As readers know, the ongoing health crisis has disrupted nearly every sector of our society, often in surprising ways. In late March, veteran author and historian Teresa Nordheim had planned to release her new book on true crime in Seattle, but concerns for safety brought those plans to a screeching halt. An Army nurse by day—a hero(ine) twice over!—Nordheim knew that amending her book launch for safety’s sake was the right call to make, so we’re proud to welcome her to Crime Capsule to talk about her new book, Wicked Seattle, available now from Arcadia Publishing/The History Press.
CC: First things first, congratulations on your new book! How did it come about? What was Wicked Seattle’s origin story?
TN: Thank you! This was my third book with Arcadia Publishing and the origin story is intriguing. Every writer needs a good story. When I pitched my editor, Laurie Krill, an idea, she quickly returned my email and told me the idea was good, but she wanted me to explore the Wicked Series as she felt it would be right up my alley. She was right. I love writing true crime and found the characters I met in Wicked Seattle relatable and colorful. Each one could easily blend into today’s society, even though they stood out in history.
As a researcher, what did you learn working on your previous books that you could apply to Wicked Seattle?
I could spend hours in an old library, chatting with other historians and finding hidden gems in the newspaper archives. I love learning and I love creating a non-fiction book that can lure in the most reluctant readers and cynics, but the writer in me constantly seeks ways to improve my writing, my stories, and my work. For this, I turned to the Teresa Nordheim critics—I owe the improvements in my third book to everyone who left a negative review on my previous books! My own mother reported she found the writing level difficult to read in one of my books. Another critic noted an error in the cited facts. Perhaps the biggest lesson came from a reader stating they would have preferred to see a history book written in chronological order. I was careful to utilize the constructive criticism to give my readers more of what they wanted and less of what they disliked in my previous books. While I prefer a five-star review, I do value the input from a valid suggestion.
What most surprised you in the research? Were there any curveballs?
I began with an outline of chapters and characters, expecting that the pieces would fall into place as I reserved library books, sifted through archives, and put out feelers to the public looking for information. By week one, though, I knew I was in trouble. Unlike my previous book, Murder & Mayhem in Seattle, the new book highlights the seedy underground. While the characters were well known in their time, they weren’t often in the newspapers or talked about by the well-to-do of society. Even today, we tend to hide prostitution, gambling, drinking, and corruption—beyond mugshots, there weren’t many such photos circulating around the archives. This nearly halted my progress, but I found a couple of surprises along the way.
One item was political and police corruption. We’ve all heard stories of the wild west and gunslingers. However, Seattle still had a few on the ‘payroll’ well into the 1970s. Perhaps this is one reason it was so difficult to find photos? Similarly, the Wah-Mee Club also presented issues as the building was destroyed by fire. At its prime, it was an underground, very selective, high-stakes gambling den in the International District. Until the fateful night of the robbery and massacre that I talk about in the book, this small club hid under the radar of locals and paid to keep the police at bay.
You met some amazing characters in the course of your research—bootleggers, crime bosses, and the legendary Madam Damnable. What was it like, learning about these men and women?
I was surprised to find I really liked some of the wicked people I was writing about. While they weren’t always on the right side of the law, many were good people and had pleasant personalities. I could see myself getting a good laugh as Madam Damnable, nicknamed for her ability to curse in many different languages, tossed rocks at the Navy men who kept disturbing her brothel. I could also see myself hanging out with Lou Graham as she was intelligent, money-wise, and had every local businessman wrapped around her fingers. But she also had a caring side, and often helped women who were on the run from a battered relationship or family troubles. Prior to his arrest, Officer Charles “Wappy” Wappenstein walked around in a spiffy pin-striped suit, bowler hat and a mustache that went on for miles—until he found himself wearing coveralls at the State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, and with a new love for gardening.
I usually pick a favorite character in my books, but these men and women challenged me. I don’t believe I could choose just one to shine. Were they wicked? I suppose if you look at it from the perspective of the law, they were indeed wicked. However, many of them were just doing what they did best to pass time and earn a living.
What do you think makes Seattle such a hotbed for wickedness?
First, early Seattle was filled with fisherman, miners, loggers, and railroad workers. These occupations brought in young men from all over the world. These men were single and when they had down time, they became bored. Early Seattle had a major deficit of women and entertainment venues, so the solution came in the form of brothels, gambling clubs, live theater, and saloons. When those items are mixed with mayors and policemen who are willing to take graft in exchange for looking the other way, crime becomes inevitable.
Second, I read an article some time ago where an FBI profiler was asked why the Pacific Northwest had such a pull for serial killers. His response echoes my own: people in general are drawn to the area because Washington State provides an eclectic mix of beaches, mountains, rain forests, and even deserts. People enjoy a quiet camping trip to the mountains, and being secluded behind a mask of evergreen trees. They come to get away and hide when needed—the good and the bad alike.
Do you have a favorite time period in Seattle’s history to write about?
A large part of me believes I lived a past life in the Seattle and Tacoma area. I see myself wearing a Victorian gown and plumed hat as a horse-drawn carriage makes its way down the cobblestone streets. I’ve lived in the area for most of my life, as I was born in Aberdeen and now reside just south of Seattle. I still love the city today, but if I had a time machine, I would travel back to the early 1900s and go throw rocks with Madam Damnable or a ride in the carriage with Lou Graham.
Every big city is in some way a village. Did any of the stories (or people) you wrote about hit home, or did you have any personal connection to any of them?
I do often find connections to the characters I write about. My friends and I have a solid joke that has now carried on for five years. They say the city of Tacoma has a restraining order against me, and I’m not allowed within one hundred feet of the Rust mansion. This story is in my first book and yes, I had a strong connection. I didn’t have a strong connection to any individual character in Wicked Seattle, but I could relate to many of the men and women.
What kind of true crime do you like to read? Or are you a fiction kind of gal?
I’m a hard-core true crime gal. On a few occasions I was able to meet true crime great Ann Rule while she did book signings at Borders. My ex-husband was the district manager, and I was able to sit down and visit with the woman who remains my number-one writing idol. She has a style of writing that pulls the reader into the middle of the heat. To me, her work reads like fiction because it flows so smoothly, and while it highlights facts from historical cases, it’s presented in a manner that the reader really sees, hears, and feels the surrounding. Gregg Olsen is another local author (yet nationally-known) who writes in this same style. My goal, one day in the future, is to master this method. I feel truth is far stranger than fiction.
Don’t tell anyone, but I do occasionally sneak a good romantic-suspense book into my reading list. So I can deviate a bit from true crime.
Last but not least, what’s your next project? Do you have any ideas?
That’s currently the million-dollar question. I have many ideas, but trouble narrowing them down to just one. My youngest daughter graduates this year and has been accepted to University of North Texas, very close to my other daughter and my two wickedly adorable granddaughters. This means, I haven’t ruled out the idea of writing a good Texas true crime story in the future!