Vancouver Was Awesome: Jack Black in Vancouver, 1894


A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.

Jack Black came to Vancouver in 1894 after he and his Chinese cellmate busted out of a Revelstoke jail using a hacksaw. They hopped a boxcar to Vancouver, where Black rolled a drunk, smoked opium at Wing Sang, and got hog-tied in a botched robbery. He continued his perpetual crime spree throughout BC before getting pinched in Victoria, which earned him a two-year stretch at BC Penitentiary in New Westminster, where he was born. While there, the grandfather of another famous New West son, Raymond Burr, gave him the lash.

Jack Black (probably an alias) lived the life of any number of old west stock characters, including yegg, hobo, grifter, desperado, and hophead. More importantly, he eventually went straight and wrote his memoirs, You Can’t Win (1926), giving us a rare interior view of the world inhabited by the mostly anonymous underclass of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The book was a hit and made Black somewhat of a celebrity. He had his portrait (above right) taken by well-known photographer Edward Weston, and heavily influenced the likes of William S. Burroughs, who drew from You Can’t Win to write his classic beat novel, Junkie. MGM Studios recruited Black as a salaried Hollywood writer, presumably to give its crime flicks a touch of authenticity.

For more on Jack Black’s time in BC, check out “A Wild West Wanderer’s Adventures in BC” by John Mackie.

Source: Left: Mugshot printed in the San Francisco Call, 5 January 1912; right: portrait by Edward Weston ca. 1930, via The Chiseler

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