Murder of a City, Tacoma: Introduction and Preface

My Plan to Chronicle Murder of a City, Tacoma

I’ve been trying to figure the best way to cover Murder of a City, Tacoma. The book is long out of print. As of this moment, I can’t find any copies for sale online. Thus, it appears I was highly fortunate to snap a copy of this weird slice of Tacoma history, and I want to share its contents with the public in the best manner possible.

Covering the book is no easy task, however. This wild little tale is packed full of information.

I fear that too broad an overview will be too shallow. Likewise, I fear that too detailed of a reading will bore readers back to their television screens. I’m a fan of “long form reading” (which I used to just call “reading”), but I’m a realist, and I understand that most readers these days want things in small chunks.

So, in that spirit, I’ll be covering one chapter of Murder of a City at a time, keeping each post under 1,500 words. This first post is slightly different, as the Introduction and Preface are short enough to cram into one story.

Disclaimer

I intend to write about Murder of a City, Tacoma, as it stands on its own two feet. Later I will dig into other historical accounts and test the veracity of Crisman’s story, but here, I’m just sharing what’s inside this rare book.

Murder of a City, Tacoma, is about a political war that took place in the late 1960s. It was written by one of the information soldiers in that war. As such, it’s full of mud-slinging and accusation.

Most, if not all, of the central characters are dead now. I’m not concerned about law suits. However, I want to make clear out of respect for the dead and out of the desire to preserve my own credibility, that I do not endorse any of Crisman’s claims (nor do I disavow them).

I’ll research and present what I find later. For now, I’m just covering what’s inside this book.

So, with no further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Murder of a City, Tacoma.

Murder of a City, Tacoma: Introduction

Dedication in Murder of a City, Tacoma. It reads "To Fred Crisman, Jr., who gave up his summer for "The Murder of a City." JGMurder of a City, Tacoma opens with Crisman’s dedication to his son. Here, you can see it signed “JG,” which refers to the author-name on the book’s cover: Jon Gold.

Jon Gold was a pseudonym used by Crisman, not only for this book but during the time written of in the took. The reason why he chose to go this pseudonymous route is explained in the Preface section below.

The book’s Introduction is one page written by Virginia Shackelford in August 1970. I’m not exactly sure who Shackelford was, but I did find someone with her name as a 1983 recipient of a Governor’s Arts and Heritage Award. If this is the same woman, I can’t be sure. I’ll dig more into this later.

Shackelford’s description of Gold/Crisman can only be described as “epic,” in the truest sense of the word.

“He burst like a bombshell upon the political scene,” Shackelford wrote. “Fast talking, abrasive, highly opinionated, aggressive…JON GOLD! He was a new radio commentator with an evening talk show, and he stirred immediate interest and aroused even more immediate support and opposition.”

She describes Gold’s talk show as having “fire and a drive that fascinated all who listened, whether they disagreed or agreed with his political stance.”

Shackelford then contrasts this description of a larger-than-life Gold against a much more pedestrian one of Crisman.

“Then…there is the man Fred L. Crisman. Quiet, soft-spoken, diffident by nature, he is totally different from his alter-ego, but, it is as Jon Gold that he will be remembered in Tacoma.”

Shackelford finishes her introduction by saying that Crisman gave her and the city of Tacoma hope.

“For those of us who had long fought to bring a more representative form of government to our torn city, and who had waged an almost impossible battle against a monopoly in the news media, Jon Gold became a fulcrum which helped us upset the balance of power and to give us some hope that we might triumph at long last.”

(To put these statements into context, one has to understand that Tacoma was to the 60s–90s what Detroit, Michigan, is to 2018…a corrupt, violent, economically depressed wasteland.)

Into this scene of ruin and despair charged one Fred L. Crisman, riding under an alter ego, as any good superhero should.

Dramatic stuff.

Trust me, though, the book only gets wilder.

Preface

The preface is written by Crisman himself, under the name Jon Gold. It’s his condemnation not only of the corruption of Tacoma specifically, but also about the inherent corruption of any form of “City Management.”

