Sunday, January 11, 2015

Portland’s Connection to The Maltese Falcon

            Any admirer of detective fiction must recognize the importance of Dashiel Hammett as a writer and an inspiration. His masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon, has been as influential on the art of cinema as Hammett’s other work has been in the development of crime writing. Hammett’s experiences as a private detective gave his work authenticity and he often based fictional characters on the people he met in that work. Warren Harris has done groundbreaking research on one of those criminals who inspired Hammett’s characters: Edwin A. “The Midget” Ware. Ware was the inspiration for The Maltese Falcon character Wilmer, the gunsel beautifully portrayed by Dwight Fry and Elisha Cook Jr. in the classic films made from Hammett’s novel. Recently I had the great fortune to receive an inquiry from Mr. Harris concerning a crime that occurred in Portland in 1932. Harris’s question led me to this interesting little piece of Portland weirdness. So here it is, Portland’s connection to The Maltese Falcon, now that’s Weird Portland.
Dwight Fry, one of the most interesting actor’sof his generation, played the role of Wilmer the gunsel in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon. The film played Portland theaters almost a year before the real life inspiration for Fry’scharacter visited the city.
       Edwin “The Midget” WareFresno’s notorious Midget Bandit, finished a long prison term in 1932. Newly discovered evidence proves that after being released from prison Ware traveled north with a companion and spent some time (about thirty days) in the Rose City before going on to his fatal encounter with the Law in Washington state in 1934.  Ware, born in 1905, began his criminal career early with a series of robberies in Fresno and Los Angeles, CA in 1921, when he was seventeen. Inspired by the exploits of southern California armed robber Roy “The Smiling Bandit” Gardner, and the intense press coverage his crimes received, Ware began his life of crime in emulation of his hero and with a strong instinct for publicity.  The Fresno Herald, was the first to call Ware the Midget Bandit, but soon papers all over California featured the sobriquet in headlines and at the peak of his crime wave, the Midget Bandit even got headlines in the New York Times. It might have been the newspaper headlines that inspired Dashiel Hammett, but it is more likely (although still undocumented) that the ailing private detective had a personal meeting with Ware, most likely in the Fresno jail in 1921. Hammett’s comments about his inspiration for the character of Wilmer seem to point to the personal meeting theory.
Edwin Ware was 27 years old when arrested inSeattle, long past his prime as a robber and as a publicity hound. He was veryclose to the end of his short, violent life. 
       Ware and his partner, Jess Taylor (aka James Blythe) another ex-convict, arrived in Portland around December 1, 1932. There is no evidence that either man knew anyone in Portland, if they had things might have gone much better for them. At that time there were several armed robbery gangs operating out of Portland. The most powerful was the gang run by Shy Frank Kodat from his speakeasy/boarding house on SE Water Street. Kodat specialized in recruiting promising young robbers and burglars from the Oregon State Prison. Claiming that he was working to rehabilitate these ex-cons he helped them plan and pull off robberies all over Oregon, Washington and northern California. The main rule was, no jobs in Portland. Although the rule was sometimes broken, and Kodat’s power was often defied and challenged, Shy Frank enforced his will brutally and often used the Police Bureau as an ally in his fight against the competition.
       Ware later told Portland Chief of Detectives, Harvey Thatcher, that he and Taylor had been planning a bigger robbery, but had needed cash to advance their plans. On December 3, 1932 the two ex-cons attempted to rob a Pool Hall on NW 6th and Flanders. The Oregonian originally called the place a “soft drink shop,” which was often a codeword for a place that sold illegal alcohol. It is pretty likely that Louie Azich and Jim Walch, two local working men, were drinking illegal beer while they shot pool with three or four other men that night.  Taylor took the lead when the two ex-cons came in, pointing a gun at the patrons and ordering them to line up. Ware, who was known as a “two-fisted gunman” in his earlier days because of his propensity for using two guns, only had one gun this time and most likely he never even drew it, just backing up his partner.  It is not clear whether Patrolman Clarence Spaugh was called to the scene of the crime by a passerby, as in the official version, or if he was waiting somewhere close by, but he sneaked up on the two armed robbers and got the drop on them. The indignant group of pool players joined in the arrest and Taylor was badly beaten, being hospitalized for several days after the robbery attempt.
Portland Patrolman Clarence Spaugh sneaked up on the two armed robbers and got the drop on them. The crowd of would-be victims administered a little “street justice” to the brash Californians. Photo courtesy of Portland Police HistoricalSociety.
       Taylor was sentenced to a year for attempted robbery and Ware got thirty days for carrying a concealed weapon. Both men were wanted for a robbery/assault in San Francisco a few days earlier and were scheduled to be returned to California after their release. Taylor probably spent his year in Salem, where presumably he learned about the facilities available to ex-cons in Portland so he wouldn’t make the same mistake again. Ware probably spent some more time in jail after he finished his thirty days in the Multnomah County lockup. It looks like he was smart enough to avoid the “tough town” of Portland the next time, but he didn’t fare much better in Seattle. He was arrested there in 1933 and killed in an attempted jailbreak in Walla Walla in 1934.
         Of course this wasn't the first time that ex-convicts from California found more trouble than they wanted in the Rose City. Here is a much earlier version of the story Mayhem on Morrison Street from my book Murder and Mayhem in Portland. You might also like my latest book, with JB Fisher Portland on the Take.
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