Hammett: Playing the Sap

Take out your copy of Jo Hammett’s Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers. Turn to page 34. We’re going to be dealing with the bottom photo on that page.

If you don’t have a copy of the book, this post spotlights a detail from the photo that will get the main point across. But if you think of yourself as a huge fan of Hammett, trust me, you need this title on your shelf — my honest opinion as a vocal partisan of the Continental Op series is that you need it just to brood over this shot of the future author of The Big Knockover standing in a train yard with what appears to be a crew of serious head-breakers.

To put the photo in perspective, before Jo’s book came out in 2001 there was exactly one known photo of Hammett from the period he worked for Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, calculated to be between 1915 and early 1922. Now we have almost a plethora, courtesy a rich cache of materials that turned up, all published for the first time in A Daughter Remembers. You can read about landing the haul on page 38 of her book, where you’ll find my name dropped into the narrative — out of all the moments where I’ve turned up as a footnote to history, I put that one near the top.

As Jo says in her caption for the photo, the background for the image is “a mystery. . . . This might be a picture of a Pinkerton’s work crew, possibly strikebreakers.” Where was the photo taken? Offhand, there is no way to say — the location isn’t noted on the back. Hammett worked as a Pinkerton’s man all across America, from Baltimore and points east to Butte, Montana and Spokane, Washington and points west. And, for all we know, points south, and anywhere in between. The setting of the photo appears to be flat, at least from the placement of the camera, with no possibly distinguishing mountain peaks in the distance. The train cars on the sidings in the background, where you’d hope for a railroad logo to show up under a magnifying glass, have no discernable markings. The only way I figure the location might be determined would rely on dumb luck, where someone might see the image one day and recognise one of the men — such as the giant standing at the far left — and from that piece of info the location could be doped out.

The giant is my favorite part of the image, the main reason I decided that the crew consisted of unmitigated head-breakers the moment Jo showed me the photo. Here stands a guy who is a real life incarnation of the monstrous thug Babe McCloor from Hammett’s story “Fly Paper,” published in Black Mask in 1929 — or proof that a character such as Moose Malloy from Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely actually walked the mean streets. I also appreciate the two black guys squatting in the foreground toward the right side of the group, an indicator that social barriers weren’t quite as rigid as some might think, if they could participate in whatever mayhem was afoot.

The other big clew that this isn’t an impromptu gathering of a church choir is the presence of the sticklike objects — in the full photo in Jo’s book you’ll notice several guys have them, and in the detail shot above two seated in the front row hold them. But most dramatically, check out the standing guy in the white shirt, lifting his stick in a sweeping salute, like one of the Three Musketeers. Obviously, a guy who enjoys his job.

In the detail you see five men standing in the back row. Hammett is third from the left, hands in pants pockets, with a space to give the guy with the stick some swinging-his-dead-cat room.

So, what are the sticks? None of us knew, though the possibilities seemed clear enough. And then I stumbled across a moment in the autobiographical You Can’t Win by Jack Black, first published in 1926, recording Black’s adventures as a hobo and a thief in the preceding decades — famed as William S. Burroughs’ favorite book, and with a cool San Francisco angle: when he was writing the book, Black was working for the Morning Call in San Francisco, in the building that still stands on the southwest corner of Third and Market. Black wrote:

Pocatello, at that time, was just a small railroad town. A famous stopping-off place for bums bound East, West, North and South. There was a grand jungle by a small, clean river where they boiled up their vermined clothes, or “rags” as they are always called, cooked their mulligans, or, if enough bums got together, held a “convention”. . . . The bums then began “pestering the natives” by begging and stealing till the whole town got sore.

The town marshal would then appear with a posse armed with “saps,” which is short for saplings, young trees. He stood guard with a shotgun, while the posse fell upon the convention and “sapped up” on those therein assembled and ran them down the railroad track and out of town.

So, in the era before the first World War, a posse of head-breakers would cut down some saplings and use them to beat the hell out of the hobo army infesting the train yards. Closest thing I personally have experienced to that, as someone who grew up in Tennessee, would be a parent tearing a switch off a bush and using it to whip a wild kid into line — same principle, a little less wood behind every blow.

By the time Hammett began writing his crime stories beginning in 1923, the general meaning of the term “sap” obviously had drifted over to refer to a black jack. And when Sam Spade tells Brigid that he won’t “play the sap” for her at the end of the Falcon, that suggests yet another meaning, of a sap as a sucker.

But now you know what the sticks in that photo were used for, and if anyone suggests to you that Hammett wasn’t a genuine tough guy living a hard-boiled life as a Pinkerton’s operative, show them the photo in Jo’s book and tell them to clam up.

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