Cries from the Canyon

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When I left the beach it was pouring the rain. I had not intended to leave for another day but I got a call that my daughter was ill. She’d texted me the night before and we both had assumed she was suffering from a virus, but by morning she was worse. A trip to urgent care revealed a kidney infection gone awry.

Her sister, the one who isn’t married, doesn’t have children, was having difficulty trying to figure out how to fix a bottle for her nine-month-old nephew.

Should I come? I asked.

She didn’t say no, don’t. What she said was that her sister was pretty sick, needed help.

So I loaded the car and headed back over the hills. The wind was whipping. The rain a’ pouring.

Don’t go through Portland, my son said. Head for Salem, over Santiam Pass.

It’s Friday, I replied. I’m not about to get on I-5 South on a Friday afternoon.

Suit yourself.

But I hate that Sandy to Madras route. Idiot drivers. They drive too fast over the mountain, and they don’t heed the signs about the deer, or the road construction, or like last night, the roads sloshing in rain.

So even though it would take longer, I took the longer route, the one that passes through Shaniko, a real Wild West ghost town, and over the Crooked River Bridge.

That same bridge where Jennance Freeman and her girlfriend, Gertrude Jackson, tossed those babies over back in 1961.

I think about that incident whenever I drive across that bridge. For years now, I tell anyone who is in the car with me, “This is the bridge that momma threw her babies over.”

Last night there was no one in the car with me.

Last night there was hardly anyone on the road, owing to the blowing wind and pounding rain.

It was just me and slick darkness and the voice of a Native American speaking Sahaptin, telling a story about what the basket woman does to disobedient children.

Gertrude Jackson was Jeannance Freeman’s lover, back during a time when lesbian women were all considered “not right in the head.”  As it turned out, there may not have been  a more fitting term for Jackson, 33, and Freeman, 19.

The children, 6-year old Larry, and 4-year old Martha, belonged to Jackson. No one but the two women really know the circumstances of the murder, but the story often retold is that the two women decided to kill the children because they got in the way, as children often are prone to do.

At first, Jefferson County Sheriff S.E. Summerfield had no idea who the slain children were. Nobody had reported any children missing. Surely, only a demonic soul could have inflicted such torture on children. The boy had been badly beaten, his genitals and that of his sister, mutilated, before being thrown like rag dolls into the 360-foot gorge. The girl, it would later be reported in court, was still alive when Jackson and Freeman threw her over the bridge.

And because Highway 97 is part of the North-South route from California through Oregon, Summerfield knew he may never know whose children these were, who did the killing.

I was thinking about all that last night, when I pulled the car over just before the Crooked River Bridge. It was raining so hard, that kind of rain that comes at you from everwhichway, I couldn’t see the white or yellow lines anymore, so I stopped. True Oregonians never pull over for rain, but that’s just further proof that I was raised in the South, where we do pull over during frog-drowning storms.

I sat there, just listening to the guttural sounds of a Native American storyteller on Oregon Public Radio, thinking about Jackson and Freeman and how their lives might have been different if they had lived in a time when being a lesbian wasn’t considered perverse. When we marginalize people, we give them no recourse but to turn on us like wounded animals.

My front window began to fog up as it always does whenever I’m in the car and there’s no defrost blowing, and it’s raining out. So I did what I always do, I rolled down the windows, all four of them, just a couple of inches, hoping the cool air would clear the windshield.

That’s when I heard it.

It sounded like the screech of the seagulls I’d heard earlier in the day at the coast. Only fainter. Further off.

A coyote, maybe?

The Sheriff may have never discovered the identities of the children were it not for a Culver man by the name of Clyde (Red) Whitcraft. There are those who think that Whitcraft’s real name was Witchcraft. He  was the one who told the Sheriff that those children may belong to the girlfriend of his stepdaughter, Jeannance Freeman. The two women had stopped by his place early in the morning on May 11 and said they were headed to Oakland, California. The kids weren’t with them. When Whitcraft asked after them, he was told they were in foster care.

Whitcraft told the Sheriff that Freeman and Jackson lived together in Eugene. The Sheriff sent photos of the bodies to Eugene authorities, who tracked down Phyllis Round, Freeman’s sister. It was Phyllis who identified the children as those of her sister’s lover. Jackson and Freeman were arrested in San Francisco after an all points warrant was issued.

Jackson pled guilty to the murder of her children and was sentenced to life in prison. She was released after serving only seven years. Freeman took her chance at trial in the new courthouse in Madras. The jury gave her the death penalty. The first woman in Oregon to be sentenced to death.


In 1974, Freeman wrote an open letter to the Oregonian insisting that she had never meant to kill the children. That was all an accident. She had really intended, she said, to kill their mother.

To the People of Oregon:

My name is Jeannance June Freeman. Remember me? I was tried and convicted of first degree murder back in 1961. I was given the death sentence; I was under that for three years. Then I was commuted to life imprisonment. I got transferred back here to Alderson, W. Va., in 1969.

I have a few things to say that I have kept to myself for too many years. The crime that I committed was indeed horrible. Any crime of murder is. But, what made mine so bad, was that fact that it was a small boy that I killed.

Would it interest anyone to know that I meant to kill his mother, only she pushed him in the way; and he caught the blow that I meant for her? Can you understand how I did panic?

How out of this panic, I tried to hide the terrible thing that I had done, by throwing his body down in that canyon? That I wasn’t thinking of how it might look later, but thinking that I myself couldn’t face up to what I had done! That I was running scared… That I made up all kinds of lies trying to deny to myself, as well as everyone else what I had done.

They said I am sadistic and perverted because I am a lesbian! Well hey, who and what made me a lesbian? Are you interested enough to keep reading?

When I was four years old, I was brutally raped by ———. This didn’t twist my mind, except in the sense that I don’t care for men. I did say men, not boys! In other words, when it comes to making love, I prefer women. Why?

Because my body was brutally torn up when I was raped! And I can’t even stand the thought of a man touching me in that way. If it happened just once, then maybe I could have gotten over it…but it happened four times in all.

A four-year-old girl just isn’t built to have “relations” with a man. For years I was afraid for them to even touch me. Can any of you mothers honestly say that you would censor your daughter if, under the same circumstances, she had turned out the same way? Your answer has to be no! If you have any understanding of a human being, who needs love and affection, the same as everyone else.

I started my fourteenth year in September…for killing a child, when I meant to kill his mother! What kind of person was she, that she could push her own flesh and blood in the way of a blow meant for her? And what kind of mother would deliberately throw her own daughter into that same canyon; and then, firstly, try to blame it on me…then admit it…only instead of admitting that she set it up, for it to happen exactly as it did.

Knowing me well enough to know that I do have a violent temper…and would try to bust her head open.

And so, consequently, played right into her hands, and trying to hurt her, I killed the boy, with a blow that was meant for her!

Then, she plays crazy, and says the kids loved each other so much, that she felt the little girl would want to be with her brother! Well, I have news for you…the woman isn’t crazy…“maybe like a fox” and she got “LIFE,” did seven years, made parole, went out, violated…and is felt sorry for!

One question, does her conscience bother her? Does she have trouble sleeping nights? Does she have nightmares? I DO!

She had her chance at trying to make another go of it out in the free world…so when do I get my chance? How long does being locked up stay punishment? When does a person cease to be punished, and become like a vegetable? Where does the “hard time” leave off, and a person becomes adjusted to the prison life, and it ceases to be punishment? Where does punishment leave off, and CRUEL & UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT come in? What says it is “JUST” to give the mother a chance and not me? If I had killed an adult, and if I wasn’t a Lesbian, I would have been given my freedom a long time ago! How can anyone rightfully blame me, at that time, nineteen years old; the mother, thirty-seven! I was still a child in many ways myself!

