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Volume 7365

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Jailbirds:
Most Were Innocent, Of Course
by Alan Hanson 

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Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Jailbirds:
Most Were Innocent, Of Course
by Alan Hanson
She’s ashamed to associate with the family of a — a — jailbird!” So lamented Eva Pennington in The Girl From Hollywood when a neighbor stopped coming around after Eva’s brother was sentenced to six months in the county jail. Some time ago, while reading Burroughs’1923 novel about the prohibition era in Southern California, I was struck by ERB’s word choice in that passage. The term “criminal” would have been a more conventional choice in that emotional scene. Perhaps the author felt the offbeat idiom “jailbird” better fit the flighty personality he had previously fashioned for Eva.

The foregoing is a question of little import, of course. I only mention it because it led to a series of related questions concerning Burroughs’ fiction. How did the author use the subject of incarceration in his stories? Which of his characters heard the sound of a cell door slamming behind them? Why were they in jail and did they deserve to be?

Now, anyone who has read even a smattering of Burroughs’ stories knows that, for a variety of reasons, many of his characters found themselves captives and being held in various confinement enclosures, including cells, cages, caves, dungeons, and even zoos and museums. This study, however, concerns itself only with Burroughs’ use of civilized detention centers, including jails at the local, county, state and federal levels. Included are any form of lockup, ranging from the local hoose-gow to “The Big House.

Such a limitation, of course, eliminates from the discussion ERB’s off-worlds, including Barsoom, Pellucidar, and Amtor. In surveying the author’s stories set on earth, we find Burroughs most often used imprisonment in the plots of his occasional ventures into realism: The Girl From Hollywood, The Efficiency Expert, The Girl From Farris’s, and Marcia of the Doorstep. Jail time also pops up in some adventure tales like The Mucker and occasionally in the Tarzan series when Burroughs brought his ape-man into contact with civilization.

Jailbirds in the “Roaring Twenties”
Jail cells play a central role in The Girl From Hollywood, ERB’s story of illegal drugs, bootlegging, and murder set in the 1920s. Four significant characters in the story spend time behind bars, some deservedly, others guiltless. An intricate series of events, which ties together the lives of the four characters, results in cell doors swinging both ways for them all.

Late in the story, the main character, Shannon Burke, was arrested and jailed on a charge of murder. She was released after being acquitted at trial. However, months before the murder charge, she was a cocaine addict and drug peddler in Hollywood. Although a blackmailer threatened to expose her past to the police, Shannon never spent a day in jail, nor was she even arrested on drug charges.

Custer Pennington, Shannon’s love interest, was not so lucky with the law. Convicted on a set-up charge of possession of illegal liquor, he served six months in the county jail. Soon after being released, he was arrested again, along with Shannon, on a murder rap. Although innocent, Pennington was convicted and sentence to death.

Then there’s Slick Allen, a career criminal who deserved to be doing hard time. He was involved in drug peddling in Hollywood and trafficking of “thousands of cases of bonded whiskey.” He was never arrested for either of those crimes, but he did spend a year in the county jail when his drug-peddling partner framed him on a drug possession charge.

Guy Evans was a misguided young man who should have spent the rest of his life in prison but somehow avoided spending even a single day behind bars. Not only was he Slick Allen’s partner in selling stolen whiskey, but he also murdered a well-known Hollywood director. He avoided jail time on the bootlegging charge when Custer Pennington took the fall for him, and he beat the murder charge by pleading temporary insanity. 

All’s well that ends well in a Burroughs story, I suppose, but in this tale what’s to be learned of ERB’s attitude concerning the Los Angeles County justice system? (Burroughs, after all, at that time lived within its jurisdiction.) Well, the author appeared to portray the system as being inept. Custer Pennington was twice found guilty of crimes he did not commit. Shannon Burke was tried for murder, a crime she did not commit, but was never called to account for her drug peddling crimes. Slick Allen escaped jail time for his illegal drug and liquor dealings, but did a year on a phony possession charge. And Guy Evans, whose crimes were the greatest, apparently got off free and clear. So, at least in The Girl From Hollywood, Burroughs seemed to imply that criminals often go unpunished while those falsely accused just as often wind up doing time.

