NW History: ‘Super-man’ Criminal Tried to Kidnap Wealthy Portlanders in 1918, Leading to Murder, Bold Escapes


The young nurse fell hard for John Knight Giles.

She didn’t protest his scheme to kidnap wealthy Portlanders. She found the shrewdness of his plan – and his arrogance about it – exciting.

Then, in the fall of 1918, it all went awry. A sheriff’s deputy lay dead – brutally murdered – and Augusta Carlson found herself sitting in jail. Now she wanted to tell all about her boyfriend, and everyone in town wanted to hear what she had to say.

Because Giles already had made a public spectacle of himself.

Quoting the late 19th-century German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche (as the Chicago thrill-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb also would do five years later), Giles “considered himself to be a super-man and planned to be the master kidnapper of modern times,” The Oregonian wrote.

Giles – born in Tennessee and raised in Washington state, where his father worked as a sawmill operator – did appear to have the brain power for great accomplishments. As a child he had shown such remarkable ability that he skipped multiple grades. He was a high-school junior at age 12.

But scholarship didn’t offer the exhilaration of law-breaking. In his teens he began robbing saloons and hijacking automobiles. In 1915, at 19, he landed at the state prison in Walla Walla when a would-be victim, a seemingly wimpy doctor, surprised him by fighting back.

He launched a new crime spree nearly four years later, just days after his release on parole.

On Sept. 23, 1918, he sneaked aboard a mail train out of Everett and made off with a suitcase full of Liberty bonds, checks and money orders. Law enforcement said the robbery had been pulled off in “true wild west style.”

Giles had much bigger plans. Now using a newly adopted name – John Cyril Liard – he was going to snatch wealthy men from around Portland and hold them for ransom.

He found a remote, densely wooded spot in Vancouver where he would stash his victims. Then he spent the fall collecting the addresses of well-to-do citizens in the area, starting with the Ladd family.

He typed up a letter to hand to each kidnap victim after gaining entry to the person’s home. “I have you covered with my pistol,” the letter began. It continued:

I am armed to the teeth and my confederates have surrounded the house. If you make an outcry, move, or menace me in any way, I shall kill you and any member of your family who may appear.

We want $50,000. You can pay this sum or not, just as you like. If you wish to pay, it will be necessary for you to accompany me. You must do that, however, without exciting suspicion. A hint to the servants or one of your family will be sufficient notice for me to shoot everyone in sight.

Read this over until you thoroughly understand it, meanwhile remaining absolutely motionless.

Giles also typed letters to leave for the families of his victims, to encourage them to pay the $50,000 – equivalent to almost $1 million today – without complaint.

This second letter recommended that the family keep the kidnapping out of the newspapers, “not that we fear any immediate trouble from the law nor its stupid upholders, but because we do not care to bring needless competition to our profession by the attracting of mediocre bandits to this essentially easy form of robbery.”

The letter closed by pointing out that the author’s eloquence should not be taken to suggest squeamishness about using violence.

“Reflect that one may have a knowledge of rhetorical forms and still make no distinction between the killing of a human and the destruction of any other of the many forms of organic life,” it said. “Murder and cruelty are not the weapons of the degenerate, vicious, and inefficient ones of Earth alone, but, on the contrary, find their highest expression in the hands of men of action and achievement.”

Examples of such men, the letter continued, were Napoleon Bonaparte, Otto von Bismarck, Pancho Villa and Captain William Kidd.

The thing was, John K. Giles turned out to be one of those mediocre bandits he sneered at.

On the night of Nov. 19, he and the 24-year-old Carlson climbed into his Hupmobile roadster and drove to one of the Portland addresses on his list. But his intended victim wasn’t home. The couple tried three more addresses, each also offering only staff on the premises.

The frustrated Giles headed over the new interstate bridge, and he and Carlson walked around the Vancouver hiding place he’d picked out. After they started back across the bridge, Giles decided he couldn’t bear to end the night with nothing to show for his efforts.

He pulled over to the side of the span, put on a wig and a “Charlie Chaplin mustache,” left Carlson in the running car and hoofed it over to the toll collector.

“Hand over that money!” Giles demanded, leveling two revolvers at the employee.

He raced back to the roadster, jumped in – “I’ve got it, let’s hurry,” he told Carlson – and the vehicle roared off.

The hurrying was where he went wrong.

Two Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies standing next to their motorcycles on Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) noted the roadster’s high speed as it went by.

One of them, Jack La Monte, was in the midst of repairing his machine. “You get him, Frank,” he told his partner, 27-year-old Frank W. Twombley.

Deputy Twombley started up his cycle and tore out after the speeder.

