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