Cathedral Park in Portland Haunted by Stories of Ghostly Screams

Donna Stewart, author of Ghosthunting Oregon, researched the paranormal activity at Cathedral Park. Here is her report.

Today, Cathedral Park in north Portland provides a breathtaking view of the towering St. Johns Bridge, nature, and the east shore of the Willamette River. Families often picnic there on sunny afternoons, the occasional wedding is held beneath the statuesque bridge, and the smell of trees and wildflowers adds to the picture-perfect location. You could spend hours there, taking pictures and contemplating how little the scene has changed since the construction of the bridge in 1931. But times have changed, and most of the people who walked through Cathedral Park have faded into the past and are all but forgotten. All, perhaps, except for 15-year-old Thelma Taylor, who also thought the park was beautiful—until August 5, 1949. Since that date, the park has been haunted by stories of ghostly screams and shadowy figures.

Thelma was a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in Portland in the late 1940s. Thelma was not an unattractive girl but was teased in school for being skinny, among other things, and she did not have many friends. One can see Thelma sitting slightly away from the rest of her class at the end of the bottom row of her elementary school graduation picture, as if she did not belong with the rest of the children. That feeling of not quite fitting in followed Thelma throughout her short life, even as she grew into a beautiful young woman with dark hair and a brilliant, contagious smile.

Thelma was devoted to her family and did what she could to help them financially during her months away from school. In the summer of 1949, she took a job picking beans at a farm in nearby Hillsboro. She would rouse herself early in the morning and make her way to Cathedral Park, where a bus would stop to pick up those willing to spend the day working on the farm and then drop them back at the same spot late in the afternoon or early evening. But on August 5, Thelma never made it onto that bus.

There are many versions of what happened that morning, and it takes some time and research to separate truth from exaggeration. I have sifted through the myths and the ghost stories, and what follows is the truth as it appears in documents and legal records. But I must warn you that the facts are sometimes more frightening that the ghost stories. We can alter tales to fit our needs and situations, but the truth never changes.

Despite her best intentions, Thelma Taylor did not make it onto the bus that humid summer morning in 1949, and it departed without her because she was nowhere to be seen. She had been approached by a 22-year-old ex-convict named Morris Leland. To this day, no one knows what Leland said or did to entice Thelma into following him away from the bus stop to the banks of the Willamette River beneath the St. Johns Bridge; it is one of the few questions that Morris Leland did not answer in the months and years to come. We know that Leland made sexual advances toward Thelma and that she vehemently refused them. And here is where the fine line between fact and fiction gets muddied. . . .

Thelma was not raped. Morris Leland’s own words were, “I got scared because she was a good girl and would make trouble with the police.” The rape scenario is what most people read about on ghost hunter websites, but the fact is that it simply did not happen. And it is important to me that we allow Thelma to maintain that small bit of her dignity.

Leland held Thelma near the riverbank throughout the night, well hidden in an area of thick underbrush. But when morning came and Thelma could hear the workers switching cars on a nearby railroad track, her first instinct was to scream for help. It was then, to avoid detection and certain arrest, that Leland struck Thelma in the head repeatedly with a steel bar. And then, to make sure she could not possibly scream for help again, he stabbed her, silencing her forever on that bank nearly eight blocks from Cathedral Park.

Six days later, the Thursday, August 11, edition of the Reading Eagle, a Portland newspaper, reported that Morris Leland was arrested by Sergeant Vern Nicholson on suspicion of driving a stolen car and immediately blurted out a confession to the murder that police did not even suspect at the time.

The police knew that Thelma Taylor, a 15-year-old farm worker, had been reported missing the previous Saturday by her parents when she did not return home. But there had been no evidence, no hint that she could have met with such a horrible demise.

Morris Leland’s trial began on October 4, 1950, and he entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. But after a 4-month trial, Leland was found guilty of the murder and, on February 7, 1951, was sentenced to death. Morris Leland was led to the gas chamber where his sentence was carried out in January 1953.

To those who know the story of Thelma Taylor, the Cathedral Park area is a place where innocence lived and died, where an evil man claimed a life and spent his last days of freedom.

I have visited Cathedral Park on many occasions. During the day it is a beautiful area, surrounded by trees, the sound of the Willamette River, children laughing, and couples walking their dogs. If you stop to ask people if they know of Thelma Taylor, most locals tell you yes, and even many visitors know her story. And it is easy to talk about during the daytime. But when darkness falls, the feeling in the park changes. Perhaps this is because I know about Thelma. Or, perhaps, the stories of spectral screams and ghostly shadows hold some truth to them.

Over the decades, many people have reported hearing a young girl’s voice calling, “Help! Somebody help me, please!” Cathedral Park is a hangout after dark for the younger genera- tion who want to party, have a few beers, and the like, so many of those stories must be questioned, if only because alcohol is involved. But it is not only inebriated young people who have reported the ghostly voices and apparitions that they say dart quickly around the place.

Many paranormal researchers say that the area surrounding Cathedral Park has been primed for a haunting, and the flowing water of the river and the limestone blocks used to build St. Johns Bridge all are associated with a “residual haunting.” Residual haunting is a new term made popular by paranormal television for an old parapsychological theory proposed in the 1970s called the Stone Tape theory. This theory speculates that inanimate materials, such as stone, can absorb energy from the living, much as a tape recorder absorbs the voice of the living, especially during episodes of high tension, anxiety, and fear. Once this energy is stored, it can also be released, resulting in the display, or replay, of the recorded events.

“We have to postulate that some very emotional scene has somehow become registered on the environment, almost like a sort of psychic video has been created,” late Scottish paranormal researcher Archie Roy was quoted as saying about Stone Tape theory in the 2011 book Ghosts by Malcolm Day. “Someone who comes along who is sensitive enough acts as a sort of psychic video player and will actually play that ‘tape’ and see the figures or perhaps even hear the voices.”

Leland threw the steel pipe and the knife into the river, hoping that the current would carry them far away; he wiped his fingerprints from Thelma’s lunch pail, gathered his cigarette butts, and buried Thelma in a shallow grave underneath a pile of driftwood on the riverbank.

Color photos of Cathedral Park courtesy of Bill Reynolds from Lake Oswego, Oregon (Cathedral Park Portland Oregon) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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