Monday, June 15, 2020

American Carnage: Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1929) and Mass Violence in the United States

In 1929-30 Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, along with the author's two other novels, The Dain Curse and The Maltese Falcon, which quickly followed it, struck the landscape of classic mystery like a fistful of dynamite.  "Hammett is the man who set out for himself the task of raising the detective story to literature," one syndicated newspaper reviewer breathlessly pronounced of the new author (just like Dorothy L. Sayers was The Woman).  Hammett's Red Harvest, the reviewer noted, had been "hailed by many as a revelation of what the detective story could be in the hands of a master."  The novel was "original, unique, lively and real."

Today Red Harvest is routinely said to have been inspired by Hammett's experiences as an operative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency stationed in Montana in the years shortly before and after America's participation in World War One.  People who should know assure us that locations in Personville, aka "Poisonville," the fictional setting of the novel, correspond with real places in the Butte-Anaconda-Walkerville metropolitan area of Montana.  Specific Montana events which are said to have inspired Red Harvest are the lynching of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or wobblies) labor organizer Frank Little in 1917 and the 1920 Anaconda Road Massacre, where guards working for the Anaconda Copper Mining Company fired on a picket line of striking miners, killing one and injuring nearly a score of others.

Hammett's companion, playwright Lillian Hellman, later claimed of Hammett (among other things) that as a Pinkerton Op he had been in Butte in 1917 and actually had been offered money to personally kill Frank Little.  Dramatic as this story is, Lillian Hellman, was, not to mince words, a literary fabulist.  Hammett's daughter Jo also places Hammett in Montana, this time in 1920, but the sad truth is that there is a paucity of primary material about Hammett's early life (including Pinkerton Detective Agency records), just as there is in the case of that other great hard-boiled detective writer, Raymond Chandler.  Hammett's wife, Josephine Dolan, offers another connection to Montana, however, her family having come from Anaconda.  (This piece looks judiciously as these sources.)

Whatever the truth which lies buried in Hammett's biography, internal evidence from Red Harvest itself certainly indicates that the author had Butte in mind when he fashioned Personville.  Aside from the similarity to the name of Walkerville, now a Butte suburb, there is a passage where the Continental Op gives some of the sordid history of Personville and its boss, Elihu Wilsson, president of the Personville Mining Corporation and ruthless scheming capitalist pirate:

bullet holes in a window in the treasurer's office
at the Douglas County Courthouse in
Omaha, Nebraska, after the 1919 race riot
Back in the war days the I. W. W.--in full bloom then throughout the West--had lined up the Personville Mining Corporation's help....Old Elihu gave them what he had to give them, and bided his time.

In 1921, it came.  Business was rotten.  Old Elihu didn't care whether he shut down for a while or not.  He tore up the agreements he had made with his men and began kicking them back into their prewar circumstances.


The strike lasted eight months.  Both sides bled plenty.  The wobblies had to do their own bleeding.  Old Elihu hired gunmen, strike-breakers, national guardsmen and even parts of the regular army, to do his.  When the last skull had been cracked, the last rib kicked in, organized labor in Personville was a used firecracker.  

Not hard to see Butte here!  The Op goes on to describe what happened in Personville after ruthless old Elihu broke the strike:

He won the strike, but he lost his hold on the city and the state.  To beat the miners he had to let his hired thugs run wild.  When the fight was over he couldn't get rid of them.  

So when the Op arrives in Personville--let's just call it by its apt nickname, Poisonville--he finds it is run by those same thugs, who have set themselves up in charge as racketeers and bootleggers.  The Op has come at the request of crusading newspaper publisher Donald Wilsson--the idealistic son, only lately returned from France, of Elihu.  But Donald is found shot dead in a street before the Op ever lays eyes on him. 

