Murder of a City, Tacoma: Chapter 4

Coverage of the rare book Murder of a City, Tacoma, starts here.

I’m changing the format of how I write about this book. Reception (and just plain attention) for my blogging on this literary work of weird American history has been much better than I anticipated. I’m very grateful for that, but the narrative form I’d been using was just too time-consuming.

So, I’ve decided to use my technical writing skills and switch it up. I genuinely believe this will better serve most readers, too. You’re here just for the information, so I’ll cut the fluff and get to it. If you’re interested enough at the end, there will be longform content aplenty when I write the book on Crisman.

So, with no further ado, I present Murder of a City, chapter 4:

Murder of a City, Tacoma, Chapter 4 Summary

In this chapter, Crisman mainly expands on painting the political situation of the era, as he sees it. His main concern is with the Soviet Communist element he believes is trying to subvert U.S. culture. For the first time that he recalls, he mentions also that there is also a Far Right element that is far too extreme for his “plebian” tastes.

The political war really ramps up when Slim Rasmussen is denied his bid to replace Rowlands by a 5 to 4 City Council bid.

The Tacoma News Tribune, which Crisman continues to paint as the most nefarious player in this saga, launches a smear campaign to label Rasmussen a racist.

Rasmussen never says anything definitive, but the implication is that he’s ready to counter-punch.

Points of Central Importance in Chapter 4

  • Crisman describes more about politician (including future Tacoma mayor) A.L. Rasmussen, but in doing so reveals more about one of his peculiar tendencies. Rasmussen is unerringly idealized in every representation.
    Whether it’s intentional on Crisman’s part (meaning, if Murder of a City was indeed a work of straight-up propaganda and not a legitimate journalistic account) or simply an aspect of his character, everyone in the book is described in the extreme. They’re either morally perfect or completely reprehensible, heroes or villains, no in between.
  • Crisman claims Rasmussen was a liberal and a Democrat, but that he wasn’t “Far Left” enough to satisfy his political opponents, and so was smeared by the Tacoma New Tribune.
  • The city council is narrowly split (5 to 4) on whether to use the City Management form of governance, or to go with the minority Rasmussen-led alliance.
  • Crisman reveals his greater fears of the influence of Communism on American life of the 1960s. He is unambiguous in his assertion that this influence is intentionally malicious and designed to undermine American society.
  • Crisman leaves us with his meeting with Rasmussen. Crisman has come to let him know that his enemies are labeling him a racist in order to destroy his reputation. Rasmussen twirls in his seat and says, “If this goes on…” without finishing the sentence.

Important/Interesting Lesser Points of Murder of a City, Tacoma, Chapter 4

  • The parallels with recent American history have become almost freakish. As Crisman prepares to take on the establishment with his pirate radio station, á la Alex Jones, he declares, “It never really occurred to [The Tacoma News Tribune] that they could lose this election.”
    Replace The Tacoma News Tribune with CNN or MSNBC, and you’ve got 2016 all over again (but 50 years earlier).
  • Crisman reasserts that he did nothing to help Rasmussen’s campaign, despite rumors that he did indeed write all of his material. This can be true, or it can again fit into the opposite narrative (I strive to avoid speculation in this stage of research), and in doing so fit another possible tendency of Crisman’s: coming out first with derogatory or inflammatory accusations about himself (rather than hiding them) and thereby controlling the narrative.
    While I’m not a politician (thank God), my understanding is that this technique is fairly common among those in that world.
  • Marshall Riconosuito returns, with Crisman explaining that he’d been assigned urban renewal adviser.
  • Crisman and KAYE radio arrange to live-broadcast all city council meetings, which prevents them from continuing to slant their decisions without justification.
  • Interesting, opinionated perspective on the now-ubiquitous but then-new field of “human relations” (or HR as we mostly know it as today). “For the most part,” Crisman says, “these boards simply worsened conditions as they arose and stirred up problems that never existed.”
  • Crisman gives Lynn Hodges a backhanded complement by saying that rumors of his Communist affiliation had to be untrue because, “he was never capable of the self-discipline that a good, well-trained Communist must have.” In looking up Hodges, I found on the Tacoma Historical Society website that Hodges was named first executive director of human relations for the city of Tacoma on May 31, 1967. Crisman seems to be earnestly defending the man’s reputation, saying there’s no way he’s a Communist.
  • Crisman says that he finds himself unwanted by both sides of the war, because he isn’t extreme enough for the Far Right and is ideologiclaly opposed to the Communist Far Left. He continues to assert that he is not part of any side of the conflict. He just wants justice.

