"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche




27 Jun 2018

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jack Black



Preamble

Although Jack Black (1871–1932) shares the same credentials as the other tramp writers discussed on this site: beating trains, sleeping in ‘jungles’, familiar with starvation, jail and beatings from police, Black’s principal profession was that of a professional criminal, or ‘yegg’; a term previously discussed as applying to the more feared ‘outlaw hobos’. In Black’s case, within his principal activities of burglary, armed robbery and safe-cracking, he developed a strong moral code that rejected wanton violence, even bringing trouble down on his own head to protect friends and other unfortunates from harm. Like Flynt and London, Black was also addicted at various times to narcotics—in his case combined with the thrill of gambling. Although born near Vancouver, British Columbia, Black was raised in Missouri. His adventures and philosophy on life started at the age of ten and are contained in a single volume titled You Can’t Win (1926), published six years before his death. Black’s autobiography is also the subject of a 2016 movie of the same name, starring, co-produced and co-written by Michael Pitt. As with Flynt and London also, Black’s writing had a major influence on the Beat movement and its writers, particularly William Burroughs, who in his first book, Junkie (1953) reflected much of the style and subject matter of You Can’t Win. Burroughs wrote a Foreword for the later 1988 Amok Press edition of You Can’t Win, and commenting on the book’s title, American society at the time, and Black’s own philosophy on life, Burroughs acknowledges, ‘Well, who can? Winner take nothing. Would he have been better off having spent his life in some full-time job? I don’t think so.’

Black was a reformed character and professional journalist by the time he wrote You Can’t Win, and part of his motivation for writing it was to dissuade would-be-criminals from a life of crime, at the same time pointing out the inability of the courts and judiciary to deliver justice. Paradoxically, it was while working for the San Francisco Bulletin, and during a circulation war between the Bulletin and Randolph Hurst’s San Francisco Call, that Black was near fatally wounded by a stomach shot from a rival journalist. True to his code of never snitching to the police, Black later refused to identify his would be assassin and the case was dismissed. During his writing period Black wrote essays and participated in lecture tours. The most recent edition of the book, and the one used as the research for this post, was published by Feral House in 2013. As well as Burroughs’ 1988 Foreword, the Feral House edition also includes a biographical essay on Black by Donald Kennison, Joe Coleman’s original artwork from the 1988 Amok Press edition, and two of Black’s extended articles: ‘What’s Wrong with the Right People’, Harpers Magazine (1929) and ‘A Burglar Looks at Laws and Codes’, Harpers Magazine (1930). As a first person witness, Black also wrote extensively about the Folsom Prison Breakout of July 27 1903, the penitentiary where he served an eight year sentence and was released the following year:

This break was a protest of helpless men against hopeless conditions. Wrought up to a frenzy by brutality, violence and fear, the men rose, cut down guards, rushed a gatling gun tower and captured it with no weapons but razors taken from the prison barber shop. They took officers of the guard as hostages and escaped with them to the woods.’ 

As with Jim Phelan’s writings on penology, Black’s writings represent an important social history on many aspects of criminality and prison life during the particular period covered. Black spent about fifteen years of his thirty year criminal career in various jails and penitentiaries that included several prison breakouts.

As with most of the tramp bio’s on this site, one has to read the voice of the author himself to fully appreciate not only the unique quality of the original text but also the full extent of his adventures, only some of which it is possible to record here. Black’s book is, among other things, a page turner, and so I urge the reader to acquire a copy of You Can’t Win to fully appreciate Black’s story.


Early Life

Black’s mother died when he was ten years old following which, and although his father was kindly, he was pretty much left to his own devices running around the hotel where he was left alone while his father was out working until he took him off to a Catholic boarding school one hundred miles away. During his three years at the school Black was a model student and avid reader. One of the things he read and became obsessed with were newspaper reports about the life and death of the outlaw Jessie James, following which he devoured newspaper reports of other outlaws and their activities. Aside from fantasising about the world of crime, Black left school aged fourteen acknowledging that, ‘I was as unsophisticated as a boy could be. I knew no more of the world and its strange way than the gentle, saintly woman who taught me my prayers in the convent.’  He returned to the same hotel he had left three years earlier and continued with his reading during the long hours his father was absent during the day:

I found lots of papers lying around—some cheap novels, Police Gazettes, etc.—and I read them all, everything I could get hold of. I saw my father only at night, occasionally we would take a walk then for an hour.’ 

It was around this time also that the first stirrings of wanderlust got a grip of the young vagabond. He describes how he followed a man back to the hotel one day and how he became fascinated by the man’s leather trunk with brass fittings that was covered all over with stickers from the many hotels he had stayed at and steamship lines he had travelled on. ‘I stood around and felt it, read the stickers, some of them from foreign parts of the world, and wondered what kind of man he could be that possessed such a wonderful trunk’. (32) Black became restless and disturbed by the image of the trunk and its owner. ’It had roused strange thoughts and longings in my mind that I did not understand then. I know now that it suggested trades, adventure by land and se—the world.’

Determined to get money to save and kit himself out like the traveller, and without telling his father, Black took his first paid job sweeping and tidying up in the hotel bar for the friendly saloon owner Cy. After his first week he was given three dollar coins in wages which he gave to his father for safe keeping after getting his father’s blessing to hold down the job. Shortly afterwards his father announced that they were leaving for Kansas City where he had got a new job and Black was put up in a small boarding house while his father would often be absent at work for weeks, even months, at a time. Before leaving, Black’s father gave him the money he had saved up from his sweeping job and told him to find more work. And a job he soon found, minding a tobacconist’s store for three dollars a week and ‘all the cigars you can smoke’. When Black protested that he did not smoke, the tobacconist replied, ‘Well that’s your bad luck kid.” Black was soon to discover that the cigar shop was just a front for a poker and dice salon out back and that his job was to make the front of the shop look authentic, sweeping up and serving the odd customer. ‘The dice shakers and crap shooters showed me their favorite “shots”. I was an apt scholar, absorbing everything like a young sponge.’ 

Next door to the cigar shop was a small milk depot and the owner told Black that he would pay him to collect money from customers who owed him. Black figured out the best time to catch people at home. His tobacconist boss, Tex, was fine with him having two jobs and even gave him tips advising him that the best time to catch women at home was around 5pm when they were preparing the evening meal. Most of the women were kind to him and paid up with little fuss. Tex had a run of luck in the casino and raised Black’s wages to four dollars a week and the milkman paid a premium when Black collected from customers who resisted paying. Thoughts of adventure were never far from his mind but Black was not impatient and determined to save up a good stash of money before setting out travelling. 

