[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Red Harvest and Dashiell Hammett's Butte

Jack Crowley
Liberal Studies
Montana Tech-UM

--Jack Crowley
Jack Crowley



The year 1929 is usually remembered for a stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression, but it is also memorable for an event that had great significance for detective fiction--the publication of Dashiell Hammett's first novel, Red Harvest, which had previously appeared piecemeal in the magazine Black Mask. Packed with graphic violence and gritty dialogue, and featuring a nameless, anti-heroic sleuth called simply "The Op" (for Continental Operative), Hammett's book would become a classic in the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction and a model for other writers.

The novel's plot begins simply enough but becomes increasingly involved as the story progresses. The Op is summoned to Personville, a corrupt mining town, by a local newspaper editor who is killed shortly after the protagonist's arrival. The slain editor's father, local kingpin and mining magnate Elihu Willsson, then hires the Op to find his son's murderer and clean up the town. The targets of this purge include the town's police chief and a group of competing criminals who were initially brought to Personville to fight the miners' union. Using Dinah Brand, a popular prostitute, as his main information source, the Op plays the police chief and criminals against each other until, twenty-five deaths later and disgusted with his own blood lust, he has completed his job.

The novel's setting, nicknamed "Poisonville" by local residents, has generally been seen as an unflattering portrait of Butte, Montana, in the early days of Prohibition, based on Hammett's personal observations. Unfortunately, Hammett left no written account that would verify this assumption, which raises several questions:

  1. Did Hammett actually visit Butte and why?
  2. What kind of place was Butte at the time of Hammett's assumed presence there? and
  3. Is there evidence within the novel itself to suggest that Butte was the model for Personville?

Lillian Hellman and Jo Hammett's accounts

As to the first question, there are accounts by two of the people who were closest to Hammett which support the assumption that he spent time in Butte, Montana. One is by his long-time companion, Lillian Hellman, and the other by his daughter Jo (Josephine) Hammett. Interestingly, Lillian's account would place Hammett in Butte in 1917, while Jo's would put him there around 1920. Hammett may actually have been in Butte twice, and there is some evidence to support that view.

Beginning with Hellman's account, which appears in the third volume of her 1979 autobiography, Three, she recalls:

I remember sitting on a bed next to him [Hammett] in the first months we met, listening to him tell me about his Pinkerton days when an officer of [the] Anaconda Copper Company had offered him five thousand dollars to kill Frank Little, the labor union organizer. I didn't know Hammett well enough to hear the anger under the calm voice, the bitterness under the laughter, so I said, "He couldn't have made such an offer unless you had been a strikebreaker for Pinkerton." "That's about right," he said.... He seldom talked about the past unless I asked questions, but through the years he was to repeat that bribe offer so many times that I came to believe, knowing him now, that it was a kind of key to his life. He had given a man the right to think he would murder./1/

Hellman's account certainly aligns with what we know about Hammett's life and with events that occurred in Butte during 1917. The young Hammett became a Pinkerton agent in 1915 after trying a number of other ways to earn a living./2/ The Pinkertons performed various services for their clients, including undercover detective work and strikebreaking, which was a common practice of big business in the early years of the 20th century. As a bastion of unionism, Butte was no stranger to labor conflict and had seen a number of strikes in its relatively brief history. It had also seen more extreme activities, including the dynamiting of the local Miners' Union Hall and the imposition of martial law in 1914./3/

The legendary mining city, then the country's leading producer of copper, had 14,500 working miners in 1916, and when the United States joined Great Britain in the war against Germany in April of 1917, Butte's copper production was vitally important to the Allies./4/ Like America's other great industrial centers, Butte was a melting pot, with immigrants from many different places in Europe and elsewhere. In Butte's case, however, the Irish clearly outnumbered every other group, and this predominance was seen as a potential threat to the war effort, as the Irish were unsympathetic to the British cause. In fact, Butte was one of the major centers in the United States for organizing and fund-raising efforts on behalf of Irish Independence. The situation naturally produced fears of possible work stoppages and sabotage by the Irish miners to undercut the British war effort.