Murder of a City, Tacoma: Chapter 3, Enter Jim Nichols

(Coverage of Murder of a City, Tacoma, starts here.)

All conspiracy theories and questions of credibility aside, Fred Crisman could flat-out write. Murder of a City, Tacoma is well paced and penned with conviction.

Crisman was a convincing writer, and he had a good feel for pacing. Murder of a City picks up at a slow but consistent boil from the introduction through to chapter 3.

Crisman starts the chapter meeting old friend Miller Stevens at the New Yorker “restaurant.” In looking this up, I’m pretty sure Crisman was referring to a place remembered today as the New Yorker nightclub, not restaurant. University of Puget Sound has some images from the club.

Crisman explains that Stevens is a Gypsy (which he capitalizes), and then goes on to talk about how Gypsies were being abused by the city of Tacoma. According to Crisman, social systems had been enacted for all other demographics, but the Gypsies had been left out.

Also here, for the first time, Crisman mentions that he was a teacher. I noted in my coverage of chapter 1 that I previously found this to be a curious omission, as Crisman’s firing from his position just prior to the events of Murder of a City seemed very intriguing. He’d been accused of starting a secret society among students, which, if true, says a great deal about the guy.

Regardless, Crisman talks about Gypsies for a while and proudly declares that Stevens considered him to be the best “gadjo” (non-Gypsy) he’d ever met.

Crisman says that he helped Stevens write an education plan for the Tacoma Gypsy population, and that this plan won funding by the order of $6700, which in today’s dollars is about $51,000.

Crisman says the education plan was successful but not renewed. So, Stevens, encouraged by Crisman, decides to go straight to Washington D.C. to make people aware of the problem and to continue getting the funding they need.

This is where things get interesting.

Stevens comes to Crisman to say that figures in Washington D.C. warned him to stay away from Crisman, saying they had “black and white proof” of Crisman’s poor character. Stevens is nervous and doesn’t know what to do.

Crisman advises Stevens to have these people meet him at his home. Crisman then goes and stakes out the location. When the two men arrive, Crisman follows them inside.

The men are identified as Bob Lee, a “public relations” man, and Edd Jeffords, Tacoma News-Tribune reporter.

Jeffords appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, among other placesHe was the fine arts editor for the Tribune.

Crisman confronts the men, and they confess to having none of the “black and white” proof they’d promised. Crisman throws the men out of the house.

In reviewing the situation, Crisman surmises that the Tacoma establishment must have been angry that he and Stevens had gone straight to D.C. to rectify the injustices being done to Tacoma’s Gypsy population.

Crisman slips in a note that Lee and Jeffords were telling people that Crisman had been skimming money from the aforementioned Gypsy education program. Crisman brushes this off, claiming officials knew that Lee was a “liar” and Jeffords was just a “cheap hippie-in-residence.”

Crisman now feels thoroughly crucified by the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma News-Tribune. He hears of a Canadian-turned-U.S.-citizen named Jim Nicholls, a “man of integrity.”

Nicholls runs KAYE radio in Puyallup, which is a few miles outside Tacoma. Nicholls also has a history of running programs outside the mainstream, and of confronting the same powers-that-be that have tormenting Crisman.

The two decide to do something about it. Their alliance is formed, and the die is cast.

The chapter closes with Crisman walking into the studio for his first Murder of a City broadcast, truly setting his information war in motion. History is now ready to be made.

Murder of a City, Tacoma: Chapter 2

In chapter 1 of Murder of a City, Tacoma, our mysterious pal Fred L. Crisman introduced us to the cast of characters that will play important roles later in our book. Chapter 2 is where the story really begins.

Chapter 2 of Murder of a City has Crisman riding around Tacoma with Marshall Riconosciuto, head of Riconosciuto Advertising Agency. The drive is uneventful, but it gives Crisman the chance to tell us about his hometown of Tacoma as he saw it…or, at least, as he wants us to think he saw it.

The writing feels very sincere, I will say. Crisman seems to be earnestly troubled by the state of corruption and ruin his hometown has fallen into. He blames the state of the city unambiguously on the City Management form of governance.

One interesting side note that may interested Tacomans is that Crisman discusses the now-(in)famous Hilltop neighborhood as being a new thing. He says it was once called the K-Street neighborhood and was only changed to the Hilltop in the years he’d been away.

