JACK BLACK: Johnson Family Member in Good Standing


In chapter IX of his autobiography You Can’t Win, more than a hundred pages into his story, Jack Black makes first mention of the Johnson Family. He’s in the Utah territory penitentiary, his first extended bit, and because he was on the square from his pinch to the pen the good folks inside found him and proceeded to instruct him in the way of good bums and thieves. He was still a teenager, big eared and wide eyed and silent as a cat. He knew how to listen and the older cons recognized him as one of their own. Shorty introduced the kid to the head trusty, the best of the best people (which is what they called themselves), saying, “This party is one of the Johnson family.” Jack then states parenthetically that they called themselves Johnsons “probably because they were so numerous.” Simple as that. (Poignant to think that once upon a time there may have been more than just a few …) Soon enough, after careful observation and reflection, the kid himself would take on the monoger “John Black.”

A member of the Johnson Family had character. Just as in straight society those in the underworld were defined by character good and otherwise. According to upright underworld philosophy and in Jack’s words, although a Johnson did wrong things, he “always tried to do them in the right way and at the right time. The thief who goes out and steals money to pay back room rent rather than swindle his poor landlady has character. The one who runs away without paying her has no character.” This makes good sense too for a swindled citizen is apt to hold a grudge or bring down the laws. Further, “the thief who holds out a lady’s watch on his pal to give to his girl has no character.” A Johnson pays his debts among his fellows in order to maintain good character. A sacrifice for good character is good sense. Making sense builds character.

In the Utah pen Jack met and knew time with three Johnsons who stood him in good stead then and later and whom he remembered for a lifetime: Foot and a Half George, a Civil War vet, a box man, was thoroughgoing square, the highest of praise. The Sanctimonious Kid was educated, eloquent, careful in appearance; Sanc, “one of the most resourceful thieves” Jack ever knew, would be a mentor to the kid in the life. Soldier Johnnie, a hard man who was “lucky” and with a figure that was neutral, was reliable and industrious. Among their kind, Jack learned, aid is never refused and unless otherwise understood each minds his own business and asks no questions. These companions and guides looked out for the kid and their hard-won worldly weary philosophy became his own.

When Jack first took to the road he’d jungled up for a time with a pair of blanket stiffs, professional tramps who made a living on the road, mostly begging and stealing, perhaps the occasional job picking fruit in season. After a short time, when young Jack had proved himself to be trustworthy and resourceful, they asked him if he wanted to travel with them. Jack declined. It just wasn’t the life that called him. He said so long and hopped a freight west in search of further knowledge and adventure. He found it and it had landed him in prison, where those with some of the knowledge of the life he had imagined found him. Jack Black would prove to be a scholar of the underworld: its codes as well as its code makers and code breakers.

Jack knew what he was about. He freely chose the life, refused then or ever to express any doubts about his decision right or wrong. “From the day I left my father my lines had been cast, or I cast them myself, among crooked people.” Jack thought of himself as an honest crook. He lifted the poke of a Saturday night drunk but left some silver in his pocket so he could get a drink for himself when he woke up. After a big score on a train, he tells us, Jack found he’d also picked up a billfold with a sheaf of personal papers belonging to the man. Next day he found a safe way of returning the paper to its owner. “No use in inflicting a profitless injury on him; and its return might take the sharp edge off his resentment.” And many’s the time he stood stone cold pat and refused any cooperation when grilled by the local town whittler or any copper, usually paying the price himself. It was worth it to him for wasn’t it better to die a little within the code than to live confined among the civilized awaiting the next kick in the teeth or boot on your neck?

Road kid Jack Black first met the mother of the Johnson Family in about 1886, age around sixteen. He’d been picked up for vag in Denver and met a slightly older drifter con while in that wide open town’s jail, whom Jack called the Smiler. When Smiler said he was heading west from Denver Jack wished he could go along but he owed fifteen days. With the jest of youth Jack escaped before his time was served and later that evening fell in with a group of road bums, among them the Smiler, who then took him under his wing and along on some burgles in Utah and Wyoming. It was the companionable Smiler who took Jack to Pocatello, Idaho, for the first time to meet the fence Mary Howard, friend to thieves and yeggs from east coast to west and from Canada to the desert country. Much later Jack would write modestly but honestly, “If I knew more of composition and writing and talking I might do justice to Mary,” who was “lovingly called by the bums Salt Chunk Mary.” She always had a pot of beans simmering on the stove “and a fine chunk of salt pork in them” and visitors were welcome to eat their fill before setting down to business.