Adding to this tension, on June 8, 1917, a major fire broke out near midnight in the shaft of the Speculator Mine and quickly spread to the adjoining Granite Mountain Mine. The death toll from what would prove Butte's worst mining disaster was 168 men./5/ Within two days, reinforcements for the Montana National Guard were brought in to help maintain order in the wake of growing unrest among the miners, and a strike was called, which led to the reimposition of martial law./6/

Into this volatile situation came Frank Little, an organizer for the IWW, or Wobblies. Little was seen as a major troublemaker by the mining interests, who tried to have him indicted for treason under the Espionage Act. Then, on August 1, 1917, Little was abducted from his room in a local boarding house by a group of unidentified men and taken to an area west of town. There, he was tied to the back of a car, dragged to a railroad trestle, and hanged./7/

Hellman saw the Frank Little incident as critical in awakening Hammett's social conscience, which would lead to his shift to the left and eventual arrest and imprisonment in 1951. He was charged with Contempt of Court for refusing to give information that could have led to the investigation of others for Communist activities.

I think I can date Hammett's belief that he was living in a corrupt society from Little's murder. In time, he came to the conclusion that nothing less than a revolution could wipe out the corruption. I do not suggest that his radical conversion was based on one experience, but sometimes in complex minds it is the plainest experience that speeds the wheels that have already begun to move.... There were perhaps twenty years between my hearing about Frank Little and Hammett's jail sentence in 1951./8/

Unfortunately, in giving her account, Hellman conflates the 1917 murder of Frank Little, with the Everett Massacre of 1916, in which a number of Wobbly demonstrators were killed at Everett, Washington, and this inconsistency somewhat weakens her story. In fairness to Hellman, she was giving a second-hand account; both events did involve the IWW, and both had occurred some sixty years before she published the last volume of her autobiography. That she accurately identified Frank Little as the IWW organizer allegedly targeted by the Anaconda Company in Butte argues for the authenticity of her Hammett story, as Little's was hardly a household name in the 1970s, and even in Butte he had been largely forgotten.

Can one believe Hellman's story about local mining interests approaching Hammett to help murder Frank Little? Much has been written about the relationship between Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman, and a good deal of that by Hellman herself. Mistress, literary collaborator, care-giver, biographer, and literary executor--Hellman played several roles in Hammett's life. She was Hammett's confidante for a number of years, but her credibility has been challenged by many, including novelist Mary McCarthy and Jo Hammett. In her 2001 biography of her father, Hammett says of Lillian Hellman, "She was a gifted creator of true-life events. Scenes that never happened were staged in realistic detail." And commenting on what she considered one of Lillian's fabrications (a story alleging that Dashiell Hammett had nobly married Jo's mother, who was pregnant by another man), she calls it "a prime example of Lillian re-writing life so it played better."/9/ Given Jo Hammett's doubts about Hellman's veracity, it is interesting to note that she doesn't challenge Hellman's account of the Frank Little incident, even though Hellman's autobiography had been in print for some time.

Jo Hammett's account of her father's Butte experience verifies that he spent time there and that Butte was the model for Personville. She writes,

Butte, somewhat altered, and re-christened Personville (and called "Poisonville" by those who knew it) became the central character in his [Hammett's] first novel. He first saw Butte in his twenties when he was working for Pinkerton's. The agency had been brought in by the mine owners to help in their struggle with the unions and the radical IWW. Their job was to infiltrate and disrupt. What Papa did there as an undercover man, and what he saw done, left a lasting impression on him./10/

Jo was one of two children (her older sister was Mary) born to Dashiell and Josephine Hammett (née Dolan). Hammett met his future wife, who was a nurse, while convalescing after a recurrence of his tuberculosis at a hospital in Tacoma, Washington./11/ She was raised in Anaconda, Montana, which had been developed as a location for smelting Butte's ore. Perhaps because of its connection with Hammett's wife and its mining importance, Anaconda has been mistakenly identified by Richard Layman, in his biography of Hammett, as the model for Personville./12/

Jo Hammett does not confirm Hellman's Frank Little story in her account of her father's experience in Butte, though she does make a passing reference to Little's murder elsewhere in her book: "1917 was a turbulent year in Butte. A disastrous explosion in the Spectator [sic] mine killed over a hundred men; there were violent strikes by the miners; [and] IWW leader Frank Little was assassinated."/13/ This suggests that her father had not told her the story about his being approached to help kill Little.

In contrast to Hellman, Jo places her father in Butte three years after Little's murder had occurred:

In May of 1920, perhaps in desperation, thinking that a big change might somehow help him, he [Hammett] moved across the country to Washington and went to work for the Pinkerton's office in Spokane. His work there took him all over the Northwest and eventually to Butte, Montana, where the mine owners were locked in a bloody struggle with the radical Industrial Workers of the World [IWW]. He used what he saw there in his first full-length novel, Red Harvest./14/

This later date seems plausible, as it would have given Hammett first-hand experience of Butte's bootlegging culture at the beginning of the Prohibition era, which actually began for Montana in 1918. Whether or not one chooses to believe Hellman's account, despite her credibility problems, there seems little reason to doubt Jo's less dramatic story. So, it can be reasonably assumed that Dashiell Hammett was in Butte around 1920 and possibly also in 1917.

Butte in 1917-1920

The second opening question was, "What kind of place was Butte at the time of Hammett's assumed presence there?" In his 1962 autobiography, legendary Montana State Senator Burton K. Wheeler observed of Butte, "It is safe to say that no one who has ever been there has forgotten it."/15/ This certainly applied to the city that Hammett would have encountered in 1917-1920. By then Butte, Montana, had grown from the typical, raw western mining camp that it had been in the 1860s to a western metropolis with a population between 85,000 and 100,000 and all the features of a large eastern city: handsome public buildings, including schools and a college; churches and synagogues; boarding houses, hotels, theaters, and restaurants; mansions, middle- and working-class homes; department stores and other businesses. Butte also had road houses, dance halls, gambling dens, saloons, slums, and brothels./16/

The city and its various suburbs were built atop an enormous repository of mineral wealth, containing rich deposits of silver, gold, and copper, along with numerous other minerals. It was the copper, however, that made Butte's fortunes, as the city's extensive copper reserves were discovered at the same time as the electrification of America began. To extract this mineral wealth, thousands of miners labored around the clock in a dark labyrinth of tunnels that extended for a mile beneath the hill.

On the surface, a large and multi-faceted industrial city bustled with activity. Its many brick and stone buildings earned Butte the nickname of "Little Chicago," and scattered like islands throughout the city were numerous mine yards connected by a separate railroad system. Each mine site was dominated by a black gallows (or gallus) frame, looming one hundred or more feet above the ground and used to raise and lower the miners and to bring the ore they extracted to the surface. Like other major cities in the early 20th century, Butte was served by several railroads that connected it to points east, west, north, and south. One of the advantages of its major railroad connections was that Butte residents were able to enjoy major sporting events, from horse racing to prizefighting, and high quality entertainment, with celebrities like John McCormick, Anna Pavlova, Mark Twain, the Lundts, Sarah Bernhardt, and Charlie Chaplin.

Butte also had a reputation as a "wide-open town," to use the title of one of local author Myron Brinig's novels, where saloons, brothels, and gambling dens proliferated. According to Butte historian Mary Murphy: "When people described Butte as a wide-open town, they meant that a man could buy a drink, place a bet, or visit a prostitute at any hour of the day or night without being arrested."/17/ In many ways, it was a precursor to the modern Las Vegas. Even Prohibition and the ban on prostitution did little to curb the city's appetite for vice and entertainment, and this was the fleshpot that the young Dashiell Hammett encountered as he stepped off the train.

Internal evidence

Addressing the Third American Writers Congress in 1939, Dashiell Hammett observed that "the contemporary novelist's job is to take pieces of life and arrange them on paper. And the more direct their passage from street to paper, the more lifelike they should turn out."/18/ Given this philosophy, one would expect Butte to leap from the pages of Red Harvest and be easily recognizable, which is frequently the case. There is ample evidence in Red Harvest that Butte provided Hammett with the inspiration for his fictional setting, beginning with the novel's opening description of Personville:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness.... Then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining./19/

Butte had enjoyed a major building boom at the turn of the century, and many of the buildings in its central business district featured the exuberant excesses of late Victorian architecture. Also, mining had taken its toll on the once pristine valley south of the city and on the surrounding mountains, which had been systematically denuded to supply timber for the mines.

