Monday, October 15, 2007

Hammett Trivia - Fred Blosser


We're coming up on the 85th anniversary of Dashiell Hammett's first appearance in "Black Mask." To me, that is as notable a literary landmark as the publication of Shakespeare's First Folio. Here's a bit of Hammett-related trivia, in case it may be of interest for the blog. I don't think I've ever seen this reference footnoted or otherwise mentioned in any of the Hammett biographies.

In "Nightmare Town," when Nora Vallance remarks on the crudeness of Izzard, the town of the story's title, protagonist Steve Threefall replies, "New towns are always like this, or worse. You should have seen Hopewell, Virginia, when the DuPonts first opened it." (The reference appears on p. 23 of McCauley, Greenberg, and Gorman's NIGHTMARE TOWN, and on p. 287 of CRIME STORIES AND OTHER WRITINGS, the 2001 Library of America collection.)

It isn't easy to find a lot of readily available info on Hopewell, but thanks to Google, I located a 2005 article by a historian, Dennis Farmer, that provides some backstory to Hammett's reference. The DuPont company constructed a dynamite plant in 1913 in rural Chesterfield County, Va., near the area on the James River where Ulysses Grant had his headquarters during the siege of Petersburg in the Civil War. The company switched to the production of the more profitable explosive nitrocellulose when WWI broke out in 1914. To house workers and their families, the company built the full-fledged town of Hopewell from scratch. Farmer says the boom brought an influx of bars, brothels, and gambling houses: "Muggings, shootings, drunkenness, robberies, brawls, street walkers and pickpockets were all too common, with payoffs, bribes and dirty dealings being part and parcel of the boomtown that was becoming." Farmer's article is online at

Another valuable but hard-to-find reference source, OLD CITY POINT AND HOPEWELL, by Mary Mitchell Calos, recounts a similar history: "Since the company had no control over land other than its own, Du Pont's planned community was marred by an onslaught of peddlers, gamblers, speculators, thieves, and prostitutes. People flocked in by the thousands and the old farm became a teeming, lawless city overnight. ... County officials were practically powerless to cope with the roaring community. The saloons, dancehalls, and gambling houses did a flourishing business. Shootings and murders were plentiful; convictions by the court were not forthcoming."

After the town was destroyed by a fire in December 1915 (interesting that Hammett's story ends with a "monstrous bonfire" that consumes Izzard), then rebuilt and incorporated, things settled down.

Farmer's article says that the town's early police force consisted of "31 police officers and two Pinkerton detectives." Now, Hammett joined Pinkerton's Baltimore office in 1915. I'm not sure that the agency would have sent a rookie op to a wide-open boomtown to keep the peace, but maybe Hammett heard stories about Hopewell from a colleague or colleagues who had been there? And at some point, found this violent boomtown, established to meet a global demand for weapons of mass destruction, an irresistible symbol of American society and enterprise, to be fictionalized as the criminal metropolis of Izzard?

I'll pose those questions in case any of the Hammett specialists out there have any additional information or insight.

No comments: