As published in The Story of Canada Blackie (Heathen Edition):

Overture? We’ll explain in a moment, but first: what began as a simple, straightforward Heathen Edition slowly turned into a research rabbit hole whose accumulation of details began to paint a more tragic picture the deeper we went.

To read Anne P. L. Field’s The Story of Canada Blackie, by itself, is to be left wanting more because it’s heavy on letters penned by Blackie and light on actual biographical sustenance — we still don’t know what the E in John E. Murphy stands for! She alludes far more than she elaborates, and she commits the sin that so many prison reform writers of the early 20th century sought to avoid like the plague: she makes it sentimental. However, she was first a poet, practicing in a medium whose primary tenet is less is more, and she bore such a striking resemblance to Blackie’s own mother that he, once the courage was summoned, asked if he could refer to her as such, so we believe her sentimentalism can and should be forgiven because what poet-mother wouldn’t be sentimental (all jokes aside) when crafting a biography of her son (or “son”) after he’s unnecessarily succumbed (relatively young) to a disease unnecessarily acquired in a wholly irresponsible system that (suspiciously) had him pegged all wrong from the start?

Truly, once Blackie’s whole, tragic story is realized — as much as can now be gleaned from its many pieces and disparate sources — it’s so infuriating that all you can do is ball your hands into fists and curse.

Was he innocent? Of crime in general, no — he never denied being a criminal — but of the crime that netted him life behind bars he was likely innocent. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

J.B. Kerfoot in his review of Field’s book for Life stated, “while it is sentimentally told, it is manifestly and significantly true.”1Kerfoot, J.B. (1915, September 23). The Latest Books. Life, 66(1717), p.568. And we agree one hundred percent, yet Field’s book, on its own, lacks the depth we crave, which is why we have fleshed it out with as much Blackie information as we could amass. Which isn’t to say that you should skip over Mrs. Field’s book entirely as it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle.

So, why an overture?

Because in amassing all of the additional bits and pieces that we’ve collected for this edition, a lot of repetition and overlap — a musicality, if you will — presents itself as each author recounts many of the same anecdotes, but from naturally varied points of view. For example, after meeting Donald Lowrie for the first time, Blackie wrote him a letter which manifests as near pseudo-chorus in our edition since Lowrie published a portion in his book My Life Out of Prison, Mrs. Field reprinted a portion in her book, and still yet Osborne reprinted a portion in his Society and Prisons. Yet, each author presents their version with such subtle variations that a quasi-Rashomon effect materializes in its repetition.

That is both a warning and a directive — there is quite a bit of repetition in this edition but pay attention — because the why of Canada Blackie is a puzzle of details easily overlooked. To illustrate: an early review of the book by The New York Times Book Review is the only place we’ve found a not inconsequential piece of the puzzle: “It was at Dannemora that a guard tore to shreds before his eyes the only photograph that Blackie had of his own mother.”2Canada Blackie’s Story of Prison Life. (1915, August 29). The New York Times Book Review, p. 307.

Fists yet?

In keeping with musicality, we have labeled the table of contents “programme” and structured our edition in such a way as to thread you through the narrative as lyrically as possible, which is mostly in chronological order — more so in order of original publication, but not always.

Briefly, we begin with [spoilers ahead] the original introduction by Thomas Mott Osborne, then Anne’s poem “Banked Fires,” which didn’t appear in the first edition of The Story of Canada Blackie, but may have been added to a later edition since the poem was published after the book. The book arrived August 6, 1915,3Prison Reform? How? When? Why? (1915, August 1). The New York Times Book Review, p. 274. while the poem followed in The Survey of December 4th,4“Banked Fires.” (1915, December 4) The Survey, 35(10), pp. 234–235. and the text preceding the poem is taken from a version that was syndicated in newspapers soon after.

We believe experiencing her poem before her narrative better underpins the point that she was a poet first, a good one, and the lyricism of the former, in part, explains the sentimentalism of the latter.

Next is an excerpt from Donald Lowrie’s second book My Life Out of Prison, which emerged in book form after newspaper serialization sometime during the week of March 28–April 3, 1915.5(1915, April 4) Latest Publications: Books Received During the Week Ended March 31. The New York Times Book Review, p. 124. In it, we meet No. 32,378 in solitary at Auburn, and for reasons unknown Lowrie never refers to him as “Canada Blackie,” only John E. Murphy, or Jack for short, however that works. There’s no sentimentality in Lowrie’s writing (you’ll know what we mean soon enough), and it provides a good counterbalance to Field’s sympathies.

