People who don’t know blues music think it’s sad music, but it isn’t.
One of the first musicians I really loved was the legendary bluesman, BB King. I bought his album Live and Well, and got to see him play live twice. I have a poor memory but I still remember the last time I saw him play. My friend Christie and I went to see him at Nautica. The stage manager came out and told the audience BB was doing well and he was excited to be there but we needed to remember he wasn’t in great health. She didn’t want people to yell for him to keep playing and tire him out too much. People looked at each other blankly, not knowing what to expect. Then BB came out, waving the stage manager off as if she was a pesky house fly. He was still BB King, still had that voice and could play the guitar like nobody’s business.
Imagine my surprise when I came across a large number of photos featuring Lou Tellegen!
Lou Tellegen was a famous actor back in the 1910s. I’d never seen his movies or even a picture of him. But I knew his name right away because Dorothy Parker reviewed Women Have Been Kind. The book was Tellegen’s autobiography and it catalogued his relationships with his numerous girlfriends and wives.
This is a little outside of Old Spirituals’ usual scope, but I thought you might enjoy the stories of two career petty criminals in Montana.
Looking over the changes from one mugshot to the next reminded me somewhat of the Faces of Meth photo collages that float around on the Internet. If you haven’t seen those, each collage depicts one person’s mugshots over a very short period of time– a few months or a year. They’re very sad because the people look decades older, their teeth fall out, they lose most of their hair, and are intended to be a visual warning to people. The two subjects here were arrested repeatedly and incarcerated, but the multiple mugshots are the only similarity to Faces of Meth: these stories aren’t tragic.
We’ll start with Mr. Hall Williams, the less prolific of the two. Officially, the dark-haired, blue-eyed young man did dry-cleaning work for a living, but what Hall really enjoyed was stealing cars in Montana. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t very good at it. Between 1929 and 1937, he was arrested at least three times for grand larceny.
Sadly, during his life of crime, both his personal life and his looks suffered. He got married and divorced between 1929 and 1931. Even worse, the condition of his teeth deteriorated from Good in 1929 to Poor in 1937. Hall Williams was possibly a roughhouser, as evidenced by his proliferation of scars. He also had an infinity for tattoos. However, his record of petty crime cannot even compare to our second criminal.
Richard West’s path is almost the opposite of that of Hall Williams. He seemed to become more prolific, more successful, more daring, and better-looking over time, so his life of petty crime really agreed with him.
Richard’s origins are misty; he lists his background as Scots-Irish. He joined the Army in 1925 and got a dishonorable discharge a few years later. Details unknown! He became a baker and a chef to support himself, but who knows if he had any time to dedicate to his craft. Richard’s crimes and arrests must have taken up most of his time. The same year he got the dishonorable discharge, he was arrested in California for passing bad checks. This was just the first in a string of 22 arrests for minor and petty crimes ranging from vagrancy to public drunkenness to car theft.
Richard had a taste for variety. He was arrested in Yakima, Washington for forgery, in Indianapolis for public drunkenness. Illinois swore out two separate warrants in the 1940s. We pick up his trail in Montana when he was arrested in 1948 for passing a bad check for $25. That would be worth about $269 dollars today, so the state of Montana very reasonably sentenced him to 18 months in the penitentiary.
He was released early though, and in 1949, he was arrested again– for passing another bad check. This time he was sentenced to two years. However, he escaped! I couldn’t find how he had done it exactly but apparently he purchased some supplies for his jailbreak with a bad check. He was incorrigible.
In 1953, we find Richard in prison again on separate charges in Indiana, but this time, he wasn’t going to wait it out. Richard escaped from the prison, and he wasn’t tracked down until 1958, when he was arrested in Montana for the jailbreak in 1953.
It would be remiss to fail to point out that Richard West underwent a change for the better. He started out in 1948, listing his marital status as divorced and his weight at 170 lbs. The following year he was single and his weight was around 180 lbs. But by 1958, he was 155 lbs and married. Plus, he is one of those people who looks good with gray hair. The moral of the story is that crime pays!
I leave you with Richard West’s rap sheet, preserved here for posterity: