Hammett: A Coda on Midget Bandit Week

Dwight as Wilmer

Shot above: the great Dwight Frye as Wilmer Cook in the first movie version of The Maltese Falcon, from 1931 — the only appearance on film of the character modeled on The Midget Bandit to screen in Edwin Ware’s lifetime.

Would Ware have seen this early Warner Brothers sound film? He might have — Warren Harris told us this week that

Sometime after 1930, surviving prison records don’t indicate exactly when, Ware was released. He obtained employment as a traveling salesman. But his time as a working man was short-lived. In February of 1933 he stuck up a gas station attendant in Seattle. He got away with only $10 and was arrested while trying to board a streetcar several blocks away.

Unless Ware was doing a short jolt in some local hoosegow while the movie was in release, he could have seen it if those dates are good — and if that sort of flick attracted his interest. Even then, I don’t think he would have recognized himself in the character — diminutive, mouthy, two guns, sure — but not tagged with the definitive moniker “The Midget Bandit.” The prisons were filled with small mouthy gunmen.

Even if Ware happened to read the actual novel in one of the Knopf printings, how would he have known that Wilmer was inspired by his California crime spree?

In his coverage of Hammett traveling to Stockton, a.k.a. Fresno, to interview The Midget Bandit, Warren hedges his wording to suggest that the future master of hard-boiled crime fiction could have picked up all the details he needed for the blurb about the stick-up artist just from newspaper accounts. Possibly. If you can’t say for sure, then you hedge your bets — and unlike today they didn’t have video cameras tracking every movement, to show Hammett as a Pinkerton’s op conducting a Q&A with Ware. (Warren is looking for any surviving records from the Fresno jail of visitors Ware may have had — if you have a sign-in log with some Hammett holograph in it, then there’ll be no need for any bet hedging.)

You could say that I have a need, or desire, for there to have been a meeting between Hammett and Ware, no possible question about it — The Midget Bandit anecdote, sewn up tight. I think in fact the meeting did take place, based on Hammett’s description in his introduction to the 1934 Modern Library reprint of the novel. Yes, many of those details could have been gleaned from newsprint of the day. But one line and one word —

he was serenely proud of the name the local newspapers had given him — The Midget Bandit

indicates that Hammett met the gunman. Serenely. Given the dope on Ware that Warren has provided, that word does the job for me.

But if Ware had no real shot at recognizing himself in either the book or film of The Maltese Falcon, how about the idea that Hammett could have remembered his name when it made print again in 1934 as one of the rioters in Walla Walla? Possibly. If he had seen newspaper coverage mentioning the name when he wasn’t drinking either in Hollywood or New York.

Ware’s death, by the way — completely in keeping with what was going on at the time. In the Hammett tour book, page 41, I do a catalog of death-by-lead-poisoning as a thumbnail on how violent the 1930s were: Bonnie and Clyde cut down May 23, 1934, then Dillinger in July, Pretty Boy Floyd in October and Baby Face Nelson in November. Ma Barker squeaked through until January 1935.

And now we know that The Midget Bandit led that particular parade, gunned down February 12 1934 and dead the next day.

Anything else? The note Midget sent the paper — someone who works in a crime lab (I know lots of people who work in crime labs) glanced at it and said: He’s using both hands to write the message. Yes, Ware no doubt was trying to disguise the writing, but switching back and forth that way suggests he may have been ambidextrous — which adds a nice spin to the reports that he used two guns. (Two guns, like Wilmer.)

Michael Fitzgerald of the Stockton Record did a blurb on Midget Bandit Week, breaking the news to his readers that Hammett misplaced the crime spree when he referred to Stockton. I remember when Fitzgerald ransacked the Stockton archives years ago, looking for evidence of The Midget Bandit, and came up empty. That’s what you have to do with research — dig and dig. What he proved was that The Midget Bandit had nothing to do with Stockton, despite what Hammett wrote.

I vaguely recall thinking at the time that the story of the runt gunman might still be true, but perhaps Hammett moved it to Stockton from another state entirely — who knows, maybe Delaware. Someplace. I was as surprised as anyone when Warren Harris located the action nearby, in Fresno.

And the question lingers: When Hammett wrote the intro to the 1934 Modern Library edition of the Falcon, did his memory simply play him tricks? Stockton instead of Fresno. Or was he disguising the location deliberately? We’ll probably never know.

After a solid week of posts on the life of The Midget Bandit, though, one thing we can be sure of is that Edwin Ware was in fact “serenely proud” of his nickname, and his exploits. He had become The Midget Bandit — and he liked it.

When Ware died early in 1934 he had no way of knowing that that same year Hammett would make him an immortal by telling the tale of The Midget Bandit in the introduction to the Modern Library edition of The Maltese Falcon. Ware died and faded from history, but generations of Hammett fans have had a fascination with his story, never knowing who exactly the story was about. . . .

The enigma held for some 85 years, until Warren Harris got on the case and connected the dots.

The Mystery of Edwin “The Midget Bandit” Ware has been solved.

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