Jack did know a little about writing and he gives us this description in his book: “I surveyed her as I ate. She was about forty years of age, hard-faced and heavy-handed. Her hair was the color of a 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 ever meant ‘yes.’ ”

After this first eventful meeting, in which Mary gave Smiler and Jack a fair price for their goods, as always, the pair hopped a Southern Pacific to California, eventually making it to San Francisco, a city Jack would come to love (he visited his first hop joint here; he didn’t care for the pipe at first) and make his home base both below and, later too, above ground.

Jack, alone or partnered up with another right-thinking Johnson, frequently laid up with bands of yeggs encountered on the road, holding well-ordered conventions for to lie low and thrash out their free thinking, swap tales of the life, clean themselves up, and prepare for the next caper or itinerary on the lam. Jack defined for us such groupings: you had your bums (in his day a resourceful yegg not a tramp) and thieves and traveling beggars too (welcome at a Johnson convention because they were trustworthy and self-sacrificing) and the occasional brass peddler but before a right convention could begin, according to Jack, “the jungle is first cleared of all outsiders such as gay cats, dingbats, whangs, bindle stiffs, jungle buzzards, and scissors bills.”

More important to him personally, he’d have other, more memorable encounters over many years with the wondrous strange Salt Chunk Mary, who made an impression on Jack for evermore. After You Can’t Win was published (in which he stated boldly, “She should have a book.”) he conceived of and collaborated on a play about her, first performed in Los Angeles in 1927 under the title Salt Chunk Mary and reworked over the next several years, and with a few musical numbers thrown in for good measure by god, premiering for a mighty short run on Broadway in November 1932, retitled (by big fisted producers no doubt) Jamboree. When it closed with so-so notices, Jack left New York town for the last time never to be heard from again.

by Donald Kennison




John Wilkes Booth fully expected to be cheered for ridding the land of the “tyrant” Abraham Lincoln on April 12, 1865. Instead, he found himself on the lam, hunted and hated, with a bounty on his head.

Before dawn on April 26, a detachment of the 16th New York Volunteer Cavalry found him holed up in a Virginia tobacco barn. When he wouldn’t come out, they set fire to the barn. They were under strict orders to take him alive; Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wanted a public trial.

But Sergeant Thomas “Boston” Corbett answered to a higher authority than Stanton. And he was as mad as John Wilkes Booth.

He was born in London in 1832, came to New York City with his family as a boy in the early 1840s, then worked upstate in Troy as a hatter, during which time it’s likely that he contracted the mercury poisoning that caused his mental problems. The felt for hats was dipped in a mercury solution that accumulated in the workers over time. Dementia among them was common enough before the use of mercury was banned in the 1940s to give rise to the saying “mad as a hatter.”

Corbett moved to Boston, where a street corner evangelist converted him to Methodism. He took the city’s name as his own, grew his hair very long in imitation of Jesus, and became an evangelist himself. At the age of twenty-six, after being approached by a streetwalker, he went to his room and castrated himself with a pair of scissors so that he could avoid forever the temptations of the flesh.

A few weeks later he moved back to New York City, which was in a disturbed mental state itself. It was the fall of 1857, when the wave of bank closures and collapsing Wall Street brokerages known as the Panic of 1857 hit. In their dismay, many men of the city’s financial district turned to God. As it happens, a month before the Panic hit a former businessman named Jeremiah Lamphier had begun holding a noontime prayer meeting in a third-floor classroom of the North Dutch Church at Fulton and William Streets, a few blocks up from Wall Street. He said he “intended to give merchants, mechanics, clerks, strangers and businessmen generally an opportunity to stop and call on God amid the perplexities incident to their respective avocations.” Lamphier had spent twenty years on Wall Street before giving up “mercantile pursuits” to be a lay missionary. His timing couldn’t have been better. Only six men joined him the first day, but in the tumult of October his flock increased a hundredfold. By February 1858 the New York Herald was running page-one stories about the “Great Revival of Religion in New York” and “Remarkable Conversions Among the Unrighteous.” The Times reported that five thousand Wall Streeters of all Protestant denominations were praying together every noon. Many churches around the financial district were filling up for evening meetings as well. The movement, called the Third Great Awakening and the Businessmen’s Revival, spread throughout the city and around the country that spring.

Inevitably the Fulton Street meetings attracted Boston Corbett, who was a bit too fervent in his devotions for the staid businessmen around him. His shouts of “Amen!” and “Glory to God!” and his preaching at the other men made them uncomfortable. None of them had any inkling that in 1865 this odd young fanatic would become a national celebrity.

