The Riddle of the Bogus Boyle

April 27, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

In early 1921, several trade publications catering to the writing and movie-making industries carried items similar to the following announcement from the April issue of the Boston based publication THE WRITER:

An impostor has been impersonating Courtney Ryley Cooper and Jack Boyle and these two writers have sent a printed circular of warning to editors.  They describe the man as six feet tall, with long hair brushed back from his forehead and strongly resembling Raymond Hitchcock in mannerism, cast of countenance, and general build, especially in size and shape of mouth and chin.  His name is not known … The Cooper-Boyle man is reported as having worked in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Texas, and the South in general, passing bad checks, etc.

That an impostor scammed money by passing bad checks in Jack Boyle’s name is ironic, as the real Boyle was arrested several times over the years for actually committing that particular crime himself.  Likewise, it’s interesting that someone should assume the identity of Jack Boyle in the 1920s, as he had been party to a literary imposture just seven years earlier.  In 1914, Boyle was granted early parole from the Canon City Penitentiary in Colorado, largely due to the efforts of celebrated San Francisco author Rufus Steele, who was visiting Denver at the time.  Upon his release, Boyle secured employment with THE SUNLIGHT MAGAZINEa newly-founded Denver publication, and soon was able to convince author Steele to submit stories and articles to the fledgling magazine to help establish a readership.  The endeavor collapsed in a matter of weeks, however, when it was revealed that the man calling himself “Rufus” Steele was, in fact, a charlatan named Wililam F. Steele, who had been travelling the country impersonating the well-known west coast writer.  Boyle claimed to be ignorant of the deception, but did admit that he had written everything appearing in THE SUNLIGHT under Steele’s byline.

So, in 1914 Jack Boyle was “innocently” involved in the theft of another writer’s identity, though accounts from the period identify the impostor himself as William F. Steele.  Strange that Boyle should be party to a literary imposture, only to have his own identity stolen in a similar circumstance by an unknown fraudster just a few years later.  Or is the impostor so unknown?

Hitchcock-Steele

The man pictured on the left above is actor Raymond Hitchcock, a popular performer on the silent screen.  The 1921 announcement in THE WRITER says that the man impersonating Boyle bore a resemblance to Hitchcock in countenance and build.  Pictured on the right is is William F. Steele, known literary impostor who passed himself off as Rufus Steele on multiple occasions, both before and after his association with Jack Boyle.  While the two are not identical, there is a more than passing resemblance between them.

Can it be mere coincidence that Boyle’s identity was stolen by a man who resembled Raymond Hitchcock, when he had previously been associated with just such a man in a scheme to impersonate a well-known writer?  While the connection is unlikely to ever be definitively proven at this late date, a visual comparison certainly suggests that William F. Steele probably expanded the scope of his literary impersonations to trade off the celebrity of his old crony Jack Boyle.  Since this is all merely educated speculation, whether or not Boyle suspected the identity of his impersonator is open to debate.  But given that the Denver newspapers reported a falling out between the pair in 1914 which culminated in Boyle giving Steele a public beating, I suspect I can guess the outcome had Jack encountered his old friend again in 1921.

JBF 4/27/15

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Cinema’s First Boston Blackie

April 20, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In August of 1918, Metro Pictures Corporation released BOSTON BLACKIE’S LITTLE PAL, a big screen adaptation of the story which had debuted just months earlier in THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE.  Starring Bert Lytell, this was the first of many films to be based upon the writings of Jack Boyle.  So, it would seem fairly obvious that Bert Lytell was the first man to play Boston Blackie on the silver screen.  But when dealing with a character as notorious as Boston Blackie, never trust the obvious.

While Jack Boyle began chronicling the adventures of his thief-hero in 1914, the name Boston Blackie was not original to him.  The moniker had actually been around at least since the 1890s, attached to a number of real-life vagabonds and law-breakers (and may have originated far earlier).  Though it is virtually impossible to trace the origin of the name Boston Blackie, we can observe an interesting coincidence in timing.  Boyle’s first Blackie story appeared in the July 1914 issue of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.  At almost exactly the same time, director John G. Adolfi was hard at work shooting a film titled THE RUNAWAY FREIGHT for The Reliance Film Company.  This 2-reel production told the story of a tramp who manages to make a better life for himself by securing a job at a railway station.  He later discovers that two of his former vagrant friends plan to rob the station, and tries to intervene to stop the crime.  The name given to the film’s tramp protagonist is Boston Blackie.

