Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Preacher, Plagiarizer, Crime Writer and Confidence Trickster: The Kaleidoscopic Criminal Career of Maurice E. Balk (1900?-1981)

Bexhill-on-Sea, boyhood home of Maurice E. Balk
see Sussex Photo History
            Maurice E. Balk was, as the saying goes, a man of many parts, many of which were doubtlessly attractive on the surface yet resoundingly repulsive beneath it.  Among other surprising and often sordid things, Balk was a poet, preacher, plagiarist, crime writer and, above all, consummate confidence trickster.  A survey of the man’s kaleidoscopic criminal career as it unfolded in at least three countries and two continents reveals an ingenious and insinuating man of seemingly no conscience who in his damaging wake left a trail of cruelly deceived victims. 
            Born in London in 1900, Maurice E. Balk was the son of Leon and Minnie Balk, Russian Jews who around the turn of the nineteenth century migrated to England, where they became naturalized British citizens.  Leon Balk, who during the first decade-and-a-half of the twentieth century owned photography studios in the Sussex seaside resorts of Eastbourne and Bexhill-on-Sea, was born around 1873 in the city of Tarage (now part of Lithuania) to David and Jehudith Balk.  After moving from Lithuania to England he initially settled in London, where Minnie gave birth to Maurice, the couple’s eldest child.  Probably by 1902 Leon and Minnie had relocated from London to Eastbourne, where their second son, Phillip, was born.  By 1911, Leon and Minnie, along with young Maurice and Phillip and newborn daughter Bessie, resided at 23 Sackville Road in Bexhill-on-Sea, where Leon until 1915 operated a photography studio at 69 Devonshire Road.  Leon was doing well enough at this time with his business to employ a single house servant.  Possibly he passed away during or shortly after the Great War.
            Whatever happened to Leon Balk, his wife Minnie, who died in London in 1923, saw her last years darkened by the activities of Maurice, who by 1917 had commenced upon a lengthy career in crime.  In September of that year Maurice, who formerly had been employed as a messenger with J. C. Meacher, a longtime Finsbury pharmacist, was arrested and arraigned before London’s Mansion House Police Court on the charge of obtaining, by means of forged orders purporting to come from his former employer, a quantity of pharmaceutical and photographic goods, as well as first-aid and medical cases, together valued at several hundred pounds, from several London business firms, including Kodak, Ltd, which he then sold to a pair of City businessmen, Henry Peter Koski, a fancy-goods dealer, and Richard Wilson, a chemist.  Both Koski and Wilson were charged with receiving stolen property, although the two men claimed that they had been bamboozled by Balk, who at an early age already had become something of an artful fraudster.  Koski declared that Balk had represented himself as an American who wanted to get surplus goods “off his hands,” while Wilson, who abjectly proclaimed himself “stupid” for being so duped by the youth, contended that Balk had convinced him that he was selling the goods on behalf of “a friend at Brighton.”
            Maurice Balk pled guilty in November but seems to have avoided--or to have served a minimal amount of--jail time, perhaps because of his “tender years.”  By the next year, 1918, Balk remarkably had ventured into the British film business, at the age of eighteen writing, directing and starring in a crime film, Cheated Vengeance.  Only three other cast members for the film are listed on the international movie database (, Doris Vivian Earle, E. James Morrison and Connie Sweet, as well as one co-scripter, H. V. Emery.  Like Balk himself, none of these people have any additional film credits listed on imdb.  Nor does the film’s production company, Britamer, which would turn up six years later as the Chicago publisher of a collection of short stories authored by Balk.  One would like to know something more about this film and the people who were involved with it, particularly actress Doris Vivan Earle, whose surname Balke may have appropriated for his own use.
            Balk’s venture into filmmaking proved short-lived, for in 1920 he was on his way to the United States, and not to Hollywood.  On February 29--the fact that it was a leap year seems appropriate--Balk embarked from Southampton aboard the S. S. New York, destined for Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Balk gave his occupation as “student” and his “race or people” as Russian, though an official hand, presumably, wrote “Hebrew” in cursive script over the typed word Russian.  For “name and complete address of nearest relative or friend in the country whence alien came” Balk listed his mother, “Mrs. Balk,” and 230 Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury (today the site of Zamzam, a Somalian restaurant).           
            What it was that prompted Balk to leave London for Winston-Salem in 1920 is not clear, but contemporary newspaper accounts list a “Dr. Maurice Balk, a recent arrival from London, England,” as a guest at a “very jolly little party” given in late May of that year by Miss Dora Levy, daughter of Winston-Salem shoe store owner Louis Levy, at her home at 1504 East Third Street—an indication that in a mere three months Balk had become an accepted member of society (or Jewish society at least) in Winston-Salem.  (All the guests at Dora Levy’s dance appear to have had Jewish surnames.)  Along with Dora’s friend Miss Bess Horowitz, the ever helpful and ingratiating Balk assisted the hostess with serving refreshments.
            Later that year Maurice Balk left Winston-Salem for New York, where he established an acquaintance with the beloved American poet Edwin Markham (1852-1940), author of the once much-celebrated poem “The Man with the Hoe,” who lived with his third wife in a book-bedecked home on Staten Island.  On March 23, 1921, Balk wrote Markham a letter from Boston’s Gordon Bible College, a non-denominational evangelical Christian school that had been founded in 1889; evidently Balk was a student there (with Balk, one can never be sure of appearances, however).  In a floridly signed note that accompanied the missive Balk informed the esteemed man of letters that he had enclosed his own poetry for an forthright evaluation: “I am sending you the first lines I have written.  You said you would pull them to pieces for me.  Do so, and in so doing please remember that however ‘hard’ you may be in your criticism,----my love for you dear, Edwin Markham, will ever remain the same.” 
            Balk’s acquaintanceship and correspondence with Edwin Markham lasted a couple of years, during which time the young man was carrying on further dubious activity in Canada.  On March 18, 1922 Balk wrote the poet from the village of Tusket, in southwestern Nova Scotia, addressing him, as he did in all his letters, as “My dear Edwin Markham.”  A wheedling note is detectible underneath the fulsome flattery:

            Have you had the opportunity to look over the poems which I sent you last year?  I am really anxious to know what you think about them.
            There is no living writer, and very few among the dead, whose approbation I should be more glad to earn than yours.  I write this to say so.
            A book entitled “TO-DAY” is to be published in the course of a month or so, and I have taken the liberty of dedicating it to you.
            Hoping to hear from you in due course, with best wishes,

                        Believe me, to be,
                        My dear Edwin Markham,
                        Ever your faithful friend,
                                    M. E. Balk

            “M. E. Balk” is prominently underlined, while beneath this name is written first “Morris Balk” in lead and then “Maurice” in ink.  Balk need not have worried about Markham’s inattention, for on February 25 the poet had sent Balk two pages of criticism, though evidently this had not yet reached the youthful supplicant, whose supposed book of poetry, To-Day, seems never to have appeared in print.  Unhappily for Balk, he soon would find himself harried by a more immediately pressing matter.  A notice appeared in the November 4, 1922 issue of the church journal The Baptist giving warning to Canadian congregants to take care in dealings with a certain Maurice E. Balk:

            This Is To Inform any person concerned, particularly home mission churches, that one known as Maurice E. Balk, recently in Western Nova Scotia, has no recognized standing as a minister of the United Baptist Convention of the Maritime Provinces.  By order E. S. Mason, Cor. Secy., Home Mission Board, Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

            Canada evidently having become too hot for him, Maurice Balk returned to New York and pleasant literary chats with Edwin Markham.  He also secured himself a bride, in Manhattan on April 8, 1923 wedding Teresa Trucano, the twenty-four year old daughter of an Italian immigrant who mined copper in Meaderville, Montana.  In June the newlywed couple spent a day with the Markhams, about which Balk was soon rapturously reminiscing in a letter written to Markham from 321 West 75th Street in New York City:

I shall never forget the day in June my wife and I spent with you at the Y Birch.  Had I the power of language to express my great love and reverence for you, I would not hesitate to do so in this letter.  But there are some feelings in a mans [sic] heart that can never be spoken or written.  Believe me, my dear Edwin Markham, when I say, that I hope (and my wife also) to have many more afternoons with you, and listen to your song, and leaving you feel, as I felt that last time, as one born again.

            In his letter Balk detailed his latest reading, specifically mentioning Herbert Paul’s 1902 biography of English poet and critic Matthew Arnold and Swiss moral philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel’s Journal Intime, which, one imagines not altogether incidentally, had been named by Markham in a 1909 symposium as one of the books that had most influenced him.  Balk declared that he was going to read Amiel’s Journal “for the third time,” as well as Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.  He closed by praying, “May the Grace of God, and the Love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with you alway [sic].”  Markham wrote Balk a five page letter in reply, discussing his own literary views, but this is the last recorded letter exchanged between the two men.
            During this time Balk, now labeling hismelf the Assistant Director of Education for an organization called the English Language Bureau, made a practice of sending letters not only to Edwin Markham but to the New York Times and the Saturday Review, confidently if not always entirely coherently addressing an array of subjects, including divorce, the provenance of great men, the declining quality of American stage plays and Einstein’s theory of relativity, in an apparent effort to flex his intellect before a wider audience.  In his letter on great men, entitled “The Hero’s Birthplace,” Balk expressed bemusement for the public fascination with learning all about the humble birthplaces of great men—a telling sentiment from one who had carefully cloaked his own modest origins.  (Balk also made certain to drop the name of his poet friend into the letter: “….as Edwin Markham said to me….”) Notably ironic are his letter on stage drama, in which the career criminal, who in my view bore the hallmarks of a sociopath, complains that “[n]ow, it seems, psychology, pseudo-philosophy, the hideous, the horrible—and worse—must be the basis of nearly everything put on,” and, given his treatment of his wife (see below), his letter on divorce, in which he allowed that “[o]ne should honestly be sorry for [married] individuals who are unhappy” yet urged nevertheless that marriages should be kept intact, as marriage constituted “the very foundation both of personal morality and social stability.”
            In 1924 Maurice and Teresa Balk moved to Chicago, where Teresa gave birth to the couple’s son, Gerald Langston, on June 6, 1924.  That year Maurice also published with Britamer, a Chicago press that suspiciously shared its name with Maurice Balk’s 1918 film production company, what was apparently Britamer’s sole publication: Madona of the Inn, and Other Tales, a slim collection of six lachrymose short stories, including two about loyal pets, one of them whose faithfulness extends into the afterlife, answering the age old question of whether dogs go to Heaven.  Another tale is set, unrewardingly, in Nova Scotia, outside Tusket. 
            Balk dedicated the book “To Teresa Louisa,” including with the dedication a well-known verse from proverbs about the subject of wifely devotion, which begins: “The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her….”  Unhappily, Teresa’s heart did not safely trust in Maurice.  Nine months after Gerald’s birth, Teresa, heartlessly deserted by her husband, returned with her son to Meaderville, Montana, where she obtained a divorce from Maurice in 1926.  She later married bond salesman Louis Martin Fabian, son of an Austro-Hungarian immigrant who had risen from miner to businessman and county commissioner. 
            Maurice seems to have left his wife and son in Chicago for Manitou Springs, Colorado (near the larger locality of Colorado Springs), where he started a newspaper, probably in 1925, under the posh cognomen M. E. Sackville Balke.  (Presumably the name “Sackville” was inspired by his family’s home address on Sackville Road in Bexhill.)  Characteristically, Balk’s latest business venture seemed to consist of the confidence trickster separating other people from their money in order to line his own pocket.  He served a term in the county jail for passing a bad check and in 1926 was sued for wages by his angry employees, who, according to an article in the Typographical Journal, “had been unpaid in most cases since the paper was started.” 
            The next year Balk, all his schemes having crumbled, was ingloriously deported from New York back to Great Britain, the United States having decided that it had had enough of the incorrigible offender.  A deportee aboard the R. M. S. Berengaria, Balk set foot in Southampton on September 7, 1927.  His occupation was listed as “preacher” and his proposed address in the United Kingdom his mother’s house on Seven Sisters Road (though in fact his mother had died four years earlier).