When the Civil War started, Corbett signed up with the 12th New York Militia. Carrying his bible with him everywhere, he continued to make himself a nuisance as he ranted at his fellow soldiers and even officers about their ungodly speech and actions. He was court-martialed but re-enlisted, and was serving with the 16th Cavalry when he was taken prisoner in 1864. He nearly died of scurvy and starvation in the infamous Andersonville prison, from which he escaped twice and was twice recaptured, before being released in a prisoner exchange.

Somehow, Boston Corbett and John Wilkes Booth managed to converge at that tobacco barn on April 26. As the barn smoked, Corbett aimed a Colt pistol through a crack in the barn wall and, flagrantly disobeying orders, shot John Wilkes in the neck behind the ear. He later told the New York Times that “it seemed to me that God had directed it, for apparently it was just where he had shot the President.” The officers on the scene arrested Corbett, and Secretary Stanton was livid with him. But Corbett was hailed as a hero throughout the North, and Stanton bowed to public sentiment. “The rebel is dead,” he said in pardoning Corbett. “The patriot lives.”

Corbett retuned to New York City, where he was feted as an avenging angel, had his portrait done by Matthew Brady, then went back to his evangelizing. Over the next decade he would wander restlessly from one place to another, made increasingly paranoid by threatening mail from diehard Confederates. In the 1880s, working as a doorman for the Kansas state legislature, he pulled a gun on legislators he may have believed were mocking God. He was confined to an insane asylum but escaped, to no one knows where, although there were sightings of him in various places for many years. It’s possible he went to Mexico to live out his final years in obscurity. Another theory puts him in Minnesota, where he may have perished in the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.

by John Strausbaugh



In 1870 or 1871, when New York’s Five Points district was by most accounts home to one endlessly rolling gang riot (or hundreds of concurrent gang riots as the case may be), three small-timers—Blind Mahoney, Billy Morgan, and  Jimmy Dunnigan,—struck an alliance  to form their own gang of sneak-thieves and pickpockets.

When I first read Herbert Asbury’s informal 1928 history of the era, Gangs of New York, even more than the exploits of the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, or the Plug Uglies, I was taken by his brief account of Mahoney, Morgan, and Dunnigan’s madcap criminal adventures as The Molasses Gang. Although mentioned in only a single paragraph, it was clear the Molasses Gang not only had style—they had a sense of humor. According to Asbury, the gang acquired that particular moniker as a result of one of its more inventive modus operandi. The members would casually enter a store and spread out, browsing about the shelves as if examining the merchandise. One of them would approach the shopkeep behind the counter, remove his hat, and innocently ask the shopkeep if he would be so kind as to fill it with molasses. He and his friends there had a bet, see, concerning exactly how much molasses the hat would hold. Perhaps accustomed to such wagers, the clerk would dutifully take the hat and fill it to the brim with molasses from a nearby barrel before handing it back. That’s when the gang member would slam the hat down over the clerk’s head, blinding him with molasses while the other members looted the store. It was a simple yet classic bit of slapstick.

As Asbury tells it, they were not terribly well-respected among other gangs, in part for this sense of whimsy and in part because the members had the annoying tendency to simply walk away in the middle of a robbery if they got bored with the proceedings. Crime was merely a game to them, and they didn’t take it seriously enough. By 1877 all the members of The Molasses Gang had apparently been jailed or killed, and they were never heard from again.

I was content to leave it at that for years, telling that story at any appropriate opportunity. But as the decades passed and I never quite forgot about the Molasses Gang, I grew more curious and decided to find out more. Who were these men, and how did they come together? Asbury mentioned their wilder and wackier antics made them darlings of the New York papers, which loved to print lively accounts of the gang’s latest shenanigans. So what else did they do, and what did the papers have to say about them?

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Right now I’m reading Tosh Berman’s ‘Sparks-tastic’. You should, too if you want to spend quality time with a time-travelling dandy from a distant and infinitely more delightful planet than this one. One the down side, (not really) you will realize that you have never loved or even liked anything (or anyone) the way Tosh loves his Sparks. And then you’ll come to the sad conclusion that your life has been one endless loop of nursing your pet hates, plotting your next nap and generally not being Tosh. Pictured here is me not reading Tosh’s Sparks-tastic but going over the proofs of my ghostwritten memoirs. Sadly, Tosh was not available to write them so my readers will have to endure the first 666 pages describing how I spent my formative years slumped over a bowl of Cheerios while cursing the existence of everything.

by Jennifer Matsui






Until recently, an old, deteriorated collection of no less than one million crime scene photographs rested silently in the nearly forgotten archives of the Los Angeles Police department; spanning 150 years of violence and corruption, these images were only recently discovered by the photographer Merrick Morton, who has restored and salvaged many of the images, which will be exhibited at Paramount Pictures Studios from April 25-27 by Fototeka.