I don’t know exactly what, if any, classification Crisman would give his political belief system, but he’s clearly and unambiguously suspicious of government power. I suspect he’d call himself a Libertarian today, but I can’t be sure about that. His hatred for government seems so deep that for all I know he would have called himself a full-blown anarchist.

Crisman explains that the story told in Murder of a City happened between 1967 and 1970. He wastes little time before going on the attack.

“I have stated on radio, television, and in print that City Manager government is the most wasteful, inefficient, bumbling, and dishonest form of government ever devised by men for the grabbing of a dishonest dollar,” Crisman wrote.

“It is a pure dictatorship, and it is based on corruption,” he went on. “That may seem to be a strong statement, however, for a City Manager form of government to operate at all, it must have a compatibility between the controlling majority of the city council and the man picked as Manager of the city. Any city manager, worth his title, is aware that he must please that Majority to keep his job, and there is usually one thing in their mind that pleases them most of all and that is money!”

(To me, Crisman has an endearing habit of using exclamation marks quite profusely. Others may be put off by the style.)

The rest of the Preface continues much like the quoted portion above. Many, I think, would call it a rant. Far as I can tell, though, one man’s “rant” is another man’s righteous monologue against injustice, and until I know more about the veracity of his claims I won’t label it one way or the other.

Crisman explains an aspect of Tacoma corruption that will figure importantly into the story: “One of the best weapons that City Management has is the ‘false charge’ and that usually takes the form of making an all out attack upon its critics by branding them as criminals. That was a favorite tactic of the Tacoma City Management and it has a record of character assassination that is a horrible thing to examine.”

It is because of that City Management track record for criminal accusation, I presume, that Crisman changed his name to Gold.

Crisman’s Fight Was Personal

Crisman was born in Tacoma, but he’d been gone for a long time before returning to live out the events described in this book. He’d left for the east coast after serving as a fighter pilot in WWII (this is the claim, anyway, and again I haven’t verified his military record…just going by the book and general mythology).

In the Preface for Murder of a City, Tacoma, Crisman explains that he came home to find “what had happened to my home town in the many years I had been gone. It turned out to be a mounting story of terror tactics, graft, dishonest and political police, blackmail, and crimes for almost every description committed in the name of ‘clean government.'”

Crisman concludes, “There was little doubt that Tacoma had fallen into the hands of the Far Left and it was to be a well kept secret for many years and it is a matter that is being argued at this very hour…It turns out to be a close and political life of the city. It turns out to be a close knit small band of conspirators against he common good! All of them in the far, far Left of Liberal politics.”

Crisman gives a respectful account of Tacoma’s first City Manager, one Fred Backstrom. Crisman describes him as a man “who seems to have made a sincere effort to make the city manager form of government work.”

According to Crisman, Backstrom was unfairly criticized for his “conservative views on public finance and the attitude towards large federal grants of tax money for the city!”

After Backstrom left, Crisman says, David Rowlands of Eur Claire, Wisconsin, moved in. This is where we meet our primary villain.

“Rowlands is a cruel, vain man with an icy coldness that freezes one’s ability to speak directly to him,” Crsiman writes. “Fond of referring to himself in the third person, his ego and his temperament were not suited to the needs of the city or to those who had been at work in Tacoma to make it a better town.”

The above description is consistent with the remainder of Crsiman’s presentation of Rowlands—a man the author gives no quarter.

Tacoma News-Tribune

Crisman then fingers the Tacoma News-Tribune as the propaganda arm of Rowlands’ establishment.

“Directly from the handbook of the International City Managers Association comes the direct planning of Rowlands. It directs all city manager thinking. Part of that thinking is to supply the local press with advantages that will lead them into total support. The Tribune was given every tax-break possible, it was given a direct re-zoning in the middle of a proper residential district to erect a 200 foot steel tower of the instillation of a TV station and radio broadcast area…The Tribune prospered and Rowlands was painted to the citizens as a White Knight on a White Horse.”

Crisman, it’s safe to say, disagrees with the Tribune‘s presentation of Rowlands (to put it euphemistically).