You un-Lucky Guy!
In 1922's The Girl From Hollywood, Custer Pennington was willing to go to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Burroughs used that same plot twist five years later in his play You Lucky Girl! The complicated and hard to follow story resolves around the possibility of Bill Mason going to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Bill’s friend, Frank West, stole some money from the bank where he worked to pay for his mother’s medical treatment. Frank stashed the cash in Bill’s house, and when the police later discovered it there, Bill faced arrest for bank robbery. Frank, like Guy Evans in Hollywood, wanted to confess, but Bill Mason, like Custer Pennington, insisted on taking the rap himself, primarily for the sake of his sister Corrie’s happiness. He explained his convoluted motives as follows:
I don’t want to go to jail, Frank. I don’t want people to think I’m a thief, but sometimes there are even worse things than those to face … Your mother has been almost like an own mother to Anne and me since ours died. Frank, I couldn’t let her know that you did it. I’d rather go up myself … there’s still another reason why I can’t let you go … If Corrie marries Phil Mattis there’ll be plenty of money to send your mother to Chicago. If you confess Phil won’t marry Corrie; you’ll go to jail, and if that doesn’t kill your mother it will leave her and Corrie practically without support.
Initially, Bill avoided going to the slammer when the bank president refused to press charges. Three years later, however, Mason was again threatened with jail time by the bank president’s son, who wanted control of Bill’s local auto sales companies. “My father wouldn’t prosecute you for robbing the bank; but, by God, I will,” threatened the son. “The charge still stands, and you can take your choice between turning those agencies over to me or going to jail.” Mason stood defiant, however. “I’ll be damned if I’ll let him have the agencies,” he told his sister. “I’ll come back and go on here as though nothing had happened.” Frank West finally confessed, however, and Bill Mason never did become a jailbird.

Other Innocent Jailbirds
Several other Burroughs characters found themselves behind bars, accused of crimes they didn’t commit. In The Mucker, Billy Burne was arrested and convicted for the murder of a Chicago storeowner. Perjured testimony convicted him at trial, and he received a life sentence. After escaping on the way to the pen, Billy declared, “I’ll never go back to the stir alive.” He didn’t have to. At the story’s end, the real killer confessed, and the governor pardoned Billy.

In The Girl From Farris’s, June Lathrop (aka Maggie Lynch) twice found herself unjustly behind bars. First, the Chicago police held Maggie for two weeks as a state witness against a mobster, who made bail pending trial. “Thus it was that the defendant went free,” Burroughs cynically noted, “while the injured one remained behind prison bars.” 

Four years later, June became a defendant when she was arrested and tried for murder. Again Burroughs scorned Chicago’s justice system while explaining the outcome of “The People versus June Lathrop.” 

The jury was out but fifteen minutes, returning a verdict of not guilty on the first ballot. To June Lathrop it meant nothing. It was what she expected; but though it freed her from an unjust charge, it could never right the hideous wrong that had been done her … by the community, as represented by the police, in dragging the whole fabric of her shame before the world.
Then there’s the case of Jimmy Torrance, falsely accused of his employer’s murder in The Efficiency Expert. He spent weeks in jail before the case of the “People of Illinois versus James Torrance, Jr.” came to trial. Initially things didn’t go well for the defendant. “The State had established an unassailable a case as might be built on circumstantial evidence,” Burroughs affirmed. The real killer was exposed in the courtroom, however, and obligingly ended the proceedings against Jimmy by leaping to his death out a courtroom window.

Bridge and Abigail Prim were two Burroughs characters who came within a heartbeat of being unjustly hanged in The Oakdale Affair. Bridge, Billy Burne’s sidekick in The Mucker, was no stranger to a jail cell. “The police of more than one city knew Bridge,” ERB explained. “They knew him, though, as a character and not as a criminal. A dozen times he had been arraigned upon suspicion; but as many times had he been released with a clean bill of morals until of late Bridge had become almost immune from arrest.

He found himself in deep legal trouble, however, when he fell in with Abigail, a teenage runaway who had taken on the identity of the criminal “Oskaloosa Kid.” Circumstances led to their unjust arrest for the murder of a prominent Oakdale citizen. Unlike June Lathrop and Jimmy Torrance, however, Bridge and Abigail didn’t have the benefit of a trial to clear their names. A horde of Oakdale citizens decided to move straight to the execution phase.

With oaths and threats the mob, brainless and heartless, cowardly, bestial, filled with the lust for blood, pushed and jammed into the narrow corridor before the cell door where the two prisoners awaited their fate. The single guard was brushed away. A dozen men wielding three railroad ties battered upon the grating of the door, swinging the ties far back and then in unison bringing them heavily forward against the puny iron.
Fortunately for Bridge and “The Kid,” a Chicago detective arrived just in time to prevent them from being lynched.

