Ralph Pekor: “Smiling Jesus” Artist, Folsom Prison Inmate #21692, Cartoonist

If you take a look at Ink Spill‘s “New Yorker Cartoonists A-Z “ you’ll notice that there are, at present, one hundred and thirty-two members of the Spill‘s “One Club.”  One Club membership is limited to those cartoonists whose work appeared just once in The New Yorker (the One Club icon    appears beside each member’s entry).  Most of these One Clubbers have thin biographies; I’ve found over the years that it’s tough tracking down much at all about them other than their one cartoon appearance. There’ve been exceptions when a One Clubber went on to other things outside the New Yorker.  Ted Key, who created the comic strip character Hazel, would be an example. B. Kliban is another. Occasionally, a relative of a One Clubber will write in to the Spill and provide much needed biographical information. But mostly, One Clubbers are anonymous other than for their one cartoon that appeared in one issue of The New Yorker. Such was the case for Ralph Dubois Pekor, whose one cartoon (below) appeared in the issue of May 18, 1948. His entry (soon to be updated) looks like this:  Ralph Pekor NYer work: 1 drawing, May 18, 1946

Recently a gentleman wrote to me asking where exactly Mr. Pekor’s drawing was to be found in that May 18, 1946 issue. Mr. Pekor’s name appears in The New Yorker‘s database but he had signed his one New Yorker cartoon “Peek,” thus allowing for some confusion.

An email back-and-forth about Mr. Pekor’s past (once the Pekor/Peek mystery was solved) led to more information than I could’ve possibly imagined; I was provided links to newspaper articles, and a photograph. Not only did I learn when and where Mr. Pekor was born (Columbus Georgia June 14, 1901) and died (January 6th, 1957, Phoenix, Arizona) but discovered a fascinating television profile on him.

These pieces, and more information  found by scouring the internet provided a fuller picture of an artist with a developing career out in Hollywood in “theatrical public relations,” as a “bit player,” and as a published cartoonist. Within a decade of his arrival out west he was serving time in Folsom Prison for manslaughter.

The particulars of his case from newspaper accounts tell of a court case that saw Mr. Pekor draw the scene of what he described as an accidental shooting. In 1937, driving along a road in California, Mr. Pekor and William Williamson, “a movie-struck farmer from Missouri”  — commonly described in news accounts as a “cowboy” —  stopped to shoot at beer cans. Mr. Pekor told the court he did not intend to shoot the cowboy. The jury found that he shot and killed the cowboy on purpose.

While in prison, Pekor painted murals on the prison walls (including a take on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper;  Pekor was rumored to have used inmates as models for the disciples). Released from Folsom, Pekor wound up in New Mexico’s state prison (convicted of fraud) from which he eventually escaped. He then landed in Florida’s Raiford Prison, where one of his latest paintings, his “Smiling Christ” or “Smiling Jesus” (which he signed as “The Old Timer”) brought him a different kind of fame than the cowboy shooting. From the Pan American, October 1957: “In a short time the ‘smiling christ’ has attracted the attention of the world outside the walls of Raiford. Copies of Pekor’s work  has been sought by churches, magazines and individuals and have won international mention.”

Released from Raiford, Pekor was arrested in Tennessee on a larceny charge, then extradited to New Mexico.  Serving a life term there as a “habitual criminal” he was granted a mercy parole at age 56 when it was discovered he was dying of cancer.  He died just days after his release.





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