Don’t you people know and understand that I will pay for what I did for as long as I live? That I can’t forgive myself! Even though it was an accident, I suffer knowing that I did do it! And what everyone seems to be forgetting, is the fact that my final judgment is still to come. No matter how long the laws of the land keep me locked up…my final judgment will come from God, not no mere mortal!

And while we are on the subject of judging, what gives the people of Oregon, the Parole Board, or anyone else the right to stand in judgment of me? When ALL OF YOU, somewhere, at some time, have most likely done things, if not just as bad, then at least still wrong in a moral sense.

But yet, you will judge me, because I am a lesbian. Because I have gone against the conventional code and led a different type life than what the laws of our land say we are to lead!

But again, who and what made me different? What one of you can say that you wouldn’t have turned out the same, given the same circumstances? Or was I such a big sensation because it was election year?=

All the judges and district attorneys really made a name for themselves with my case! They must have been re-elected at least three or four times because of me! And how many of the “Shrinks” and lawyers just had to mention my name, to have clients busting down their door? Great for the business world!

So here I sit, waiting for the parole board to decide that I can have a parole. I meet them again in March. It would be nice to be free! I think that fourteen years is long enough for what I did. What do you think? Can you truthfully say that I deserve to be kept locked up longer?

Or do you even care? Did anyone ever really care? When it comes to caring, who cared when I was so brutally abused? My mother, yes, but she wasn’t there at the time or it wouldn’t have happened!

In closing, I remain, ME! I can’t change what I did, or what I am! But I still say, fourteen years is enough time for what I did.


Jeannance Freeman

Turns out that person Freeman claimed raped her all those years?

Yeah, that was reportedly her stepfather, Clyde “Red” Whitcraft. The one who told the Sheriff who the dead babies where thrown off the Crooked River Bridge.

Oregon eventually got shed of the death penalty and in 1983, Freeman was paroled.

Neither woman served the sentences due them, and it continues to this date that courts all across America make allowances for women that they would never make for men.

I was thinking about all that when I heard that hollering again. Only this time it sounded ever so much like a little girl’s cries. Grabbing the umbrella from the backseat, I crawled over to the passenger side door and got out of the car. The cries continued, growing louder now.

The only light was the flashlight from my iPhone. I walked toward the crying until I was standing in the middle of the bridge. I wasn’t thinking anymore, just listening, trying to discern where those cries where coming from.

The wind whipped the umbrella upwards. I got drenched. Pulling my wool sweater tighter around me, I yelled, “Heyyyy.” If the canyon whispered it back to me, I never heard it. Only the wind, the rain, and the cries of a little girl falling, crying out to her dead brother, and the mother who failed to love her the way good mothers do.

Headlights flashed around the corner. I jumped, startled, unsure of whether to make a mad dash for the car or curl to the railing, hoping to remain unseen.

The car slowed. It was a deputy.

“You okay, ma’am?” he called out from car.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“You’re not thinking of jumping, are you?”

“Not tonight,” I replied.

He drove off. The cries stopped. I returned to my car, sopping wet,  grabbed the stuffed animal I had bought earlier that day for my grandson and carried it back to the bridge, where I tossed it over.

“I hope this bunny keeps you company, Martha,” I said.

The bunny grasped a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit.

“I wish you and Larry had been loved as well,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

The rain stopped. The wind died down. Somewhere far off, a coyote called out.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author Karly Sheehan: The True Crime Story behind Karly’s Law. 

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


Holly Sullivan McClure

about 7 years ago

Very moving story. Can't say I was moved to pity by her letter. The step father should be in prison too.


