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
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
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
Other Innocent Jailbirds
Several other Burroughs characters
found themselves behind bars, accused of crimes they didn’t commit. In
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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.”