            Like a moth to a flame, however, Balk seemingly could not keep his mind off the beckoning lands across the pond, and less than a year later, on March 10, 1928, he set out on the Minnesdosa from Greenock, Scotland for Canada, giving as his last address in the United Kingdom his brother Philip’s domicile at 160 (or 166) Oxford Street, Glasgow and his occupation as “publisher.”  Balk’s ultimate destination was Toronto, where he had found employment (allegedly) with Robinson & Heath, a firm of customs brokers and forwarders. This time his stay was short; less than six months later, on August 3, 1928, he was deported from Canada on board the Melita.  His occupation was listed as “medical student” and his proposed address once again his brother’s home on Oxford Street in Glasgow. 
            Back in the UK--and with the US and Canada warded against him—Balk, now settled in London, turned first to his father’s field, photography, then went back, after another stint in prison, to publishing.  Along with two other “well-dressed” men, Balk, whose occupation was given as “photographer,” in court in 1929 pled guilty to several charges of obtaining, by means of bad checks, goods (including a camera and film projector) from West End salesmen; he was sentenced to a year at hard labor. One wonders whether Balk had been contemplating taking up film production again.
            Out of prison, Balk started a new venture, under a new name, Philip Earle.  In 1931 he established another book publishing press, named Philip Earle after his new identity, at 39 Jermyn Street in London.  Although short-lived, “Philip Earle” had rather more substance than Britamer, his 1924 effort, in that the press actually published something more than books written by--or plagiarized by--Balk.  Volumes issued by Philip Earle in 1931 include Margaret Hunter Ironside’s Young Diana, Elsa Lingstrom’s Jeddith Keep, two respectfully reviewed contemporary novels, Jane Austen’s epistolary tale Lady Susan (adapted to film in 2016 under the title Love & Friendship) and American journalist Ben Hecht’s controversial novel A Jew in Love—a book proverbially banned in Boston, not to mention Canada, yet which quickly sold 50,000 copies and made the bestseller lists in the US.
            And then there was Maurice Balk’s own effort, in a manner of speaking: a detective novel called Cat and Feather, which he published under the pseudonym Don Basil.  Maurice Balk had good reason for employing a pseudonym, for he had stolen Cat and Feather nearly word for word from an American mystery, Roger Scarlett’s The Back Bay Murders, which the previous year had appeared in the US.  The Beacon Hill Murders--the first detective novel by “Roger Scarlett,” the pen name of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page--had been published in the UK in 1930 by Heinemann, a major British publisher, but I do not believe The Back Bay Murders had a UK edition.  This of course would have made it easier for Balk to carry out his shameless theft of Blair’s and Page’s intellectual property, but Balk characteristically went a step too far in his roguery when he published Cat and Feather with Henry Holt, a reputable--if in this case rather too credulous--American firm.  In the US, Balk’s blatant plagiarism was soon discovered--the fraudster had only bothered, for the most part, to alter obvious Americanisms and explicit references to The Beacon Hill Murder (Balk in his novel changed what had been a reference in the Roger Scarlett book to the “Beacon Hill murders” to a reference to the “Bexhill murder mystery,” recalling his boyhood home, and the name of Scarlett’s series sleuth Inspector Kane to Inspector Storm, recalling a character, Doctor Storm, in his 1924 short story “Behind the Veil”)--and Henry Holt promptly withdrew the book from distribution.  The publishing firm of Philip Earle thereupon succumbed to this latest Balkian brouhaha, while the publisher himself received his comeuppance three years later, albeit for another crime.
            In 1934 Phillip Earle was committed, along with a purported aunt, Lucy Griffiths, to trial in London on the charge of conspiring to filch by false pretenses 3389 pounds (a tremendous amount of money today, something like 220,000 pounds, or 290,00 dollars) from an elderly widow, Mrs. Kate Christie Miller.  When the case came to trial in January 1934, Balk was found guilty and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, Sir Ernest Wild, the senior presiding judge at the Old Bailey, sternly lecturing the prisoner that “[a]nything more hypocritical and wicked than your frauds is impossible to imagine.” 
            It seems that Balk had rediscovered religion--at least as a means of obtaining monetary gain for himself--and that he had employed its consoling snares to grab Mrs. Miller’s money.  After his release from jail in 1937, Balk adopted yet another authorial guise, Maure Balque, under which name he wrote an inspirational book of religious verse, The Christ I Know, and a booklet on the 1937 coronation of King George VI, which were published, most conveniently, by “M. E. Balk.”  What happened to Balk during the Second World War at this point I can only wonder, but I am tempted to suspect that the gentleman did not cover himself in martial glory.
            Four years after the end of the conflict, when Balk applied for a discharge of his debts in 1949 bankruptcy proceedings, he was residing at 16 Colville Mansions in Bayswater, in a neighborhood that had become “largely a slum area,” with “large houses turned into one-room tenements and small flats.”  A vivid contemporary portrait of Colville Mansions is provided by the Liberal Democrat MP Shirley Williams, who in her memoirs has recalled for two-and-a-half years during the early 1950s sharing with two friends a “rickety flat” located