Black’s first run in with the law happened when he went to collect a milk bill from the owner of a local brothel. While he was waiting to collect, a customer of one of the girls complained that he had been frisked of one hundred dollars by one of the girls and the police were called to the scene. The captain was friends with Kate, the madam of the brothel, but had to be seen to do his job. No one was allowed to leave the premises and Black, along with the girls and several drunks was bundled into the police van and taken to the local station. After the initial questioning one of the cops asked the captain what he should do with the men who had been taken in: “Oh, charge them with drink.” “The kid’s not drunk.” “Vag him then.” Then turning to Black the officer asked him, “What were you doing in that joint anyway?” Black explained, even producing the milk bill, followed by, “Why the hell didn’t you say so at the start?” “I tried to sir but everyone kept telling me to shut up.” Not that that did it either. After everyone else was let go the captain said, “Take the kid upstairs and lock him up with George. I’ll find out more about him” 

This was Black’s first lesson in the injustice of the law. Then there was George, a distinguished criminal who had stolen fortunes and spent them, killed a crooked partner, and enjoyed special privileges out of reputation and respect from crooks and cops alike. George would turn out to be a long term friend and mentor of Black and it was from that cell and encounter that Black’s criminal career would emerge. Kate, the madam of the brothel, and her girls had forgotten all about Black in the excitement of the previous twenty four hours but when they did there was a great deal of remorse and not a little fuss made of the young milkman’s assistant. And so began a close friendship with the young girl who had pickpocketed her client. This odd couple spent a good deal of time together when they were not working. Black got to learn from Julia about another kind of imprisonment that becoming a prostitute meant when young girls were down on their luck—in Julia’s case an unwanted pregnancy from a rape, only to be raped again by the doctor at the hospital where the baby died—were taken in by what appeared to be a kindly benefactor only to become slaves to that individual from which there was no escape. But with Black and a kindly hack driver’s help Julia did escape. The plan was that she would throw her bundle of clothes out of the brothel window and then sneak out of through the kitchen without hat or street clothes so as not to arouse suspicion, into the back alley and the waiting hack. A week later Julia came to the cigar store to tell Black that she had got a job as a barmaid and a clean room of her own. No more was said about the matter and Black was not suspected the next time he collected the milk money from the brothel. 

The next time Black’s father came home Black told him everything about his work, his arrest and his rescue of Julia. His father left the next day with these parting words: “Well John, you’ll be what you’ll be, and I cannot help or hinder you. Go back to your job in the morning if you like.” They were kind words, Black recalls, ‘and I have always remembered them and their ring of fatality.’ Black would never see his father again, although he did learn much later that he ‘lived out his life orderly and died decently.’


Road Kid

By now Black had become, ‘tired of Tex and his tribe and their smokey back room and cheap cheating … sick of the sight of the crabby widow at the boarding house. Black had money, the wanderlust had become an irresistible force, and so he took off walking westward until nighttime and tiredness found him in a hobo jungle. There two bindle stiffs invited him to join them for a tin of Java (coffee) if he collected up some firewood, following which one of the hobos surprised both Black and the second hobo by producing ‘a gump’, a live chicken, from his bindle. And so began Black’s hobo career with a hearty meal under a bridge where he learned the ways of existing on what nature, thieving and the detritus of the jungle provided. In response to one of the old timers saying to him, ‘If your goin’ west you’d better learn to talk west’, he also started familiarising himself with the language of the road. On offering to go up to the nearest farmhouse and buy some supplies, he was severely admonished by one of his fellow vagabonds who replied: 

Nix, nix, buy nothin, its you kind of cats that make it tough on us … go up to that house and tell the woman you and two other kids run away from home in the city three days ago and you ain’t had nothin’ but a head of cabbage that fell of a farmer’s waggon’. 

This advice, together with Black’s existing winsome ways, produced the desired results and the following complement from his companions: ‘You’re a good connector, kid’, together with sound advice about how to deal with troublesome dogs. Black also learned about ‘D.D.ing’: carrying a note to identify to would be targets that one is deaf and dumb, also carrying small inexpensive items such as bags of lavender in order to avoid getting done for begging—‘selling’ isn’t begging. 

Black’s first attempt at beating a train nearly lost him his life. After directing him to a rail junction—his companions being too old for that game leaving Black to proceed alone—the novice hobo jumped a car with the door open on a slow westbound freight train. The car was stacked high with sawn lumber that was six foot shorter than the end of the car, leaving space for Black to drop down in the gap. A few stops further on a kid about his own age crawled over the top of the lumber and dropped down to join him. After a brief conversation the both of them were sleeping but something in the evening woke Black. As the train was travelling down an incline, part of the load started creaking and shifting. Black’s companion panicked and started to crawl up to get on top of the lumber. There followed a grinding and a crash that splintered the wooden end of the car:

The boy had died instantly. His body from the waist up, was flattened between the lumber and the front end of the car. His legs dangled below, down where I was imprisoned, with each movement of the car, like the legs of a scarecrow in the wind.’ 

Black was now trapped in a space half the size but safe as the weight of the lumber above meant the lumber below was unable to move. He now went to work with his pocketknife on the half rotted timber that made up the side of the car and after two hours, with hands now badly blistered, had cut through the ends of three boards. As the train started slowing to a halt, Black finished the job by kicking out the boards from where he had cut them through at the top leaving him enough space to squeeze out from the car. Once on the town’s main street he noted that he was in Dodge City, ‘a town at that time largely given over to gambling, fighting and whiskey drinking’—amusements that the young Black had still to develop a taste for. Next stop Denver, where Black gets his second bust. He had gone for a swim in a river alongside a camp where the local bums congregated. The alarm went up but Black did not get a chance to grab his clothes and make a run for it before he was bundled in to a patrol wagon and taken down town. The police had had orders to clean up the town and Black found himself in court for the first time charged with vagrancy. When he pleaded to the judge that he was not a vagrant because he had twenty dollars in the jail office, the judge looked at him, ‘coldly and impersonally as if I had been a dish of parsnips. “Fifteen days on the chain gang. Next case.” ’ 

Black spent a night in jail where he struck up an immediate friendship with another inmate, Smiler, due for release that morning. The next morning, on being led to the wagon bound for the chain gang, Black instinctively made a dash for it to the cheers of onlookers, and the guards, fearful of losing the rest of the prisoners, did not bother to give chase. And so for the first time Black becomes a penniless fugitive from justice. Twenty miles outside of Denver Black he came across a hobo jungle on the outskirts of a small town: ‘Confidently I walked up to the fire. I was one of them. I had escaped; I was hungry; I was ready for anything; I belonged around the fire.’ A shout went up from the fire where he was embraced by Smiler who congratulated him on his escape and was promised fresh clothing as soon as they located a likely house to burgle. After securing a bundle of clothes, jewellery, cash and parcel of food to eat, the pair beat the next train out. Inside the freight car Black was given further coaching into becoming a successful burglar. Smiler told him to throw out of the car door the watch and jewellery as if caught with it, “That junk would get us five years, kid, if we got grabbed with it, and it ain’t worth two dollars.” (75) Black found the whole experience satisfying and justified the burglary on the basis that he had been deprived of his coat and twenty dollars by ‘the law’ for nothing but going for a swim, and so it seems right to him that he should be recompensed for his lost possessions from some wealthy law abiding citizen who was probably insured anyway.