For three miles, the cop chased the car through Portland’s empty streets, before he finally found an opening and pulled beside the roadster.

“I saw the deputy ride up by the side of the car on his motorcycle and hold up his hand for us to halt,” Carlson would later recall. “Just as he reached the side of the machine Liard picked up one of his guns … and shot either three or four times.”

The motorcycle spun, throwing Twombley to the ground, dead.

“My God, what did I do?” Giles exclaimed.

“You killed the officer,” Carlson told him.

After driving several more miles, Giles pulled the vehicle off the road and buried his guns in a field. Back at their apartment, on Southeast Belmont Street in Portland, he told his girlfriend “not to be frightened and to forget what had happened.”

By then, police already had launched a murder investigation – and were getting nowhere fast.

“The gray Hupmobile could not be traced,” a reporter wrote. “All usual sources and stool pigeons failed to produce the slightest clue. The underworld knew nothing.”

But a couple of days later, a traveling salesman happened upon Giles’ hastily discarded disguise on the side of a road. Crucially, there was a laundry slip with it. This small piece of paper led detectives to a laundry business, which led them to the Dennison Apartments, where Giles and Carlson were holed up.

When the police arrested the couple, Giles insisted he wasn’t concerned. The cops, he said, had nothing but “innuendo and fly remarks.”

Then his bravado cracked. He told detectives he had been home on the night of November 19 because he wasn’t feeling well, and that his girl went out in the roadster on her own.

He added that in the morning he discovered the car was so dirty he had to have it washed for the second time in two days.

Carlson was shocked to learn that Giles had sold her out.

She was in love with him – the nurse had been besotted from the moment she met the dashing young man a month before. But she wasn’t willing to take the rap for him.

John Liard was a liar, she told The Oregonian’s “lady reporter,” Edith K. Holmes, as the two women sat in the austere matron’s room at the county jail. “He is trying to lay all the blame for his crimes on my shoulders, but I am innocent.”

Carlson, who still didn’t know her now-estranged lover’s real name, admitted she had made a mistake in trusting Giles.

“Anyone is liable to fall, and I fell for Liard,” she said. “Had he not been attractive and had I not believed him to be a fine fellow, I would not have gone to live with him. I went to live with him, it’s true, but I intended to marry him.”

Soon after moving in with Giles, she realized “he wasn’t the type of man I had been led to believe,” she said.

Holmes asked why she didn’t walk out on him.

Carlson sighed.

“My dear lady, if you had someone pointing a pistol at you all the time, you would know what I went through those three weeks,” she said. “I was terrified all the time. He was smooth enough to deceive me at first – and to keep me in range of the gun after he got me.”

She added, defiantly: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at me.”

Carlson, who ultimately would not be charged with a crime, made for a compelling witness. But George Mowry, the prosecuting attorney, worried that Giles would be even more compelling. He told jurors that John Cyril Liard, the name under which Giles was being tried for murder, would attempt to use his education to confuse and dazzle them, calling him “the cleverest defendant who ever sat in this court.”

The jurors apparently didn’t need the warning. In January 1919, they quickly found Liard/Giles guilty. The sentence: life in prison.

Giles’ mother, who sat through the trial wringing her hands, “collapsed in hysteria” when the sentence was announced.

Giles did not share her upset. He was “looking forward to a life in prison with a philosophical air,” The Oregonian wrote.

He was Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, after all. He stood above conventional “herd morality” and fears.

Giles proved a model prisoner at Oregon State Penitentiary and soon became a trusty. He sought a pardon from Gov. Julius Meier but did not receive it. After 15 years behind bars, he recognized that good behavior had taken him as far as it could. He disappeared while out with a prisoner work crew.

Reporting on Giles’ 1934 escape, The Oregonian used the pseudonym Hilda Swennson when referring to Carlson, for she still lived and worked in the area.

Giles spent three months on the lam, before officers in Minnesota arrested him for a counterfeiting scheme and assault. He landed at Alcatraz Island, the new federal penitentiary in San Francisco Bay that housed mobster Al Capone and other high-profile criminals.

He attempted to escape from The Rock in 1945, “dressing as an army Sergeant and boarding an army boat,” his prison records state. He was discovered after about an hour and returned to the prison.

Giles ended up back at Oregon’s state pen in 1952 and was released on parole two years later, with prison officials declaring that “the years have mellowed him considerably.” He died in California in 1979.

Frank Twombley, who left behind a wife and baby, would not be forgotten. Four decades after his murder, with the establishment of a national Peace Officers Memorial Day, Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies began to honor him every year at a public ceremony.