Friday, May 4, 2018

The Many Lives of Jack Purvis, Part One - By George A. Borgman & Eric B. Borgman


by George A. Borgman & Eric B. Borgman

One of the biggest characters and most eccentric, but brilliant jazzman of all time is Jack Purvis, who played trumpet, trombone, piano, sang, and was also a composer. He has been described as a liar, a thief, a bigamist, even a kleptomaniac and the stories about him seemed to grow with time as exaggeration began to hide the facts of what actually occurred during some of the remembered incidents of his life.

He was to live many lives within his lifespan. From a Tom Sawyer like boyhood, truant, petty pilferer, incorrigible youth to that of a world famous musician. From one day to the next he was an aviator, a hobo, a composer, a world traveler, a thief, a cook, an alcoholic, a musical arranger and a Don Juan! He might be a valet to a wealthy inheritor one day, an Arab street seller, a black trumpet player or Frenchman, the next.

One description that does seem to be universal is that he was a talented musician, arranger and composer, whose bizarre behavior and brushes with the law seems to have caused his career to suffer leading him into obscurity.

Jack Purvis was born on December 11, 1906, in Kokomo, Indiana. At the time of his birth his father Sanford B., was 54 years old and his mother Waneta "Neta" (Jackson) Purvis was 25.


Sanford B. Purvis was the son of William and Lucretia (White) Purvis. He was born on February 15, 1851 in Bartholomew Co., Indiana.

When he was sixteen he worked on a farm for $16.00 a month. He saved up enough for a term at New London School, where he obtained a teaching license. After teaching two terms and working on a farm during the Summer, he again saved enough money for his education. He took law at Howard College and was admitted as an attorney in the Howard circuit court.

He was first married in Howard Co., Indiana on October 24, 1876 to Mary M. Kirkpatrick and he made a living at various jobs. A son Ward was born to them on June 20, 1880. Another son Guy Sanford was born on September 22, 1882. 

Sanford, on November 24, 1882 and March 7, 1884 was appointed Post Master of Centre in Howard Co., Indiana. In 1888, a daughter Gail Hamilton was born on September 22nd. A year later, tragedy struck when Ward died on December 6, 1889. He was buried in the Crown Point Cemetery at Kokomo.

Twins were born Ruth and Rathgar on September 5, 1893, however they were sickly. Ruth dying the next day and Rathgar hanging on until September 20th.

Jack Purvis birth annoucement.
Sanford was a traveling salesman by 1897. Then in 1898 he voluntarily went into bankruptcy being over $7,000 in debt.(1)  Mary died of heart failure on October 1, 1903 in Kokomo and was buried at the Crown Point Cemetery alongside her children. A little over a year later on November 7, 1904 Sanford married Wanita Jackson the daughter of Caleb Jackson who lived in the East side of the city. Waneta known as "Neta" or "Nettie" and Sanford were married at the home of the officiating-minister, the Rev J. H. MacNeil in Kokomo, Indiana. Two years later Jack Purvis was born on December 11th.

In 1910, Sanford was a sales manager for a stove works and then from 1912 to 1921 he was a salesman. It has also been reported that he was a real estate agent at one time.


During the early teens the Purvis family lived at 321 East Mulberry St. Jack's mother Waneta "Nettie" attempted to get a divorce from Sanford in 1910 reporting that, Sanford, "had abused her no less than 100 times in the last few years." In November, something happend between Sanford and Waneta that was serious enough for her to move out and take Jack with her. She consulted the lawyer firm Morrison & McIntosh who instituted a suit for divorce, and succeeded in getting a restraining order on the 19th of the month.(2) 

Whatever the trouble that had arisen between husband and wife it was resolved enough for Waneta to withdraw her divorce suit and move back home with Jack by November 28th. Spring saw the birth their second child, J. Richard Purvis, who was born on April 23, 1911.

A few months later on August 1st, Jack's apparent first mention in the Kokomo newspapers came when he attended Robert H. Musselman's seventh birthday party.
On April 22, 1912 shortly after eating dinner Nettie complained that she was feeling ill. A doctor was sent for. It was determined she was suffering from double pneumonia and she fell deeper and deeper into sickness. Though terribly ill and suffering Nettie clung to life until, unable to breathe, she succumbed on August 2, 1912 at the age of 31.

Jack was five years old and Richard was only 15 months when their mother died. It is possible that this tragedy and the reported "abuse" that had taken place in the house during the preceding years propelled young Jack down the wrong path early on. At this time his father was 62.

Nettie's funeral was that Sunday, the 4th. It took place out of the house at 321 East Mulberry Street at 2:30. Rev. E. Richard Edwards of the Main Street Christian Church officiated. She was buried at the Crown Point Cemetery.  

Sanford was never to marry again. He would employ a housekeeper, however. In 1920, it would be a 48-year-old Lucy Stanton who was employed to look after Jack and Richard. It is said that Sanford tried to give his young sons the care they needed and even refused job offers so as to be home for them, but Jack's habit for getting into trouble couldn't be restrained.

Sanford & Richard Purvis(3)
On April 12, 1917, while skating home from school, down a sidewalk, on East Walnut St., Jack was knocked down and run over by a team of horses and a wagon operated by a Mr. Brown. The Bercroft delivery wagon wheel crushed his left hand and ran over his right arm hurting his arm and shoulder.  

A year later Jack had recovered from his injuries enough to attend Camp Tree from June 25 to July 8th 1918. Thirty-five boys took part at the camp at the confluence of the Hinkle and Cicero Creeks at Noblesville, Indiana.

Young Jack was starting to misbehave and get into trouble with petty theft and other wayward activities. He became too much for his father and Lucy to handle. In 1919, his father was looking into sending his son to a Chicago psychiatrist, when instead Jack ran afoul of the law for petty pilfering at the beginning of June and was sentenced by Judge Overton to the Indiana Boys' School in Plainfield. Jack, accompanied by his father, was dropped off at the school. 

His father after checking out the facility was satisfied that his son would get good food and sleeping accommodations as well as some much needed discipline. Sanford was also comforted in the fact that one of the biggest owners of real-estate in the state of Indiana was a former inmate at the school. Jack, however, was not as happy at the facility and would run away the first chance he got.

Although, Sanford knew where his son would be and that he'd be learning and get three meals a day, life at the "School" was not easy. Firstly, Jack was now incarcerated at the age of twelve with children who were even worse in their behavior than he. Secondly, some of the children were dying! In 1920 two children died. One, John Goen, died in January after he went to a hospital for surgery. He passed away from complications of the appendicitis operation. The other child to die was Roy Nickles. His death, in June, was caused by a facial infection.(4)

Jack ran away about two weeks into his stay on Sunday, June 15th. The superintendent of the Indiana School for Boys' instructed the Kokomo Tribune to warn that Jack would most likely make his way back to town.

Jack made his escape, "by hiding himself in a closet opening on a hall until everyone was asleep and then slipping out in his barefeet and clad only in a pair of overalls and a waist. He footed it over to Ben Davis and then to Carmel, making a little money and getting himself a pair of shoes by picking strawberries and doing other chores at farmhouses along the way. He admitted that he swapped waists and trousers with some boy whose clothes he saw hanging on a clothes line near the road one morning. He came from Noblesville to Oakford on a traction car and hoofed it from Oakford to Kokomo." It took him four days to get back to Kokomo, as he arrived there on Wednesday, June 19th.(5)

The news article continues the story of his escape. Jack "was at his father's home, but did not let anyone see him. He got out the next morning on the L. E. & W. train, and landed in Laporte. From there he caught a train into Chicago." 

The Chicago police nabbed Jack and the Plainfield institution was called by them identifying Jack as the runaway Jack Purvis. The Boys' School sent out a guard to go out and pick him up. When he arrived and was taken to see the boy however, he told them that that was not Jack Purvis and left without him.

Apparently, by this time Jack had already learned the ability to change into other people, for Jack made himself look sufficiently different from his description and he turned himself into a "half-wit" to boot. His performance was so good that the only one able to identify him was Mayme Purvis his half-brother Guy's wife. Guy and Mayme lived in Chicago, but Guy wasn't available to go down to the police station. When Jack was brought out to Mayme he even tried to fool her and continued his "half-wit" act. She recognized him and ended up having to drive him back to Kokomo. They arrived Tuesday, June 17th at Sanford's home on North Market Street.

Jack at first "begged" his father not to send him back to Plainfield. But his father insisted he had to return. Jack promised his father he'd return to the Boys' School if he himself would take him back. Sanford called the Sheriff and told him that he'd take Jack back on Thursday morning; he even let Jack out on Wednesday to roam around. Jack returned dutifully and was sound asleep Wednesday night at midnight. At 6 AM, Thursday, when Sanford went to wake up Jack, he was long gone. He slipped out sometime during the night, Plainfield would have to wait. Sanford had to inform Sheriff Butler of his son's further escape and the search for Jack Purvis began all over again.

Jack was making a name for himself with so many of his exploits written up in the Kokomo Tribune. It must have been embarrassing on some level for his father who was a local businessman and Democratic Party activist, but, it appears that much of the information reported in the articles was actually supplied by Sanford Purvis.

Apparently, Jack's escapades were just beginning as he set out for parts West. He is said to have made it out as far as Utah when he decided

Sanford reported to the newspaper that he "deplores the temperamental peculiarity that leads the boy into entanglements with the law," and further stated that he, "feels that he has done all that he possibly could do to keep him in the path of rectitude."(6)

On August 19, 1919 the Kokomo Tribune, printed an article entitled "Friends Say Father Tried To Save His Son." The piece can only be described as trying to clear the father of any bad public opinion in connection with his son. Even Sanford's mother-in-law Nancy Jackson is quoted as saying, "I always felt that the boys were safe with Sanford. He gave them both a mother's care."(7)

Jack himself was also given back-handed compliments with the paper reporting, "Those that know the family affairs best say that the Purvis boy can accomplish what he does with baffling adroitness of a man schooled by years of experience in misdeeds." It reports that workers at the Boys' School think that
Jack, "has a splendid mind, but his ways are perverse."

Interestingly, the next page over from the article contains an advertisement for Betsy Ross Bread which shows a drawing of a boy walking down a road off on an adventure which could very well have been a drawing of Jack Purvis.
Betsy Ross Bread Ad.

The Jack Purvis newspaper series wasn't over, for in answer to the recent articles of August 18th & 19th a letter from J. M'Lean Moulder was printed in support of "Sant Purvis." Moulder claimed that shortly after Jack had run away from Sanford's house he told him, "Sant, do not give up or forsake the boy. When you turn your back on him, then he is lost forever." Sanford's response according to Moulder was that Sanford took him by the hand, "with great tears filling his eyes, he said: 'I would give my life to save that boy. Not an hour passes day or night but what he is uppermost in my mind.'"(8)

Jack, it seems, did his time of incarceration at the Indian Boys' School without further incident. There were no more reports in the Kokomo Tribune about further escapes or escapades and it can be assumed that he was handled with special attention so he wouldn't run away again. It was while he was at the correctional institution that he received his first musical training. Perhaps his interest in music made his time there less unbearable.

It has been reported that he played trumpet and trombone in the local high school orchestras and even dance bands starting around 1921. By April 1921, Jack had been paroled and had returned to Kokomo. He was out and playing cornet on the 28th of the month accompanying Mary Francis Waller's whistling act at a meeting of the Woman's Council of the Main Street Christian Church. By June, Jack had a job delivering newspapers on his bicycle. He made it into the Kokomo Tribune again on June 15th with an article about him entitled, Adventure Chilled. This time 14 year old Jack was the hero of the piece! Instead of a story about his running away, it was a story about how he returned three runaway children to their parents.

By 1922 things had started falling apart between Jack and his father. Apparently, Jack had shortly returned from working the "western harvest fields," in August and found work at a lunch stand at the Kokomo Exposition grounds when the authorities grabbed him.(9) On August 30th, at the behest of his father, Jack was taken into custody and returned to the Indiana Boys' School. Since Jack had been on parole from the school and since he wasn't obeying his father or the terms of his parole his father decided to send him back to Plainfield. The next day, August 31st, it was reported in the newspaper on the same page with the story on Jack, that, Sanford had been appointed a registration clerk for the Second Ward by the local Democratic Party.

