Jack Boyle’s life between the years of 1908 and 1914 is a bit of a mystery. Despite having published an autobiographical essay in 1914 — “A Modern Opium Eater” — Boyle gave relatively few specifics regarding the years of his drug addiction. The essay relates a few anecdotes, and mentions multiple jail terms, but is curiously stingy with specific places and dates. In truth, the period between his fall from grace as a journalist and the publication of his early efforts in fiction six years later under the pseudonym No. 6606 is largely a blank.
However, bits and pieces of Boyle’s “lost” years do occasionally surface. In “A Modern Opium Eater,” Jack shares this tidbit: “After I abandoned newspaper work I dabbled in many semi-legitimate businesses. I occupied myself with prize-fight promotion, gambling clubs and stock tricks, all verging on swindles …” While certainly indicative of the downward spiral at the verge of which he was upon, this admission is still rather lacking in specifics. But it ties in nicely with the following item from the April 24, 1909 edition of The San Francisco Call:
Of course, it’s difficult to prove definitively that the J.A. Boyle who served as the founding president of the Portola Club was the same disgraced journalist, John A. “Jack” Boyle. But another aspect of the Call‘s article is very suggestive. It identifies the club’s secretary as George W. Schilling … and when he had been sporting editor for The San Francisco Examiner, one of Jack Boyle’s employees was George W. Schilling. (For further info on Boyle and Schilling, see the August 17, 2015 entry to this blog, “The Misadventures of Jack Boyle – circa 1907”.)
So in the Spring of 1909, Jack Boyle was the president of a sporting club. This seems a fairly wholesome pursuit for a shady opium addict … until you reflect on Boyle’s comment that he dabbled in prize-fight promotions which bordered on swindles. It would seem that part of the reason the Portola Club came into being was to facilitate Jack Boyle’s schemes connected to the sport of boxing.
Given the notoriety Jack Boyle garnered in the journalistic world after falling victim to opium addiction, it is often forgotten that he was once a very respected newsman in San Francisco. Here is a rare glimpse from the days of J.A. Boyle, up-and-coming reporter, as seen in the April 24, 1902 edition of The San Francisco Call.
The case under discussion here is that of Fred “Young Dutchy” Hansted, accused of assaulting Thomas Garrett, publisher of The San Francisco Post, in broad daylight on a city street. Why Jack Boyle was in court to relay word that Garrett was unable to leave the hospital is unclear. He is known to have worked for The Post later in the decade, but is thought to have been employed by The San Francisco Examiner in 1902. On the other hand, Jack is known to have worked for a number of newspapers in that area between 1900 and 1909, often moving back and forth between them. So it’s entirely possible that he worked for both The Post and The Examiner at various points in 1902. Regardless, it is odd that he is cited here as addressing the court, rather than attending the proceedings as part of his duties covering the crime beat.
For that matter, the entire circumstance surrounding the assault trial seems odd. Early reports indicated that Fred Hansted witnessed the assault on Thomas Garrett, and rushed to the publisher’s defense. After Hansted helped him to safety, Garrett was then reported to insist that the police detain him so the publisher could file charges against him. After months of court appearances and continuances, a jury ultimately acquitted Hansted in October 1902. Whether or not the true assailant was ever caught, and why Garrett tried to lay the blame on Hansted, seems now to be lost to history. Though the idea was dismissed at the time, at least one contemporary report of the incident conjectured that the entire affair was a publicity stunt to increase exposure for The Post. So even during his days as a legitimate journalist, Jack Boyle was involved (at least peripherally) in a questionable situation or two.
Over the years, many performers have portrayed Boston Blackie and his beloved Mary, in media ranging from cinema to radio to television. First seen in illustrations for the pages of The American and The Red Book magazines , the “first couple” of the underworld was given form by artists such as N.C. Wyeth and W.H.D. Koerner. But the first flesh and blood pair to bring the characters to life on the silver screen were Bert Lytell and Rhea Mitchell, in Metro Pictures’ 1918 production Boston Blackie’s Little Pal.
Lytell looks appropriately suave and dashing in the role of Blackie, with Mitchell a fine image of Mary. And director E. Mason Hopper’s cinematic interpretation of the Red Book tale seems to adhere closely to Jack Boyle’s original plot (as evidenced by this item from the September 14, 1918 issue of Exhibitor’s Herald):
Lytell would play Blackie again in the 1919 offering Blackie’s Redemption, but that production saw actress Alice Lake assume the role of Mary. However, her performance in Boston Blackie’s Little Pal endows Rhea Mitchell the indisputable title of cinema’s first Boston Blackie’s Mary.
