When a handcuffed Frank de Souza was pulled out of the post office and pushed into a waiting police car, there was shock on the streets of Medford.
In April 1939, de Souza already had been Medford's postmaster for more than five years and was one of the more popular men in town. So, what had he done to warrant arrest? Why was he hauled into court by the county sheriff with backup support from Medford's police chief and an armed U.S. deputy marshal?
Medford fishermen answered the decision of the Catfish Derby Association with sarcasm.
"We vote to conduct a catfish training school for Medford anglers prior to next year's derby," they told reporters, "so that Medford fishermen will know how to pull catfish out of thin air when the competition gets tough."
They also suggested that instructors from Grants Pass were more than qualified to teach the classes.
Security in the courtroom was tight. Every door and window was blocked by an armed guard and spectators watched with open-mouthed amazement.
Judge Coleman read the charges — "Feloniously and surreptitiously planting four catfish, three male and one female, in the pool in the city park at five minutes before midnight.
"How do you plead?"
"Not guilty by reason of insanity," de Souza said.
The judge refused the plea, saying that anyone who could catch a catfish could not be insane. The prosecutor protested and demanded a sanity hearing, but was overruled.
While explaining himself, de Souza contradicted the complaint, saying there were actually three females and one male catfish in the pool, not vice versa. The prosecutor leaped up and said that de Souza had now admitted his guilt, but de Souza said he had admitted nothing. Once again, the prosecutor was overruled.
The case was continued to a later date. Bail was set at $25,000. De Souza was photographed and fingerprinted, and the sheriff said he would take responsibility to make sure de Souza would reappear. Instead of threatened solitary confinement, de Souza was released.
That's when the laughter broke out, backs were slapped and hands shaken. What a coincidence. De Souza was president of the local Catfish Derby Association and, in less than a month, the association was holding its third annual catfish derby at Emigrant Lake.
"It was suspected in some quarters," said a Mail Tribune reporter with tongue in cheek, "that the arrest was ... some sort of advertising."
But there is more to this felonious fish story.
The Grants Pass team took the derby, hooking 52 fish and beating its Medford rivals for the second time in the past three years. The team took home the golden trophy that was crowned by a fighting catfish. The team's nearest competitor, Medford, had only managed 17 fish.
There was only one point of controversy about the victory.
Recently, the captain of the 1937 Grants Pass team, the winner two years earlier, bragged that his team had bagged several catfish the day before the derby began. The 1939 team was captained by the same man who had coached that cheating 1937 team. Had they cheated again?
The Catfish Derby Association met in private to determine whether rules and sportsmanship had been violated. Association president de Souza was asked what he expected its ruling would be.
"Until the investigation is complete, we will have nothing to say," de Souza said, but the Mail Tribune reporter said de Souza "looked like he had plenty more to say."
The association determined the victory was legitimate, something to do with using some sort of new and mysterious bait.
The Medford boys cried "whitewash," but the controversy quickly went sleeping with the fishes. There was something rotten in the State of Jefferson, and Medford boys knew just what it was.
Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at email@example.com.