Apprentice Yegg

Smiler had been a ‘prowler’ since being run out of his home town by the cops. The two were by now fast friends and Smiler was determined to teach Black the ‘real thing’ as soon as they arrived in Salt Lake City. But their next burglary took place on route from Cheyenne to Salt Lake City at a junction point where they spotted a jeweller at work in his shop window. Smiler told Black to go around to the back of the store and hurl some rocks at the back door while he grabbed a tray of watches as the jeweller was distracted. Back at the train yard Black would learn about ‘planting’ loot to avoid any chance of being caught with the stuff. Smiler noted a freight train bound for Bute, Montana, bundled the watches up in a handkerchief, stowed them in a corner of a freight car which he covered in coal, and then tore the corner off the destination card so that he could identify the same car later. Then they took a different train only to reconnoiter with their booty later at Evanston—on route to Bute—and from there go with the watches to a fence Smiler knew in Pocatello, Idaho. 

Salt Chunk Mary—there is no way of knowing if this was her real moniker, as no reference to anyone of that name appears outside of Black’s narrative—was an infamous brothel keeper and disposer of stolen goods. She is one of the major characters of You Can’t Win and reappears often in the book, fencing stolen property and helping spring criminals, including Black, from the jaws of justice. Police and judges were also on her payroll or received other favours at her disposal. The origin of the moniker Salt Chunk Mary was the large pot of salt pork and beans that was forever simmering on her stove ready to give sustenance to the hungry vagabonds who continually arrived at her house as ‘free’ passengers from passing freight trains. Noteworthy, is that Mary’s treatment of her ‘girls’ could not have been in greater contrast to the kindness and generosity she showed towards her male visitors—who paid generously for her hospitality either directly or in the profits she made from fencing stolen contraband. In contrast, Black had a deep regard and respect for women. This rather strange Mother Theresa character, an equal mix of good and evil, is described by Black as, ‘about forty years of age, hard-faced and heavy-handed. Her hair was the colour of sunburned brick and her small blue eyes glinted like ice under a March sun. She could say “no” quicker than any woman I ever knew, and none of them meant “yes”.’  

And so when Mary gave Smiler four hundred dollars for the watches, he was satisfied that he had received a fair price in the full knowledge that they would be passed on for significantly more. With a substantial amount of money in their pockets, they still beat a train to Ogden and over the Pacific Railway to Sacramento and then onwards to San Francisco to get their first glimpse of the sea. But not before being put off a car full of hay at Port Costa where they had spent the night and appearing before the unusually humane Judge Casey. The judge fed them a meal before sentencing them to five days and locking them into a box car for onward transportation. Black told Smiler how he had escaped from the car full of lumber and the pair soon set to work with a knife and were out in an hour, resuming their journey to San Francisco. After spending a month on the waterfront watching the ships and sailors by day and frequenting the bars and dancehalls by night, the pair were broke and decided to return to Salt Lake City in search of more pickings.

While drinking in a small gambling house in that city, they watched a locksmith at work changing the combination of a safe for the new owners. After writing down the combination numbers on a slip of paper, the locksmith left the slip with his tools while he went to the bar for a drink, giving Smiler the opportunity to pick up and study the numbers before throwing the slip back on the floor. Not having the faintest idea how to open a safe at that time even with the combination, the pair set of for a penitentiary a mile out of town to visit a safecracking friend of Smiler’s who was doing time there. That night they opened the safe, but instead of finding the thousands of dollars they were expecting, the safe only yielded a few hundred because the new owners had opened the place on a shoe string and as yet had no bankroll. By this time, hooked on gambling, the money was gone in a matter of days and they returned to the more familiar gambling to replenish their stash. Smiler’s modus operandi was to watch rich looking folk coming out of the theatre, particularly those decked in jewels, then follow them home to check whether the house was free of children and dogs, was not overlooked, and had a reasonable chance of access. Having located a likely victim, they kept watch on the place until the early hours of the morning when everyone would be sound asleep. House burglars need to work single handed and so Black stayed outside to keep watch while Smiler went to work.

As Smiler slowly and soundlessly raised an unlocked sash window, there was a blinding flash of light followed by the explosion of a rifle. Then came sounds of breaking glass and a woman’s screams. Smiler staggered backwards from the wind clutching his throat and then sunk to his knees. After instinctively running for the gate and alleyway, and expecting to hear more shots, on a further instinct Black returned to help his friend and, with blood streaming from Smiler’s mouth, he half carried him out into the alley where his friend collapsed. Unable to lift the dead weight, Black stayed with his friend briefly but long enough to see him shudder and die. Soaked in the blood which had spurted from Smiler’s wound, Black found a derelict house to hide out until he could decide what to do next. Tired, hungry and fearing for his life, Black had time to reappraise the path he had taken and, while not having any regrets over previous events, he determined there and then to give up life on the road as an outlaw and return to his father. There he stayed until the following evening, only venturing out when he felt it was safe and made his way to a sulphur spring in the hillside to clean up. Then, with the money he had left, he bought some clothes in a store and went to a nearby restaurant for food. While eating his meal, he overheard a policeman at the next table describing the recent events accounting for why everything went silent following the shooting and no chase had being given. The man of the house had been called out urgently and his wife, unable to sleep, had been prowling restlessly around when Smiler had appeared at the window. In a panic, the woman grabbed the gun, fired it at Smiler, and then dropped down in a feint.

Black returned to the room he had shared with Smiler and passed out on the bed from exhaustion only to be roused sometime later by loud knocking at the door. He was arrested and handcuffed by two police officers who showed him a bloodstained receipt for their room rent that they had found in a corner of Smiler’s pocket—the kind of carelessness that Smiler had drummed into him which he now regretted overlooking. To cut a long story short, Black was put on remand pending his trial as an accessory to the burglary, but within an hour of arriving at the penitentiary had, ‘made friends and incurred obligations that turned my thoughts away from home and sent me back on the road.’ 


Acceptance by the Criminal Fraternity

Some of the inmates at the penitentiary knew of and respected Smiler and on hearing Black’s story took him into their circle, adopting him as one of the ‘Johnson family’; denoting those who are ‘straight’ and to be trusted within the criminal fraternity. One such was Black’s old acquaintance George. George pretty much ruled the prison from the inside, aided by his second in command known by the moniker the Sanctimonious Kid, ‘Sanc' for short, and third in the pecking order, ’Soldier Johnnie’. Black also got close to a mature bank robber known as ‘Shorty’. ‘They had brains and character backed by courage and the valuable background of a reputation for doing things on the outside.’ All these characters make several further appearances in Black’s book. 

