August, 2013

Past Imperfect: crime in the 1920s

Recently, a terrible crime was committed in Spokane, Washington, and the remarks of the police chief afterward occasioned discussion about whether crime is worse now than ever before.  He spoke of a lost generation, and of a loss of stability and discipline.

Those of us who read history know this is nothing new.  In the 1920s and 1930s, my current field of study, crime was prevalent and disturbing, not least because of the pressures put on society by Prohibition.  A quick bit of research turned up plenty of crimes to compete with the tragedy in Spokane:

First, police killed in the line of duty:

Second, the effects of Prohibition and depression on the crime rate:

Third, a rather stunning bibliography of crime in Seattle, put together by the wonderful folks at, which is a gold mine of information for a historical novelist:

Fourth, a nasty event called “the Centralia Massacre”, in which four World War I veterans were killed.

For one more resource, there’s a piece which addresses, in part, crime in the tent cities, called Hoovervilles, where homeless folks took shelter:  As the writer says, “Violence and death were everywhere in the newspapers during the Depression.”

There are other issues with the early part of the twentieth century which uncannily mirror those we face in contemporary times.  The Ku Klux Klan was active and popular in Washington State, with the usual attendant offenses.  Prostitutes in the Tenderloin district, many of them Chinese girls tricked into coming to America with the promise of work, were abused and killed without much attention being paid to them.  Organized crime saw its heyday because of Prohibition, including, in Seattle, a corrupt police chief.  All of these events speak to the challenges of any  historical period affected by wars, poverty, prejudice and political conflict.

It’s worth noting, too, that the generation of the 1920s was the first to becalled a “Lost Generation.” The term was originally applied to ex-patriate writers, but was later widely used to describe young people disaffected by the tragedies of the Great War.

None of these things lessen the heinous nature of what happened in Spokane, but we shouldn’t look at the past with romantic nostalgia.  At least in my view, we’re better off understanding that the human condition has always meant hard times for some, easier times for others, and endless fodder for the novelist!


Segregated Seattle

KKK-CrystalPoolThis photograph is from the 1920s, at the Crystal Pool in Seattle.

Racism in Seattle was written into neighborhood covenants.  In Ballard, Queen Anne, even on Capitol Hill, the fictional home of the Benedicts, wording like this survived well into the latter half of the twentieth century:  “No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property.”

The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project features extensive research on Segregated Seattle.  The shocking aspect of this information is how long segregation persisted in the Pacific Northwest.  In 1923, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Renton, claiming tens of thousands of attendees.  Historians estimate the number to be far smaller, but still well into the thousands.

Hospitals and schools were segregated as well as neighborhoods.  Abraham Blake and the Benedict cook, Hattie, would only have been allowed to live on Capitol Hill as servants, and Sarah Church was part of a very new tradition of African American nurses, a tradition begun by Mary Eliza Mahoney barely thirty years before.

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