Oregon

Flavel Family Mystery Unsealed

Daily Astorian | July 3, 2012 4:34 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:01 a.m.

Contributed By:

CHELSEA GORROW

Daily Astorian

A collection of newspapers, some dating back to 1914.

A 1950s-era woman’s swimsuit hanging up to dry in an all-pink bathroom.

A 1960s Playboy.

The self-help books, “I’m OK – You’re OK” and “Loneliness: The Fear of Love.”

A 12-inch knife by the stairwell in the basement.

A dog in the refrigerator.

Every step into the former home of Mary Louise and Harry Flavel grew stranger and stranger at 15th Street and Franklin Avenue Friday, living up to every bit of the 20-plus years of hype and mystery surrounding the mansion that’s created a following and a source of intrigue.

“I grew up in the neighborhood and Harry was kind of like our Boo Radley from ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ We always wondered what was behind that door,” said City Councilwoman Karen Mellin.

Friday, officials from the city of Astoria finally got the chance to see.

More than a year after the derelict building ordinance was adopted by the city, Mayor Willis Van Dusen, Community Development Director Brett Estes, Building Inspector Jack Applegate and Astoria Police Chief Peter Curzon gained access to the home after exhausting all avenues to find the last-known remaining Flavel, Mary Louise, who had lived in the home with her mother Florence and her brother Harry until a mysterious day in 1990.

Hoarding everything

A glimpse into the home was a glimpse into how the last generation of the Flavel family lived. The trio was known as recluses, and judging by Friday’s revelation, they were also hoarders.

Newspapers and magazines from the last 100 years were spread three-feet thick over all levels of the home, including the attic, the basement and the bathrooms.

The collection of papers, reading materials and other items may have created a mess for contractors and a cause for concern for the fire department. But it also created a layer of protection for the historical bones of the house.

Applegate said, “This place is saveable,” with a beam of pride as he walked through.

Estes agreed.

“I was happily surprised about how good of shape the house is in,” Estes said. “There are definitely issues and it definitely would take quite a bit of money to get the house repaired. But that being said, structurally, it’s still pretty sound. The floors don’t seem to be soft, everything seems to be holding up pretty well.

“Going in right now, putting the tarp on the roof, boarding up the windows, it’s a really good time to be doing this work, because it could reach that tipping point where it could start deteriorating structurally pretty soon. And by doing this right now, it’s going to be able to help save the building if someone, whoever it is, is able to do some repairs in the future. That was something I was happy to walk away from Friday.”

Applegate added, “That was the first thing in my mind when I was walking through – that it’s in way better condition than anyone had assumed. But I had a hunch it wasn’t going to be as bad as people thought. Oddly enough, I think some of the stacked-up bulk of personal belongings in there had absorbed the rain water on the upper floor and helped in some ways actually.”

Friday, work began on the home by brothers John and Jim Davies. The Davies cleared brush that surrounds the house, presenting a visual nuisance for many neighbors and creates a potential fire hazard for a home filled with paper and surrounded by vegetation.

The roof will also be tarped this week.

The doors and windows have been boarded up and resecured.

Now, the city will file a lien on the home, preserving the inside contents for whoever steps forward in the future to take control of the home, even if that someone is Mary Louise Flavel.

Inside the home

Among the stacks of garbage and clutter inside the mansion were items of monetary and historic value – antique bicycles, solid wood hand-carved pillars – and items of sentimental value – a Valentine’s Day Card to Florence Flavel signed by “Mary Louise, 1970,” and hand-painted art by Florence herself.

Clothes still hang in the closet.

Mail is unopened or stacked about, including a notice from the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid taxes from 1979.

Toilet paper is still wrapped in plastic and stored in brown paper bags as if it had just come from the market.

Several sealed packages of adult diapers were strewn about a bedroom, presumed to have belonged to Florence, who was said to be 90 when the family left town.

The kitchen, the room at which the city gained access through a backdoor, had signs of recent break-ins and drug paraphernalia on the stove. The refrigerator, opened by a brave Curzon, held oozing and dripping items that may have been food once upon a time. A bottom shelf presented what looked like a dead dog.

There were also other items wrapped in what appeared to be duct tape.

The smell filled the house in seconds, taking over the musty odor of dust and mold with that of rot and decay.

In the basement, plastic jugs of bleach were shaped into two pillars of artwork, spiralling the empty bottles by the neck from floor to ceiling in two corners.

The laundry room still had towels hanging up to dry.

A boiler, putting off some fumes, sat in the middle with a solitary chair facing it nearby. A canning room with mason jars was also discovered downstairs.

In the attic, holes in the roof let the daylight in. A chest sat in the corner – empty with the exception of a couple of hankies and a receipt for $2.50. More books, newspapers and magazines, including a 1958 advertisement for a Chevrolet and a 1960s Playboy, were littered across the floor.

A sewing room in the attic held a bed, along with a tiny closet, thread, needles and a case for a Singer sewing machine.

