No. 6606’s Last Bow

September 19, 2016 at 8:12 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In honor of mid-September, with summer slowly slipping into autumn, here’s a seldom-seen bit of advertising from 102 years ago this very month:

thiefs-daughter-ad

This bit of vintage promotion comes from the September 26, 1914 issue  of The Literary Digest, hyping (among other things) the last of Jack Boyle’s original quartet of Boston Blackie stories.  “A Thief’s Daughter” was the final yarn to bear Boyle’s No. 6606 pseudonym, and the first appearance of Blackie’s beloved Mary.  With illustrations from N.C. Wyeth, the tale made for an excellent final bow to Boyle’s American Magazine readers.  It would be another three years before Boston Blackie would surface again, in the pages of The Red Book.

JBF  9/19/16

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Boston Blackie Booked on … Vagrancy???

January 11, 2016 at 8:42 PM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

A curious thing happened in Michigan in November 1914.  Just one month after Jack Boyle’s story “A Thief’s Daughter” (the final installment in the quartet of tales which introduced his most famous character to the world) appeared in The American Magazine,  Boston Blackie was arrested in Grand Rapids.  Before anyone thinks this is a story from The Twilight Zone, it should be pointed out that the name Boston Blackie had been around for years before Boyle appropriated it for his criminal protagonist.  Newspapers from the early 1900s do not lack for Boston Blackies.

George Davis mugshot

This particular Blackie was a man named George Davis, who was arrested in Grand Rapids for vagrancy.  However, several years later Davis was arrested in the same city by patrolman Emil Roettger, who at that time identified him as “the notorious safe-cracker Boston Blackie.”  So the history of Michigan law enforcement records that there really was an infamous safe-breaker named Boston Blackie.

JBF  1/11/16

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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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Unseen Boston Blackie … The “Lost” Images

May 4, 2015 at 1:00 AM (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

When The American Magazine published the quartet of tales which introduced Boston Blackie to the world in 1914, readers were treated not only to the watershed stories of Jack Boyle’s literary career, but also to the graphic artistry of a master illustrator.  These early Blackie yarns were graced by illustrations from rising American artist N.C. Wyeth.  Each story was accompanied by several original Wyeth compositions, all rendered in beautiful black and white.  Several excellent artists illustrated Blackie’s magazine adventures over the years – W.H.D. Koerner and Lee Conrey, to name just a pair – but Wyeth’s work on the series is in a class by itself.

Which makes it all the more exciting to discover a couple of Boston Blackie images that have never been published the way Wyeth originally rendered them.  While The American presented these pieces gorgeously in black and white, the artist painted at least some of them in full color.  So, while Wyeth’s work on Boston Blackie has been available to the public for literally as long as the character has existed, almost no one has seen the paintings the way they actually appeared resting on the artist’s easel.

Happily, the Brandywine River Museum in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania is home to many of the original canvases of N.C. Wyeth, and among them are at least two full color images from Jack Boyle’s very first set of Boston Blackie tales.  These images cannot be reproduced here (as they are copyrighted to the Brandywine Museum), but for your enjoyment I will present links to them as they appear on the museum’s website:

http://brandywine.doetech.net/Voyager/image.cfm?ImageKey=9785&ImageFile=/VoyagerImages/BRM_93.23.jpg&TableKey=OBJECT:1213155

This first painting was highlighted in the October 1914 story “A Thief’s Daughter,” and features an image of Mary, before her marriage to Blackie, preparing opium for a group of her father’s friends.  Blackie is among the group.

http://brandywine.doetech.net/Voyager/image.cfm?ImageKey=9493&ImageFile=/VoyagerImages/BRM_96.1.13.jpg&TableKey=OBJECT:1278033

And this image comes from the September 1914 tale “Death Cell Visions,” in which Blackie and his cellmate are visited nightly by a ghostly apparition.

While Wyeth’s Blackie illustrations are among the finest done for the series, apparently N.C. Wyeth himself was less than thrilled to be doing such commercial work.  The Brandywine’s notes on the “Death Cell Visions” piece include the following comments:           

In May, 1914 Wyeth wrote, “To-day on my easel stands a canvas vividly portraying two murderers in a death-cell. The apparition of a hideous blood stained face stares at them from the wall. It is only by using my utmost power of control that I do not get up from this note and destroy the damned thing! But patience! I see the opening clear, where I can choose what kind of thing shall be my output.”           

Regardless of Wyeth’s feelings regarding his commercial work, his illustrations for Boston Blackie’s debut run in The American are fantastic visualizations of Jack Boyle’s scenes, and are well worth the effort of any Blackie fan to view them.  Many more are available on the Brandywine’s website, accessible simply by running the name Blackie though their catalogue’s keyword search.  I highly encourage everyone to take the time to give it a look.

JBF 5/4/15

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