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Bits of History and Historical Fiction

The bootlegger cop

Roy Olmstead with his wife and partner in crime, Elise, 1925. She had worked for British intelligence during the First World War (courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

6 Autos and 9 Men Held in Roundup ran the March 22, 1920 headline in the Seattle Times. The story breathlessly reported how federal agents had laid an "elaborate trap" to catch bootleggers—whose ringleader was Roy Olmstead, a Seattle police lieutenant.


Olmstead had spent a decade on the force, working his way up from clerk. He'd also been running liquor ever since Washington had passed a dry law in 1916, four years before national Prohibition. His arrest cost him his job and a $500 fine, a sizable sum in those days. So he became a full-time bootlegger.


I ran across these details while researching my novel Lonely Are the Brave (see Forthcoming Fiction), which takes place in 1919, and in which the state's dry law influences the story. But Olmstead deserves a closer look.


Unusual among bootleggers, he forbade his employees to carry weapons and imported his liquor from Canada, rather than make his own. But he ran a large organization, difficult to keep secret, and in 1925, the feds arrested him again. This time, he went to prison.


However, they had obtained evidence through a wiretap put in place without a warrant, and he appealed the verdict. In 1928, his landmark case, Olmstead v. United States, reached the Supreme Court, which ruled, 5-4, that his constitutional rights had not been violated. FDR pardoned him in 1935.

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The Northwest Woods

Pub date April 2023!

When Theodore Roosevelt signed the American Antiquities Act of 1906, the law granted him and successive presidents the power to create national parks and set aside forest lands. During his presidency, he preserved 150 national forests, totaling 150 million acres, and created the U.S. Forest Service to administer them.


Ever since, Washington has benefited greatly. I'm comforted to know that my home state's magnificent forests are protected under law and count as a delightful respite from city life the hours I've spent hiking in them, watching birds, and listening to flowing creeks and waterfalls. When I see a tree trunk measuring yards in diameter, as in the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, I stand in awe; I'm looking at a living monument older than many events that have shaped the modern world. And when I crest a steep hill in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and view a sun-dappled valley where wispy fog burns off at the treetops, I'm glad to be alive.


I've tried to portray wonder at and love for natural beauty in Lonely Are the Brave, my novel set in a fictional Washington logging town in 1919. Both main characters love the woods as their Northwest heritage; the irony, which they recognize, is that one's a former home builder turned woodworker, and the other's an heiress to a timber fortune.


I'm pleased to share the cover, above, which I hope conveys the novel's spirit.

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An Account of One's Own

Clarksville, TN, where this late nineteenth-century building serves as a visitor center, was home to the first American bank run by women, 1919 (courtesy Jugarum, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


In an early draft, I had one of my main characters, Kay Sorensen, open a bank account in 1917 while her husband's away serving in the army. I thought it only natural, since she's working for her father's timber company and dreams of a business career.


Then I happened on an appalling historical fact: almost every state in the Union required a man's cosignature before a woman could open a bank account. At that time, Tennessee may have been the only exception.


My research discovery supports a feminist theme of the novel and handed me a point of conflict when Kay's husband returns from Over There; so much the better. But I was shocked to learn that the laws remained on the books until the 1960s.


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Song of Worry

Albert Wilfred Barbelle's sheet music cover, 1919 (courtesy  http://libx.bsu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/ShtMus/id/725, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


After the Armistice in November 1918, Americans worried that exposure to big, bad Europe would change (corrupt?) their boys. A hit song of 1919 addressed that fear: "How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?" In the song, which strikes a lighthearted mood, a farmer grins slyly as he tells his wife their boy will come back restless, thirsting for what he's glimpsed in France.


But you have to ask whether the father's good-humored acceptance reflects rural attitudes or those of city slickers who wrote popular music.


The slickers in question were composer Walter Donaldson and lyricists Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis; the publisher was Waterson, Berlin & Snyder Co.—Berlin, as in Irving Berlin, who gave us "Easter Parade," "White Christmas," "Cheek to Cheek," and a bazillion other standards.


"How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em" appeared on the vaudeville stage and at the Ziegfeld Follies; an early jazz band, James Reese Europe's 369th Infantry Band, performed the song regularly and cut a hit record. Two well-known singers followed suit.


But not every soldier thought Europe a swell place (or, as Twenties slang later would have it, the gnat's eyebrows). In April 1919, the Seattle Times interviewed a Washington infantryman who said he was glad to come home to a "real country" and criticized the Belgians for not "dressing like us" and "clinging to their old ways."


However, if he ever wished to buy an alcoholic drink or a condom, he might have paused to reconsider Europe's advantages: Both transactions were criminal acts in his home state.


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The 1918-19 Pandemic

Poster from the Rensselaer County Tuberculosis Association, Troy, New York, 1918 (courtesy National Library of Medicine)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


My protagonist, Rollie, returns from war in April 1919 a widower, because his wife has recently died from what people mistakenly call the "Spanish flu."


