Here's How Bad the Corruption Was in Prohibition Portland

A new book on local crime and vice makes Portland's modern-day "scandals" seem quaint.

By Marty Patail February 1, 2016

Murder and scandal in prohibition portland iytnsw

Recently, Portland Monthly’s "Heroes and Villains" issue explored, among other things, the city’s long tradition of crime and corruption.

Now, a new book, Murder and Scandal in Prohibition Portland: Sex, Vice, and Misdeeds in Mayor Baker's Reign (The History Press, 2016) focuses with laserlike precision on a two-decade period under our most notorious mayor. Yes, the one who posed for photos with the Ku Klux Klan.

Written by historian JD Chandler and writer and artist Theresa Griffin Kennedy, the book chronicles the era of greed and corruption that followed George Luis Baker’s election in 1917 through 1933.

How bad was it? Pretty dang bad. Here, a small sampling, which includes a local name you may recognize from TV ads.

Union Dollar Cab had been in business only about a year, opened as an employer specifically for members of the Taxidrivers Union. The union had been in violent struggle with Eddie Tonkin, self-proclaimed “Taxicab King” and crony of Mayor Baker. Tonkin, who shared a “love of cars” with George Baker and founded an auto-dealership dynasty in Portland, was an ex-newsboy and a proud member of the “city hall crowd.” A taxi driver and part-time auto race competitor, Tonkin parlayed his relationship with city hall into a manger position with Black & White Cabs and eventual ownership of almost all of the taxi in town. Tonkin gobbled up cab companies by ruthlessly keeping any union activity out of his garages. He employed a “goon squad” of loyal taxi drivers who beat union supporters and denied employment to anyone who showed sympathy for unions. After a disastrous strike in 1928, the struggle became bloody, and it was a regular occurrence for taxi drivers on both sides to be summoned to remote locations where they were beaten and robbed of their cabs. 

And you thought Uber was bad.

The authors will read from Murder & Scandal in Prohibition Portland on Feb 11 at Powell's City of Books

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