Hammett: Kidnappings in “Death and Company”

Once upon a time I rated “Death and Company” as one of the lesser and least interesting Op stories. Then Terry Zobeck dug up missing lines from the pure text, which led me to a sudden revelation, bumping “Death Co” from bland to a What the Hell??? level instantly. Now Terry returns with some other angles concerning true crime and how involved Hammett may have been in textual changes, ratcheting “Death” even higher up the ladder. Here’s Terry:

Hammett often is recognized for the realism of his fiction. One of the ways he achieved this realism was to work references to actual crimes into his stories. As a former Pinkerton agent he was something of a student of crime. Last year, in a guest blog, Brian Leno documented Hammett’s use of a couple of real-life arsenic murders in “Fly Paper.”

Hammett did something similar in “Death and Company.” When I reread the story for my post on the pure text I tucked these references away for a rainy day. This winter hasn’t provided much in the way of snow, let alone rain, so while I await the remaining stories for which we still need the pure texts to turn up, I thought I’d revisit these actual cases.

The Op’s client — a wrong-bird named Chappell — has hired the Agency to get his wife back. She’s been snatched by an outfit calling itself Death & Company. The Op and the Old Man explain the facts of life concerning the probable outcomes of kidnappings: “We dug up the history of kidnapping from Ross to Parker and waved it in their faces.”

In his edit for the 1945 paperback The Return of the Continental Op, Frederic Dannay
helpfully added Ross’ first name, Charlie (sic), but dropped the name Parker for simply “the present.” Ross, Parker — these were notorious and sensational kidnapping cases that would have been well-known to Hammett’s readers at the time, but which have faded into the shadows of history today.

Charles (Charley) Ross was four years old when he was kidnapped while playing with his older brother, Walter, in their front yard in an upscale Philadelphia neighborhood on July 1, 1874. The boys were abducted by two men who enticed them into their carriage with offers of candy — allegedly the origin of the parental admonition to not accept candy from strangers. Walter was sent into the candy store after which the carriage with Charley sped away; he was never seen again.

No one was ever convicted of the crime. Charley’s father wrote a book about the case — The Father’s Story of Charley Ross, the Kidnapped Child — and the family continued to look for Charley for the next 50 years; at one point the Pinkertons were involved in the case.

The case of Marion Parker would have been fresh in the minds of Hammett’s readers in November 1930 when “Death and Company” was published in Black Mask. William Edward Hickman abducted the 12 year old Los Angeles girl on December 15, 1927. We often think that life was simpler and safer in the past and that such a horrific event as the brutal and vicious murder of a child couldn’t have happened. Marion Parker’s murder puts the lie to that bit of rose-colored nostalgia.

Hickman abducted Marion from her school by claiming her father was ill and that he sent Hickman to bring the girl home. Hickman extorted $100,000 from the Parker family, but he did not release Marion. Rather he savagely killed her and dismembered her body. He was caught quickly, after foolishly spending some of the ransom money.

During his trial, he was one of the first defendants to try California’s new law — pleading
not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury didn’t buy it. Hickman was convicted and on October 18, 1928 he was hanged.

The story has a weird footnote. During the same year Hickman was executed, novelist Ayn Rand began to plan a novel to be called The Little Secret, suggested by Hickman’s crime and trial. The novel was never written but Rand left behind notes on it that included her thoughts on what Hickman’s experience suggested to her, “The first thing that impresses me about the case is the ferocious rage of a whole society against one man. No matter what the man did, there is always something loathsome in the ‘virtuous’ indignation and mass-hatred of the ‘majority.’… It is repulsive to see all these beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives, virtuously condemning a criminal.  . . .” (It’s probably best the book was never written.)

In an earlier post I noted that Dannay appeared to rely upon the syndicated versions of some of Hammett’s stories from newspapers of the 1930s for his collections, including “Death and Company,” reprinted in the June 27, 1937 issue of the Washington Post. For the paper, Marion Parker’s case again was dropped in favor of a more recent kidnapping, that of Alice Speed Stoll, abducted from her Lexington, Kentucky home in October 1934. A $50,000 ransom was paid and Alice was freed six days later in Indianapolis. The accused was 22-year old Thomas H. Robinson, a former inmate of a mental institution. His wife also was implicated in the crime. The case was quite sensational at the time, not least because Robinson allegedly was a transvestite.

Presumably, an anonymous editor at King Features fiddled with the short list of famous kidnappings. Then again, this editing for syndication raises the question as to what extent Hammett may have been involved in the revision of his stories for newspaper publication. It does seem odd that the King Features’ editor would bother to make such an apparently inconsequential change. However, Hammett might have wanted to update the listing of kidnappings with a more recent example for the sake of realism. The Stoll case was covered by the national media; it certainly would have still been in readers’ minds in 1937.

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