Not so long ago (April 13, 2015, for those of you keeping score), I wrote a post discussing the long unseen, unexpurgated version of Jack Boyle’s story “The Woman Called Rita.” In its original incarnation, the tale was a sequel to “Boston Blackie’s Mary,” opening with Blackie’s attempt to flee the country in the wake of his escape from prison in the previous story. Boyle’s original version of this yarn revealed that Blackie and Mary planned to flee to Central America aboard the steamship Colon, only to be thwarted by a mechanical failure in the ship’s boiler room.
It’s interesting to note that there really was an ocean-going vessel out of San Francisco known as the Colon, owned by the city’s Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company and sailing a regular route between New York and Panama. In fact, the Colon made her trans-Pacific run for many decades, so when Jack Boyle needed a realistic means of spiriting his criminal hero out of the country, the Pacific Mail’s trusty steamer was an excellent option.
the Steamship Colon
Though Blackie and Mary never managed to make their escape to Central America, nevertheless the Colon once carried a cargo precious to Jack Boyle. In fact, the steamer had a major influence on his family’s history. Note the following item from the July 24, 1873 edition of the San Francisco newspaper The Daily Alta California:
Among the passengers reported arriving in San Francisco that July were S.A. Boyle and O.M. Boyle … known less formally as Sarah Boyle (Jack’s grandmother) and Olin McClintock Boyle (Jack’s father). Prior to 1873, both were lifelong inhabitants of the East Coast. But after studying at West Point and working on several newspapers in Pennsylvania, Olin decided to take a chance on finding his fortune out West (apparently bringing his mother along for the trip). It was the Colon that brought the Boyle family to California, where eight years later Jack would be born.
It’s hardly surprising that when Jack needed a ship on which his main character might depart to make a fresh start, he chose the Colon. Not only would many readers of the time find the name familiar, but the steamer also held a place in his own family history. Sadly, Blackie and Mary were never to make their passage to another life upon her decks, but the Colon certainly played a part in changing the lives of the Boyle family.
By the way, while Blackie and Mary never managed to sail for Panama, not many months later they did take a momentous voyage aboard a steamship. And that vessel had a real-life counterpart whose history inspired one of Boston Blackie’s most elaborate heists. But that’s a story for another blog post.
This announcement from the July 21, 1923 issue of Camera! is puzzling, and just plain wrong on several levels. Laura La Plante was the female lead in a Boston Blackie production from Universal in 1923, but it was most certainly not a serial. And Miss La Plante did not play Mary. And the film was not titled The Heart of Boston Blackie. And it was not based on a story from The Red Book Magazine. Oh, and it didn’t feature any of the actors mentioned as candidates for the role of Blackie. So just what was this film that Camera! tried almost in vain to promote?
By late summer of 1923, newspapers and magazines ran a number of items about Laura La Plante’s upcoming appearance in Universal’s Boston Blackie film The Daughter of Crooked Alley, but by the time it was released to theaters on November 7, 1923 its title had been shortened to simply Crooked Alley. This early item from Camera! makes it sound as though the film was based on a story in The Red Book, also titled “The Heart of Boston Blackie,” while most other press promoting the film claimed its source was Jack Boyle’s popular magazine tale “A Daughter of Crooked Alley.” In actuality, no magazine ever published such a story by Boyle. Crooked Alley’s scenario was adapted from an original story written expressly for the screen by Jack Boyle. And though Laura La Plante was the film’s female lead, she played Noreen Tyrell (as Blackie’s Mary is noticeably absent from the film). Finally, though Herbert Rawlinson did star in a Jack Boyle inspired drama — Stolen Secrets — in 1924, he never played Boston Blackie. In Crooked Alley, that role went to actor Thomas Carrigan.
Though Camera! went far wide of the mark in announcing this production, today Crooked Alley is one of only two Boston Blackie movies from the silent era known to have survived in its entirety. A print is held in the film archives of the University of California Los Angeles, and it was was screened at the 2002 UCLA Festival of Preservation. Perhaps one day it will be made more widely available to modern day fans of Jack Boyle.
Richard Kollmar is the performer most associated with portraying Boston Blackie on radio, holding the distinction of having played the role more times than any other actor in any medium. But in its earliest incarnation, as a 1944 summer replacement series on NBC, the Blackie radio program was an extension of the Columbia Pictures series of b-movies, and brought Chester Morris to the airwaves to reprise his starring role from the silver screen. The following piece from the June 16, 1944 edition of The Bluefield Telegraph is one of the earliest announcements of Blackie’s transition to radio:
Amos ‘n’ Andy eventually came back from vacation to reclaim their spot on NBC, but Boston Blackie wasn’t about to relinquish his status as a radio sleuth. Under the auspices of Ziv Productions, the series remained in production until 1951, and available in syndication well beyond that. Not bad, for a character created nearly 40 years earlier.