In his biographies, Dashiell Hammett, the great American author of hard-boiled detective novels, said the character of “Wilmer,” the pint-sized but dangerous gunman in “The Maltese Falcon,” was based on a diminutive Stockton crook whom the papers nicknamed “the Midget Bandit.”
The story was that this kid, who was short in stature but cocky, stuck up a filling station here. The paper quoted the filling station owner saying he’d like to get his hands on the kid. When the kid read that comment, the game little bantam went right back to the filling station and held up the owner at gunpoint again, just to show him who was boss.
Hammett got wind of the story, and liked it. And that was the idea for the character of Wilmer.
I gave the old college try to find Wilmer in old newspapers, but never could. Now, a researcher says why.
“I’ve found Dashiell Hammett’s midget bandit and discovered why you couldn’t find him in a search of the Stockton papers of the time,” writes Warren Harris.
Because the midget bandit did his thing in Fresno, not Stockton, Harris said. Harris id’ed the bandit: Edwin Ware of New York City.
In honor of Harris’ breakthrough research, Don Herron, the San Francisco Hammett scholar, has declared it “Midget Bandit Week,” and is running stuff about the little yegg all week. You can read it here. The only Stockton angle is a certain columnist digging futilely to find newspaper stories about the Midget Bandit, but if you’re a Hammett fan like me it’s all good.