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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Bing Crosby, Gus Edwards, O. Henry, and Alias Jimmy Valentine

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2001

By Jacob A. Stein


The first volume of Bing Crosby’s two-volume biography is in the bookstores. For the youngsters, Bing Crosby (1904-1977) was the Zeitgeist of popular music from the 1930s to the 1960s. The biography’s index lists the name of Gus Edwards. Who was he and why is he in Bing’s biography? Bing played the part of Gus Edwards, an old vaudevillian and songwriter, in the movie The Starmaker. Bing sings the Gus Edwards song "When Jimmy Valentine Gets Out." Who was Jimmy Valentine and what did he get out of? Jimmy Valentine was a picaresque safecracker who did time. When he got out he intended to crack just one more safe.

Stay with me, I will pull all this together and give you what is called an O. Henry, firecracker ending.

William Sydney Porter, alias O. Henry (1862-1910), also did time. He was charged with embezzlement-taking money from a bank in Texas where he worked as a teller. Whether he was guilty or not has never been resolved. Nevertheless, he jumped bond before the trial. His flight was taken as an admission of guilt. See Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000). Flight is the consummate act of evasion and is evidence of wrongdoing. At least so sayeth the majority opinion.

William Sydney Porter and Jimmy Valentine met in jail. When Porter got out he moved to New York and commenced writing short stories under the name O. Henry. One of his stories, "A Retrieved Reformation," told what happened to Jimmy Valentine after he got out. Jimmy intended to go straight after cracking one more safe-an old safe in an old bank in a small town. When he got to the small town, he took a job in a shoe store; not to sell shoes, but as a cover while casing the bank. His due diligence at the bank brought something he did not expect. He met a girl. It was love at first sight for them both. Add to the plot that she was the daughter of the bank president.

The banker took a liking to Jimmy. He decided to give a party for the two in love at the bank. The party served a double purpose. He would introduce Jimmy to his friends and he would show off the bank’s new time safe.

Jimmy had a lot to think about at that party. He had not planned on falling in love and he had not planned on cracking a time safe. Although Jimmy was amiable at the party, his thoughts were on the two unexpected events.

His girlfriend’s sister was at the party with her two young children, who were playing hide-and-seek right in front of the open safe. Then a dramatic event took place. One of the little girls ran into the safe to hide. Another child pushed the safe door and it swung closed. Let’s leave the story right there and go back to O. Henry.

The Jimmy Valentine story, as you will see, was a natural to be made into a play. O. Henry was tempted, but he was apprehensive that if the play was successful, his double life would be exposed. He liked his O. Henry anonymity. He sold the rights to a playwright for $500, and the story was dramatized and renamed Alias Jimmy Valentine. It was a Broadway success and many years later a 1930s movie.

Back to Gus Edwards. He saw the play and it inspired him to write the song "When Jimmy Valentine Gets Out." It was the hit of the 1911 season.

Now back to the bank and the little girl in the safe. The guests at the party who saw what happened cried out. The safe must be opened or the little girl will die. A call was put in to the police and to the people who installed the time safe. The word was that the time safe could not be opened until 24 hours later.

As Jimmy watched this tragedy unfold, he had to make a quick decision. Could he open the safe? And if he could, should he? It would show him up as a safe cracker.

Jimmy’s technique with the combination lock tumblers was to sensitize his fingers with some sandpaper. And without thinking any more, he rubbed the tips of his fingers against the adjacent marble wall. He went to the safe. He turned the tumblers. He felt the clicks that revealed the combination. He still had the touch in those sandpapered fingers. Lo and behold, the safe popped open. The little girl danced out, unaware that she had just sidestepped death.

Jimmy looked around to see what the reaction was to him. Standing back from the crowd was a man he recognized, a detective from the safe squad who had come over to the bank when the call was made to the police. It was the detective who had put Jimmy in jail two years ago.

Jimmy walked over to him and said, "You saw it all, and now you must do your duty."

The detective said, "Yes, I saw it all. I thought I recognized you, but I see I have made a big mistake. You are a better man than the man I thought you were."

Let’s end with a song, a Gus Edwards song:

     Look out, look out, Look out for Jimmy Valentine

For he’s a pal of mine, A sentimental crook

With a touch that lingers

In his sandpapered fingers

He can find the combination of your pocketbook.

Look out, look out, For when you see his lantern shine

That’s the time to jump right up and shout

Help! He’d steal a horse and cart,

He’d even steal a girlie’s heart

When Jimmy Valentine gets out.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].