Let the Guilty Pay
There were some Burroughs jailbirds, however, who were guilty as sin and deserved to be behind bars. One was Nicholas Rokoff, who was sentenced to life in a French prison for countless crimes, some of them recounted in The Return of Tarzan. Then there was Peter of Blentz in The Mad King. He was tried for treason by the highest court in Lutha, found guilty and hanged. The villainous hobo gang (“Sky Pilot,” “Dopey Charlie,” “The General”) in The Oakdale Affair bragged that they were wanted in 27 cities for a litany of crimes, including rolling a drunk, cracking a safe, and killing a cop. Bloody evidence led to their arrest for murder in Oakdale. 

Ogden Secor in The Girl From Farris’s was one Burroughs jailbird who certainly deserved his two stints in jail. However, ERB sympathetically portrayed him as a man who, reduced to despair by circumstances beyond his control, needed the love of a good woman to restore him to society’s good graces. After a head injury left him unable to manage his affairs, Secor traveled from Chicago to Idaho, where he was arrested for killing a man in a drunken barroom fight. Released from jail on self-defense, he descended into drunkenness. He landed in jail again after a policeman found him unconscious in a gutter. A judge sentenced Secor to three days of humiliation on a chain gang working in the streets of Goliath. When he emerged from jail, June Lathrop helped him regain his self-respect.

Tarzan Behind Bars? No Way!
Although Tarzan often found himself imprisoned in all sorts of primitive jails, ranging from native huts to lost city dungeons, he managed to escape confinement during his visits to the civilized world. He did have a couple of close calls, though. In The Return of Tarzan, after the ape-man had been lured into a brawl in Paris, a group of French constables arrived on the scene. Unable to separate the guilty from the innocent, the officers decided to arrest everyone in the room, including Tarzan. The ape-man, of course, wasn’t about to be hauled off to jail, and so he manhandled the officers and made his escape.

The next day, Tarzan’s friend Paul D’Arnot tried to convince Tarzan that, despite his innocence, he should have gone along to jail. “Sooner or later they will get you, my dear Tarzan,” predicted D’Arnot, “and then they will lock the wild man of the woods up behind iron bars. How will you like that?” Tarzan responded, grimly, “They will never lock Tarzan of the Apes behind iron bars.

For Tarzan his mere presence in a civilized city was a form of imprisonment. “Paris is no place for me,” he told D’Arnot. “I will but continue to stumble into more and more serious pitfalls. The man-made restrictions are irksome. I feel always that I am a prisoner.” Burroughs later expanded the metaphor: “He pitied the poor creatures of Paris, penned up like prisoners in their silly clothes, and watched by policemen all their poor lives, that they might do nothing that was not entirely artificial and tiresome.

Even back in his beloved Africa, Tarzan dreaded confinement. In Tarzan and the Lost Empire, a group of Roman soldiers arrested him. “So rapidly did his assailants work,” Burroughs explained, “that it was a matter of seconds only before the ape-man found shackles upon his wrists, the one thing that he feared and hated most.” The following passage reveals how Tarzan reacted to imprisonment in the Roman jail.

Squatting upon the rough stone floor, his back against the wall, Tarzan watched the stars moving in slow procession across the window’s opening. A creature of the wild, impatient of restraint, the ape-man suffered the mental anguish of the caged beast — perhaps, because of his human mind, his suffering was greater than would have been that of one of the lower orders, yet he endured with even greater outward stoicism than the beasts that paces to and fro seeking escape from the bars that confine it.

As the feet of the beast might have measured the walls of its dungeon, so did the mind of Tarzan, and never for a waking moment was his mind not occupied by thoughts of escape … Tarzan still sat watching the free stars and envying them.

Captivity Worse Than Physical Pain
Burroughs further discussed Tarzan’s attitude toward confinement in Tarzan and the City of Gold. In Cathne he again found himself locked up in a cell. “Loss of liberty represented for Tarzan, as it does for all creatures endowed with brains, the acme of misery,” Burroughs explained, “more to be avoided than physical pain, yet, with stoic fortitude he accepted his fate without a murmur of protest; and while his body was confined between the narrow confines of four walls of stone his memories roved the jungle and the veldt and lived again the freedom of the experiences of the past.

After the incident in Paris, Tarzan did not have another brush with civilized confinement until years later in the final chapter of Tarzan and the Lion Man. In Los Angeles for a visit, the ape-man unknowingly crashed a Hollywood party with a couple of cads he had met earlier. Things got out of hand and someone called the cops. With police sirens growing increasingly louder and faced with the prospect of being arrested, Tarzan escaped by leaping from an upstairs window.

While Tarzan escaped confinement in a civilized jail, he did play a key role in putting another one of Burroughs’ characters behind bars. He happened off stage after the events of The Return of Tarzan. The ape-man’s testimony in a French court resulted in the villainous Russian, Nikolas Rokoff, being sentenced to prison for life. Unfortunately, Rokoff escaped to make life miserable for the Greystoke family in The Beasts of Tarzan.