This is the historical backdrop Crisman paints for us: Tacoma, a city dying in the clutches of a corrupt political machine as blindly and unremittingly evil as a fantasy novel monster.

“All of this leads up to late 1966 and my return to my home town, a broken, beaten, desert of rubble that resembled a bombed out area in Eastern Europe.”

Crisman came home to find his city in shambles, and he decided to do something about that. That “something” is accounted for in the remainder of Murder of a City.

Crisman’s Sign-Off

In regards to the final paragraph in the Preface, I can’t resist from adding a little commentary for those unfamiliar with Tacoma history.

I live in Tacoma right now (2018), at a time when we’re experiencing a continual renewal that’s been going for over a decade.

Sunset Magazine declared Tacoma the best place to move to in the Pacific Northwest in 2018. Our art scene is thriving. Our job market is strengthening. It’s a good place. I love living here.

But, back there in 1970, Crisman ended his Preface with the statement:

“I have called this story: The Murder of a City, and I am sure that you will agree that if the city ever recovers from the heavy damages that wounded it, it will be so close a call, so narrow a margin of escape, that it will not change the title. For the Tacoma that I knew died under the crushing heel of a 13 year dictatorship every bit as cruel, heartless, and bitter as any that has ever existed!”

And with that, I’ll close this first post. Chapter 1 coming soon…

Northwest Nuggets: Fred Crisman’s Murder of a City, Tacoma

Fred Crisman, UFOs, and the Murder of a City

The Maury Island Incident is a well-known (though perhaps not as well-known as it should be) Washington state UFO event. Whether you consider the event to be a legitimate UFO contact or just a hoax, it’s a story that lives on to this day, and Fred Crisman played an important role in it.

Less well-known than the “Incident” is that Crisman was also involved in a weird aspect of the John F. Kennedy assassination, being fingered as one of the “Three Tramps.”

Even LESS well-known than that is that Crisman spent years raising hell around the city of Tacoma under the pseudonym “Jon Gold.”

As “Jon Gold,” Crisman ran a radio show spreading what some call “conspiracy theory” and others call “investigative journalism.” Much like the UFO stuff, it really depends on which side of the aisle you choose to stand.

Out of those Gold radio shows was spawned a book titled Murder of a City, Tacoma, published in 1970. The Northwest Nomad recently got his hands on a copy of that fascinating slice of weird history.

Murder of a City, Tacoma was written off in its day as a “rant” and basically a bunch of paranoid conspiratorial lunacy. I’m partway through the book, and it doesn’t seem that way to me.

I need to research and verify the stuff he’s saying, of course, but so far, the book reads more like an expose of the political corruption Crisman says afflicted Tacoma in that time.

Whether there was any meat to Crisman’s claims remains to be seen, but we do know that Tacoma was a city in dire straits in the 1970s and all the way up to the 2000s, when the city’s famously successful revitalization effort began to take hold. It doesn’t seem (to me, anyway) to be a major stretch that there may indeed have been a lot of corruption in the city at that time.

The Northwest Nuggets series is designed for little slices of Northwest history and travel, so I’ll be doing a full examination of the book in another post. Here, I just wanted to bring The Murder of a City, Tacoma to light.

(UPDATE: I’ve started covering Murder of a City, Tacoma in earnest here.)

Northwest Nuggets Series: Nirvana’s Polly and the Creepy Story of Gerald Friend

The story of Gerald Friend, which inspired Nirvana’s “Polly,” isn’t a pleasant one. In fact, it’s downright disturbing.

In June of 1987, a 14-year-old girl was walking home from a concert at the Tacoma Dome when a stranger pulled his car over and offered her a ride. The girl accepted. There was no way for her to know she was getting into a car with a monster, but she would quickly find out.

The stranger’s name was Gerald Friend. He pulled a knife on the girl and took her to his mobile home. Once there, he tied her hands to a pulley attached to his ceiling. Over the course of the ensuing days, he raped and tortured her repeatedly.

Eventually the victim escaped. While Friend stopped at a gas station, she broke free from the vehicle and got help. The next day police pulled Friend over for a traffic violation. They recognized him and arrested him for the abduction.

