Whitman news since 1896

A Man and His Pipe, Part II: The Man who Never Smiled

Will Gregg

As I mentioned in my last post, the gold rush had brought significant change to Walla Walla including a large proportion of temporary to permanent residents. The rush also affected the political climate, as Frank T. Gilbert describes in his Historic Sketches of Walla Walla County (1882):

“Values to all kinds of property had greatly increased, and the large proportion of transient people who paid regard only to their own wishes, caring for no law except that which was backed by the click of a nimble revolver, rendered it important that men selected for office should have a character that would command the respect of a thief, a desperado, or an honest man. These were rare qualities and few possessed them.”

Gilbert’s retelling, though dramatic, is actually accurate. The same residents who called for mining to be opened in Nez Perce territory were now facing the consequences of that development, and sensed a moral crisis. In the summer of 1862, with elections approaching, a group of “leading citizens” published a list of men most suited for public office.[1] Cain was not elected but made the list.

It is no doubt that Cain’s legal expertise earned him a prominent place in the estimation of his contemporaries. But the modern legal profession, associated as it is with tedious technical expertise, does not match what would have been Cain’s job description. Professor W. D. Lyman (yes, that Lyman) in his History of Walla Walla County, looks back on the legal profession from the 1920s:

“The good old times when everyone wore red-flannel shirts and long six-shooters have passed away, and with them have gone the days when . . . pleadings were short and formalities were more honored in the breach than in the observance. But there was a sturdy manliness in those days, bred of the rough surroundings, and was distinguished by a sense of justice, untrammeled by precedents and hairsplitting legal distinctions.”

Lyman was not exaggerating. He reports a “running fight with six-shooters” between a judge and two attorneys a few years after Cain’s death in 1879. Cain had the intangibles, it would seem, to impress his contemporaries.

Weaponry of the sort that the pistol-wielding litigants of Cain's era might have used. The pistol itself is from 1842, but the other supplies––a powder flask and shell capper––date c. 1860.

Weaponry of the sort that the pistol-wielding litigants of Cain’s era might have used. The pistol itself is from 1842, but the other supplies––a powder flask and shell capper––date c. 1860.

Cain’s legal career led naturally to politics. It may seem like a distant concern, but the Civil War had real consequences for Walla Walla. Town officials conducted a census in 1864 to determine how many citizens could be enlisted if necessary. The conflict encouraged party division. The Democrats ruled in Walla Walla, winning 12 of 15 county positions in 1864, and the town became decidedly pro-Union. Into this mix stepped Cain who hung his hat on the more popular, democratic side of the rack. In his campaigns for office he had limited success. He ran for Walla Walla’s representative to the territorial legislature in 1863, but lost. He was elected prosecuting attorney in 1868, but ran unopposed. What is missing in these tales of Cain’s political career is a clear portrait of his demeanor and comportment. For, despite limited success at first, these would carry him to larger accomplishments late in life.

There is a rather cute section of the Walla Walla Statesman called “Lies.” It’s a sort of rumor mill that deliberately prints false information; by inferring the opposite of what is written, the reader can get the inside joke and the scoop at the same time. On October 3, 1874 the ‘lies’ include “That the democratic ticket is not the strongest ever nominated,” “That there was no liquor drank (sic) at the Howard reception,” and “That A. J. Cain never smiles.” From this kernel we can glean that Cain was cheerful, notable, and probably well-liked. It’s striking, though, how this description differs from Cain’s forceful reputation as a lawyer.


A view of downtown Walla Walla two years before Cain's death. During his 15 years in Walla Walla, Cain saw brick buildings replace the town's ramshackle wooden structures.

A view of downtown Walla Walla two years before Cain’s death. During his 15 years in Walla Walla, Cain saw brick buildings replace the town’s ramshackle wooden structures.

Another piece of the puzzle comes from his obituary July 12, 1879. Much like the note attached to his pipe, it is tantalizingly brief:

“But for his one great failing, a partiality for drink, it is an open question if he could not have occupied the highest position in the gift of the people. At all times he was a perfectly courteous gentleman, one of nature’s nobility, and a man of the strictest integrity. No more need be said.”

The obituary seems deliberately sensational. It brings up Cain’s drinking only to comment that “no more need be said.” Is this no more than spurious gossip, or was alcoholism actually a severe problem for Cain? There is not enough information to prove or deny the claim. What we do know, however, is that depiction of Cain as someone near “the highest position in the gift of the people”––actually a very generous estimation––does not quite describe Cain’s minor role in the politics of the 1860s. As we will see in the next entry, Cain will once again parallel the development of Walla Walla County with his move to Dayton.  There, near the end of his life, he will play his most important role yet.


[1] Interestingly enough, of the 42 names listed, only seven were elected, making up half of the 14 possible positions. It’s possible that the “leading citizens” who put up the names were the very people listed. Competition was stiff and their plan to get one another elected was only partially successful. Alternatively, some of the men on the list might not have had anything  to do with it, choosing not to run.

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