Ryan d.Cole Sr.

about 5 years ago

I am a Terrebonne Or. Native. This story was told in the most accurate and factual manor that has ever been told. I often drive over the new bridge that has replaced the old bridge and look over at a glimpse of the railroad bridge and deep into the canyan well what you can see now because of the taller sides. But I can remember as a kid being able to see much farther down. I can't remember a time we drove over it and wasn't remided of the two lesbian moms who tossed there fighting bickering kids off the bridge. I can also remember the tone in witch lesbian, or The Lesbos was used by every driver that told me the story. Truth is I felt so sorry for those kids. I do not believe personally either of the women should serve less then life in prison. But I also am sure that the times and drugs and emotions and sins of many others played Thier roll in this sad sad sad story. I hope that someday the bridge and the beautiful park can move past the stigma of that day.. news update another suiside jumper just happened and the story is I say this to the suisidel people out there if u want to commit suiside and within 48 hours be forgotten this is the bridge to do it because the lesbos and thier fighting bickering kids will all be what people will talk about.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 5 years ago

Ryan: How did you come across this story?



about 4 years ago

I’m sure people who jump off that bridge are not forgotten just because of this story. I will surly never miss my cousin that jumped off the train tersel in 06.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 4 years ago

Ray: I am so very sorry to hear of your cousin. How terrible.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 2 years ago

Ryan: I'd love to visit with you about your memories on this. Feel free to contact me at zachauthor at gmail dot com.


Dyan Straughan

about 2 years ago

I live in the Medford area, but my parents are from Prineville and went to school with Freeman. When I was a kid we crossed this bridge and stopped. My dad told me off this story (I was about 10). Today I saw something on facebook and remembered. I asked my dad about it again. I remember thinking at the time how horrible it would be for my parents to do that and feeling sorry for the children. Now, trying to see with adult eyes and the lesbian issue and possible rape from red, I still can't think of anything else but how the children deserved better and the women didn't get what they deserved.


bren manock

about 5 years ago

this was the only story that popped up when i googled it. i could not remember the bridge name because it happened when i was a child. thank you so much for reminding us and the tribute to those innocent children. it was so shocking and horrific at the time; that i remember. i believe they should have served life in prison. To be so cruel to children, deserves such a serious consequence. Thank you for making us aware of what happened there that day and reminding us that little innocents lost their lives at the hands of those two women.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 5 years ago

Are you connected to the case? Why were you searching for this?


Steve Jones

about 4 years ago

You asked Ryan how he came across the story then asked if someone was connected to the case. I was watching Dr. Phil and something about an upcoming show somehow reminded me of the case and put "crooked rover gorge tossing children in" and up popped your story. I was ten in 1961 and have modest memory of it and thought I would check it out, I live in the Eugene area. You will see my e-mail address, it is just a handle I am not affiliated now or at any time with law enforcement just had a hell of a time finding an unused handle and the cop stuff was wide open, still is. Then again I have for many years worn a belt buckle shaped like a Texas ranger badge that says Sheriff on it, I like it and it leads to interesting questions about is it real and I answer "darn right it's real, it holds my pants up".


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 2 years ago

I would love to visit with you about your memories on this. Please feel free to contact me at zachauthor at gmail dot com.



about 4 years ago

How horrible that these precious children suffered such an early and unnecessary death! I don't think either woman should have been paroled and was not moved by Freeman's letter. In fact, though I always believe victims of sexual abuse, AND was a victim of long term sexual abuse by my former stepfather, I find it almost too convenient that this should come out AFTER the fact. Did her attorney know of this prior to going to trial? Was it used as a "defense?" If so, I don't think it should have been. Yes, if it happened to her, that is yet another tragedy but it is NOT an excuse for inflicting irreversible harm on innocent children. I would have thrown myself off before doing such a thing!!


Carrie McPeak

about 3 years ago

I lived in Madras for decades, and have often visited the graves of those sweet little children. Their markers are just small, plain concrete that gets swallowed up by the encroaching sod, and has to be cut away every couple of years. I've been away for awhile now, and wonder whether those heartbreaking memorials can even be found now. Every time I used to cross the bridge (which has been replaced by a newer bridge, but is still in place as a walking bridge) I would think of them. I have no idea why their mother was paroled after only seven years; she seemed to have the better part of the culpability in the act, and perhaps it was simply homophobia that focused the spotlight on Jeannace. Does anyone know what happened to Gertrude after she was released? I assume that she has passed away (she was 33 in 1961, after all) but can find nothing at all about her.