On George asking Black if he’d made any statement about the Smiler affair and was told he had not, George and his friends vowed to help Black beat the rap in no time at all with the help of a friendly Judge on the outside and no small amount of money available to them in the prison office from friends on the outside—with which they were able to buy favours. So comfortable and well fed were they that they often did not go to the prison dining room for a week: 

Loaves of fresh, hot bread were smuggled up from the bakery, and juicy steaks from the guard’s quarters. These creature comforts helped to take the curse off the place, and mitigate the prison pangs. Our light was put out, not when the nine o’clock bell rang, but when George, or Sanc or Johnnie felt like going to sleep.’ 

When the time came for Black to be put on a work detail he refused to work because Johnnie, who was something of a jail lawyer, had told him that they could not force prisoners to work who had not been convicted of a crime. When Black said this to the officer in charge of the work detail, he was marched to the office of the prison captain who ordered the ‘fresh kid’ to be thrown in the cooler until he changed his mind. The cooler was an empty cell (apart from a bucket to pee in) without any light, and steel floor and walls making it uncomfortable and cold to sleep in, there being no option but to lie on the steel floor. Black was only given one slice of bread and a quart of water a day, and so began a battle of wills between our hero and the, not unkindly, prison guards who kept pleading with him to weaken and promise to go to work. Black just saw the whole affair as a way of increasing his reputation with the other prisoners who were all well aware of his plight and waiting for him to crack. The first morning, teeth chattering from the cold, the guard arrived with his bread and water. On biting into the bread his teeth made contact with what turned out to be a chicken quill, and inside the quill was a note which Black could just about read by lying on the floor and using the crack of light from the bottom of the cell door. The note read, ‘Stick, we’ll feed you to-night.’ That evening at lock up, Black heard a low, grinding noise above the ceiling of his cell, partly muffled by a lot of walking to and fro, presumably to disguise the noise and keep an eye out for the guards. ‘Before nine o’clock there was an inch hole in the floor and strips of tender meat, long strips of bread, toasted to keep them together, cigarettes and matches, were being lowered into my cell.’ His friends had also bribed a prison guard to give Black a blanket. 

In this manner, Black survived three weeks in the cooler, never missing his evening meal, and only let out because he had to appear in court on the burglary charge looking half human. His friends apologised for not getting food to him the first night due to the complications of getting the two occupants of the cell above the cooler moved out, and two members of the ‘Johnson family’ moved in. On being advised by the judge to plead ‘not guilty’, a date for the hearing was set two days hence. In court, Black followed the judge’s instructions, pleaded not guilty and refused to answer any other questions. The woman who shot Smiler was asked if she saw any other person at the scene to which she replied ‘no’, and the detectives had no incriminating evidence to offer. The prosecutor argued with the judge about the lodging receipt, Black’s change of clothes, his absence from the room that night, and his refusal to make a statement. All of which drew irritation from the judge and some clear instructions to the jury. But given Black’s previous experience of the law, he was agitated and had no confidence of being quitted. He strolled backwards and forwards in the courtroom, each time a little closer to the courtroom door, and then finally, the court bailiff being busy talking to another man, out of the door and down the street. From there to the rail yards where he slept in a barn waiting for the next train out. After holding out in the blind baggage of a passenger train all night dodging the bulls at every stop, he was then arrested by a rail guard tapping away at a large pistol in his holster. In desperation and fear of being returned to the penitentiary, as the train pulled out and the last carriage was passing, Black used all his force to push the constable into a ditch and hoist himself back on the train. But just as he alighted the train, a guard came out through the end door of the car just in time to see the constable crawling out of the ditch and firing into the air, at the same time signalling to pull the cord to stop the train. Black jumped down straight into the arms of the constable, now reinforced with two locals from the depot, upon which all three set about him and gave him an ‘unmerciful skull dragging’. It turned out that the constable was part-time, doubling as the postmaster and section boss, and ‘a very decent fellow’. He apologised for the roughing Black got and brought him a banquet of food. To Black’s surprise, he had not been arrested for fleeing the court room but for trespass, a bunch of hobos had burned a string of boxcars and the ‘company’ had orders to arrest any suspicious characters on sight. Black also learned later from newspapers that a not guilty verdict had been pronounced before he walked out of the court and that the whole thing was already forgotten.

While serving his ten days in the local jail, Black gave a lot of thought to how he could raise the money he wanted to pay back George and Shorty for the money they had used to get him free. Black had learned a great deal from others during his month in the penitentiary about various ways of relieving fat post offices and country general stores of their cash, and was already planning his next move when on his release he had time to notice the large and unprotected safe in the store of the town he had been staying in. He got news to Sanc, who was due out imminently, where to meet up with him, and they agreed to wait for Soldier Johnnie also who only had another three weeks to serve. In the meantime they would survive on the money the older yeggs had available. Johnnie had no qualms about cracking the safe but was concerned that there was no obvious getaway; the night train did not stop at the town and the distance to Salt Lake was too far for horses. But Black had already anticipated this problem and come up with a foolproof plan. Sanc and Johnnie were to get themselves locked up for ten days in the same jail that Black had just been released from after cutting a set of keys for the jail. They would crack the safe and plant the loot before locking themselves back into the jail, thereby creating the perfect alibi. Black’s friends were amused by the plan and also convinced of its merits.

Being the apprentice burglar, the rough and unskilled work fell to Black, getting together the tools, dynamite, caps, etc., and planting them near the store. Johnnie and Sanc cut keys to fit the jail which they were to hide in their shoes, planting an additional set plus files in the jail itself. The store was full of arms and ammunition and the jail was empty. The only thing that could go wrong was that a couple of other bums would be thrown into the jail with them foiling their plans to leave and return to jail unnoticed:

Ten days later the burglary was reported in the papers. Four thousand dollars had been taken from the general store and the man hunt was on. … The theft was not discovered until opening-up time the next morning. The thieves were evidently experts and left behind them the most complete set of safe-breaking tools seen in years … They had escaped by taking a hand car from the section house. It was found wrecked several miles down the railroad track.

The gang met up at Salt Chunk Mary’s were they would be housed and fed for a month before returning to the plant to pick up the dollars. Pick it up Johnnie and Sanc did and split it into three equal shares, praising Black for his sharpness in locating the scene and planning the alibi. ‘But here’s the main reason we gave you an even cut of the coin. From the way you stepped up in Smiler’s case, and the way you took your jolt in the cooler at the ‘big house’ we knew you are ‘right.’ No small praise for the apprentice burglar who now admits that all the thoughts he had of quitting the road when he was hiding out covered in Smiler’s blood had gone. ‘Now I was safe, independent, the life fasciated me. No thoughts of home now.’ 