We also meet a new character in the form of Burt McMurtie, “radio genius.” He was a local media personality known his “It Seems to Me…” and “Breakfast with McMurtrie” radio programs. I’ll be digging up what I can on Mr. McMurtie, as he sounds like an interesting character and an important part of Tacoma history.

McMurtrie agrees with Crisman’s opinion that Tacoma has gone to hell because of corrupt governance.

The chapter ends with Crisman trying to speak with David Rowlands, City Manager. He can’t get an audience with the man, and he finishes the chapter saying:

“I was sincerely sorry he would not speak with me. Maybe it is of no consequence. Again maybe the history of Tacoma would have been on a different note and even changed, if Rowlands had had a few minutes so spare a seeking man!”

“…if only…”

If that sounds vaguely like a threat, it’s because it basically is. From here, one of the nastiest political wars in Washington state history will begin.

 

Murder of a City, Tacoma: Chapter 1

(Coverage of Murder of a City, Tacoma starts here.)

Murder of a City, Tacoma: Chapter 1

“After an extended absence during which I traveled about the nation, I returned to Tacoma for what I supposed was to be a short visit of a few weeks.”
—Fred L. Crisman, Murder of a City, Tacoma, p. 1

Chapter 1 of Murder of a City, Tacoma has Fred L. Crisman explaining how he found himself embroiled in one of the hottest political wars in Washington state history. It is, of course, his own account of what happened, and I’ve become increasingly suspicious of Crisman’s history the more I’ve researched it. However, in the spirit initiated in my starting coverage of this book, I will keep editorial comments to a minimum and let this book’s story speak for itself.

Newspaper clipping commenting on the firing of Crisman.
This clip explains that Crisman was fired from his position as a teacher at Cascade Union High School for starting a “secret society” among students. This was provided to me by Kirk K.

As one quick aside, however, I can’t allow the quote at the start of this post go without mentioning one very interesting bit I uncovered regarding this story. It was passed on to me by a fellow who only wants to be identified as Kirk K.

Kirk K. has been instrumental in my uncovering the full breadth of Crisman’s fascinating, bizarre history—a history that interconnects with many other fascinating, bizarre stories.

One thing Kirk uncovered was that Crisman was fired from a teaching position in Cascade High School for (get ready for it…) starting a secret society among students.

I shit you not, folks. As with much of Crisman’s life, this factoid is unbelievable-but-true. If it wasn’t for the newspaper clipping, I wouldn’t believe it myself, and I wouldn’t expect you to, either.

This occurred in 1966, which would have been just before the events of Murder of a City. I suspect Crisman was “travelling around the country” because he’d just been fired, though as of yet I cannot confirm that.

Enter Fred L. Crisman

In recounting what brought him back to Tacoma, Crisman says he’d come home to Tacoma to help care for his sick mother. He doesn’t identify her exact ailment, but says it required extensive surgery. After his mother regained health, Crisman elected to stay in the city.

Crisman explains that he had been a Special Investigator in Washington with the State Department of Veteran’s Affairs in 1946–47. This was how he made many contacts that would later show up again in the events recounted in Murder of a City.

His job, he says, was to investigate people who were ripping off veterans. In discussing this work, he also mentions that he was released from the military as a fighter pilot just before taking the assignment.

Here, Crisman begins introducing us to the characters that will play important roles in our story.

Enter Walt West

The first character we meet is Walt West, head of the Tacoma Better Business Bureau.

Crisman vaguely explains that he encountered West after being assigned to investigate him, but says that West had tried to flip the script and told everyone that it was actually he that was investigating Crisman.

Crisman doesn’t explain what either supposed investigation was for.

“What in the world has happened to this town?”
—Fred L. Crisman, Murder of a City, Tacoma

As he begins launching into these details of people involved, Crisman also bewails the state of Tacoma. Not just its physical condition (which was at that time in history a practical ruin by all accounts), but also the depth of corruption.

Enter Julio Grassi

One of the heroes we meet is Julio Grassi, car-dealership owner and a man Crisman calls his friend. Grassi is being sued by the State of Washington for “high-crimes.”

Crisman’s claim is that all the charges against Grassi were bunk and could have been leveled against any car salesman if the state chose to target them. They were routine occurrences that Grassi was being harassed for because he’d publicly supported a political opponent of the sitting establishment.

It was all a political hit job, more or less.

The main villain representing the State of Washington in this concern was attorney general John J. O’Connell, a man Crisman promises us will show up again throughout the book.

