Dashiell Hammett's Tacoma

  • By Michael Sean Sullivan
  • Posted 4/12/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11215
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Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), acclaimed as the creator of modern American detective fiction, spent a winter in Tacoma not long before he began writing the stories that would make him famous. This account of Hammett's time in Tacoma, during a period of turmoil, corruption, and violent crime, and the influence that the city had on his writing, was written by Michael S. Sullivan, a principal with Artifacts, a historic preservation consulting company in Tacoma, and a member of HistoryLink's Board of Trustees. It first appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, and is reproduced here with permission.

Dashiell Hammett's Tacoma

On the night of November 6, 1920, a thin man stepped off the late train at Union Station in Tacoma. His face was illuminated for a moment as he lit a cigarette and watched the streetcar pass on rain-slicked Pacific Avenue. If there was someone tailing him from across the street, they would have confirmed his identity in the amber light of the match as Dashiell Hammett, a Pinkerton detective and sickly veteran of the First World War.

Hammett was entering the city during a period of social turmoil, political corruption, and extraordinary violence. He was 26, weary beyond his years and far from realizing that the events of the next few months would help create an entirely new form of modern American fiction.

In fact, the events of that winter in Tacoma would become essential pieces in a creative reservoir that Dashiell Hammett would return to often as he wrote almost 100 short stories and five major novels including his masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon. Hammett is generally credited with creating modern American detective fiction and bringing realism to mystery writing. His characterization of the hardboiled, cynical private detective operating in a dark urban landscape where both crooks and cops are lawless and situational ethics and quick wits are the best defense has become a cultural archetype familiar in literature, radio, film, television, and even computer games.

A Student of All Things

Dashiell Hammett was in Tacoma for treatment of tuberculosis at the Cushman Institute Public Health Service hospital on McKinley Hill. He was coming off a stint with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, working inside the unsettled labor struggles between mine owners and the radical Industrial Workers of the World in Butte, Montana. When he began coughing blood and his weight dropped to less than 130 pounds, he was sent to Tacoma and the newly opened hospital specializing in shell-shocked veterans and "lungers" with TB.

Writing later in life about his winter in Tacoma, Hammett recalled a life that moved from hospital to library to downtown speakeasies and movie houses. He remembered reading three or four newspapers every morning and then poring through books on medieval history, avian migration, and astronomical observation in the afternoon. He became a student of all things and in particular an attentive witness to the details and realities of Tacoma's public streets and private places.

The Tacoma Hammett found that winter was emerging into modernity with automobiles rushing past trolleys and skyscrapers punching up a new skyline. Garish, chasing lights on Broadway lured audiences into the Pantages, Rialto, Strand, Apollo, Victory, Hippodrome, Colonial, and Tacoma theaters. In Japantown alone there were 50 hotels, 20 restaurants, and a curious block of windowless barber shops, medicinal herb dealers, and heavily trafficked signless shops.

It was Prohibition and Hammett definitely drank so Tacoma was not a bad place to be. Soft-drink parlors, pool halls, and all-night drug stores were the usual fronts for drinking establishments, but below Pacific in the blocks controlled by Peter Sandberg and lower-profile gangsters you could even get a bottle from the dry cleaner. Adult entertainment was a significant part of the business economy downtown and a fair share of the earnings made their way to City Hall, the Office of the Mayor, and the Commissioner of Public Safety.

Violence in the Headlines

Hammett saw it all close up and no doubt followed the November 25 story in the Tacoma News Tribune of three gunmen robbing a Japanese business of $25,000. He probably began to follow a string of stories that provided a blunt diary of the city's descent into a season of violence. The November 29 Daily Ledger reported "43 Jailed in Tacoma Police Raids" while the City Hall-aligned Tribune reported that Police Chief Harry Smith "declares Tacoma Underworld is Going to Be Given a Thorough Cleaning."

Three days later the Ledger headline was in large type and read "Woman Murdered, Shot in Apartment at 1017 South J St.," followed on December 6 with "Masked Bandit slain in Gun Duel at Pool Hall." On December 9 the Ledger bannered "3 Tacomans shot by gunman; 2 may die." For Hammett, surrounded by day with the mentally wounded soldiers of the Great War and by night with the busy streets of anonymous faces it was both reality and inspiration.

Then on December 15 another downtown shooting appeared in the headlines, but this time it was much different. A young, clean beat cop in the dangerous neighborhood around 19th and Jefferson called sharply to a man in dark clothes coming toward him just after 8 in the evening. An armed robbery had just been reported nearby. The man began running and, after a couple warning shots in the air, the officer fired into the street near the runner some 100 yards away. The bullet sparked on the wet street like a flint on stone and ricocheted up, killing the man. The patrolman, W. H. Craft, discovered the man didn't recognize him as an officer and simply ran from a fear of being robbed. He was the father of six, a carpenter at the Tacoma St. Paul Mill out for a walk to meet two of his sons.