Geronimo and Julian
Two other Burroughs characters, one from the past and the other from the future, were unjustly confined in military prisons. In April 1877 the U.S. Army arrested Geronimo and seven other Apaches for having left the reservation at Apache Pass, Arizona. ERB fictionalized the episode in The War Chief. The eight Indians were taken to the guardhouse at the army camp outside the village of Hot Springs and placed in chains. The next day the army released seven of them, including Burroughs’ lead character, Shoz-Dijiji, but Geronimo remained behind bars. “They put me in prison … and kept me there for four months,” Geronimo explained in Apache Devil. “They never told me why they kept me there or why they let me out.

Nearly 250 years later, in the year 2122, American Julian 9th was — or rather, will be — arrested by the Kash Guard and locked up in a military prison near the Teivos of Chicago. ERB recorded this future imprisonment in the second segment of The Moon Maid. His crime was the bull whipping of a Kash Guard officer in the marketplace. “They threw me into the pen where the prisoners were kept,” Julian recalled, “and after they had left I was surrounded by the other unfortunates incarcerated there.”

Unlike Geronimo, however, Julian had no intention of stoically awaiting his release. Instead, he made — or rather, will make — a daring escape by night. “A challenge rang out from the direction of the sentry and almost simultaneously the report of a rifle,” explained Julian. “Instantly all was pandemonium. Guards ran, shouting, from all directions, lights flashed in the barracks, rifles spoke from either side of me and from behind me, while from below rose the dismal howlings of the prisoners … it required less than a second for me to dash across the roof and leap to the open ground beyond the prison pen. I saw lights moving west of me and so I ran east toward the lake and presently the firing ceased as they lost sight of me.” Unfortunately, Julian 9th was later captured and executed.

“The Big House”
Most of Burroughs’ jailbirds were confined to local and country jails or military prisons, but a few did time in a penitentiary. Two major Burroughs characters were sentenced to imprisonment in the “Big House.” One escaped on the way there, while the other came within hours of being executed.

In The Mucker, Billy Burne was also wrongly convicted of murder. “He wanted to die,” Burroughs declared. “But instead he was sentenced to life imprisonment in the penitentiary at Joliet. This was infinitely worse than death. Billy Burne was appalled at the thought of remaining for life within the grim stone walls of a prison.” Billy was “a hardened criminal,” one juryman whispered to another. “Society will be safer when he is behind bars.” Joliet Correctional Center, since closed, was located southwest of Chicago in 1916 when Billy was sentenced. As noted earlier, he escaped on the way to Joliet.

San Quentin State Prison, located in Marin County north of San Francisco, opened in 1852, and was one of the country’s best known penal institutions when Burroughs made it part of the setting for The Girl From Hollywood. Early on in the story, Slick Allen pressured Guy Evans into trafficking Allen’s stolen liquor by threatening to send Evans to the pen. “All you know is that I got enough on you to send you to San Quentin,” Allen warned. Evans responded, “I’ll go in on it because I need the money; but don’t you bother Custer Pennington — get that straight. I’d go to San Quentin and I’d swing myself before I’d stand for that. Another thing … you couldn’t send me to San Quentin or anywhere else. I bought a few bottles of hootch from you, and there isn’t any judge or jury going to send me to San Quentin for that.

Guy Evans never went to San Quentin, but his best friend, Custer Pennington did. Wrongly convicted of first degree murder, Pennington spent two months on San Quentin’s death row. Just hours before he was due to die in the gas chamber, the governor granted a stay of execution when new evidence turned up. 

As for Edgar Rice Burroughs, it appears he made it through life without staring through prison bars from the inside. As a believer in the “tainted blood” theory of Eugenics, however, Burroughs might have feared he was destined to spend some time in the pokey. After all, one of his ancestors was a jailbird. He revealed his family shame in the “Meet the Authors” column of the June 1941 issue of Amazing Stories

You see it was just as I suspected: as soon as you start writing your autobiography, you start bragging. You don’t say a word about Stephen Burroughs who was such a notorious forger and jailbreaker in early New England days that a book was written about him. I probably inherited my bent for writing from him.
—The End—

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Girl From Hollywood
The Efficiency Expert
The Girl From Farris’s
Marcia of the Doorstep
The Mucker
You Lucky Girl!
The Oakdale Affair
The Return of Tarzan
The Mad King
Tarzan and the Lost Empire
Tarzan and the City of Gold
Tarzan and the Lion Man
The Beasts of Tarzan
The War Chief
The Moon Maid
MEET THE AUTHORS  by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Amazing Stories: June 1941

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Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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