The Myth of Horatio Black

June 29, 2015 at 10:05 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

The internet would have you believe that Boston Blackie’s real name is Horatio Black.  This is the answer swiftly yielded by any casual Google search, and the pedigree behind the name sounds quite plausible.  However, as is the case with most easy answers, it falls short of the facts.

To begin with, “Horatio Black” suggests that the nickname “Blackie” sprang from the character’s family surname.  But Jack Boyle himself refutes this notion in the very first Boston Blackie tale, “The Price of Principle” (American Magazine – July 1914). The introduction of the character reveals that his “piercing black eyes and New England birthplace had won him his nickname …”  So Blackie’s creator expressly establishes that his colorful sobriquet is derived from his commanding eyes, and not from a variation of his family name.

Some sources suggest that the name Horatio Black originated in an unspecified episode the 1945-49 syndicated radio series BOSTON BLACKIE, in which actor Richard Kolmar played the lead.  This seems unlikely though, when you consider the series’ June 6, 1945 installment “Mrs. Boston Blackie.”  The episode revolves around the appearance of a woman who claims to be married to Blackie, brandishing a marriage certificate as proof.  On the document, the groom’s name is — Boston Blackie.  If the writers of the radio series had given the character any other name, surely they would have put it on his marriage papers.  But there’s a more compelling reason that the name Horatio Black couldn’t have risen from Blackie’s radio incarnation.

The simple fact of the matter is that, as far as Boston Blackie is concerned, the name Horatio Black can be traced back at least as far as 1943 — two years prior to the radio series’ debut.  In March of that year, Columbia Pictures released AFTER MIDNIGHT WITH BOSTON BLACKIE, the fifth in their series of Blackie b-movies starring Chester Morris.  In the film, Blackie’s name is revealed as Horatio Black by the daughter of a former underworld friend.  This may or may not be the first appearance of the name in conjunction with Blackie, but the timing of it definitively establishes that the name was not an invention of the radio series.  However, 1943 was a long time after Blackie’s 1914 debut in print.  Rather than trying to verify the origin of Horatio Black, the bigger question is, did Jack Boyle ever provide a civilian name to his most famous creation?

The first hint of an answer appears in “Boston Blackie’s Mary” (Red Book Magazine – November 1917).  The story explicitly names Blackie’s wife Mary Dawson, despite the fact that she was previously Mary Harris in “A Thief’s Daughter” (American – October 1914) before the pair were married. Dawson is again presented as Mary’s name in “A Problem in Grand Larceny” (Red Book – December 1918), cementing the idea that this is, indeed, Blackie’s surname.  Then, in “The Face in the Fog” (Cosmopolitan Magazine – May 1920), detective Huk Kant greets Boyle’s protagonist as Blackie Dawson, removing all doubt that, canonically, the name belongs to both Blackie and Mary.

While Jack Boyle provided his criminal hero a surname relatively early in the series, it wasn’t until he penned his final tale of the character that he divulged his full given name.  On May 9, 1925, The Los Angeles Times published the seventh installment of Boyle’s serial “Daggers of Jade.”  In it, he presents us with “John Dawson, once known by the the police of every city from Maine to California as Boston Blackie …”  So, with his swan song story of his most popular character, Jack Boyle reveals that Boston Blackie is John Dawson.

In truth, the reality seems almost banal.  Horatio Black seems a more dashing name for a safecracker than the workaday John Dawson.  But perhaps it’s not too surprising that Jack Boyle settled on the name John for his rogue hero.  After all, his own name was John Alexander Boyle.

JBF 6/29/15

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