After this adventure, Black and Sanc set out for San Francisco leaving Johnnie to make his own way. On arriving in San Francisco, having learned his lesson from sharing lodgings with Smiler, Black and Sanc rented separate rooms, their dollars they put into safety deposit boxes to avoid any unnecessary bureaucracy with banks. They also purchased a couple of guns, and here Black writes a mini-thesis on how and where to purchase shooters. Sanc had to offer Back advice on what clothes to buy so as to make himself as inconspicuous as possible—people often remember what a person is wearing when they don’t recall their individual features. Sanc was often out of town and on one occasion provided Black with a list of fifty names and addresses he had paid for of people who carried insurance for valuables. Black’s job was to check out the addresses on the list against the criteria provided by Sanc: 

I want to know about dogs, kids, servants, sick people—everything. The house, the porch, the basement, the yard, the alley. … Don’t ask a question in the neighbourhood. Just walk by and look, or get a book or paper and read where you get a good look of the house and its occupants. … There was nothing of the Bill Sykes about Sanc. He ordered me to do things as a plumber would of an apprentice. I took orders and obeyed them as any apprentice should, cheerfully.” 

The details of the robbery that followed can be read in the original text but Black continues to learn the finer arts of the burglary game and minimising the chances of getting caught, like, for instance, not carrying away anything that would be difficult to dispose of or can be easily linked directly to the crime. When later in their room, for instance, and Black tore of a piece of a newspaper to wrap the jewels in, Sanc patiently said to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be just as well to take the balance of that paper and throw it away, Kid? Why leave it in the room? It fits the piece you have in your pocket. And be sure to throw that junk away.’ The latter referring to settings from which the stones have been ‘unharnessed’ and though having some value, are not worth a fraction of the stones themselves but could be linked directly back to the burglary. When Sanc noticed that a button was missing of Black’s new suit jacket, he ordered that to be thrown away also. “Old Captain Lees (you’ve heard of him) would give that button to one of his smart young ‘dicks’ and and stand him on the Richelieu corner … He would stand there from four in the afternoon till midnight waiting for you to come along, which you do every evening.’

Sanc was not above silently breaking into someone’s bedroom while they were asleep in the early hours of the morning, even removing their wallet from under their pillow while they were snoring. Before leaving on his next trip, Sanc left Black with the further task of renting hotel rooms for the night and registering from out town, then cutting duplicate keys and planting them in safe locations for future use. ‘In a week you'll have keys to half a dozen good transient rooms in the best hotels, and I might get some real money out of them.’  When he was not ‘working’, wearing an inconspicuous old suit and with only a small amount of silver in his pocket, Black hung out around the Barbary Coast and the water front where tattooed, seafaring men from around the globe spent their time drinking, fighting and singing their strange songs. He also spent time in the ‘wine dumps’ where winos drank various concoctions and ate from large cauldrons of stew. The fascination of the latter category was that the winos where drawn from every walk of life, 

Scholars, quoting Greek and Latin poets, lawyers dissecting Blackstone, writers with greasy roles of manuscript fraternised with broken bums from the road, sailors too old for the sea, and scrapped mechanics from the factories—all under the lash of alcohol. … This pitiful crew, gathered from the four corners of the earth … drank themselves purple in the wine dumps and died on the floors or under the city sidewalks.’ 


Yegg Philosopher and Further Adventures

Black also describes the culture and habits of the dope fiend, acknowledging that, at the time, morphine and opium cost little more than tobacco and that a days supply could be bought for fifty cents. The ‘hypos’, he describes as frequenting the ‘cook ovens’ built at the back of Chinese lodging houses, warm places to sleep and take advantage of the charitable generosity of their Chinese proprietors. Black claims that the term ‘yegg’ originated in these Chinese boarding houses, being a corruption of the way the Chinese referred to beggars as ‘yekk man’. ‘In no time it had a verb hung on it, and to yegg meant to beg. … It’s meaning has since widened until now the term “yegg” includes all criminals whose work is “heavy”.’ 

Black also refers to the fact—applying to him also—that what maintained the yegg’s criminal behaviour was his addiction to gambling and high living, often drugs and alcohol also. ‘I experimented and soon laid a solid foundation for the faro-bank habit which fastened on me later and kept me broke for years.’ And so, no matter how great the haul from their most recent heist, it was simply not in a yegg’s nature to invest their takings in buying a farm, store or other business and go straight. Few ever did, rather spending half of their lives in penitentiaries before serving out their time, linking up with old friends again, and returning to crime until they became to old to ‘work’ and drifted into becoming bums or junkies. The criminal’s life was habitual, no other option was considered. It was at the faro table one night, watching another player lose heavily, that Black was reacquainted with his old saviour and mentor George. Only too happy to repay former debts, Black gave his friend twenty dollars which was repaid soon afterwards.

After this latest meeting with George in Butte, Montanna, which permanently cemented their friendship, Black headed out for Seattle via Spokane. He looks back with some regret that he did not stop off at one of those ‘spots of golden opportunity’ all those years ago, bought land with his money instead of gambling it away, and become independent from the ‘harmful life’ he subsequently embarked upon. Yet he acknowledges that ‘land hunger’ is not a condition he inherited; that he had no more desire for it at the time he wrote his book than he did when he was at the height of his career as a criminal. ‘I had now become so saturated with the underworld atmosphere that no though of any kind of honest endeavor entered my mind.’ Black calculates that your average journeyman mechanic will handle more money in twenty years than any first-class burglar and that at the end of that time will have a home, family and money in the bank. In contrast, the most persistent and industrious burglar is lucky to have his liberty, and if he does he will be too old and broken to learn a new trade, and would not be offered work if he could. ‘He has the prison horrors, and turns to cheap larcenies and spends the balance of his life doing short term sentences in small jails.’ 

An earlier story about George—the reason behind him shooting another hobo—suggests that he might have been the brother of Salt Chunk Mary. After George was released from one of his many incarcerations, Black, George and other friends met up at Salt Chunk Mary’s in Pocatello for a reunion. After exhausting their hospitality at Mary’s they all headed out for to ‘hobo convention’. Black describes, in fascinating detail, this grand get-together of vagabonds from all across the Country, many of whom were carrying substantial funds from their nefarious deeds:

Bums, thieves, beggars and yeggs appeared as if they had magic carpets. … Cripples discarded their crutches and hopped about the camper grotesquely. “Crawlers” with cut-off legs swung themselves along on their hands drunkenly, like huge toads.

Each day the bums drank more and ate less, partly because the camp cooks were too drunk to prepare food. The hobos started fighting and snarling at each other and an air of gloom soon descended on the camp. Then one day, just as able drinkers and funds for liquor had run dry, a fresh contingent of ‘brass peddlers’ arrived with a large assortment of gold jewellery led by a yegg named Gold Tooth. It was after Gold Tooth went to Salt Chunk Mary’s to off-load his haul that the trouble started. George, Black and others were seated at one of the camp fires when Gold Tooth returned with his cloths in shreds, covered in blood and raving. He told how when he tried to fence his gold, Salt Chunk Mary had hit him on the back of the head with a bottle and kicked him when he fell to the ground, and that he was going back that very night to burn Mary’s place to the ground. Whereupon George pulled a pistol from beneath his coat and shot Gold Tooth twice in the chest. Black tells how he could feel the slugs hitting Gold Tooth from six feet away. They then headed out for the railroad yard leaving Soldier Johnnie behind ‘to intimidate any of the weaker bums who might talk’, but also shoo them out of Pocatello.