Next, we must include a mention of Thomas Mott Osborne’s first prison reform book, and an explanation for its exclusion. Osborne read Lowrie’s first book My Life in Prison soon after it was serialized from August–December 1911 and published June 1912 and was so inspired he willingly entered Auburn Prison as an inmate for one week in September–October 1913, then published the book Within Prison Walls about that experience on Tuesday, May 26, 1914.6New Books Published. (1914, May 28). The Hartford Daily Courant. p. A8. In it, Osborne details his daily interactions with a Jack/John Murphy, but it’s not the same John E. Murphy, No. 32,378, of this book, instead being Auburn No. 32,177. However, it’s a book very much worth reading, if you’re interested, because that week of Osborne’s dialogues with the other Murphy is what birthed the now legendary Mutual Welfare League.

Then there is Mrs. Field’s book whose strongest element, all previous criticisms aside, is the many letters penned by Blackie as those are the closest we get to an autobiography, and they reveal that Blackie had a deep soul not many of his contemporaries had the opportunity to experience.

That is followed by an excerpt from Osborne’s book Society and Prisons, published Tuesday, July 18, 1916,7The Latest Books. (1916, July 21). The Brooklyn Daily Times. p. A5. in which Osborne gives a great biographical sketch of Murphy, now referring to him as Canada Blackie, and details Blackie’s liberation from solitary through to his eventual pardon. Again, there is repetition, but Osborne supplies certain details that Mrs. Field doesn’t.

Then, in case you thought this was all suddenly getting far too sentimental, Lowrie returns with three chapters from his final book Back in Prison—Why?,8It’s first time in print since it was originally serialized in 1925! A proper Heathen Edition of the entire book will be published shortly. which broadcasts the strongest Rashomon effect, yet, in his matter-of-fact delivery of how it was decided when and who should give Blackie his pardon. Again, details.

Four articles follow: three from the New-York Tribune with Lewis Wood’s “Leader Among Criminals the Wreck of a Genius” offering one surprising detail we can’t find anywhere else, and one from The Kingston Daily Freeman which gives us probably the best account of the first time Blackie laid eyes on Anne.

Then, wrapping up, we give Osborne final say with a speech he delivered to the Republican Club of New York City, wherein he again sketches Blackie’s bio before reminding us: just say no!9The Story of “Canada Blackie.” (1915, May 22). The Christian Work, 98(2516), pp. 663-64.

And if this is an Overture, then there should naturally follow a Coda, and Osborne’s summation and final recap of Blackie’s life, we believe, is a good lead-in because you’re going to have some questions and that’s what we intend to accomplish with our Coda: to answer as many questions as possible with details we’ve been able to extract from myriad newspapers but in articles far too short to warrant chapters of their own like the articles mentioned above.

For example, we spoil nothing by repeating that this entire story exists only because night watchman Matthew Wilson was shot and killed in Cobleskill, New York, on the morning of November 27, 1900. His lifeless body was discovered at 2 A.M. on the steps of Martin B. Borst’s grocery with four bullet holes in it. Five men were seen fleeing the scene and stolen “burglar’s tools” were discovered nearby.10Policeman Murdered: By Three Burglars in Cobleskill This Morning—Assassins Escaped. (1900, November 27). Elmira Gazette. p. A1.

In alleged connection to the murder, John E. Murphy, alias “Canada Blackie,” alias “John Hamilton,” was identified as the leader and last-to-be-arrested member of the “Yegg” Gang, whose also-indicted members consisted:11Last of ‘Yegg’ Gang: Canada Blackie to be Tried for Murder of Cobleskill Bank Watchman. (1902, February 8). Democrat Chronicle. p. A1.


  • James Sullivan, alias Whitey Sullivan, who was convicted and sentenced to be electrocuted the week beginning December 8, 1901.
  • William O’Connor, alias William Montgomery, alias William Hinch, alias Goat Hinch, who was convicted in January 1902 and sentenced to be electrocuted the week beginning March 3.
  • Edward Jackson, alias Dublin Ned, who pled guilty to burglary and was sentenced to ten years.
  • William Harris, alias Sheeny Harris, who turned state’s evidence.
  • Charles Foulke, alias Ballard, who was killed in Virginia by “the explosion of nitro-glycerine.”


Keep an eye out: “Sheeny” might be “shady.”

Finally, regarding the text of this edition, we’ve updated some words to reflect their modern equivalents (good-night is now goodnight; to-day is now today, etc.), and we’ve appended over 100 footnotes to enhance your reading and identify our source materials where appropriate.

Additionally, most sections begin with facsimiles of the original sources, which we believe lends further authenticity to this insane true story.

With that, the stage is set, and we begin—


The Story of Canada Blackie by Anne P.L. Field (Heathen Edition)