So, while THE RUNAWAY FREIGHT had no connection to Jack Boyle or his work, it still holds the unique distinction of being the first screen production to feature a character named Boston Blackie.  Which makes RUNAWAY FREIGHT star Eugene Pallette cinema’s first Boston Blackie.

Eugene Pallette c1914

Eugene Pallette was a busy actor in the silent era, appearing in dozens of films in the 1910s and ’20s.  He successfully transitioned into talkies, and established himself as a character actor of some repute.  Arguably his most memorable role was that of Friar Tuck in Errol Flynn’s version of ROBIN HOOD released in 1938.  But Pallette also had remarkable turns in movies ranging from THE MARK OF ZORRO to MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and far beyond.  He continued to work in movies until the late 1940s, and passed away in 1954 at the age of 65.

It’s also worth noting that THE RUNAWAY FREIGHT offers up one further coincidence for Jack Boyle fans.  One of the two criminals bent on robbing the movie’s railway station was played by an actor named Sam De Grasse.  De Grasse was also a prolific performer in the silent era, and in 1919 he starred in THE SILK LINED BURGLAR.  The film was based on Jack Boyle’s story “Miss Doris, Safecracker,” and Mr. De Grasse played the role of Boston Blackie.

JBF 4/20/15

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Boston Blackie: Complete and Uncut (At Last!)

April 13, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Since passing into the public domain, the 1919 “novel” BOSTON BLACKIE has been reprinted numerous times in the early 21st century.  Available in digital, print, and audio editions (often at little or no cost), the seven stories it encompasses are the most familiar portion of Jack Boyle’s body of work.  And yet, anyone who has read it will not recognize the following scene, missing from the Blackie canon since its publication in 1917:

 

A pallet was spread on the floor in the Mission attic in which Boston Blackie, university graduate, safe-cracker and escaped convict, had taken refuge after his flight from San Gregorio Penitentiary.  On it lay Blackie, a block of wood supporting his head Chinese-fashion, while his long, deft fingers rapidly toasted oozy drops of opium into nut-brown smoking-pellets.

The room was in darkness save for the dim light shed by a tiny opium lamp covered by a conical tin chimney.  The smoker’s fingers, twirling the sizzling pills on a yen hok in the slender shaft of light above the lamp, cast gigantic shadows on the walls and ceiling – grim, fantastic, strangely shaped shadows that seemed a visible expression of the troubled mind of the man beneath them.

Boston Blackie was oppressed by an unreasoning but insistent sense of impending trouble and unseen danger.  His mind, keen, alert and supernormally intuitive, sought in vain to place the intangible menace.  Often, it seemed, his mentality, projecting itself into the darkness about him, almost reached and drew aside the black curtain that hid the lurking mystery.  But each time the unrealized vision faded and left him staring at dancing, meaningless wall-shadows.  Suddenly, unbidden and unconnected with any conscious thought, a picture gripped his mind.  He saw a shadowy figure, bound hand and foot and standing alone on a raised platform with head and face hidden by something dark and sinister.

“The black cap of the hangman,” he whispered, twisting uneasily on his pallet.  “This has been a strange day and a stranger night,” he thought.  “Trouble hangs in the air.  To-day was to have seen Mary and me safe at sea, with fear and danger forever behind us.  By every possible human computation of chances, we should be.  But night finds us still here in a world of enemies.  And thoughts of a hangman haunt my mind!  Why?  Chance!  There is no such thing.  Something holds us here for good or evil – evil, probably.  Well, if it must come, let it.  But it’s hard on Mary.  Poor Mary!  Poor little girl!”

Boston Blackie and Mary, partner of all the hazards of his life, had taken passage for Central America on the steamer Colon.  In his own country Blackie was a man with a price on his head – an escaped convict.  For days he and Mary had waited for the hour of the Colon’s sailing – Blackie with keen impatience, Mary with the fierce longing of a hunted creature seeking refuge for herself and her mate.  Almost on the hour of departure a steam-pipe had burst in the Colon’s engine room.  Two days would be required for repairs.  It was on the first of these that Blackie now lay on his pallet twirling pellets of opium, while a sixth sense warned him of danger still to be met. 

