Sam Hamblet groaned at the news that his teen age daughter was having all her friends over for the evening to listen to the radio. Working the long day shift at the giant St. Paul & Tacoma sawmill, with its whining razor sharp bandsaws cutting through the hard flesh tone heartwood of ancient Douglas firs all day, left him dreading the high pitch chat and
over excited laughter of the girls. It was Tuesday, December 14th, dark early and raining lightly. After dinner he told his wife Margaret that he was walking down to the newsstand his two sons ran at the 19th and Jefferson streetcar stop, just where gangs of warehouse workers arrived and departed each workday. The spot was shadowy after dark, perched just above the continuous day and night movement of boxcars and locomotives on the Prairie Line. It was 1920, the neighborhood was dangerous.
The Hamblet family lived at 2525 South I and the walk to the newsstand was all downhill mostly with no streetlights. While Sam headed toward 19th, a young beat cop, W.H. Craft checked in with the station on a call box phone within sight of the newsstand. He was alerted to a robbery that had just been reported behind the Joy Building loading dock on the Prairie Line. The thief wore a long dark overcoat with the collar up and a black fedora. He was armed, threatening and vanished.
The boys weren’t there when Sam got to the newsstand and in the empty moment his wife Margaret’s warning flashed through his head.”Be careful out there dearie, the town is full of hold up men”. Just then officer Craft noticed Sam standing at the top of 19th-in a black overcoat and hat. The young policeman headed toward the man, ordered him to stand still once he got within shouting distance and then an unfortunate, explainable thing happened. The 55 year old carpenter broke into a run downhill toward the Prairie Line, across the tracks between boxcars and past the neo Classical Snoqualamie Falls power plant.
Craft was crossing the tracks as Hamblet reached the rail sidings that ran along the rear loading docks of the massive warehouses on Pacific Avenue. He turned south toward the shadow of an overhead bridge and kept running as the policeman pulled out his revolver and fired a shot in the air, ordering him to stop. Maybe another airshot but then the beat cop lowered his gun and fired at the ground, deliberately not aiming directly at the runner. The bullet hit one of the granite curbs that edged the paved streets in the district and ricocheted randomly up toward the tiring runner. The bullet torn through Sam’s ribs and into his lungs. He pulled himself up under an old wagon and when the policeman reached him he was grimly choking out his name and home address and an appeal to call his wife. Rail yard workers helped keep him alive until an ambulance got there but Sam was dead before they got to the hospital.
On Wednesday morning, December 15th, 1920 a young man began his daily routine of reading the Tacoma papers and had a chilling moment when he read his own name listed as the victim of a deadly shooting the night before. He was Sam Hammett, and upon closer reading the victim’s last name was actually spelled slightly different but it didn’t stop him from carefully absorbing the fatal details of the story. In fact, the young man knew both the setting and the way that people act on misunderstanding. He had been a private detective before tuberculosis and a fierce smoking habit had landed him in the Cushman Public Health hospital in Tacoma. That winter, at 26 years old, he found himself coughing up blood and too sick to keep his job with the Pinkerton Agency yet still strangely fascinated by the crime world he could only follow in the pages of the newspapers. Just days before the random shooting of Samuel Hamblet, the Tacoma Ledger ran a front page story on the crime wave and filled two full columns with a running day by day account of violence, theft and lawlessness in the city. It seemed immersive, inescapable and void of all light and reason.
In 1929, Samuel Hammett was living in San Francisco and publishing short stories and novels using his middle name Dashiell. That year he wrote a masterwork of modern American fiction-The Maltese Falcon. In the novel, the detective Sam Spade tells a story set in Tacoma. It has become a central episode in all of Hammett’s writing and seems to capture the essence of his world view-the beginning of Noir.
“He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant….He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.”
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Images by Stephen Cysewski from:
This is such a solid piece, Michael. Tacoma’s own, “The rest of the story.” So cool, hard, and heartbreaking.
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Thank you for keeping the memories of Tacoma alive!