Saddest of all in this story is that Gerald Friend shouldn’t have been on the streets to begin with. The 14-year-old girl hadn’t been his first victim.

The story of Gerald Friend and his debauchery had actually started 27 years before that Tacoma Dome attack, in July of 1960, in the town of Sumner a little ways outside of Tacoma. It was there that Gerald Friend kidnapped a 12-year-old girl while she was hitchhiking with her brother.

Friend assaulted the girl sexually, beat her, and cut her hair. The victim managed to escape and jumped into a river.

Friend hid in a field near his house. His father eventually discovered him. After a scuffle, Friend was injured and taken to a hospital, where he was arrested.

Gerald Friend was sentenced to 75 years in prison after his first attack, but he was paroled early in 1980, despite the violence of his first offense and despite two escapes. Seven years later, he took his second victim, a 14-year-old kid just trying to get home after a show.

After Friend’s second crime, he was sentenced to finish his original 75 year sentence, with another 75 year sentence on top of it. None of that helps his victims or changes the fact that Friend shouldn’t have been on the loose to begin with when he took that second victim. The girl later sued the state for the early parole.

Kurt Cobain read about Gerald Friend and his second victim in a local newspaper. From that story, he wrote the song “Polly.”

Cobain was no stranger to Tacoma, either. While he is primarily associated today with Aberdeen and Seattle, Cobain played quite a few gigs in Tacoma.

It was in Tacoma, in fact, that Nirvana first played under the name Nirvana. Previously they’d called themselves Ted Ed Fred, Skid Row, and Fecal Matter. They first used the name Nirvana in a place called the World Community Theater, which lasted only about a year but hosted many big acts of the era.

“Polly” makes no bones about what it’s meant to be. The song is catchy but also creepy and morose. Knowing that it narrates a true story only makes it more disturbing.

The song’s horrific backstory seems somewhat odd, really, considering that Cobain was so outspoken about women’s rights and about compassion. Years later, Cobain was deeply disturbed to hear that two men raped a girl while singing “Polly” to her.

What, exactly, inspired Cobain to write a song about someone who must have disgusted him is unclear, but the creative mind is a multifaceted thing. Besides, there’s obviously something compelling enough to have kept people listening nearly 30 years later.

 

This is part of my Northwest Nuggets series.

Northwest Nuggets Series: Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

Seattle, Washington, is well known as the birthplace of both Starbucks and Jimi Hendrix, the home of airline manufacturing giant Boeing, and the mecca of international hipsterdom (spell check says this not a word…but it lies).

Seattle is also the resting place of Bruce Lee, the residence of The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, and the home of beloved Pike Place Market (a little-known feature of which is a large outdoor wall covered in brightly-colored wads of chewing gum, known simply as, well, the gum wall).

Lesser known, perhaps, is the fact that Seattle is also the birthplace of Frances Farmer, a woman whose talent and beauty were overshadowed only by tragedy. Famed critic Roger Ebert once declared that she might have been one of the all-time great actresses, if only she hadn’t been so unlucky.

Farmer was born on September 19, 1913, in Seattle, Washington. From an early age she proved to be a stubborn, free-thinking spirit who many people found troubling to deal with. She won a writing award at West Seattle High School for an essay titled “God Dies,” a rather controversial title and subject for a teenager to take on in 1931 America.

She also worked her way through school at the University of Washington, despite being the daughter of a prominent lawyer. In 1935 she won a contest with the leftist newspaper The Voice of Action. The prize was a trip to the Soviet Union, which she accepted in order to attend the Moscow Art Theatre. Again, this was a controversial move in that time and many people branded her communist.

After returning from her Soviet Union trip, this young woman, bursting with confidence, stopped in New York to audition as an actress, and was signed on the spot with Paramount. From there, the stage was set for a fairytale story of success. However, things never quite worked out that way.

Frances Farmer was an achingly beautiful woman with enormous talent. She was also extremely intelligent, individualistic, and hot tempered. She resisted the studio’s attempts to control her and refused to use her personal life as a promotional tool.

