Ken and Barbara Martin of Portland and their three daughters climbed into their 1954 Ford station wagon and headed up the Columbia Gorge to find a Christmas tree. (Their 28-year-old son was stationed in New York with the Navy.) They had lunch at a Hood River diner, then apparently headed back to Portland.

Then they vanished.

Evidence emerged about a month later suggesting that the car had plunged off a cliff into the Columbia River near The Dalles. Early in May 1959, the bodies of the two youngest girls were discovered — one in the Columbia Slough near Camas, Wash., and the other near the Bonneville Dam spillway. The car was never found.

Investigators and journalists looking into the case have never determined what happened. The case has all but slipped from public memory. Occasionally, a Portland journalist takes a run at it with a “Whatever happened to the Martin family?” story. But, lacking a definitive answer, the tale fades and recedes further into memory.

That is, until someone like Fisher comes along. 

True crime wasn’t his first calling. Fisher teaches writing at Portland Community College (and taught at Chemeketa Community College while living in McMinnville). A Reed College graduate, he has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and is deeply versed in Shakespeare studies.

Fisher sent me a copy of the book, and although true crime isn’t really my thing, I read it and found it utterly absorbing. Over several days, we traded emails about the book and his investigation. He responded in depth to two batches of questions I sent, along with a few follow-ups. I have shaped the exchange into question-and-answer format and edited it for length and clarity.

I find it fascinating that your background is Shakespeare and literature, but you found your way into true crime. Could you elaborate?

Fisher: On one level, it was certainly a drastic shift to go from being an early-modern-literature professor to researching Oregon true crime. But on another level, it was sort of a continuum. One of my primary research areas was early-modern popular literature — broadside ballads, chapbooks, and other ephemera — and how that all related to Shakespearean drama. A lot of those materials are full of sensational stories: infanticides and hangings and the seedy underworld of “rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars.” In those texts and Oregon historical texts, my interest is less about the sensational for its own sake and more about shedding light on the socio-cultural intricacies of a particular time period, whether it’s Renaissance London or 1950s Portland.

Why do you think the Martin case isn’t better known in the pantheon of Pacific Northwest crimes? As opposed to, say, the Michael Francke case, Diane Downs, or even D.B. Cooper?

I don’t really have a good answer for that. In 1958-59, this was a huge news story. For almost a year, it received nearly daily coverage in The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal. When Ann Sullivan and Margie Boulé covered the story (for The Oregonian) in the late ‘60s and ‘90s respectively, there was renewed interest. One explanation might be the sheer complexity of the case. Unlike D.B. Cooper, which at least has a somewhat clear beginning and middle (but no definite ending), the Martin family case is uncertain at every turn and every question has been unanswered — where they went, what happened to them, why the case was not solved, etc.

“The happiness of the Ken Martin family is reflected in their smiles” notes the caption of an AP Wirephoto published in May 1959, the day after the body of 11-year-old Susan (far right) was found in a Camas Slough. Other family members are (from left): Virginia, 13; son Donald (no age given); parents Barbara and Ken; and Barbara, 14 (seated on floor). Except for Donald, the family disappeared in December 1958 on a Christmas-tree outing. Photo courtesy: JB Fisher
“The happiness of the Ken Martin family is reflected in their smiles” notes the caption of an AP Wirephoto published in May 1959, the day after the body of 11-year-old Susan (far right) was found in a Camas Slough. Other family members are (from left): Virginia, 13; son Donald (no age given); parents Barbara and Ken; and Barbara, 14 (seated on floor). Except for Donald, the family disappeared in December 1958 on a Christmas-tree outing. Photo courtesy: JB Fisher

How does one dramatize a story like this, given the source material you’re working with? Is it difficult to decide how far to take it, particularly with dialogue, and still remain true to the record?

When I was writing the book, the opening chapters of In Cold Blood were a kind of touchstone for me. I wanted to go just about as far as Capote did and no further. So phone conversations were OK, as were quotidian details based on some degree of material evidence. When it came to which books the girls were reading on the morning of the disappearance, for instance, I coupled known facts about their frequent library patronage with the idea that Beverly Cleary and Ann Nolan Clark books were widely read by pre-teens in Portland in 1958. More problematic would be the purely speculative aspects, and I acknowledge that the prologue took things a little further. We really don’t know that an ex-con commandeered the car as it left Hood River, nor do we know with certainty that the car was pushed into the Columbia. I like to think that the book’s later chapters provide enough scaffolding in the form of documentation to make these (scenarios) seem less speculative than they otherwise might be.

In several chapters, it’s clear you’re extrapolating a possible narrative from an incomplete set of facts. It made me think of biographies about Shakespeare, where on virtually every page the author is obliged to say, “One can surmise that,” or “One possibility is that….” Of course, with him, the problem is a lack of facts. With this, it’s an abundance of them!