The Op soon solves the matter of Donald's murder, but he has to evade attempts on his own life instigated by Powers that Be in the city.  This provokes him to vow to clean up Poisonville himself and he sets about it most sneakily and most effectively, with Elihu sitting on the sidelines, though the Op gets help of a sort from a mercurial and mercenary woman of rather easy virtue, Dinah Brand.  An orgy of violence in Poisonville follows, as the Op sets thug against thug in a grim gang turf war.  He manages to solve another murder, this one a murder from the past that comes complete with an Ellery Queen-ish sort of clue.  Before it's all over, the Op will be accused of murder himself, making yet another mystery he must solve.  There is a lot of bang for your buck in Red Harvest.

Compared to an English mystery from the period, even an Edgar Wallace shocker, the violence level of Red Harvest is extraordinary.  In the book there is a chapter titled "The Seventeenth Murder," which gives you some idea of what I mean; and there are yet more slaughters after that.  Of course the United States of 90 to 100 years ago was a vastly more violent country than merry old England (setting events in Ireland aside).  And that is was got me thinking that Red Harvest may well have had other sources of inspiration in recent American history besides those which tragically obtained in Butte, Montana in 1917-20.

In my previous post I made reference to the race riots that afflicted the US after World War One.  The intensity of the mass violence of these events is truly astonishing and offers a corrective to those who like to think of the time before the social upheavals of the Sixties as the "good old days."  Aside from racial violence, the period after the American Civil War up through the Depression saw as well the great struggle for dominance in the western world between capital and labor, of which the events in Butte referenced in Red Harvest were but one small manifestation.  

Douglas county courthouse in Omaha on fire
during the Omaha riot of 1919
Recently the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 has been in the news, because this month marked the 99th Anniversary of the outrage and President Trump dubiously has a MAGA rally set to take place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in five days.  The Tulsa Race Riot was indeed horrific, but I'm more interested, for the purpose of this blog piece, in a race riot which took place two years earlier, in Omaha, Nebraska, because I see in it a possible connection to Hammett.  

So what happened in Omaha?  As in so many other cases during that so-called "Red Summer" (a term which recalls the title of Red Harvest), violence erupted out of a white woman claiming that she had been sexually assaulted by a black man.  This always could be counted on to set a white mob up in arms (literally).  On September 26, 1919, the newspaper the Omaha Bee told the story--or told a story, if you will--under the headline "Black Beast First Stick-Up Couple."  The Bee dubbed the affair the "most daring attack on a white woman ever perpetrated in Omaha."  It expounded as follows:

Pretty little Agnes Loebeck....was assaulted by an unidentified negro at twelve o'clock last night, while she was returning to her home in company with Millard Hoffman, a cripple.

Pretty little Agnes and poor crippled Millard identified a 40-year old black meat packer, Will Brown, as the assailant, despite the fact that Brown was said to suffer greatly from rheumatism.  In the face of a large angry crowd gathering in the city, local police were able to escort Will Brown to the courthouse, but then all hell broke loose in Omaha. 

By the evening of September 28, a mob of some five to fifteen thousand people had converged on the courthouse, trapping prisoners and local government officials and personnel alike.  What followed describes:

By 8:00 p. m. the mob had begun firing on the courthouse with guns they looted from nearby stores.  In that exchange of gunfire, one 16-year-old leader of the mob and a 34-year-old businessman a block away were killed.  By 8:30 the mob had set fire to the building and prevented the firefighters from extinguishing the flames.  

When the Omaha mayor came out of the courthouse to try to talk down the frenzied mob, he was violently knocked down. Next thing he knew he found himself hanging from a rope before he passed out. 