After successfully beating a train out of Pocatello, George and Black were picked up by the police in Butte and George charged with the murder. In spite of Soldier Johnnie’s best efforts someone had ratted on George. Yet back in Pocatello the police had no hard evidence and when they took George and Black down to the mortuary and threw back the covers on George’s victim expecting him to crack, George cooly placed a hand on the dead man’s brow then held his arm out at full length, palm up, saying to the officer:

“If I killed that man, there’s the hand that held the gun, and there’s the finger that pulled the trigger” (jerking his index finger back and forth), and, pulling up his coat sleeve, “there’s my pulse! Do you want to feel it?” ’ 

After locking the pair up and getting nothing from a further week of questioning, the town marshal, his patience exhausted and a hanging denied him, had the court sentence George and Black to six months for vagrancy. And so it was that the town fixer, Salt Chunk Mary, went to work and persuaded the judge to suspend the sentences on the promise that the miscreants would leave and stay out of town on the condition that if they ever returned they would have to serve out their full sentences. 

Back in Butte, Black commenced his apprenticeship in safe breaking under the able tutorship of George, jumping from one state to another and avoiding large cities, living on the road and in hobo jungles, occasionally playing the faro bank. ‘When we got a decent piece of money we quit stealing until it was almost spent, but while we were spending it we always tried to locate new spots against the day when we would be broke.’ George was now passed fifty but had no thought of giving up the vagabond life. ‘He was as much attached to his trade as any carpenter or bricklayer, and went about it as methodically as any mechanic.’ George’s cold-blooded killing of Gold Tooth earned him a certain fear and wariness from the hobo fraternity but fate was to see George end his life in similar violence. 

The pair had heard about a vulnerable safe in a town twenty miles from any railroad, containing three to four thousand dollars in paper money and gold pieces. They meticulously planned out their modus operandi, all the townsfolk would be tucked up in bed by ten o’clock, they would make their getaway on horseback and find a safe place to stash their takings. George successfully blew the door of the safe, emptied its contents, but as George led his horse out through the stable door, he was confronted by a man with a shotgun who accused George of being a horse thief—even though they had hired the horses—and fired both barrels at point blank range nearly lifting George of his feet before he got a chance to pull out his own gun. As the shooter reloaded, Black had time to dash through a side door of the stable and hid in a cellar he knew to be below the general store. There he hid for the rest of the night and most of the following night before hunger and thirst drove him out of his hiding place. It took Black four days to get to the main line of the railway, scavenging for food in fields and gardens on route. He also had to decide where to stash the ‘three thousand dollars of “green and greasy,” worn paper money’ he had managed to escape with. In spite of knowing that George could not possibly have survived the shooting, he owed it to George to protect the money he had sacrificed his life to steal. Black was to read later that the livery-stable owner who had been up early that morning to go duck shooting, knowing nothing of the robbery at the time he surprised George, found a further two thousand dollars in gold coins on George which was returned to the county.  

Most of the money Black kept from the robbery he spent during his later adventures in Chicago, culminating in the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Needing additional funds to survive the coming winter, and having second thoughts about heading for New York after advice that it was, ‘The toughest town in the United States for an outsider to get by in’, Black headed West for the Dakota harvest fields. And here we are provided with an account of the tough plight of harvest hands, the working hobos who sweated for their money only to be relieved of it by the yeggs who prayed on them: ‘Harvest workers were called blanket stiffs or gay cats, and the process of pistoling them away from their money was known as catting them up.’ NOTE: other accounts refer to ‘gay cats’ simply as young, inexperienced hobos. This cruel operation found train guards and yeggs working alongside each other to relieve the harvest workers of their wages. The brakemen charged the harvest workers to ride in the train boxcars unmolested, then the yeggs took their money at gunpoint, made them jump from the open boxcar doors, then split the proceeds with the train crew. Not an enterprise that ‘professional’ yeggs like Black would have ever considered or condoned. Needless to say the process of catting was short lived as the harvest workers soon learned that it was more profitable to travel from the harvest fields as paying passengers. 

Though still only a youth of twenty three years, Black’s reputation soon became legendary among the yegg community as the trusted partner of George, and the comrade present at his death; a story Black repeated readily. ‘Being young I naturally got puffed up and superior. I looked wise and mysterious, said nothing, and “connected” only with the higher-ups among the knights of the road.’ With winter setting in and no money, Black headed up into Canada and west for Vancouver, arriving at a one of the larger towns in British Columbia with only one dollar left in his pocket. In the town he noticed a safe of a type easily opened without the use of explosives and decided it was time to test his abilities at safe-cracking on his own. Everything went smoothly but the safe held nothing but a single roll of bills. Black got aboard a train headed for Vancouver at one hour after midnight but planned to leave it earlier and head back south over the border. But his luck ran out as the train encountered a small avalanche of rocks and snow across the line. It would have been suicide to leave the train and so Black stashed all but the change he had from one of the bills and waited for the arrival of constables from the town to learn his fate. The train guard produced the bill Black had used to purchase his ticket which was later identified as one of the bills stolen from the safe. Black was locked up in the local jail where he spent the rest of the winter with a Chinese cellmate. When Spring arrived, he cut through the cell bars with saws brought in by his cellmate’s cousins from Vancouver and the pair made their getaway and headed straight for that city. Black later received a letter of thanks and recommendation from that city’s Chinese community for safely returning his former cellmate. A letter that would later save him from another jail sentence, though not a beating from associates of the Chinese storekeeper he tried to rob. 

At this point in his narrative Black now provides his own critique of the mindset of the criminal community, acknowledging that, ‘It’s difficult to explain to a layman the pride of a professional thief.’ And he is not speaking here of the opportunist thief who preys on those even less fortunate than themselves; the professional yegg served a long apprenticeship in a particular line of thievery and had their own code of honour. For instance, he always bought his own clothes unless desperation forced him otherwise, he never dodged paying for his board and lodgings, and would never borrow money without thought of repaying it. In Black’s case, he even took a jail sentence himself rather than incriminate a friend. Of course, his ‘own’ money was stolen from others, but in his mind it was hard earned and he acknowledges that he would have been better off making an honest living if he had known how to do it. He fell into the life of a criminal at a young age and knew no other trade, even though he admits throughout his book that he was always fully aware that what he was doing was wrong. 

I had not spent one hour in the company of an honest person. … I thought in terms of theft. Houses were built to be burglarised, citizens were to be robbed, police to be avoided and hated, stool pigeons to be chastised, and thieves to be cultivated and protected. That was my code; the code of my companions.’ 