So much of the fun of literature is playing with interpretive possibilities. I always told my students that more than anything else, Shakespeare’s enduring nature comes down to his own willingness to play with language, with meanings, with traditions, with source material, etc. Having said that, I think there’s a difference between extrapolating about possibilities and drawing conclusions from a paucity of factual evidence. I try to make clear in my book (with the author’s note and reminders in the final chapters) that I am not drawing conclusions. I am working with plausible scenarios based on concrete findings. The beauty of extrapolating is that others are still free to participate as well, and they might take the conversation in new directions.

As I was reading, I recalled David Fincher’s 2007 film Zodiac. The film is less about the Zodiac Killer himself than it is about the way the investigation becomes an obsession for a guy from the San Francisco Chronicle. You’ve spent so much time with this stuff in your head, I’m wondering if you ever regarded it that way, as an obsession?

I would say that becoming obsessed is kind of a prerequisite for this kind of project. The challenge is balancing on a very fine line between becoming overwhelmed by the obsession and using it productively to drive the research and the writing forward. Even though I’m not a surfer, the best analogy might be riding in the barrel of a large wave. You can get swallowed up or spit out, but if you stay right in the sweet spot, the wave will give you an amazing ride. In this project, I was fortunate to stay (mostly) in the sweet spot, largely because there were enough connections between the diverse threads to tie up loose ends and see a way out.

What was the most difficult part of working on it?

I have been fortunate that I did not face any major impediment or obstacle that really challenged me in this project. I kept waiting for one, but somehow the pieces kind of fell into place. I’m not a highly spiritual person, but I do think that (former Multnomah County Sheriff’s Detective Walter) Graven’s notebooks and his presence in this project were a kind of guardian muse that kept me going. I just kept thinking of how hard he had tried, and that was very compelling.

You mentioned shedding light on the social/cultural dynamics of the time. Was there any aspect of mid-20th-century American life that was integral to either the incident itself or how the investigation played out?

One aspect of life in the 1950s that seems to be integral to the story is the powerful impact that homophobia had within the culture at large. We will never know for sure whether the family met their doom as a direct response to Donald’s being ostracized. But even if that was not the case, there is no doubt that he was much impacted by his parents’ disapproval. Certainly in the context of 1950s American culture, these were “unspeakable” things, but that is one of the aspects of this story that I feel is very important to voice: to show the devastating legacy of homophobia in tearing families apart.

On the surface, it’s easy to surmise that the Martins simply went Christmas tree hunting and accidentally rolled into the Columbia. Obviously, we learn that there’s much more that makes one say, “Yes, but what about… ?” For you, what was the most compelling evidence that it was foul play?

The sheer number of coincidences in this case. I am certainly aware of Occam’s Razor and agree that the path of least speculation is usually the most likely. However, in this case, trying to stick to the accident theory is actually the tougher path. Any one element would not be enough on its own, but taken in totality, it’s another story. That was Graven’s main point all along.

The car tracks on the cliff were near The Dalles. Virginia’s body was discovered near Cascade Locks, and Susan’s was found near Camas. That’s a 75-mile stretch of the Columbia River. While searchers fixated on a point where they assumed the car was, you note that powerful currents are constantly rearranging the riverbed. Given that, and that it’s been more than half a century, isn’t a search at this point futile?

If the car did go over the cliff downstream from The Dalles, there is a pretty finite area where it would be. Finding the car is the most important aspect of the search. Granted, the river in that section is very deep (in places nearly 160 feet deep) and the bottom has boulders, overhanging rock, and even caverns. While the currents are strong, the fact that it is so rocky would have kept the car from moving too much.

Fisher will read from his book at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, in McMinnville’s Third Street Books.
Fisher will read from his book at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, in McMinnville’s Third Street Books.

Do you think the case will ever be solved?

I do. Finding the car in the river would go a long way. So would some kind of explanation from a friend of Donald’s who is, as far as I know, still alive. Whether it will be solved is another question. My friend Scott Hulbert is a professional wreck diver and has been down there several times. He says that relative to other diving (such as ocean wreck-diving), it isn’t too challenging. But the car has remained elusive. I am hoping that the book will serve as a catalyst to get new conversations going. But time will tell.

What’s next? What are you working on?

I just finished an article about Timberline Lodge in the early 1950s, when it was nearly destroyed as a result of mismanagement by Portland vice characters. I am also working on a  project tentatively titled Portland Exposed, about the rivalry between The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal during the 1956-57 Portland vice probe and its aftermath. There is a huge, colorful story there that has never been told.

Finally, have you read, seen, or listened to anything recently that took your breath away? Any recommendations?

A recent terrific read was John Dodge’s A Deadly Wind, about the 1962 Columbus Day storm. I also highly recommend the recent album Reward by the Welsh musician Cate Le Bon. It is fantastic!

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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