The young policeman was exonerated of any guilt during a police inquest that followed the tragedy but within a year he left the police department and disappeared entirely from city directories and public records.

The next day the news was back to bloody normal. The December 16 Ledger announced "Bandits Murder Tacoma Grocer in His Store" and "Tacoma Woman Kills Husband with Axe." Both newspapers reported on the police chief's statement "Time for Shotgun Patrols," which meant the police were moving to "cars and sawed-off shotguns." The headlines leading up to Christmas 1920 reported "Police Shotgun Car Gets into Action in Tacoma" and quoted Mayor Riddell's assertion "more police and strenuous measures needed to cope with crime situation."

It was a "Nightmare Town," the title Hammett would use for one of his best-known stories, and behind the tabloid headlines were the barroom rumors he heard about election payoffs and bickering among politicos on the take.

"The Biggest Story of the Century"

Still, during the day Hammett could ride the streetcar to the library, visit People's Department Store with the pretty nurse from Montana he had met at the hospital, and wonder at the marvel of the steel girders being erected for the new 16-story Scandinavian American Bank Building at 11th and Pacific.

Amid his dark fascination with Tacoma's troubles, Hammett regained his strength and fell in love with Nurse Dolan. Their first daughter was conceived that winter in Tacoma and they were married in July after he was given a clean bill of health.

January 1921 brought unexpected and monumental news to Tacoma and Hammett could not have missed following every detail. On the 16th, work on the towering steel skeleton of the Scandinavian American Bank halted so abruptly that rivets set in the steel beams 15 stories up were left loose and unhammered. Newspapers up and down the West Coast reported on the failure of the bank, a novelty in good economic times almost a decade before the Great Depression. The Ledger reported on the criminal actions of bank president Ole Larson and repeated brave comments about finishing the building as a hotel and assuring depositors of their money through a governor-appointed bank commissioner. One of every eight Tacomans had their money in the Scandinavian American Bank and most of it was lost or tied up for years. The City of Tacoma sued and recovered all of the $160,000 it held in the bank. The bare steel frame of the largest skyscraper ever built in Tacoma loomed over the city's busiest intersection for most of the decade.

It was "the biggest story of the century" in Tacoma and at its core was a more insidious brand of criminality, the kind that was bred in paneled boardrooms and privileged North End mansions. To Hammett, it was a reality where the only good guy was the individual on the street trying his best to be honest and moral without being victimized by crooks, politicians, cops, or the powerful forces in a community.

Hammett's Tacoma winter ended in February 1921 when he was transferred to another Public Health hospital in San Diego. He and Josephine moved to San Francisco where he again worked for the Pinkerton Agency, then began writing short magazine stories. In the decade that followed Hammett formed a distinct, modern storytelling voice that he used to revisit the dark realities of his days as a detective, barroom listener, and unflinching observer of cities abused by violence, political power, and corruption.

The Flitcraft Parable and Its Tacoma Inspiration

But for readers and critics Hammett has always been an enigma. He produced almost all of his writing in little more than a decade, and then for the rest of his life watched with little comment as his ideas and characters were copied, exploited, and elevated into public acclaim. His best biographer, Richard Layman, among others, believed that the clearest insight into Hammett's personal and literary view of the world could be found in a parable Sam Spade tells to the fatal beauty Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon.

The parable floats disconnected in many ways from the central plot of the book and it was an obvious cut when John Huston directed the 1941 film version with Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. It's a story about random occurrences and a man named Flitcraft who's well-ordered life was redirected one day when a beam falling off a building narrowly missed killing him. A chip off the sidewalk where the beam crashed down flies up and nicks his face like a little red kiss of fate and his reaction is to abruptly walk away from his daily existence without notice or explanation.

The Flitcraft parable is uncommonly complex for Hammett's straightforward realist writing, almost as if he was deliberately leaving some kind of clue to an undiscovered mystery. It's a story with no conventional ending or plot, just an episode in a life embedded in a major work of American literary fiction. But like many important artistic works its inspiration can be traced to a specific time and place in history.

Hammett specifically set the parable in Tacoma and to read it is to go back to that winter of 1920 where the flint spark of a random bullet changed the life of a young man named Craft, where a steel building frame of loose beams hung over a busy street corner, and where a young writer-to-be found a timeless city that will last as long as hardboiled detectives, film noir, and a certain black bird.

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