An hour passed.  The shadows still danced on the wall and ceiling.  The pills still hissed and bubbled in the heat of the tiny flame.  A step sounded on the stair.

“Mary at last!” exclaimed Blackie in tones caressingly tender.

 

This *lost* sequence from “The Woman Called Rita” is just one example of the deleted material lurking within the pages of THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE, excised when Boston Blackie was converted from periodical to hardcover publication.  While the 1919 book played a crucial role in making Blackie accessible to a readership for many decades, it also ensured that Jack Boyle’s original, unexpurgated texts were all but forgotten.  Virtually no one has read the full-length versions of “Boston Blackie’s Mary,” “The Woman Called Rita,” “Fred the Count,” “Boston Blackie’s Little Pal,” “A Problem in Grand Larceny,” “An Answer in Grand Larceny” and “Alibi Ann” in almost 100 years.

With that in mind, I’ve taken pains to return to the original magazine texts in preparing my upcoming volume, THE COMPLETE BOSTON BLACKIE.  Much the way that films are often given an extended director’s cut these days, I’m working to present Jack Boyle’s extended author’s cut of these not-so-familiar stories.  So, if you’ve read BOSTON BLACKIE (or even the more recent collection BOSTON BLACKIE & FRIENDS), my volume will still hold more than a few surprises for you.

JBF 4/13/15

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Jack Boyle at a Glance

April 6, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Much has been written here about Jack Boyle as the creator of Boston Blackie, all peppered with various hints and intimations about his checkered history.  But who was he, and why was he so uniquely suited to write the tales of the underworld which brought him such success in his lifetime?  While this subject could cover entire volumes, let’s take a look at the highlights of Boyle’s life at a glance.

Jack Boyle was born in California in 1881, somewhere in the vicinity of Oakland and San Francisco.  He grew up around Santa Clara, and in his early adulthood became a newsman and reporter (following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had both published newspapers in the 1800s).  Beginning around 1900, he was employed by various papers in San Francisco, and by 1907 had worked himself into editorial and managerial positions.  However, his professional success took a toll on him, and around 1909 he became a habitual user of opium, to combat the stresses of his job.  His habit soon became an addiction, which quickly spelled the end of his journalistic career in California.  His professional disgrace was followed by a rapid spiral into a life of crime, in order to feed his continuing opium craving.

By 1914, Boyle had run afoul of the law on multiple occasions, and had served prison sentences in both California and Colorado, on a variety of charges from forgery to armed robbery.  While serving out a sentence near Denver, he began writing stories from his prison cell.  These proved to be the first tales of his criminal hero Boston Blackie, and they were picked up for publication in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.  Late in 1914, Boyle was released from prison, and returned to working in the world of newspaper and magazine writing.  In 1917, he revived Boston Blackie for a new series of stories in THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE, and these tales found a strong following with the reading public.  The following year, his work continued to appear regularly in RED BOOK, and Boston Blackie came to the silver screen in the first of many feature films to be adapted from his adventures.  Soon the popularity of these features opened the door for Boyle to embark on a new career as a Hollywood screenwriter, while still producing fiction for nationally known magazines.  In just a few short years, Boyle had gone from drug addicted felon to successful and celebrated author.

However, to paint Boyle’s story as one of disgrace to triumph is a lopsided portrait, at best.  While it’s tempting to view his rise from the shadows of a prison cell to national prominence as a success story, the reality is far less black and white.  The entirety of Jack Boyle’s career is a strange mixture of success and scandal.

In truth, there are indications that his 1914 release from prison was acquired under false pretenses, and his subsequent activities in Denver culminated in his fleeing the state within a matter of months.  His February 1915 arrival in Missouri was no less turbulent, with Boyle being arrested in Kansas City just days after taking up residence there.  Despite his rocky start in the community, Boyle managed to establish himself in the city, securing a reporting position with THE KANSAS CITY POST, and setting up housekeeping with a woman named Violet.  During his time in THE POST’s employ, he traveled to Iowa gathering story material, and became embroiled in some questionable dealings relating to the investigation of a set of ax murders in the town of Villisca.  Boyle’s time in Kansas City ended as scandalously as it began, when he was arrested in January 1917, accused of running an opium den.  While legitimate speculations can be made about the veracity of this charge, and the possible political motivation behind Boyle’s arrest, what cannot be argued is that Boyle ultimately skipped bail and fled to Wisconsin.