Sanford, always trying to keep himself blameless in the eyes of the public, let everyone know the reason he sent Jack back behind bars. Here is the statement he had printed up in the Kokomo Daily Tribune on September 1, 1922: "Jack's parole, for which I am guarantor, requires that he shall obey me, finish high school, or enter some useful employment, save part of his wages, not be out late at night, change his residence, nor leave home without my or the school's consent."
"Jack will not go to school, work anywhere very long, save any of his money, stay in at night; very often; nor obey me after he gets ten feet away from me. When pressed vigorously to do any of these things, he quietly slips away from home, usually without a cent of money or an extra garment of any kind, and often travels thousands of miles' and several months before he blows in back home, dirty, penniless, ragged, unkempt and a veritable hobo. He has covered most of the United States this way in the last two years. I have refurnished and stocked him up on all former occasions and there have been many of them thinking he had enough of it and had learned some sense at last. Plainfield did not send after him nor request his return."

"I am in honor bound, and have been for some time, to return him to the school for these continual violations of his parole."

"As far as I know, or have any reason to believe. Jack has been square and honest in everything and to everybody except the terms of his parole and my requests and wishes. He won't work, go to school, stay at home, obey me nor quit his periodical tramps and bumming. And this is the reason, and the only reason, why I am sending him back to the Boys' school at Plainfield."

"I will now know where Jack is all the time, that he has enough to eat, a good place to sleep, comfortable clothes and out of danger. And maybe this post-graduate term will bring him to his senses, and show him what a fool he has been all this time."

Sanford posting this in the newspaper fits with his pattern of publicizing Jack's bad behavior and justifying his own. Jack Purvis obviously had some problems and was an embarrassment to his father, but it is easy to speculate what the best course of action may have been for him. If his father had taken him to see a psychologist instead of incarcerating him, it may have proved more helpful in the end.

There is no information that Jack was ever in the habit of running away and "tramping it" before the age of 12 after he escaped from the Boys' School. These traveling adventures stuck with him throughout his life. It would appear that the best thing that happened for Jack while he was incarcerated was that he learned to play music. So, it may be that Sanford's action of putting Jack in the Boys' School to help his son, may have actually made him worse.

On Sunday morning, June 24, 1923, Sanford was giving a short talk on Abraham before Hon. A. B. Kirkpatrick's Sunday school class at the Main Street Christian Church. After finishing the ten minute talk, a few minutes after 10:00, he, "laid down his notes walked to the rear of the Sunday school room took a seat at the side of J. F. Nelson, another member of the class, and asked for a fan. As he reached for the fan his breathing became labored and he crumpled limply in the seat."(10) Sanford had suffered a heart attack.

He was carried to the vestibule. As he was being carried he noticed the clock and said, "I guess my time has come." A nearby doctor was brought in and he declared Sanford Purvis dead. The report of his death spread quickly throughtout Kokomo. The next day it was front page news.

Sanford was buried at the Crown Point Cemetery where his wives and children were previously buried. Sanford's estate was worth about $25,000 which was to be divided amongst his four children. Strangely, Sanford's will made the Farmers Trust & Savings Bank of Kokomo responsible for not only his estate but also for the guardianship of both his minor children Jack and 11 year old Richard.(11) The bank arranged for his mother's sister Lola and her husband John Lowry to look after Richard while Jack stayed locked up at the Indiana Boys' School. Where he was until about July 9th when he escaped once again from the place.

The bank decided to break up the Puvis property at 417 North Market Street by selling off the contents of the house and the property. Richard Purvis, Miss Nellie Wynn the housekeeper, along with Sanford's daughter Gail Hall, and her daughter Mary stayed at the home from the day of the funeral until the sale of the property went through on July 14th.

