Thursday, June 11, 2020

Peter on the Road to Duluth: The Surnaming of Patrick Quentin's Leading Series Character

Duluth has now joined the American cities which have discovered how easily the safeguards of civilized justice can be leaped.  Suddenness is a common factor of all such outbreaks and law finally reasserts itself, but after lives are sacrificed and the community's good name besmirched....

The Duluth mob heard appeals to let law take its course.  Its members did not heed these appeals because they themselves wanted to kill.  We doubt if they were certain as to the guilt of the men who died asserting their innocence; but they wanted victims to assuage their lust for vengeance.  And victims they would have, whether innocent or guilty....

We hope Duluth will do better than other cities in dealing with the men who have brought stain to her good name.  Duluth is a very proud city and may set us all an example.  We certainly need one.  Mob violence is inexcusable in civilized communities.  The American lynching is a disgrace to us the world over.

--Chicago Tribune editorial, June 1920

They're selling postcards of the hanging;
They're painting the passports brown;
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors;
The circus is in town.

--"Desolation Row" (1965), Bob Dylan

downtown Duluth skyline

Even though Hugh Wheeler attained great success as a writer for film and stage, with his name associated with the Oscar-winning film version of Cabaret as well as his Tony Award winning play Big Fish, Little Fish and the Tony Award winning musicals Sweeney Todd, Candide and A Little Night Music, the mystery novels Hugh wrote with his partner Rickie Webb (as well as the ones he later wrote solo) never attained huge success in either venue, I think it's fair to say. 

The biggest film success Hugh enjoyed with his work was the 1954 cinematic version of his Patrick Quentin "Peter Duluth" detective novel Black Widow, a lavish color spectacle starring Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft and Peggy Ann Garner which though it received mixed reviews is still enjoyable to watch today (although not as good as it could have been).  There were also a couple of American B films based on Peter Duluth adventures, Homicide for Three (1948, based on Puzzle for Puppets) and Female Fiends (1958, based on Puzzle for Fiends), which were quickly forgotten.

It would be lovely to see film versions made of all of the Peter Duluth books, in sequence, but what would they do with the name of the hero of the saga?  Peter Duluth is kind of  a weird name for a person, as opposed to a city in Minnesota.  (In case you were wondering at this point, Duluth, Minnesota was named for a French explorer, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, du Lhut getting Anglicized to Duluth.)  Were any Americans ever actually surnamed Duluth?  In terms of actual, well, actuality, "Peter Klobuchar," say, would have made more sense as a name.

Two of the American film versions of Patrick Quentin novels replaced the surname Duluth with something else, evidently finding "Duluth" unappealing or too improbable.  In Black Widow, where he's played by Van Heflin, he's Peter Denver.  We know from Bob Denver and John Denver that "Denver" is an actual surname, although wait, John Denver's real surname was "Deutschendorf."  (Can't imagine why he changed it!)  In Female Fiends, where he's played by former Tarzan actor Lex Barker, he's known as Peter Chance, which sounds pretty stagy to me, though in fact "Chance" is a definite surname (a first name too, though I've never known any Chance Chances).

So why did Rickie Webb and Hugh Wheeler go with Duluth as Peter's surname?  I'll trot out an idea, which may strike you as farfetched as Duluth itself.

In their books Hugh Wheeler and Rickie Webb did not parade their liberal sensibility, if you will, on racial issues, but it is something which manifests itself in asides throughout their books, both the ones written by Rickie and by Hugh separately and the ones which they wrote together.  As I have discussed on this blog, Rickie's portrayal of two black characters in the 1932 novel Murder at the Women's City Club (written along with his collaborator, Martha Mott Kelley) is hardly without fault, but it's an improvement over most of the depictions of the time.  Further, in Murder at Cambridge (1933), written by Rickie solo, a Cambridge don significantly asks of the protagonist, a son of a sitting American Supreme Court justice:

ow is my old friend, Aloysius Fenton?  Is he still championing the cause of the desolate and the oppressed on the bench of the Supreme Court?"

"the desolate and the oppressed"
the Scottsboro Boys in prison meet with
their attorney, Samuel Leibowitz
Around the time Rickie was writing Murder at Cambridge, the United States Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision in the landmark case of Powell v. Alabama (1932), reversed the convictions of nine young black men for allegedly raping two white women on a train near Scottsboro, Alabama, sending their cases back to Alabama for new trials. 

The plight of the so-called "Scottsboro Boys," who for years were imprisoned and subjected to scandalously unfair trials, had become a liberal cause celebre throughout the country. This is the sort of case involving "the desolate and the oppressed" which Rickie might well have had in mind with these words. If anyone was unjustly oppressed by those in power in the Thirties it was the Scottsboro Boys.

For several years in Philadelphia, before he met Hugh Wheeler while summering in England, Rickie resided in a row house with his intimate American friend Robert Elson Turner and Frances Ritter Bartholomew, Head Resident of Philadelphia's Eighth Ward Settlement House, which ministered to the needs of the city's black population, and a co-founder of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP.  Rickie's first writing partner, Martha Mott Kelley, was a descendant of Lucretia Mott, the famed Quaker abolitionist, and a niece of Progressive reformer and NAACP co-founder Florence Kelley, women who vigorously tried, against much resistance, to make a better world for disadvantaged people.

In Rickie Webb's Death Goes to School (1936), Rickie witheringly refers to "riots, elections, lynchings, divorces," as "the jagged turmoil of American life."  The initial murdered schoolboy in the story is a son of a prominent Jewish judge in St. Paul, Minnesota who presided, we learn, over a trial of Nazi-sympathizing German-Americans who killed "many people" in "an outcrop of Hitlerian anti-Jewish riots," the grand object of which was "to drive all Jews out of the country.