With wife Violet in tow, he settled in the Baraboo, Wisconsin area in the summer of 1917.  At this point, he shifted his primary professional focus away from journalism, concentrating more on the production of fiction for popular magazines.  It was during this period that he renewed his acquaintance with editor Ray Long, and began contributing frequently to THE RED BOOK MAGAZINE.  The years of 1918 to 1920 were a time of prosperity for Boyle, with the popularity of Boston Blackie (both in print and on movie screens) reaching international proportions.  He continued publishing frequently in RED BOOK, but also signed a contract in 1919 to write Blackie stories exclusively for THE COSMOPOLITAN MAGAZINE.  His writings were also seeing print in newspapers and magazines overseas, and Hollywood was purchasing the screen rights to much of his output.  The world wanted to hear the stories that Jack Boyle had to tell.

But by the end of 1920, his fortunes started to shift.  While his career roared along full-steam, things in his personal life began to disintegrate.  In April, Boyle signed a mortgage on a second home, a ranch in Colorado, and in June he and Violet decided to spend the summer at their new property.  Sometime during this holiday, things turned sour.  Boyle separated from his wife around January 1921, leaving the taxes on the ranch unpaid, and moving to New York.  In July, Boyle officially lost his ranch to foreclosure, and the following month Violet filed for divorce from him in the Colorado courts.

Spending a year in New York, Boyle met and married a woman named Elsie Thomas, and moved to Los Angeles sometime in 1922.  While he continued to write for the magazine market, his move to the west coast also marked his leap into the world of screenwriting.  Spurred by the film industry’s continuing interest in adapting his magazine stories, Boyle began writing original scenarios directly for the studios.  However, in the summer of 1923 his new Hollywood life was thrown into turmoil, with the arrival of his first wife, Violet, and her claims that their divorce had never been finalized.  Over the next year, she publicly decried him as a bigamist, and made repeated demands for a financial settlement to complete their divorce.

Despite his success at transitioning into work in the film industry, scandal continued to plague Boyle throughout his Hollywood years.  In August 1924, he was arrested for passing bad checks in a Los Angeles grocery.  He had further run-ins with the law over the frequent escapes of his pet – a full-grown bear – which ran loose through the north Hollywood suburbs.  In September, newspapers reported a violent argument between his two wives, which ended in Elsie giving Violet a severe beating.  In October, Violet again filed for divorce from Jack, and Elsie was temporarily committed to a psychiatric ward after several unsuccessful attempts to kill herself.  Finally, in November the California courts awarded Violet her divorce, ordering Boyle to pay her one hundred dollars a month in alimony.

Around 1926, Boyle moved from Hollywood to a home in nearby Hermosa Beach. His magazine output had slowed over the previous years, though sporadic stories bearing his byline continued to appear while he pursued his work as a screenwriter.  But by ’26, even his screen assignments began to thin.  In 1927, he and Elsie moved back to New York, taking an apartment in Greenwich Village.  He was still reported to be dabbling in screenplays, and in December he published his last short story for RED BOOK.

Late in the summer of 1928, Boyle and Elsie took an extended trip back to the Pacific coast, where he engaged in some work as a publicist for the Oregon State Democratic Committee.  Late in the night of October 15, 1928, he suffered acute kidney failure in a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, and died just three days shy of his 47th birthday.

So ends the strange and sordid tale of Jack Boyle (or at least a thumbnail sketch of it).  Of course, Boston Blackie remained a popular subject of movies, radio and television shows well into the 1950s, with the character even seeing a minor revival in the 21st century as the protagonist in a pair of graphic novels.  But where Blackie has endured, Boyle has largely faded into obscurity.  Which is a shame, because in many ways his life was even more interesting than the yarns he wrote.  My upcoming book, THE COMPLETE BOSTON BLACKIE, will include a far more in depth look at the life and times of the author.  But in the meantime, be sure to check back here for further glimpses into the colorful life of Jack Boyle.

JBF 4/6/15

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