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The Street-Straddling Elk of 1916
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How Keno was Born in Butte, Montana
The Captain Who Fought World War I in Butte, Montana
Mark Twain's Trip to Butte

The Seeds of Red Harvest:
Dashiell Hammett's Poisonville
by George Everett
 
Dashiell Hammett, the writer given credit for creating the modern detective novel, remains a mystery himself, but clues to solving the mystery of his early years can be found in his connection to Butte, Montana. Hammett wrote short stories and novels about private detectives and they are universally acclaimed as some of the best ever written. His novels include Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Dain Curse, and The Thin Man.

Dashiell Hammett drew upon his experiences as a Pinkerton operative for his stories about navigating the mean streets of America. He worked as a Pinkerton detective from 1915 to 1922. One operative who worked with him said that Dash, as he was known, could follow a suspect without being seen better than anybody. One time, he blended in so well that the man he was following got lost and asked him for directions without even knowing that he was being followed. Hammett claimed that he once shadowed a suspect for six weeks through a half dozen small towns without being detected. Hammett took pleasure in exposing inexperienced mystery writers by revealing inconsistencies in their stories that he recognized from his own experience as a private detective, such as pointing out the difference between a revolver and an automatic pistol.

Hammett tended to embellish his accounts of his detective years in later interviews. For example, Hammett confided that he was offered $5,000 to murder Frank Little, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Hammett said that he turned down the offer, but on August 1, 1917, five men carried Little from his room, dragged him behind a car, and then hanged him from a train trestle on the edge of Butte. More than likely, though,Hammett was in Baltimore, Maryland in 1917. He was working for Pinkerton at the time but probably on the East Coast as a rookie operative, still learning the trade from his mentor there, James Wright, who would become the model for the Continental Op in his detective fiction that would follow.

Like the claim that he was offered a fee to murder Frank Little, other claims of his detective life are equally hard to accept. He claimed that he had to shoot a man one night defending a powder magazine in Butte. He described another incident when was hit in the back of the head with a brick thrown by a striker that left a permanent dent in his skull as an unpleasant reminder of his work in Montana. Lillian Hellman later related a story that Dash was hit over the head with a brick but it happened in an alley in San Francisco. While following a suspect, Hammett didn't realize he had a partner who slipped up behind him with a brick.

It is impossible to corroborate any of what Hammett claimed in later interviews because he or Hellman are the source for all of them and his reputation as a hard-boiled detective writer depended on his self-promotion as an experienced detective. According to his biographer Richard Layman in Shadow Man, "In a half self-serving, half playful manner, he characteristically amplified his stories, rewriting, revising, even inventing accounts of his experiences."
 
Hammett left detective work to serve in the U.S. Army from June 24, 1918 to May 29, 1919 when he was discharged with untreatable tuberculosis. Even though he had spent his time in the service as an ambulance driver at Camp Meade, Maryland within a few miles of his Maryland home, he had contracted a disease that would hobble him physically for the rest of his life.
 
Josephine Dolan of Anaconda, MontanaHammett in 1933 in his literary prime.In May 1920, Hammett transferred to the Spokane, Washington office of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency when Pinkerton was retained by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company in Montana to break a strike in the copper mining district of Butte and Anaconda. He worked out of the Spokane office from late May until November 6 when he was hospitalized with a relapse of tuberculosis. In the Cushman Institute in Tacoma, Washington where he recuperated, he came under the care of Josephine Dolan, a young nurse from Anaconda. They would marry the following year.
The mystery that remains centers on just what Hammett did see and do as a detective. Even his biographer, Richard Layman admits that there is no way to verify what Hammett's casework was during his time as a Pinkerton. Most of the case files from that era were destroyed in a fire and over the years the Pinkerton Agency has selectively culled its own records especially when it comes to any evidence of their work as strikebreakers. The particulars of just what Hammett did as a detective during his assignments in the West may remain a mystery forever. Was he a writer who drew from his experience as a detective? Or, did he harness the vivid imagination of a keen observer with inside information about Pinkerton cases?

The Anaconda Road massacre where 15 strikers were shot by Company toughs had already occured on April 21st.Federal troops arrived on the 22nd, and 500 miners returned to work on the 23rd. By May the Company had banned all I.W.W. members from working in the mines, posting signs that read "No member of I.W.W. will be employed at this property."

If Hammett did spend time in Butte, it seems unlikely that he could have arrived before June 1920 as strikers grudgingly returned to the undergound mines without achieving any of their goals. The following April, the Company shut down the mines citing falling copper prices and they stayed closed until January 1922.

Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter RemembersIt's not clear where Hammett came to know details of Butte during its chaotic labor troubles. He may have learned it first hand, or from colleagues in the Spokane office who had worked in Butte. Another possibility has come to light recently with the publication of a memoir by Hammet's daughter, Jo, titled Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers which provides a great deal of insight into the personal life of a previously mysterious public figure.

Hammett's first wife Josephine grew up in nearby Anaconda and when she turned 15 she moved to Butte to train and work at St. James Hospital there. Hammett met her in Tacoma, Washington in 1920. It's hard to imagine that they would not have discussed their separate experiences in Butte during those years. And she was there, during some of the most violent eruptions of 1917, the murder of Frank Little, the Granite Mountain Mine Disaster and the bitter strike that followed.
Whatever the origins of his inspiration, the novel that grew from the seeds planted in Hammett's imagination was Red Harvest. The novel was first printed as a serial in the magazine Black Mask, titled "The Cleansing of Poisonville." Personville is the name of the western mining town, twisted in the local idiom and pronounced as Poisonville. It is obviously Butte in its heydey as a wide open town. Local landmarks such as the M&M Cigar Store, the Columbia Gardens, and Park Street can be seen through the veil of fiction.

Probably as a result of the excesses of the Anaconda Company in Montana, Hammett came to believe that the people who hired detectives could be as bad or worse than the criminals he was supposed to investigate--they just had more money. Red Harvest is the story of a detective who follows his own code of ethics in a world where all sides are corrupt. His experience as a detective is the source of the code in his novels where a private detective like the nameless Continental Op in Red Harvest or Sam Spade or Ned Beaumont follow their own set of principles of right and wrong, fairness and justice independent of the many corrupt people on both sides of the law.

Unlike The Maltese Falcon, which was translated into a classic film starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, there has never been a successful translation of the novel inspired by Butte to the big screen. Hammett sold the rights to the story soon after the novel's publication in 1929. A movie loosely based on the book titled Roadhouse Nights was released in 1930. There is an excellent discussion (
click here or on the book cover above to read review by Allen Barra) about the irony that prevents the movie from being made today. It's a tangled tale that involves Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo, Clint Eastwood and A Fistful of Dollars, Bruce Willis and Last Man Standing and copyright issues that linger over the story even today. Apparently, the story has been lifted enough times without credit to Hammett that to bring Hammett's original novel to the screen would invite copyright lawsuits.

It is unfortunate that these issues can't be sorted out and the movie brought to life in Butte where it was inspired 80 years ago for a young impressionable Pinkerton man forming his ideas about right or wrong that would sustain him throughout his life.

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