The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which infected some 500 million people worldwide, of whom at least 50 million died, killed 675,000 Americans. According to historical analysis by the CDC, mortality ran high in very young children, adults from ages twenty to forty, and those above sixty-five.


The twenty-to-forty age group illustrates how returning soldiers and sailors spread the disease, whether in military encampments or among the civilian population. Washington State was no exception, as two naval training stations and the most important army camp were hotbeds of infection.


Seattle officials at first downplayed the danger, after which they issued ordinances banning social gatherings, shutting theaters, closing schools, and instructing police to enforce the laws against spitting on the street. When these measures failed to slow the spread, the city's leaders, thundering against the populace, enacted further restrictions and threatened fines for infractions.


For instance, if you wanted to ride a trolley, you had to wear a mask, and the mask must have at least six thicknesses, rather than the usual four. Acid commentary ensued. After all, if nobody understood the disease, how could anyone say how thick the mask should be?


The criticism underlined how powerless medical science was. With typical bravado, the city's leading health authority trumpeted the effectiveness of influenza serum, which, in fact, provided little or no protection. Further, if the flu virus didn't kill its victims, opportunistic bacterial infections might, and in those days, no antibiotics existed.


Nevertheless, the infection rate petered out. The disease did rebound in December for another month or two; announcements of weddings and funerals held in homes rather than houses of worship suggest how people coped with the ban on public functions. Toward the end of February 1919, the plague vanished from Seattle, having killed an estimated 1,400 among a population of 315,000, a relatively low mortality rate. Other cities were less lucky.


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Parenting Advice, WWI Era

Luther Emmett Holt, MD, eminent pediatrician, championed pasteurization, unusual for his time, and eugenics, a more mainstream position (undated photograph courtesy National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


My protagonist, Rollie Birch, returns from Over There in 1919 and scandalizes the town that reveres him as a war hero by choosing to raise his infant daughter by himself. So I looked for a parenting book from those years to see what advice the experts were dishing out.


The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children's Nurses, appeared in multiple editions before, during, and after the war, the most popular guide of its time. The author, L. Emmett Holt, MD, offered rigorous instructions for pasteurizing raw milk—the only kind available—at 155˚ F. for thirty minutes, in which case you had to use it within twenty-four hours, or boiled one hour, in which case the milk would keep two or three weeks.


Either way, the stuff must have tasted mighty appetizing. Such were the days before flash heating, but you had no choice; back then, so many babies died from milk containing pathogens.


As for hands-on childcare, Holt counseled feeding on a strict schedule and deplored the instinct to pick up a fussing infant; no healthy baby, he averred, would cry for more than twenty minutes. (Rollie's daughter ignores this rule.) Further, the doctor warned against playing with children younger than six months, which would make them nervous and irritable, and disliked the notion of playing with infants at all.


Perhaps not surprisingly, he cautioned against kissing infants, even on the cheek or forehead, for fear of transmitting diphtheria, tuberculosis, syphilis, and other diseases.


Rollie reads this and laughs.

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Firing a Seattle Teacher

Men registering for the draft, New York City, June 5, 1917 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Here's another nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


In late February 1919, the Seattle Times reported that someone had run an advertisement attacking a West Seattle High School history teacher for being a "Hun" and "un-American." The first charge almost certainly stemmed from ignorance concerning his name; he was Swiss, not German. As for his "Americanism," he had declined to salute the flag, a refusal he ascribed to the ceremony itself, and which he'd later recanted.


However, he was also an avowed conscientious objector; his enemies said he "fed ideas" to his classes.


A blind poll among his ninety or so students showed a twenty-to-one margin of support. Nevertheless, the school board fired him, saying that they couldn't have a conscientious objector as a teacher; what if everyone had been a conscientious objector when the nation declared war?


The newspaper reports leave much unsaid, as they always do. But you sense that the teacher's real crime was encouraging his students to think critically, which the vast majority appreciated.


What's more, according to the Selective Service Act of 1917 and its revisions, he'd most likely done nothing wrong. If he'd passed his thirtieth birthday, he wouldn't have had to register for the draft until mid-September 1918, and not at all if he'd reached the age of forty-five. Further, failing to register would have attracted attention and left him open to punishment, yet the newspaper reports said nothing about this. Finally, the act did allow for conscientious objection, though only on religious grounds.


Consequently, I'm guessing this teacher's viewpoint was entirely theoretical, maybe spoken of in class to spark discussion. With nothing else to hang him for, his enemies fixed on it, and the school board went along.


So much for academic freedom and the war to make the world safe for democracy.

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"Destroy This Mad Brute"

H. R. Hopps, 1917 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Building on my previous post about the Seattle parade and propaganda efforts, here's more historical background for my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


Many recruiting posters in Britain and the United States appealed to men by addressing the masculine imperative to protect women. But the one shown here pulls out all the stops.