There is some coy misdirection as the story begins, which distinguishes Personville and Butte as two different places. "I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte," explains the Op in the book's opening chapter (Dashiell Hammett 3)./20/ Of course, the fact that he mentions "The Big Ship," which was the miners' nickname for the Florence Hotel, the city's largest boarding house, strongly suggests that Hammett knew Butte./21/ And there is also an allusion to Butte history in the above passage, as the Anaconda Mine, which would eventually lend its name to the Anaconda Copper Company, was originally owned by a Michael Hickey./22/ But, as the story unfolds, Hammett's initial ruse of separating Butte and Personville is countered by numerous hints pointing directly to Butte.

For example, shortly after his arrival in the troubled city, the Op takes a "Broadway car" to the home of his employer to be briefed on his assignment. Broadway was one of the principal streets in Butte, which was served by an up-to-date streetcar system. The home of the Op's client is "set in a grass plot on a corner," as was the prominent mansion of Butte "Copper King" William A. Clark, a likely source of inspiration for Elihu Willsson, Hammett's kingpin character in the novel. And when the Op returns to his hotel, after learning of the murder of his client's son, he notices a crowd gathering at "a side entrance of the city hall" and in front of a door marked "Police Department."/23/ The last is a particularly telling detail, as Butte's city jail, which was housed in the basement of the City Hall on Broadway, was accessed through a side door that opened onto an alley.

The Op next establishes contact with Bill Quint, a local IWW organizer, which brings to mind the ill-fated Frank Little. And later, Willsson tells the Op "that he had built Personville brick by brick with his own hands and he was going to keep it or wipe it off the side of the hill."/24/ This passage has two hints that Hammett was inspired by Butte: not only was Butte largely a brick city by 1917-1920, but it had been built almost entirely on the side of what was appropriately termed "The Richest Hill on Earth."

There are also some striking parallels between the Op's employer, Elihu Willsson, and William A. Clark, though Clark had moved to New York by the time Hammett would have visited Butte and only occasionally returned to Butte. The last of Butte's three great Copper Kings, Clark had started out as a schoolteacher in Missouri and ended up one of the wealthiest men in America before his death in 1925./25/ Having made a fortune founded on his mining holdings in Butte and elsewhere, Clark successfully pursued his dream of becoming a U.S. Senator, though his flagrant use of bribery caused a major scandal, which cost him his Senate seat. Clark's many Butte holdings included a local newspaper and a bank, both of which appear in the story. Further, in Red Harvest, Willsson's son has a French wife, while in real life, William A. Clark's second wife was a much younger French-Canadian woman who had been his ward and whom he had had educated in France./26/

In addition to a wisecracking protagonist who is tough, direct, and amusing, "she [Dinah] was mixing gin, vermouth and orange bitters in a quart shaker, not leaving a lot of space for them to move around in," Hammett also peopled his novel with several disreputable characters reflecting Butte's ethnic diversity, including a corrupt police chief named Noonan, a bootlegger named Pete the Finn, and a criminal dandy named "Whisper" Thaler./27/ But the most memorable character in Red Harvest, besides the protagonist, is the convent-educated Dinah Brand, "a soiled dove,... a de luxe hustler, and a big-league gold-digger, " who supplies the Op with information that helps him to destroy Poisonville's criminal power structure./28/ If she can't be tied to a single real Butte character, Dinah can certainly be said to represent a class of women with whom the city was richly endowed.

Butte was said to have one of the largest red light districts in the country, rivaling those of New Orleans and San Francisco. Perhaps one of the most fascinating testimonials to Butte's prostitutes comes from Charlie Chaplin's Autobiography, in which he explains:

The red-light district of Butte, Montana, consisted of a long street and several side streets containing a hundred cribs.... Butte boasted of having the prettiest women of any red-light district in the West, and it was true. If one saw a pretty girl smartly dressed, one could rest assured she was from the red-light quarter, doing her shopping. Off duty, they looked neither right nor left and were most respectable./29/

The district that Chaplin describes was officially closed down by city officials in January of 1917, only to resume operation more discretely. Some of the women simply moved into adjacent neighborhoods, and prostitutes appeared in speakeasies along with other "liberated women" during Prohibition./30/

Why Hammett didn't simply call Personville "Butte" is an intriguing question. Many other novelists have accurately identified the places they wrote about, and Hammett would later set The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco without attempting to disguise the location. Perhaps, as a former undercover operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Hammett considered revealing too much about his previous assignments a breach of confidentiality. Or he may have felt that his fictional locale was really too exaggerated, like the distorted image in a fun house mirror, to be identified as Butte, Montana.