On Saturday afternoon, after the sale, Miss Wynn asked Mr. Drinkwater one of the men representing the bank if she could bring Richard to her sister's house for the night. She said she'd make sure to bring Richard to his Sunday school class the next morning and make sure he got to his aunt and uncle Lowry's house afterwards.

Not only did Richard spend the night at Miss Wynn's sister's home at 613 East Superior Street, but Gail Hall, her daughter and Miss Wynn did as well. That night Mr. and Mrs. Guy Purvis visited from Chicago.

Richard arrived at the Main Street Christian Church for his Sunday school class along with his sister Gail's daughter Mary. They attended seperate classes and Mary claimed she didn't see him after they went to their respective classes. Only after Sunday school ended and Richard was nowhere to be found was it realized that something more sinister may have taken place.

After Mary had returned to Miss Wynn's sister's house without Richard around 11:00 AM the telephone rang and Gail answered it. She claimed that it was, "Richard who had been talking; that he had said he was going to the home of his aunt, Mrs. Lowry, and then was going to the home of his grandfather, Caleb Jackson, out east of Kokomo, in Howard township."

Gail, who seemed a bit nervous, then said she was going to leave for Superior, Wisconsin  earlier than originally planned. Instead of taking the 1:20 Pennsylvania train, she decided to take the earlier traction car to Logansport and then take the Chicago train from there. Miss Wynn went with Gail and her daughter to the traction train which had just pulled up to the station when their taxi arrived. Miss Wynn waited until everyone had boarded and she was certain Richard Purvis never boarded the train. Guy Purvis, also left Kokomo on Sunday, leaving town at 1:20 in order to get to work on Monday. His wife, however, stayed behind assuring everyone that she and Guy had nothing to do with Richard's disappearance.

Miss Wynn, who had nothing good to say about Jack, following her former employer Sanford's lead, stated to the newspaper that, "Richard's disappearance was a complete surprise to me, but the circumstances were such that I now feel that it had been planned by some one." She then clearly points the finger at the "someone" she believed it was. Continuing she said, "I have heard, that Richard's brother Jack Purvis, got out of the institution at Plainfield several days ago. I do not know whether he had anything to do with Richard's disappearance or not, but I would not be surprised should it be revealed that he had a hand in it."

The newspaper then went on to further imply that Jack was likely guilty of snatching his brother when it reported that when, "the notice of Sheriff Joe Lindley was brought to the fact that Richard Purvis had disappeared, he immediately got into communication by telephone with Supt. McGonigle of the Indiana School for Boys, at Plainfield. Supt. McGonigle told him that Jack Purvis, whose record for incorrigibility is a long one, had escaped from the institution about a week ago; that the school authorities had been searching for him ever since and that they would pay a reward for his return."

The Bicknell Daily News also reported that, "The authorities... are looking for an older brother on the theory that he may have may have induced the boy to go away with him."(12)

Other members of the Purvis family were also under suspicion in the article including Richard's half-sister Gail and his half-brother Guy. Apparently, there was some animosity between the Purvis family and Sanford's second wife's family.

The two representatives of the bank, "W. W. Drinkwater and Judge Kirkpatrick said that inasmuch as Richard Purvis was a ward of the Farmers Trust and Savings bank, they were going immediately to find the boy, if possible, and that in doing this they purposed to proceed under the statute defining kidnaping, starting the investigation by first demanding that Miss Wynn, to whose care the boy had been trusted, produce him. They indicated that their investigation and search would include all persons who might in any way have been parties to a plot to kidnap him."(13)

It didn't take long for Richard to be located. The Superior, Wisconsin police discovered him at the home of his half-sister Gail Hall. They sent a telegram to the Kokomo police department and  after being discovered Mrs. Hall sent a telegram to the bank informing them that Richard was with her. "The bank promptly notified Mrs. Hall that unless Richard was returned to Kokomo by Friday noon, prosecution would be launched against her."(14)

The article in the July 18th edition of the Kokomo Daily Tribune continued, "The information received from Superior confirmed the bank in its suspicion that Richard was removed from Kokomo in accordance with a plan that has been carefully pre-arranged by Mrs. Hall." The article concluded by saying that the bank, "has indictated that if Richard is returned and no further attempts are made to interfere with the bank's authority as guardian, it will be disposed to let the case drop without bringing prosecutions."