Happily for the mayor someone intervened to save his life.  Will Brown was not so lucky.  To save themselves from incineration, the desperate occupants of the burning courthouse agreed to turn over Brown to the mob.  Brown was beaten unconscious, then hanged from a lamppost till he was dead.  His body was then riddled by bullets and set on fire.  Later his charred remains were dragged from a car around town.  Beaming white men, proud of themselves for having avenged a white woman's sullied virtue, posed for pictures with the corpse.  Pieces of the rope were sold as souvenirs.

report in Omaha's other major newspaper
the Morning World-Herald
A witness to the lynching was future actor Henry Fonda, then just fourteen years old.  Fonda's father owned a printing shop across the street from the courthouse and young Henry watched the whole thing from the second floor.  "It was the most horrendous thing I'd ever seen," he later recalled.  "We locked the plant, went downstairs and drove home in silence....All I could think of was that young man dangling at the end of a rope."

It was Spencer Tracy, not Henry Fonda, who starred in the 1936 Fritz Lang film Fury, which depicts scenes reminiscent of the Omaha riot (though the victim is white); but in truth similar stories could have come from other American  cities, there having been so many of these grotesque affairs that took place in the United States (and certainly not just in the South).

The seemingly over-the-top violence in Red Harvest, including bombing, Tommy Gun battles and the dynamiting of the city jail, truthfully comes straight out of contemporary newspapers.  What especially reminds me of Omaha in Red Harvest are a couple of additional things, however.  First, there's the Machiavellian way the Op sets the thugs against each other.  It has been credibly alleged that Omaha race riot resulted from Omaha machine politics, which makes the whole event even more hideous.

Will Brown, who lost his life in the Omaha Riot of 1919

Tom Dennison was the longtime political boss of Omaha.  In his cynicism and his ruthlessness, Dennison, aka the 'Old Grey Wolf," was like a character out of a Hammett novel.  "There are so many laws that people are either lawbreakers or hypocrites," he once said.  "For my part, I hate a damn hypocrite."  As boss of Omaha for three decades, Dennison ran the city's myriad crime rings, which included the trifecta of prostitution, gambling  and bootlegging.  Dennison's puppet mayor, Jim Dahlman, aka "Cowboy Jim," was in office from 1906 to 1930, doing Dennison's bidding, with the exception of one term, from 1918-1920, when a reform Republican candidate, Edward P. Smith, was in office.  Remember the mayor the race rioting mob tried to lynch outside the Omaha courthouse?  That was Smith.

Mayor Smith had been elected vowing to clean up vice and ban booze, which of course was utter anathema to Dennison, who responded, it is believed, by launching a covert campaign to undermine the new mayor.  This underhanded campaign allegedly included having some of his men assault white women in blackface, in order to escalate racial tensions in the city.  The demagogic Omaha Bee, one of the city's two leading newspapers, accused Mayor Smith of negligently allowing a black crime wave to take place on his watch, imperiling white women throughout the city.  (Although a Republican newspaper, the Bee had long ago formed an alliance with Dennison, a Democrat.)

a beaming Boss Dennison of Omaha
tips his hat
Agnes Loebeck's boyfriend, the "cripple" Millard Hoffman, is said to have worked for Dennison and been an active leader of the Omaha lynch mob.  It was also asserted that Agnes was a woman of doubtful virtue who carried a personal grudge against Will Brown. Whatever the exact truth of these matters, it is all incredibly seedy and disgusting (you can find an overview here) and it reminds me of the ruthless political machinations in Red Harvest and another Hammett novel, The Glass Key (1931). Will Brown was just a pawn on Boss Dennison's chessboard, one the Old Grey Wolf was only too willing to sacrifice to achieve his goal of ousting Omaha's reform mayor.  

When Raymond Chandler wrote that Hammett took crime out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley, he wasn't kidding.  But with Red Harvest it would be more accurate to say that Hammett loaded that vase with nitroglycerin and hurled it with maximum impact at the weighty edifice of staid and proper detective fiction. 

For people who wanted to read something in crime fiction that represented the cruelty and carnage that was going on in America (not to mention much of the world), Red Harvest really fit the bill.

There's another reason I see an Omaha connection to Red Harvest, but I can't go into yet, because the odd connection actually is found in another Hammett novel, The Thin Man (1934).  More soon!

Note: Photos mostly drawn from this article at 

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