If you’re any kind of serious fan of the writings of Dashiell Hammett, you know that Hammett modeled the gunsel Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon, published in first edition hardcovers by Knopf in 1930, on a crook known as The Midget Bandit.
Wilmer. Without argument the most famous gunsel of all time. Immortalized onscreen by Elisha Cook Jr. in the 1941 film version of the novel, directed by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade. A classic role for a classic actor in a classic movie. From a classic novel.
Hammett told us about The Midget Bandit in a two-page intro he did for a 1934 reprint of the novel by the Modern Library. He mentions that he remembers “where I got most of my characters” and does quick thumbnails: “Dundy’s prototype I worked with in a North Carolina railroad yard; Cairo’s I picked up on a forgery charge in Pasco, Washington, in 1920; Polhaus’s was a former captain of detectives,” and so on — he shadowed the original of Caspar Gutman in the early days of World War I “and I never remember shadowing a man who bored me as much.”
But Hammett begins his catalog with Wilmer and The Midget Bandit, the longest paragraph in his intro — twice as long as his paragraph about Sam Spade:
Wilmer, the boy gun-man, was picked up in Stockton, California, where I had gone hunting a window-smasher who had robbed a San Jose jewelry store. Wilmer’s original was not my window-smasher, unfortunately, but he was a fair pick-up. He was a neat small smooth-faced quiet boy of perhaps twenty-one. He said he was only seventeen, but that was probably an attempt to draw a reform school instead of a penitentiary sentence. He also said his father was a lieutenant of police in New York, which may or may not have been true, and he was serenely proud of the name the local newspapers had given him — The Midget Bandit. He had robbed a Stockton filling station the previous week. In Los Angeles a day or two later, reading a Stockton newspaper — there must be criminals who subscribe to subscription services — he had been annoyed by the description the filling station owner had given of him and by the proprietor’s statement of what he would do to that little runt if he ever laid eyes on him again. So The Midget Bandit had stolen an automobile and returned to Stockton to, in his words, stick that guy up again and see what he wanted to do about it.
Needless to say, Hammett fans, Hammett scholars, maybe even some Hammett biographers, have tried to track down The Midget Bandit. I’ve met a few guys who’ve prowled fruitlessly through archives of the Stockton papers, almost in tears — no Midget Bandit.
On the trail of The Midget Bandit for decades. . . .
And I don’t think luck had much of a role in the tracking down and capture of the identity of The Midget Bandit — what cracked the case was the involvement of a tireless Continental Op-style archive-prowling man-hunter named Warren Harris.
I believe I first met Warren when he came out on the tour a decade or more back, and I bump into him on rare occasion. He does a zine titled Back Numbers Can Be Easily Procured for an amateur press association devoted to pulps — The Pulp Era Amateur Press Society, or PEAPS for short. Warren’s been a member on and off since about 2002, with his current stint his third go-round.
Point is Warren appreciates Hammett and knows the pulp scene, and The Mystery of The Midget Bandit grabbed his attention.
Avoiding misdirection, he followed each new lead until he nailed down the name, birthplace, criminal career, and several mug shots of the man who inspired Hammett to create Wilmer Cook. Everything from his California crime spree to his violent death.
And Warren has selected Up and Down These Mean Streets as the vehicle to present this research to the wider world — though he’s unearthed so much info I think the only way for him to do full justice to the subject is a book. Since I consider this find to be the coolest piece of info on Hammett’s career as a detective to be uncovered in decades, I’m honored that Warren lays out the facts here.
(Wow. Someone found The Midget Bandit! Personally, I am floored.)
So fasten your seatbelts and come back tomorrow to find out if Hammett was right or wrong about Midget’s age, whether or not his father was a New York cop — if even the moniker The Midget Bandit was real.
I’ll tell you this much now: The Midget Bandit was real. And on These Mean Streets it is now, officially, Midget Bandit Week!