But every room had something in common in the massive estate. Every room was covered in several layers of newspapers, magazines, self-help books – mostly on topics of confidence and sexual exploration – and greeting cards to Florence from Mary Louise.

Arrested

Retired Assistant Police Chief Alan Oja said that he had been called to the home in the 1980s on a couple of occasions. Oja had even arrested Mary Louise Flavel when she refused to leave a social meeting in the Doctor Harvey house.

When the home was lived in, he said, the papers were stacked up the walls, not strewn about the floors.

“You had to turn sideways to walk through the hallways,” he said. “But there was a floor. The floor was clear in the pathways.”

Friday, not even the front door was safe from the layers upon layers of paper.

In the entry way, the stairs were covered with trash and the banister leading upstairs was missing along the stairwell and across the balcony.

Astoria Fire and Rescue Lt. Bob Johnson said his father was a doctor who sometimes made house calls to the Flavel home when Harry was a teenager. He had been told Harry had “chopped the banister to bits with a hatchet” in a teenage rage.

There were no visible scraps of what the banister may have been, a sign that “Hatchet Harry” had previously left his mark.

History of the home

The home was built in 1901 by the second Capt. George Flavel, son of the first bar pilot of the Columbia River.

The younger Flavel built the home several blocks away from his parents and “spinster sisters,” according to Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker article on the Flavels, the first family of Astoria, a part of the book “Astorians: Excentric and Extraordinary.”

Flavel had a son named Harry M. Flavel, grandson to the first captain. Harry inherited the 15th Street home and took over his father’s position as president of the Flavels’ Bank.

Harry M. married twice. His first wife and daughters settled in California. He then wed again to a school teacher named Florence Sherman. The couple had a son and a daughter, Harry Sherman Flavel, sometimes known as “Hatchet Harry” after an incident in 1947, and Mary Louise, before Harry M. Flavel’s death in 1951.

Mary Louise and Harry S. never wed or had children, living in the home with their mother Florence, until a peculiar day in 1990.

The family, once called the most prominent in Astoria, had dwindled down to a trio of recluses that disappeared into the night and will seemingly take their name with them when the last living member, Mary Louise Flavel, dies.

“Some say that it was in Harry M.’s time that the family’s performance began to fall behind its prominence,” Trillin wrote. “Although Harry M. Flavel is remembered as a charming man, he was not the civic heavyweight that his father and grandfather had been. ‘What he had to give was different than what they gave to his community,’ an Astoria editor said at the time of (Harry M.’s) death. ‘He gave cheerful self-effacement, a warm and gentle honesty that the world needs much of these days.’

“He apparently did not overwork after the family bank was acquired by a larger bank. Even before Harry M. Flavel died,there was talk about erratic and angry behavior by his son, Harry S.”

The tale of the hatchet

One summer night in 1947, Trillin wrote, Harry S., who was 20 years old, confronted a neighboring man, Fred Fulton, with a hatchet. Fulton had heard cries for help from Florence Flavel inside the home. He came into the home, breaking through an upstairs hall door, to rescue her.

“And then, trying to break into a bedroom to which young Harry had fled, (Fulton) was cut on the arm with a hatchet. At Harry’s trial for assault with a dangerous weapon, the Flavels agreed, according to the local paper, that Mrs. Flavel had been in no danger, her son having locked her into her room simply so she could concentrate on finding a key that was important to him,” Trillin wrote. “Harry Flavel, arguing that he had used the hatchet in self-defense, said that he had been frightened by a strange look on Fulton’s face.”

Mary Louise and Florence said in court Fulton was “surely drunk” and Flavel was found not guilty but was forever tagged by some with the name Hatchet Harry.

Mellin on occasion spoke to her mysterious neighbor, Hatchet Harry, who kept an immaculate yard that served as a backdrop in several of Mellin’s family photos. When they spoke, it was always about books.

“He loved books,” she said. “He loved to read.”

He also loved dogs.

Mellin once worked with a woman whose family lived on the same block as the Flavels. The woman had shared with Mellin that Harry Flavel had taken the woman’s family dog, which he believed had not been walked enough.

‘They were too afraid to go get it back,” Mellin said. She also said she remembers the Flavels having four to six dogs at a time that Harry would regularly walk.

It was noted in Trillin’s article that Harry Flavel was known for taking in stray dogs. Harry Flavel was said to have been walking two dogs when a 1980s stabbing took place – decades after the hatchet incident  – that would later lead to his escape from Astoria with his mother and sister.

Mary Louise

Trillin writes that Mary Louise was said to be more sociable than her brother. She had a passion for music, like the first Capt. George Flavel’s “spinster” daughters, and had left the home for a while for the New York Opera world, managing opera singers and “becoming friendly” with Jerome Hines, the Metropolitan basso.

But Mary Louise returned to the home her grandfather built in the 1970s and it was there she remained.