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 2 years ago

Sent you an email. I'd love to visit with you about this case. You can reach me at zachauthor at gmail dot com



about 2 years ago

I took care of the wife of the attorney who defended the mother and this is an accurate account. His wife told me he never wanted to defend the mother but a judge out of Portland called him and told him he and another attorney were the only one qualified to take the case and made him pick one. He chose the mother because he didn’t think it would be a death penalty case. I hear she got out and went on to have more children, there should be laws against that!


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 2 years ago

I sent you an email but not sure it went through. I'd love to visit with you about this case. Please contact me at zachauthor at gmail dot com.


Shelly Ann

about 2 years ago

I was 10y/o when this happened, but I did not learn a bout the crime until I was home on leave prior to be sent to Việt Nam in 1973. My spouse and I had stopped to look at what I knew growing up as the Oregon Grand Canyon. We were looking over the edge and a State Trooper stopped, we got to talking and he told us about the murders. For some reason I was thinking about the wayside there ad that back the memory of what the Trooper told us. So I was looking up to see what became of the two women. The woman who was sentenced to death violated her parole and was sent back to prison to finish her sentence. She died in prison on 12/19/2003, she would have been 61y/o if my math was right. While your story was touching, her letter fell on many deaf ears here in Oregon. I have also thought that I heard the screams of a child when I stopped there on rainy nights while driving truck up and down US-97. I would walk to the wall and listened. It sent shivers up my spine, very few things do that to me. Every time I drive through there, I also think about those poor children and wish I could have been there to save them. Cannot find anything about the mother. Too many people have died ear that crossing. Shelly Ann, LP (ret) HM2c(FMF)/USN, Sgt/USAR, ACM/olc


La Vaughn Kemnow

about 1 year ago

I remember hearing after this incident that a third lesbian woman was traveling with (or hanging with) the two women who were charged. The third woman was questioned but not charged, because she was not with the other two when the children were killed. I don't remember the name of the third woman, but she was a classmate of my sister's at Florence. Do you know anything about this?



about 1 year ago

I have lived in Oregon my whole 36 years of life and never heard this story! I have crossed the bridge many times and always stopped and felt so somber there. What a tragic end for those children! Both women deserved much worse punishments than they got! The letter made me sick because it just felt like excuses! She still wasn’t taking ownership of her actions. Rest in piece little angels.



about 10 months ago

I was two when this happend to the kids, I do remember at age my parents talked about it. My parents drove from Hillsboro,or. with me and my brother to see where the women threw the kids off the bridge. Iv been there a few times in my life now to pay respect to the kids.If fact I was just on the bride this week.It has a very sad evil feeling there.


Shelly Harvey

about 6 months ago

My spouse and I stopped at the Viewpoint just last week.... Despite the tragic happenings that have taken place there (Larry, Martha and the many dogs who have lost their lives) it is still a beautiful, yet somber place. I remembered going there as a very young child with my parents and hearing the somewhat vague story at the time. Just today, looked it up........ No wonder we too felt that sad feeling others have mentioned. ... There was an "off " seeming feeling about the place. Surreal and sad....


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 5 months ago

A haunting and haunted place indeed.


Becky Fleshman

about 2 months ago

I was about 12 living in Madras when this happened. Even at that age I felt horrified. I saw them walking Freeman over to the courthouse one day. She had very short dark hair and (in my 12yr old mind) very mean looking. I remember they had her dressed in a white blouse and a well below the knee straight skirt. There was nothing feminine at all about her. For some reason it seems like she wasn't very big. I don't have any idea of her height etc. but she struck me as small. Again I have no idea what size she really was. I still live in Madras and cross the new bridge a lot. There have been numerous people commit suicide from the old one. It's disturbing such a picturesque place calls up such terrible happenings. Now they have bungee jumping from the old bridge. If I had ever thought of doing that in my life it most definitely would not be here. In my mind that would be tempting fate a little too much!


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