Jack Black (author)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
For the actor --> Jack Black

Jack Black was a late-19th-century/early-20th-century hobo and professional burglar, living out the dying age of the Wild West. Born in 1871 near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, he was raised from infancy in the U.S. state of Missouri. He wrote You Can't Win (Macmillan, 1926) a memoir or sketched autobiography describing his days on the road and life as an outlaw. Black's book was written as an anti-crime book urging criminals to go straight but is also his statement of belief in the futility of prisons and the criminal justice system, hence the title of the book. Jack Black was writing from experience, having spent thirty years (fifteen of which were spent in various prisons) as a traveling criminal and offers tales of being a cross-country stick-up man, home burglar, petty thief, and opium fiend.

Jack Black is an essentially anonymous figure (even his actual name is uncertain) who is recognized through association with William S. Burroughs. Although his philosophy on life was especially influential to Burroughs, who associated with similar characters in his early adulthood and mirrored the style of You Can't Win with his first published book, Junkie, Black's writings also had a profound effect on the writings and lives of all the Beat Generation.

After his last spell in prison Jack Black became friends with wealthy patron Fremont Older and worked for Older's newspaper The San Francisco Call. He worked on his autobiography with Rose Wilder Lane and eventually composed essays and lectured throughout the country on prison reform. He was also rumored to have received a stipend of $150 dollars a week to draft a screenplay titled Salt Chunk Mary with co-author Bessie Beatty, based around the infamous vagabond ally and fence of the same name in You Can't Win. The play flopped, although he was able to attain some amount of popularity, which subsided quickly. He is believed to have committed suicide in 1932 by drowning, as he reportedly told his friends that if life got too grim, he would row out into New York Harbor and, with weights tied to his feet, drop overboard.

Quoted excerpts about Black and his memoir

  • "You Can't Win is (...) an autobiography of a reformed criminal. It points a sufficiently obvious moral, yet one that too many at the present day are prone to forget. A deeper question is also raised, and that is regarding the validity of the practical aims and ideals of the majority of people in our modern world."

The Builder Magazine, January 1927 - Volume XIII - Number 1.

  • "Jamboree author Black is a graduate of five penitentiaries, was pried loose from a 25-year prison term and helped to overcome his addiction to narcotics by mustachioed Editor Fremont Older of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. This play is a dramatization of Black's book You Can't Win. "Every character in this play is drawn from the personal experiences of Jack Black during his years as a criminal or as a prisoner. The types are real and these people actually lived." Time Magazine, Dec. 5, 1932.
  • "Jack had been a sort of a reign of terror...just before the earthquake and fire of 1906. Every crime committed in San Francisco during the first three months of that year was ascribed to Jack Black." R.L. Duffus, The Tower of Jewels.
  • "He returned to New York and Fremont thought Jack did what he always said any down-and-outer should do, “fill his pockets with rocks and take a header into the bay.” Mrs. Cora Fremont Older.

Further reading

  • "The big break at Folsom", San Francisco Bulletin, January 1917.
  • "Out of prison", San Francisco Bulletin, February/March 1917.
  • "What's wrong with the right people", Harper's Monthly Magazine, June 1929.
  • "A burglar looks at laws and codes", Harper's Monthly Magazine, February 1930.
  • "Jack Black's Tales of Jail Birds", New York World, December 21, 1930.
  • Jamboree, with Jack Black and Bessie Beatty; Elizabeth Miele, producer, 1932.

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