This sounds more like a description of what was going at the time in certain countries in Europe, although in the United States there did exist the German-American Bund, a group which promoted Hitlerian ideology in America and helped lead the the formation in the US House of Representatives of the Committee on Un-American Activities.  And there was as well the fascist Silver Legion of America, which I discuss further below.

I'm not aware of the sort of large-scale American anti-Jewish riots to which Rickie refers in his fiction, in Minnesota or elsewhere in the US (though infamously there had been the horrific lynching of Jewish businessman Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915).  Yet based on its recent history America certainly could justly have been labeled a land of "riots, elections, lynchings and divorces."  A mere few years before Rickie moved to the United States in 1926 (to Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love), there had been a choking spasm of racial violence throughout the country.  In 1919, for example, there had been a white supremacist race riot in Omaha, Nebraska, where not only was a black man lynched (that was to be expected, all too tragically, in these hellish affairs), but the mayor of the city nearly murdered as well. 

This was but one of over three dozen such riots which occurred in the US that year, the year of the "Red Summer."  They were spurred fatally on by the post-World War One economic slump, labor unrest, the rise of Bolshevism in Russia, and white fears of assertive black combat veterans returned home from the war.  (I have noticed some striking links between the Omaha Race Riot and Dashiell Hammett's crime novel Red Harvest, about which I'll be posting soon.)  In rural Arkansas, scores if not hundreds of blacks were killed in the Elaine Massacre, which is believed to have been the most murderous of these episodes.  1921 saw yet another deadly white supremacist riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where many black people were slain by whites yet again and their homes and places of business wantonly destroyed.  Almost inevitably, the perpetrators of these crime were never brought to justice.

Most pertinent for our purposes here, however, is a horrible event from 1920, referred to at the top of this post, which occurred in Duluth, Minnesota.  There in June three itinerant black circus workers accused of having participated in an alleged gang rape were lynched by a massive white mob who stormed the jail in which they were incarcerated.  After their grisly deed was done, the ghoulishly proud murderers bestially posed for a camera with their freshly killed corpses.  This was the only lynching of blacks known ever to have taken place in Minnesota.  The state passed anti-lynching legislation the next year.

Forty-five years after the lynching at Duluth, a young singer and Duluth native who himself had adopted a new surname beginning with the letter "D," Bob Dylan (formerly Robert Zimmerman) alluded to the lynching in a song, "Desolation Row," on his landmark album Highway 61 Revisited, quoted at the top of this blog piece.  Dylan's father, Abraham Zimerman, a Duluth furniture and appliance store manager, had been eight years old when the lynching took place.  However, for most people the event was put away and forgotten, as we are apt to do with shameful things.

So we are left to ask why in a detective novel published in 1936 did Rickie Webb set his fictional anti-Jewish riot in St. Paul, Minnesota?  Why was he so specific, when it would have been easier to invent a fictional place or just remain deliberately vague about the location?

At the time Death Goes to School was published in 1936, the fascist organization the Silver Legion of America, aka the Silver Shirts, was actively recruiting with some measure of success in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and energetically promoting its home-grown brand of racism, nationalism and theocracy.  The Minnesota Silver Shirts claimed not as many members in the state as there were lakes, but rather about 6000, all of them presumably devoted to the Legion's cause of ousting Jews from America.

The group was infiltrated in 1936 by a certain young reporter for the Minneapolis Journal named Eric Sevareid, who wrote a series of widely read articles about the experience.  Many of the readers of the paper, to Sevareid's dismay, denounced the journalist for his pains.  The minister of the largest Baptist Church in the state thundered that Sevareid was simply a "Red" and a naive "cub reporter."

In A Puzzle for Fools, which was published closer toward the end of 1936, Rickie and Hugh's series character Peter Duluth made his debut.  Peter was created by Rickie Webb (although Hugh eventually made him is own).  Could Rickie, still preoccupied with intolerance in Minnesota, have been familiar with the 1920 Duluth lynching party and thus had the word "Duluth" in mind when he dreamed up Peter? 

Increasingly the Peter Duluth novels are devoted to chronicling the anxiety and fear suffered by people caught in a web of violent crime and its investigation, climaxing in Black Widow (1952), where Peter himself is suspected by everyone around him, most unjustly, of murder, and he sees the police not as helpful allies but menacing adversaries out to crush him.  Did the word "Duluth" encode that acute fear of the disfavored, a fear of overtly hostile legal authority that LGBTQ people, whose sexuality was then a crime, instinctively felt as well?

Or perhaps there is a less metaphorical and more prosaic explanation which is waiting to be discovered somewhere in, say, the pages of an old Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  But I thought I would float this thought balloon here.

Duluth's memorial to its lynching victims


  1. It has been suggested that the line "They're selling postcards of the hanging" in Bob Dylan's Desolation Row refers to the Duluth lynchings of 1920. I believe the main reason behind the idea is that Dylan was from Minnesota and there were postcards of the lynched bodies sold there. There may be more to it than that.

    1. Hey, Mark, I was just adding about this as you commented. When I came on this topic a few weeks back I read about the Dylan connection, then forgot to include it here. Thanks to all who jogged my memory. As an aside it's odd how we are confronted with another "D" surname, one deliberately adopted. Bob Dylan, from Duluth. In films Peter Duluth got changed to Peter Denver and Peter Chance, but no one tried Peter Dylan.

      I thought about including the lynching postcard here, but people can easily find it on the net if they want. It's a little revolting for a vintage mystery blog, probably. Such photos tell us more about the people poising for them than they ever imagined.

  2. Just finished my first Peter Duluth book, A Puzzle for Fools. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking blog ... especially now.

    1. Thank you very much, I think these things need to be looked at too. Keep reading about Peter and Iris, the series gets better and better.