In conclusion, the answers to the opening questions would seem to be that:

  1. Dashiell Hammett appears to have visited Butte as an undercover Pinkerton operative in 1920, and possibly in 1917, to help the Anaconda Company deal with the local miners' union and the IWW;
  2. Though a modern city, Butte was still very much "wide open" when Hammett saw it; and
  3. Red Harvest contains numerous allusions, both direct and oblique, to Butte, which identify it as the inspiration for the novel's setting.

While there remain unanswered questions, such as where he lived in the city and what name he used as an undercover agent, these are intriguing topics for further research. Some readers expect to find in the novel a photographic image of Butte at the beginning of the Prohibition era. That's not what Hammett presents; instead, like a true artist, he has created a fictional Butte, darker, more sinister, and more dangerous than the real Butte, and as such, the perfect setting for a story that would become an early noir classic.

The city that Hammett observed was one of the West's most colorful places and provided ample material to stimulate the young writer's imagination. Butte's depiction in Red Harvest was not its only moment of celebrity, as it has appeared in a succession of novels and films, both before and after the publication of Hammett's novel. The legendary mining camp continues to attract writers, painters, and film-makers, while Hammett's vivid, if unflattering, portrait of the city in its heyday remains one of the most memorable locales in detective fiction.


  1. Lillian Hellman, Three (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1979), 613-614.[Back]
  2. Jo Hammett, A Daughter Remembers, eds. Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001), 32.[Back]
  3. Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration, Copper Camp (New York: Hastings House, 1943), 292-293.[Back]
  4. Mary Murphy, Mining Cultures: Men, Women, and Leisure in Butte, 1914-41 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 16.[Back]
  5. John Astle, Only in Butte: Stories off the Hill (Butte: Holt Publishing Group, 2004), 188.[Back]
  6. Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration, 294.[Back]
  7. John Astle, 202-203.[Back]
  8. Lillian Hellman, 613-614.[Back]
  9. Jo Hammett, 170.[Back]
  10. Ibid., 59-60.[Back]
  11. Diane Johnson, Dashiell Hammett: A Life (New York: Random House, 1983), 25.[Back]
  12. Richard Layman, Shadow Man: The Life of Dashiell Hammett (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), 88.[Back]
  13. Jo Hammett, 31.[Back]
  14. Ibid., 35.[Back]
  15. Burton K. Wheeler and Paul F. Healy, Yankee from the West (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 64.[Back]
  16. Mary Murphy, 4-9.[Back]
  17. Ibid., 44.[Back]
  18. H.R.F. Keating, Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988), 35; Sean McCann, Gumshoe America: Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction and the Rise and Fall of New Deal Liberalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000), 96.[Back]
  19. Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest, in Dashiell Hammett: Five Complete Novels (New York: Avenel Books, 1980), 3.[Back]
  20. Ibid., 3.[Back]
  21. Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration, 245.[Back]
  22. Ibid., 18-19.[Back]
  23. Dashiell Hammett, 3-5.[Back]
  24. Ibid., 29.[Back]
  25. Michael P. Malone, The Battle for Butte: Mining and Politics on the Northern Frontier, 1864-1906 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), 13, 199-200.[Back]
  26. William Daniel Mangam, Biography of Copper King W. A. Clark and His Tarnished Family (Butte, Montana: Old Butte Publishing, 2007), 82-84.[Back]
  27. Dashiell Hammett, 88.[Back]
  28. Ibid., 16.[Back]
  29. Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 128.[Back]
  30. Ellen Baumler, "Devil's Perch: Prostitution from Suite to Cellar in Butte, Montana," Montana: The Magazine of Western History (Autumn 1998): 17.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 18.2 Spring 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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