She regularly dressed down in frumpy clothes and no makeup, and steered away from Hollywood parties. If she’d been in a different time, or maybe of a different sex in her time, then she could very well have become an outlaw, a countercultural icon.

Unfortunately, she was not born in a different time, or a different sex. Her willful, brash, and erratic behavior was not becoming of a lady in the ’30s and ’40s, and certainly not of a movie star. So, rather than being lauded for her courage, passion, and integrity, she was increasingly branded crazy.

In January 1943 she was arrested for the first time for failing to pay a fine for a driving violation. Simultaneously, charges were leveled that she dislocated a hairdresser’s jaw while working on a movie set.

In court, she accused the police of violating her civil rights and demanded an attorney. She also threw an inkwell at the judge, which probably accounts for her sentencing to 180 days in jail.

Considering that Farmer was asking for her Constitutionally-guaranteed right to an attorney and was not getting it, one must ask the question if the throwing of an inkwell is really so difficult to understand. Regardless, the incident landed her in the Kimball Sanitarium in La Crescenta, California, where she was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and given insulin shock therapy.

From that point on, Farmer’s life was spent getting into and out of various forms of trouble with the psychiatric industry, the law, and the movie studios. She was also said to be an alcoholic. But, considering the trouble she suffered through her years, one has to wonder if the alcoholism was the cause of any of her problems, or the result.

In the end, Frances Farmer died of esophageal cancer, leaving behind a legacy of unrealized talent and tragedy, which was immortalized by Jessica Lange’s incredible performance in the 1982 film Frances.

Cobain’s lyrics in “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” are characteristically ambiguous and enigmatic, but not so much that the song’s meaning is hard to discern. Having been one who also struggled with fame and societal norms, he seems to be saying that he simply wants to be left alone to be who he is and feel what he feels, regardless of how others think about it.

The connection with Frances Farmer is pretty easy to see. They were both passionate, talented, sensitive souls who had ways of seeing life that were very different from the mass of society.

“France Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” was included on 1993’s In Utero, Nirvana’s third and final studio album, released less than a year before Cobain’s suicide. Cobain wanted to title the album I Hate Myself and I Want to Die as a joke, but was talked out of it due to fears that it could lead to lawsuits.

The album reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, UK albums chart, and the Swedish Sverigetopplistan. It climbed near the top of the charts in several other nations, as well.

In the year that was 1993, angst was in style. It was cool to be cynical and to resist the corporatization of the world. Dressing in ragged clothes and railing against authority wasn’t just allowed for celebrities, it was expected.

Looking at it now, maybe Frances Farmer was just born in the wrong time. Maybe she would have done much better in 1990s Seattle.

 

 

This post is part of my Northwest Nuggets series. It originally appeared in Songplaces.com

Northwest Nuggets Series: Something in the Way in Aberdeen, Washington

Aberdeen, Washington, once went by such auspicious titles as The Hellhole of the Pacific and The Port of Missing Men. Founded in 1884, the city was known in its early years as a place of whorehouses, dice, whiskey, and murder.

A notable resident was Billy “Ghoul” Gohl, who may have killed as many as 140 people between 1902 and 1910. This cheery fellow was only officially found guilty of two 1909 homicides, and eventually died in 1927 in Walla Walla State Penitentiary of health problems, including syphilis.

Clearly, those early Aberdeen days marked the city for great things.

By the time Kurt Cobain was born in Gray’s Harbor Hospital in Aberdeen on February 20, 1967, the city’s moniker had been changed to The Gateway to the Olympic Peninsula. Though cast in the near-perpetual shadow and fog of that part of Washington State, it had evolved into a small town not wholly unlike any other small town in America.

The way that Cobain has spoken of it, however, Aberdeen is a much more hopeless place.

Describing Aberdeen as “Twin Peaks without the excitement” (referring to the TV show), Cobain spoke of the town almost entirely as a source of neglect, fear, and sadness. The contentious relationship between Cobain and his hometown was hardly a one-sided one.