"Destroy This Mad Brute" posits a savage gorilla wearing a spiked helmet that says, "Militarism," wielding a club labeled "Kultur" (frequently translated as "civilization"), and abducting a fair-haired woman. She, for once, isn't wearing white, and you can't see her face, a concealment perhaps intended to spare her; or conversely underline her humiliation; or leave the viewer free to imagine her as a loved one. Further, the invader advances menacingly, having already torched American shores to cinders. The single word "Enlist" sends the message.


For starters, I find it sad and utterly misguided how humans can cast other primates as savage, when we're the ones to machine-gun and bomb each other; but gorillas, essentially peaceable, shy creatures, have long suffered a bad rap (witness King Kong). The German Army had abandoned the admittedly ludicrous (and impractical) spiked helmet by 1916, but for some reason, it became an emblem of brutality, and American propagandists loved it.


As for "militarism," responsible for the invasion and destruction of neutral Belgium, that's the lone scrap of truth. But, as I noted in a previous post, legal and moral arguments lack visceral appeal. Ridiculous as it sounds today, the suggestion that the German Army raped its way across Europe and would somehow cross the Atlantic to repeat the crime found its adherents.


The story of this poster didn't end there. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Hitler's chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels, rolled out this same illustration, with different text, to inoculate the German public against foreign charges of atrocities.


More to come.

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The Young Women in White

Schneck, 1917, Acme Litho. Co. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Building on last week's post about the Seattle parade, here's more historical background for my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


In the parade, the white horses, white flower petals, and young women in white dresses all played to symbolism of feminine purity. Why?


Not for the first time in history, but in a context particular to the First World War, belligerents sought to persuade their able-bodied male citizens that they must fight to save womanhood. The idea pervaded recruitment propaganda in Britain and the United States, likely because neither country had been invaded, and so had no self-evident reason to defend itself.


When Congress declared war in April 1917, American recruiters had to rouse a nation comfortably at peace. To do so, they evoked wartime events that had not budged neutrality one inch when they happened but were now recast to prompt every man to do his duty or risk being called less than a man. A key reference point was the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.


While the invasion was taking place, the press failed to convey its true horror and went for the sensational. Though the invaders executed thousands of Belgian civilians, committing arson and pillage, alleged rapes and mutilations of nuns, women, and young girls were what made headlines. Even as American newspapers exploited these lurid stories for the shock value, most reserved judgment, doubting that the disciplined German Army could have permitted such outrages.


Then, in May 1915, a German submarine sank the liner Lusitania, killing almost 1200 people, including 128 Americans. In what amounted to a publicist's perfect storm, a week later, the British government published an official account of the Belgian invasion atrocities, mentioning the firing squads, burning, and looting but playing up accusations of rapes and mutilation, which rested on hearsay evidence from unsworn witnesses.


That lapse went largely unnoticed, and the report electrified American opinion. If the Germans could sink the Lusitania, mightn't they have committed sexual atrocities in Belgium? Isolationists could argue that was still none of America's business, but the perceived outrages wouldn't go away. For instance, The New York Tribune, a pro-Allied paper, printed a drawing of a widowed Belgium comforting a weeping Miss Columbia. The caption suggests attitudes common to the time: "At Least They Only Drown Your Women."


Come 1917, then, American recruiters had no trouble tapping into beliefs about German atrocities and, tacitly or explicitly, using them to goad to action any man who called himself a man. The poster above, promoted by the Hollywood film industry, employs blatant sexual imagery, with a half-clad Miss Columbia--in white, of course.


But the propagandists were just getting started.


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Not Just a Parade

From the front page of the Seattle Times, April 26, 1919. Note the evergreen shoulder patch, emblem of the Wild West Division but, more important, the hero-worshiping sister/sweetheart/wife.




Here's a nugget I uncovered while researching my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.


To soak up the historical background, I read several months' worth of the Seattle Times from 1919 and learned about a parade in late April welcoming home some four hundred soldiers from Over There.


But it wasn't just a parade. It was as though a phalanx of hopes, attitudes, prejudices, expectations, and flat-out misconceptions marched through Seattle that day, not just men from the 361st Infantry Regiment, 91st ("Wild West") Division. And the pride, earnestness, gratitude, awkwardness, and ignorance on display provide a stew of conflict in which my protagonists, a man and a woman, have to swim.


The parade organizers mixed solemnity with "stunts," a word typically applied then to party games or entertainments. The soldiers, supposedly the stars of the show, made up the rear. Next came white horses drawing a large gold star, to commemorate the fallen. Farther up, young women in white rode the running boards of cars and strewed white flower petals along the route.


Ahead of them walked Elk Lodge brothers dressed in feather headdresses and war paint, while leading the column were police officers wearing chaps who fired off blanks from their pistols. Cowboys and Indians; a Wild West "stunt."


I tried beginning my novel with this scene and wound up cutting it. But my male protagonist is a soldier who thinks the hoopla insults his dead friends and wonders what country he's come home to. That newspaper article was a gold mine.


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