Attorney Donald F. Elliot was sent out by the bank to retrieve Richard from his sister's home. On Saturday, July 21, 1923, many were waiting for his return. Guy Purvis, came down from Chicago for his homecoming. Then around 9 PM Elliot arrived. According to the newspaper Richard, "was eager to get back to Kokomo." However, "he was so exhausted that he remained at the Elliot home over Saturday night," and was taken to his aunt and uncle John and Lola Lowry's house on Sunday.

The one thing which seems certain is that Jack Purvis appears to have had nothing to do with the disappearance of his brother Richard. Jack during this time was most likely wandering the country; off on one of his adventures. It wouldn't be long however, before Jack would return to Kokomo!

"Jack Purvis will come out all right. The world may hear from him yet in big deeds. He is but the victim of overdeveloped imagination. His astuteness, his drive, his winsomeness, all of which excite the sympathy of those who know him..."(15)

Much of the information on the Purvis family and Jack Purvis' early years was obtained from newspaper articles from the Kokomo Daily Tribune, Find A Grave memorials on various family members, and U. S. census records. Special thanks to Carl Crabtree for his input.

1. The National Bankruptcy News, Vol. 1, page 171.
2. The Indianapolis Star, 'Wealthy Kokomo Man Sued', page 4. The restraining order was, "to prevent the defendant from disposing of his property."
3. Indiana State Archives
4. Indiana Boys' School, Plainfield Annual Report, Vol. 54, page 53.
5. The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 'Jack Purvis Puts Across Sly Getaway', June 26, 1919, page 1.
6. The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 'Back At Boys' School', August 18, 1919, page 7.
7. The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 'Friends Say Father Tried To Save Son', August 19, 1919, page 7.
8. The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 'Little Jack Purvis-What is to Become of Him?', August 23, 1919, page 6.
9. The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 'Breaks His Parole', August 31, 1922, page 7.
10. The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 'S. B. Purvis Is A Victim Of Heart Attack', June 25, 1923, pages 1-2.
11. Carl Crabtree a collateral relation to Jack Purvis had this to say regarding the Farmers Trust & Savings Bank: "Sanford's arrangement with this bank probably wasn't unusual at the time. Prior to the last 30-40 years many banks had trust departments that offered these types of services. It doesn't seem much different than people leaving their estates (and guardianship of their minor children) in the hands of their lawyers today. To put it into perspective consider the following. Sanford had no close family left in IN.  His last sibling in that area (Sarah) died at 86 y/o the month before Sanford died. His only other living siblings were two sisters living in KS. Sanford's adult daughter Gail lived in Superior, WI and was in her fourth marriage--probably not a viable candidate to handle anyone's estate. Sanford's adult son Guy lived in Chicago where he had been an electrical engineer with General Electric for most of his career. Although it would have been inconvenient, he could probably have acted as the executor of the estate and disposed of the home if that was the only asset that Sanford had. Since Sanford had invested in several businesses in his lifetime he may have had some of those assets to dispose of also. Finally, as a person who bought, sold, started and ran businesses, he probably would have developed a working relationship with a bank over the years and some of the management personnel of that bank would have been familiar with his financial activities, holdings, etc." (Used with kind permission by Carl Crabtree.)
12. The Bicknell Daily News, 'Believe That Child Was Kidnapped', July 18, 1923, page 1.
13. The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 'Richard Purvis Disappears At Sunday School', July 16, 1923, pages 1-2.
14. The Kokomo Daily Tribune,  'Expected Home Soon', July 18, 1923, page 1.
15. The Kokomo Daily Tribune, 'Friends Say Father Tried To Save Son', August 19, 1919, page 7.


  1. Thank you so much for this piece. At last some reporting on Jack Purvis that does more than recycle rumors from decades past.

    Of course, we can't know what drama may have rumbled below a surface that was dramatic enough to begin with.

  2. Amazing research! Hopefully Part 2 is coming!

  3. Thanks for your efforts, very interesting to read.