The city itself abstained from recognizing their former pop-rock-revolutionary-superstar-grunge-counterculture icon for years. They acquiesced and made an official gesture of acknowledgment towards Cobain only in 2005, 11 years after his death, when an article by three local teens in the Aberdeen Daily World prompted the posting of a sign outside the city reading “Come As You Are,” in reference to the Nirvana song by the same name. In early 2014, the city also announced that February 20 would be declared the official Kurt Cobain Day; they also built a park named Kurt Cobain’s Landing.

It would be interesting to hear Cobain’s thoughts on having Aberdeen declare a day in his honor. Nirvana’s first rehearsals were held in the city, but the band never actually played there, and Cobain wanted to get out as quickly as possible. Most of his statements about the place – those that have been recorded and related to the public, anyway – did not indicate happy times.

Cobain’s earliest years seemed relatively normal, but he started becoming increasingly depressed and alienated after his parents divorced when he was seven years old. By the time he reached high school, he was so fed up with the people around him that he would pretend he was gay in hopes that he’d be left alone.

He dropped out of school in his sophomore year, after he discovered that he didn’t have enough credits to graduate. His mother told him to find a job or leave, so he left. This was when he started wandering around Aberdeen, sleeping on friend’s couches and in hospital waiting rooms, and sometimes hanging out under a bridge over the Wishkah River.

There is debate over whether or not Cobain really lived under the bridge. Cobain claimed he had, but Nirvana bassist Kurt Novoselic and biographer Charles Cross have each stated that doing so would have been impossible. The fluctuating levels of the Wishkah likely would have swept him away, and the muddy banks made the spot uninhabitable.

Regardless of its myth or exact fact, Cobain’s time under the bridge became a part not only of his personal mythology, but of the emotional mythology his fans have built around him. Also part of fandom’s mythology is that “Something in the Way” deals, at least partly, with the time that Cobain spent under that Aberdeen bridge.

The lyrics to the song are so ambiguous and surreal that any precise factual meaning is probably impossible to prove, and it’s very likely that one was never intended, anyway. That’s very rarely how creativity works. Still, in plumbing the depths of Cobain’s myth, the story connecting the Aberdeen bridge with the bridge in “Something in the Way” has taken on its own life. Its emotional reality has eclipsed any concerns of historical veracity.

Cobain wrote “Something in the Way” in 1990. Nirvana first performed it on November 25, 1990, at Seattle’s Off Ramp Café. While recording the song for Nirvana’s mega-album Nevermind in 1991, Cobain was unhappy with the sound. After repeated failed attempts to nail it, he ended up lying on a couch, strumming his guitar, and mumbling the lyrics so low that producer Butch Vig had to bring the microphones close and turn off all other sources of background noise to hear it. Dave Grohl and Novoselic added their parts later, as did Kirk Canning, who added a cello line. This unorthodox method undoubtedly lent to its strange, unique sound.

Nevermind, of course, went on to alter the course of music history and explode planets. It has since reached Diamond status in the United States and multi-times platinum and gold in several other countries.

“Something in the Way” was never released as a single and doesn’t jump out to casual listeners the way that classics “Lithium,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” or “Come as You Are” do.

But for many, “Something in the Way” is emblematic of Nirvana’s spirit. The song is a beating heart viewed through grimy, mud-streaked lenses, a song of ennui deriving its power from the certainty that there is something else, something brighter, lying underneath the surface.

There might be something in the way, but the fact that this anguish is even being sung indicates that there’s life on the other side. It’s a difficult message, but it’s one that resonated powerfully with an entire generation of youth. It might not be pretty, but it’s real, and in the rosy convolutions of the ’90s United States of America, reality was increasingly difficult to come by.

Looking back, it’s very poetic to think of the song originating in the lonely musings of a young man living under a bridge in Aberdeen, Washington. Whether or not that’s how it actually happened, and whether or not that’s what the song is really talking about, the association has become part of the mythology.

It’s a touchstone to everything that drew hordes of alienated youth to the band in the first place, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting image to go with the tune.

 

This piece of part of the Northeast Nomad Northwest Nuggets series.

This piece originally appeared in Songplaces.