Whenever I travel and mention that I’m from Tacoma people tend to mention Tacoma’s reputation for crime. In the late eighties and early nineties the gang problem in Tacoma was rivaling that of Los Angeles. We averaged a drive-by shooting every other day. During the mid-nineties things cooled down a bit but the last couple years have seen a return of various forms of violence. Just last weekend there was a shootout on South 48th street that left a gunman dead and a cop shot in the leg.
It’d be nice to think that the reputation of Tacoma as a crime-plagued city is a recent event but crime has been a major component of Tacoma since it began and the first big name in crime in Tacoma was Harry Morgan.
Harry Morgan was said to have arrived from Maryland at the age of 34, though there are no records to that effect. Morgan arrived in Tacoma on a February morning in 1884 to find a rising unemployment rate and a falling economy. In looking over the town he saw what was missing: a decent saloon.
Morgan’s Board of Trade Billiard Hall and Theatre Comique (a picture of the place can be found to the right) wasn’t just a place where you could get a drink. The waitresses also sang and danced and would meet you in one of the secluded booths for other services as well if you had the money for it. There were also card rooms and gaming tables. Most of what went on at Harry Morgan’s place wasn’t legal but his infractions weren’t anything you couldn’t bribe away. While other gambling and prostitution establishments seemed to get raided on a regular basis, Morgan’s place grew more and more popular.
Only a couple blocks away from the Tacoma Hotel the closest entertainment to be had was Morgan’s Theatre Comique. Every week there’d be a new show. A tight wire act, comedians, singers, you never knew what might be on the stage.
Not everyone appreciated Harry’s place. The Ledger, the local paper, frequently condemned the place and the man himself. There were many stories of swindles, graft, and corruption but few ever stuck. When an associate of Morgan’s was convicted on one of these cons, Morgan’s lawyer appealed it on the grounds that women were on the juries involved and won, getting his associate off and dealing a blow to women’s rights.
Harry Morgan died in 1890 at the age of 40. There was talk that his estate was worth over a million dollars. It was said that Morgan’s place averaged a take in of $20,000 to $30,000 a month, but the combination of payments to employees, law enforcement officials, lawyers, and more than a couple bad investments had dwindled his fortune to less than $28,000 in the end.
Morgan’s death didn’t end the crime and corruption in Tacoma and it wasn’t until the 1940’s that anything was done about the easily bought Tacoma Police Department.