In December 1916, when life expectancy for American men was only 50 years, a picturesque “old” man with a white moustache, a goatee and flowing shoulder-length hair, dressed in a fringed buckskin jacket and custom made sombrero-styled hat, boasted that he felt as if he was 30 years old. To prove it he kicked his foot higher than his head, easily touched the floor with his hands without bending his knees, and still shouted out a rousing Apache yell. He could be referred to the Jack LaLanne or Jack Palance of his time, impressing his audiences with his physical strength and vigor. However within two months, Jack Wallace Crawford would be dead of pneumonia at his home at Woodhaven, N.Y. just a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday on March 10th.
A civil war veteran, he later became chief of scouts under General George Custer. At the time of the historic battle known as Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn in the South Dakota Territory, Crawford had left on a mission to transport messages, traveling hundreds of miles on horseback. Later in his career, he later went on to participate in many skirmishes in the “Indian Wars” out west and played an active part in the pursuit of Sitting Bull.
He had an artistic side and was known as the “Poet Scout” due to his hundreds of poems, stories and plays devoted to frontier adventures. . The Sisters of Charity taught him to read and write while in the hospital recovering from wounds he received on the civil war battlefield at Petersburg. His career continued into the 20th century when he appeared in at least two films, “The Battle Cry of Peace” and “Womanhood, the Glory of a Nation.” In his final days he was deemed a national treasure, as he was one of the last links between the 20th century and the frontier days of the 19th century.
What is the connection between this man and Schuylkill County you may be thinking? While he was born in County Donegal in Northern Ireland, near London on March 4, 1847, he came to the United States to be reunited with his parents living in Minersville. As many other young immigrant boys, he became a slate-picker in the local mines. At the age of 16 he enlisted in the Union Army as a member of the 48th Pennsylvania Volunteers. As an adult he operated a billiard parlor in Shenandoah and later became the first Postmaster in Girardville. Jack’s pool hall was located at the corner of Centre and Market Streets in Shenandoah. By the way, wouldn’t it be neat if the Post Office in Girardville was named after him despite the fact he was not a politician? However Captain Jack, despite his outward flamboyant, raconteur image, remained humble referring to himself only as “Jack Crawford, boy soldier, rustic poet, scout and bad actor.” After leaving Schuylkill County he returned periodically to give performances at the Academy of Music in Pottsville and elsewhere. He also kept in touch with old local friends such as the bombastic Judge Charles Napoleon Brumm who sat on the local bench.
While Crawford had the physical appearance of a wild west frontiersman, Captain Jack was a peaceful person who did not drink alcohol, unlike the stereotype that many had. Jack had made a promise to his dying mother when he was a young man and he kept his promise. Jack frequently gave lectures on the dangers of alcohol consumption and he was a devoted supporter of the Y.M.C.A. He spoke at the YMCA in Pottsville located at the corner of Second and West Market Street on the topic of abstinence. He took pride in the fact that he had convinced over 25,000 young men to sign a pledge to avoid alcohol. If he were alive today I believe he certainly would be offended not only by the excessive alcohol consumption in the area but more importantly by the scourge of opioid addiction among the young people. But after I think about it longer, if he was still alive today he would be 170 and his thoughts would be elsewhere…maybe trying one last time to stand up and touch his hands to the ground without bending his knees.
Jack Crawford (1847-1917), rest in peace.
J. R. Zane, President
3/4/2017 (Jack’s birthday)
Schuylkill County Historical Society
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Mount Carmel Daily News, Nov 27, 1894; Harrisburg Telegraph Sept 6, 1905; Hazleton Standard Speaker, June 22, 1997;The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, Wed., March 7, 1917
Washington Post, Sunday April 8, 1917; Mount Carmel Item, July 9, 1915; http://collections.barkerville.ca/tales/crawford-poems