At the end of the trial, the state can’t get Grassi on anything except for not having the letters “O.A.C.” on his car dealership sign. These letters were an acronym for “On Approval of Credit.” The city required that they be included to clarify the “No Money Down” part of Grassi’s sign.

It’s a legal and moral victory for Grassi.

In every other way, though, it will prove to be a loss.

Enter the Tacoma News-Tribune

“There would come a time when I would believe that the men that operate the Tacoma News-Tribune were and are capable of any crime against their fellow man that can be thought of and acted upon.”
–Crisman

Though Grassi escaped the courts, he was brought down by a vicious slander campaign by the Tacoma News-Tribune (remember this is just Crisman’s account and has not verified).

Grassi’s reputation is so ruined that his business begins to suffer dramatically. He begs Crisman to take it over legally so as to deflect the bad publicity. Crisman initially refuses, but after reading yet another slandering article and becoming fed up with the injustice, he agrees.

Crisman then leaves town for a bit to write a story in California. He’s quite vague about this topic and doesn’t say much beyond, “and it was [a story] that I was to hear of, and still do hear of, from the lips of some of the real ‘kook’ fringe that live in and about the ‘Far right’ in Tacoma.”

Crisman returns to Tacoma to find that he’s now being slandered as a Mafia rat in league with Grassi, who himself has long been identified as a Mafia rat (totally unjustifiably so, in Crisman’s account…just another part of the slander campaign).

Enter Marshall Riconosciuto

This is where we meet the person of Marshall Riconosciuto, who Crisman calls “an odd guy” and “the perfect version of the ‘hustler’ in business.'”

Riconosciuto runs Riconosciuto Advertising Agency. He’s an old friend of Crisman’s from “right after” World War II. His advertising agency specializes in political campaigns.

Riconosciuto, according to Crisman, also expanded into “wholesale drug supplies and he operated a small lab where certain common drugs were bottled under a variety of house names.” It’s an exceedingly odd “side business” to have, but everything about this story is exceedingly odd.

Enter Slim Rasmussen

Rounding out our cast of characters is A.L. Slim Rasmussen, “one of the most honest people I have ever met,” as Crisman describes him. “He was soon to be Mayor of Tacoma and the real wars of the City Management would begin.”

After introducing us to Rasmussen, Crisman places us in scene with Riconosciuto.

“What in hell has happened to Tacoma?” Crisman asks.

“City Management,” Riconosciuto answers in rather dramatic fashion.

Crisman wants more answers, so Riconosciuto offers to drive him around Tacoma and explain.

With that, Crisman gets into Riconosciuto’s car, and we head into Chapter 2.

Music History Done Right: Peter Blecha and Sonic Boom

Any second-rate hack can mash a group of facts together into a book. Fortunately, Peter Blecha is no such hack, and Sonic Boom is no such book.

Blecha’s Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from “Louis Louie” to “Smells Like Teen Spirit daisy-chains the stories together into one cohesive narrative. From Richard Berry to grunge, Blecha shows how each artist and each artist’s era flowed into the next, borrowed from the past, and built something brand new.

I read music history books on the regular. Glancing over to my bookshelf right now I see Waging Heavy Peace (Neil Young), Songs in the Key of Z, Bruce (Springsteen), and Testimony (Robbie Robertson)…among others.

As someone with such an absurd number of music books, I can say that Blecha’s Sonic Boom is one of my very favorites, and not just because I live in the Northwest, nor because I came of age in the grunge era. It’s just a damn good book.

After reading Sonic Boom, I realized that Nirvana and grunge didn’t erupt out of a vacuum. The Northwest music scene has always been categorized by a gritty individualism. It’s got a garage-rock heart, and it’s always had a garage-rock heart.

Aberdeen, Washington: Not the Lying-Down Kind

Now, when I listen to Louie Louie, I hear its premonitions of Smells Like Teen Spirit, and when I listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit, I hear the ghost-strings of Louie Louie. As a lover of history, that is the thing that I most appreciate about Blecha’s work.

In examining the Northwest musical currents, Blecha reveals the heart of the whole region. It’s this glowering, laughing thing in wet overalls covered in wood chips. It’s got a brilliant smile full of missing teeth. It’s carved out of granite and fog and sewn together with train rails.

You can’t get what the book’s got to give simply by looking up the individual parts on Wikipedia. I sound like a car salesman but I don’t know Blecha and this isn’t content marketing. It’s just how I feel.

Blecha’s a real writer in an age of hacks (this includes me). Read his book. It’s a good one.