When Black first took up his trade he found it adventurous and thrilling. ‘Later it became an everyday, cold-blooded business.’ And part of being good at his business, he admits, was always to put himself in the place of his victims, the police, and the judges. Not to do so would have prevented him from doing his best work and also from opportunities to protect himself when ‘laid by the heels’. But for all Black’s philosophising, his addiction to gambling, and later to opium, was probably the primary reason for not escaping a life of crime and jail earlier than he did. As he later acknowledges, the ‘gambling habit is the curse of a thief’s life’, it separates the burglar from his takings as fast as he acquires it, and when he is down to his last dime and gets hungry, he is not clear thinking and takes chances he would not take when calculating the risks of a burglary at leisure. 


Doing Time and Lessons in Penology

But pickings were still rich at this time, and in Victoria B.C. where we now encounter Black, he notes that house burglary was almost unknown. On the occasion of his next burglary, however, he had the misfortune to pick on the house of a local attorney, the even greater misfortune of being seen by the man’s house-servant, and the further catastrophe that he was recognised at the local jail as the person who had escaped from the other jail in B.C. A strange twist of this particular story is that the English attorney who’s money Black had stolen, turn out to be a kindly soul who waived any claim to his lost money, wished Black good luck with his case, and gave him a copy of Charles Read’s, Its Never Too Late to Mend, on the promise that he would read the book. An education Black was denied until years later as the book was taken from him on route to a new, securer jail that had been built in the town (Black avoids naming the town) from which he had escaped less than a year earlier. When it came, his sentence of two years in the local penitentiary was mild considering the charges involved both a burglary and a jail break, but it was stiffened with the added penalty of thirty lashes that caused Black no little amount of anxiety.

Black was determined to take his lashes when they came without crying out, and bite his tongue if necessary to suppress any outward signs of suffering. But the first blow when it came, ‘was like a bolt of lightening; it shocked and burned’. The sensation of jumping six feet in the air was invalidated by the fact he was trussed tightly to the whipping frame. Black acknowledges that Mr Burr, who performed the lashing, was a master at his art having served his apprenticeship as a flogging master in the British Navy. By the time his punishment was over, Black describes, ‘trembling like a helpless calf under the hot branding iron.’ But Black was not humbled or humiliated by the experience as was the intended outcome. Rather he walked away with ‘fresh confidence’ and his head held high, recalling Nietzsche’s maxim that what did not kill him would strengthen him. Acknowledging that the whipping post is a strange place to gather new confidence, Black later uses the further analogy of steel being tempered by fire: ‘I give thanks that I had the metal to take the temper and hold it’. Black’s psychology about facing the brutalities of the penal system was particular to him but, in any event, taking the worst of the violence that the prison authorities could throw at him removed all Black’s fears about the place.

However, Black’s prison experience and new found confidence gained inside prison did not necessarily serve him well on the outside. On serving his sentence and returning to Vancouver, he reports that frequent house burglaries in the small hours of the night had left him a nervous wreck and that to calm his nerves he eventually gave in to smoking opium. Acknowledging that eventually, ‘every house prowler turns to booze or drugs.’ In Black’s case though, his strength of temperament did allow him to kick the habit with little discomfort when he became more aware of the devastating effects of long term opium use. 

Black’s story now moves on to an eight year sentence he took in Folsom prison for a jewellery heist in order to save his partner in crime from doing the time; even though it was the other fellow’s fault they got caught and there was no evidence linking Black to the crime. Black describes the brutal regime in Folsom at the time under the superintendence of warden Thomas Wilkinson. The previous warden had abused the use of straight jackets to such a degree that inmates went mad, were maimed, even killed as a result of the abuse of this method of punishment. Under warden Wilkinson, these brutalities were increased and added to, to such a degree that the prisoners eventually revolted in the infamous Folsom Prison breakout on July 27th 1903. The prisoners needed a leader and organiser who appeared in the person of Dick Gordon. According to Black, Gordon was a modest, kindly and intelligent twenty three year old with previous prison experience, now serving a forty-five year sentence with little to lose and everything to gain by escaping.

Gordon hand picked thirteen trusted accomplices and they planned to take the guards at knifepoint during their morning meeting in the Captain’s office. The prisoners, armed with with knives made in the prison blacksmith shop, dropped out of line by the Captain’s office and rushed the Captain, Warden Wilkinson and eight other officers. Only two officers tried to resit, the first was killed instantly and the second, the much hated turnkey who was responsible for lacing the prisoners up in the straightjackets, was stabbed by several of the prisoners and left for dead. He survived the attack and would later brutally punish those recaptured and as well as those prisoners who had noting to do with the escape. The Warden, Captain and remaining six officers were marched to the prison armoury where the prisoners armed themselves with guns and ammunition. They then headed for the hills with their hostages but Gordon personally prevented the Warden, the Captain and other guards from being murdered in spite of calls from his comrades for the Warden’s life. They were later all released and returned to the prison. Gordon and five of the others escaped and were never seen again, one of the escapees returned voluntarily to the prison and six others were later captured. 

Needless to say, the press had a field day with the story. On the day of the breakout The Oakland Tribune indulged in such headlines as: 

FOURTEEN DESPERATE CONVICTS AFTER A FIERCE BATTLE CAPTURE WARDEN WILKINSON, CAPTAIN MURPHY AND GUARDS AND MAKE ESCAPE OVER HILLS THREE GUARDS HORRIBLY STABBED BY PRISONERS’. 

When the Officers Made a Show of of Resistance Then Blood Began to Flow.’

The Warden's clothing was slashed into shreds with a razor but the blade did not touch the flesh. C. J. Cochrane, turnkey of the prison, entered the office … He rained blows upon them right and left, but he was felled by a knife through his back. It is thought he may die. William L. Cotter, a guard, was cut in the abdomen so that his entrails protruded.

What the media did not question in the immediate aftermath of the breakout was, what could have lead to such a desperate mutiny in the first place? Even so, Warden Wilkinson was replaced by an inexperienced warden who allowed Captain Murphy’s lust for revenge to go unchecked. Black did not escape these punishments and with only three months left to serve with his two years and eight months credit for good behaviour, he knew that Murphy was out to take them away. He was accused of holding opium and when he denied the charge was ordered to be examined by the doctor. Black knew this meant checking to see if he was fit for the straight jacket and acknowledges that although he had been flogged, starved and ‘third degreed’—all taken with a grin—he was not confident that he could survive the straight jacket ordeal without confessing to where he had his stash of opium hidden; never mind the effects that going without the hop would have on him.

