This photo of A. L. Johnson was taken in 1875 or 1876 by Shuster & Davidson in Portland.

A.L. Johnson — 'That swindling sham’

They scooped up the cash, pushed their bags onto the wagon and disappeared in the middle of the night. Since that summer in 1887, A. L. Johnson has been a mystery.

A man seemingly of good intentions, eloquent and full of ideas, he left a legacy of shame and hate, his pockets stuffed with school taxes, church offerings and hard-earned savings.

He was Medford's first banker, its first Wells Fargo agent, an insurance agent, the school clerk, Republican candidate for Justice of the Peace, and trusted treasurer of all the town's churches.

His former friends asked how this prince of Southern Oregon society could cheat his neighbors and leave every one of those churches penniless.

Overnight he had become "that swindling sham," and no one even remembered his first name. For 120 years he puzzled historians, who wondered who he was, what he looked like and where he had gone.

Trying to track A. L. Johnson is harder than finding a needle in 10 haystacks. Even in colonial days, the surname Johnson was the second-most common in the United States, and without a first name, only a lucky break would expose him.

That break came via an e-mail earlier this year from Diana who lives in Happy Valley. Diana didn't want her last name used, but with her help and a flurry of collaboration, A. L. Johnson's sketchy story can finally be completed.

"I recently contacted the Rogue Valley Genealogical Society," she wrote. "I received a copy of one of your articles written for the Mail Tribune in September 2002, entitled, 'A. L. Johnson — One of Medford's First Con Men.' I descend from Ellison Johnson, A. L. Johnson's brother."

She said A. L. stood for Ashba Logan, and she shared a photograph and years of her family research.

"Now that I look at it again, I can see the possibility of the character that you have described," she said. "He was a man who enjoyed being first at things, with lots of ideas, but not much successful follow-through."

She hadn't known that when Johnson arrived in Southern Oregon in the early 1880s, he was a wandering showman. He carried a kerosene-lit "magic lantern" that projected hand-tinted slides onto walls in small-town theaters and backwoods school rooms.

By the time the railroad arrived in 1884, he was already the area's real estate wizard. He coined the phrase, "The Italy of Oregon," to describe the climate of the Rogue Valley, enticing settlers with advertisements placed in newspapers and magazines across the country.

When the local newspaper failed, Johnson bought it. When the bank needed a vault, he bought it. And when one of the two livery stables in town was up for sale, he bought that, too. The only thing missing from his impressive resume was lasting success.

With no way out, trapped when his investments began to crumble, he panicked and ran away.

Diana recounted Johnson's early life.

Born in Tennessee in 1832, Johnson came across the Oregon Trail with his family in 1847. They were among the earliest settlers near today's Forest Grove, and Johnson attended the Forest Grove Academy, now Pacific University, leaving a lasting impression on his classmate, Harvey Scott, future editor of the Oregonian newspaper.

In his History of the Oregon Country, Scott remembered Johnson as, "One of our sonorous and impressive speakers, known always as 'Logan' Johnson. He was an inspirational word-builder."

A successful furniture dealer, Johnson had begun what looked like a promising career in public life. He was secretary and delegate from Washington County to the Democratic convention of 1857 and a guest speaker at local schools, pushing the cause of women's suffrage. In 1872, when Forest Grove was incorporated, Johnson, who had already been the district's first school clerk, was elected the first recorder for the Board of Trustees.

His marriage to Nancy Robinson in 1857 links him to Jacksonville through Nancy's brother, Dr. James Robinson, who came south to set up his medical practice in 1878. With Nancy's death, it seems likely that Johnson came to Jackson County to attend his brother-in-law's wedding in 1882. As a gift, the newspaper said, he gave the couple a book.

A year later, he married Lizzie Brogan, widow of a prominent mining supervisor. Within four years, the couple was on the run, infuriating the local newspaper editor who occasionally received reports of their current location.

"A. L. Johnson, erstwhile real-estate agent at Medford, and one of the most colossal frauds on the continent, is again in his old business of humbugging the unwary and swindling all who put any confidence in him. Give this fellow a wide berth, for he is not to be trusted under any circumstances."

Johnson would outlive most of his critics, dying in Long Beach, Calif., at the age of 87 in 1919. Diana said he moved around and occasionally changed professions, but he remained mostly in Southern California after sneaking away from Oregon.

Toward the end of his life, he apparently was a successful furniture dealer again.

"He died quite wealthy, with his wife his only survivor," Diana said.

He never returned to Oregon and never repaid what took. He robbed his friends, cheated the community and then quietly disappeared into history. If ever A. L. Johnson found forgiveness, it must have come from those Medford churches he left far, far behind.

Bill Miller is a freelance writer living in Shady Cove. Reach him at

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