“As the years passed, the Flavels seemed close to the exclusion of other people,” Trillin wrote. “Florence and Mary Louise might call on a neighbor for tea, but the neighbor did not return the visit. Although strangers were shown daily through the ornate mansion built by the original captain, it became unusual for anybody at all to enter the house in which Flavels were living.”

The mansion built by the original captain on Eighth and Duane streets belongs to the Clatsop County Historical Society.

Harry S. on trial again

In 1983, Harry Flavel hit Alec Josephson’s car with a dog chain on Irving Street one night at 10:30 p.m. Josephson, a 22-year-old, recently married Astoria resident who had left the Workers Tavern in Uniontown after a couple of pitchers of beer with friends and a Trail Blazers game, stopped his car, enraged. He found Flavel hiding in a dark walkway near St. Mary, Star of the Sea School and demanded to know Flavel’s name so he could call the police. Flavel had struck his car with the chain because he was travelling too fast, according to reports.

Flavel then stabbed Josephson.

Police and the district attorney at the time, Steven Gerttula, stood on the front porch of the Flavel home while the Flavels talked to the city manager on the telephone. They never let police in. But a few days later, Harry S. Flavel turned himself in to police. He pled not guilty, was put on trial for attempted murder and first-degree assault, but that case lasted several years.

Flavel was found guilty of assault, but not guilty of attempted murder. The assault charge could have carried a 20-year sentence. He was given probation. Meanwhile, he appealed and appealed and appealed. In August 1990, his appeals were exhausted. It would mean jail time for the reclusive man in his 60s, according to Trillin.

But Mary Louise Flavel cancelled the final restitution check and the family disappeared.

Leaving town, what comes next?

Mellin’s mother lived across the street from the Flavel mansion on the day the Flavels packed up and left town in 1990.

“She watched them. As she got to be an elderly woman, she would sit at the window and that was kind of like her television of the outside world,” Mellin said of her mother. “She saw them pile into the car, Mary, Harry and their 90-year-old mother, and a couple of dogs.”

The family turned up in October 1990, when Harry was arrested in Pennsylvania for stealing hotel towels. He was set for extradition when law enforcement officers discovered he was wanted in Oregon. But the Flavels again escaped the law.

In 1991, the FBI became alerted to the Flavels’ temporary residence in Massachusetts by a hotel maintenence man. Flavel was put into the Clatsop County Jail in 1992 to await a hearing.

He served more than one year then disappeared, claiming the courts were out to get him – and his stay in jail was proof. He returned to Massachusetts, according to historian John Goodenberger, who wrote Flavel’s epilogue in the “Astorians” book. His mother died soon after his release from jail, after a two-year stint on life support. The siblings returned to Oregon, Goodenberger wrote, and no one knew it.

Harry S. Flavel died in 2010.

Money and bodies

The Flavel family had a history of not paying their bills, Applegate said. The city’s derelict building ordinance provided a fund for these types of improvements, including tarping the roof, boarding up the windows and taking care of the yard. This is the first instance in more than a year since the ordinance was put in place that the city has had to dip into that fund, Estes said. If Mary Louise Flavel comes forward to claim the home, she’ll get all the bills along with it, including the numerous citations and the bill for this week’s contract work. The contract work is estimated to last 10 days.

Trillin wrote, “Nobody knew whether the Flavels had a shortage of money or a disinclination to spend it, but it was known that they were not easy people to collect a bill from.”

Applegate said he discovered through his search for Mary Louise that when Harry died in 2010, his body sat at the mortuary for nine months because Mary Louise refused to pay for the burial. He was eventually buried in Portland through an indigent burial fund.

The home was scraped of all of its paint in the 1980s, Mellin said, by a painter and his crew in preparation to repaint the home. But after two weeks of scraping and no payment, they left, and the house remained in a less-than-grand appearance.

Bills to the city have been no different. Several citations have been issued to Mary Louise Flavel and her last known attorney since the institution of the derelict building ordinance. The attorney’s office is where rent checks from the Drina Daisy restaurant are sent. But those checks for the restaurant, an occupant in the Flavel commercial building downtown, haven’t been cashed in more than a year, Estes said.

The attorney, Applegate added, has contacted the city of notify them he no longer represents Mary Louise Flavel. The last he had heard, she no longer could drive and was no longer eating.

The attorney told the city he no longer has contact with her and doesn’t know of her current health condition or even if she is alive. But Applegate has found no record of her death.

Now the city sits and waits for an attorney or Mary Louise Flavel herself to come out and stake claim.

“I’m happy that we’ve been able to get something going,” Estes said. “To be able to have the derelict building code, that the City Council and the mayor had the foresight to be able to pass this ordinance.

“Because without these codes, we wouldn’t have this tool to be able to do what we’re doing today. That’s the win right there. That we have this ordinance, we have this tool to be able to address the citizens’ concerns that we’ve heard for a number of years.

“So yeah, that’s the win right there.”

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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