The doctor gave him the all clear to be straight jacketed and he was taken to the prison dungeon where the turnkey, Cochrane, now recovered from his terrible wounds, was waiting with the heavy canvas jacket that had long pockets on the inside to hold the prisoner’s arms to their side and eyelets down the back to take the rope that could lace up the jacket tight enough to stop a prisoner’s circulation and breath. Black was thrown on the floor face down and as Cochrane preceded to pull the laces tight, he declared, “You fellows tried to kill me; now its my time.” Black was left trussed up in this fashion for three days and Cochrane visitited him hourly to ask if he was ready to give up the hop. When Black denied having it he was trussed up even tighter. The torture became so unbearable that he rolled his way to the side and tried to knock his head unconscious on the cell wall. Cochrane dragged Black back to the middle of the cell and he did not have the strength to roll back again. The guard, who had genuine sympathy for Black’s situation, pleaded with him to yell or scream out, telling him that they would release him as it was no longer acceptable for prisoners to die in this fashion. But Black was determined that his fellow inmates would not hear him scream out. 

On the second day the doctor ordered Black to be temporarily released from the jacket but before they returned, Black had determined to kill himself. He managed to remove a metal eyelet from one of his shoes and sharpened it on the cell floor, but try as he may he could not cut his veins and eventually gave up and waited until morning. Under the torment of the straight jacket, Black found that he gave no thought at all to his opium habit, something which led him to the conviction that the addiction was psychological and not physical. Cochrane returned at eight the next morning, Black again denied having hop, and was again laced up in the jacket. He fell into a stupor and resolved that he would ask to speak to Captain Murphy, confess that the hop was hidden by the river bank, but then instead of revealing its hiding place, would throw his arms around the captain and pull him into the river where they could both, “cease from troubling.”

On the forth morning, Cochrane returned with the jacket telling Black that he just as well confess where the hop was stashed as he would not last out the day. But when Black still refused to confess, the turnkey motioned to two of the trustees to carry Black back to his own cell. His three months passed quickly but he was still feeling the effects of the jacket on his release, Black swore to himself never again to make any friends or ‘do another decent thing’. Out of revenge, he got himself a gun, some money, and returned to Fulsom by stealth where he claims that he ‘flooded the place with hop.’

Back in San Francisco, Black was arrested again by a cop who swore that he tried to shoot him and was given a twenty-five year sentence. The earthquake and great fire of San-Francisco occurred while Black was awaiting for his appeal in that case and all his court and police records destroyed. Now in limbo, he could not be charged or released. He went from the county jail, to Alcatraz, and then to a branch jail in Ingleside where he spent six years, saying that he could have filled a whole book with stories about what took place during that stretch. He didn’t. He did succeed though, with the help of a friend on the outside, to saw through the cell bars and make his escape to Canada. There was a hue and cry over his escape, saved only by the fact that, although seriously ill, malnourished, and still hooked on opium, he made his way to Vancouver travelling first class. ‘No police officer who knows his business would think of looking in a Pullman sleeper or diner for a fugitive hop-fiend yegg with a twenty-five-year sentence hanging on him.’ (276)

In Vancouver he paid a landlady a month’s rent, telling her that he was a sick man and would not be venturing from his room. The landlady took pity on Black, saw to all his needs and helped him back to health. Black also used this time to come off the opium habit that he had been on for the previous ten years. It took him six months to kick the habit completely before Black went ‘back on the road’, avoiding cities, and train hopping his way through Canada. On crawling out of a box car in the town of Strathcona, he decided to find somewhere quiet to rest up for a few days. On entering a boarding house he was confronted by no lesser person than Salt Chunk Mary, fifteen years following reports that she had disappeared. Black immediately greeted her, mentioning something about the last time they were together in Pocatello, but he was met by a cold stare and the response, “You are mistaken; you don’t know me. My names not Mary, and I was never in Pocatello in my life.” Knowing Mary as he did, Black simply accepted that she must have taken a decision to start a new life and spend her remaining days in peace. Black went on his way, living as a highwayman, and never saw Mary again. 

Inevitably, Black was eventually arrested and, by chance, identified as a fugitive from Californian justice. The first person to visit him back in jail in San Francisco was the last attorney he had hired and who, remembering that Black had paid him the fifty dollars he owed him before escaping from jail, decided that he owed Black the courtesy to stop by. Black was informed that his status had not changed since his escape and that his appeal was still pending. He was also visited by Fremont Older, editor of the San Francisco Call, who had previously befriended Black and tried to get the judge to give him an opportunity to kick his opium habit and go straight. If Black was worried that his benefactor would have been sore that he had broken out of jail, he need not have worried. Older told him that had done the right thing as, given the state Black had been in, there was a real possibility that he would have died in prison. He was please to note that Black was looking much healthier and told him, to Black’s surprise, that the district attorney had confided to him that he believed Black had served enough time in prison. It was a big risk for the judge to reduce Black’s sentence, given that his reputation would suffer if Black did not meet his side of the bargain and go straight. In the event, Black’s twenty-five year sentence was reduced to one year and Black read out a lengthy pre-prepared statement to the court about how he had learned the error of his ways and would endeavour to use his experience to dissuade young people from a life of crime. 

Back in San Quentin to serve out his final sentence, Black encountered his old friend Soldier Johnnie. They took a week to compare notes and catch up on each others lives. Johnnie told Black that the Sanctimonious Kid had escaped from prison before finishing his five year stretch, and had gone to Australia where he was hanged for killing a police constable. Black in turn told him the story of George’s demise and Mary’s disappearance to the Far North. In his book, which Black acknowledges was written thirteen years after being released at the end of the ten months he eventually served in San Quentin, he says, ‘Johnnie finished his time first, and went back to the road, where he probably will live out his life and die unwept, unhonoured and unhung.’


Retirement from Crime 

On his release, Fremont Older offered to take Black out for a meal. Acknowledging his dislike of swanky restaurants but his liking for ‘quick contrasts’ Black considered, ‘I had my breakfast in San Quentin, so why not lunch at the Palace?’ (289) Following lunch, Older invited Black to join him at his ranch for a few days to get get his bearings before finding his first straight job. The first of these was as cashier in a pool room, a few months later as a salesmen in the book department of The Emporium, following which, the job he still held at the time of writing his book, librarian on the Call, courtesy of Fremont Older. During his writing period Black was also involved in journalism, writing essays and participating in lecture tours.

Black summed up his life of crime by acknowledging that he had failed as a thief but was luckier than most of them having quit with is life and his liberty. Half of his thirty years as a criminal he had spent in prison and he calculated that around fifty thousand dollars had passed through his hands during the other fifteen years—about nine dollars a day, much of which ‘went to lawyers, fixers, bondsmen and other places.’ ‘What price larceny, burglary, and robbery?’ (292) But Black acknowledges that at fifty years old he was much healthier than many of his contemporaries. ‘I have no money, no wife, no auto. I have no dog. I have neither a radio set nor a rubber plant—I have no troubles.

We do not know how Black lived out the rest of his life but it is likely that the physical and mental trauma of his former life eventually caught up with him. It is thought that he drowned himself around ten years after writing his book—six years after its publication—after telling friends that if life got too much for him he would row out into New York Harbour and drop overboard with weights tied to his feet. In his darker moments Black described this state of mind as being ‘ready for the river.’














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