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.
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
Murder 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.
Trust me, though, the book only gets wilder.
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.
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.
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 is here.