on the top floor of a Victorian terrace called Colville Mansions, just off the Portobello Road.  We had found it after a discouraging search through West London, in which we were offered flats without baths, flats with cockroaches in possession, and even flats with mirrors in the ceiling, a reminder that Bayswater had long been a favourite venue of the world’s oldest profession.  Colville Mansions was at least reasonably light and airy, but the trouble was the roof.  It leaked so badly we had to sleep with buckets around our beds, and eventually with a tarpaulin draped over the worst holes.  This, however, was but a foretaste of what was to come.  One evening, with a mild roar, the entire front cornice of the building collapsed into the street below.
            However poorly the many people victimized by Maurice Balk over the years may have thought of him after the wool had been pulled from their eyes, there is no question that Maurice Balk was a survivor.  He lived to see his eighth decade, passing away in 1981 (thus surviving his brother Philip by a decade).  Currently I know nothing about Maurice Balk’s later years, aside from the facts that he had the effrontery in 1958 to renew the copyright on Cat and Feather, that for a time he supposedly edited something called the Journal of Auxiliary Medicine and that he is said to have composed a Memorandum on Prison Reform—this last, at least, a subject to which Balk doubtlessly brought considerable authority.
Gerald Langston Fabian (1924-2012)
son of Maurice Earle Balk (1900-1981)
            Postscript: Readers of this article may wonder whatever became of Maurice Balk’s son, Gerald Langston Fabian, last glimpsed as a waif in Meaderville, Montana residing with his mother, Teresa, and his stepfather, Louis Martin Fabian, after Maurice had deserted his wife and son in Chicago.  Teresa and Louis Fabian moved with young Gerald to Los Angeles, California, where the extremely successful Louis was an investment banker and later president of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce.  A graduate of the US Naval Academy and an officer in the Naval Reserve, Louis during the Second World War served as a Lieutenant Commander in the Pacific theater.  In this capacity he was awarded the Navy Cross, in recognition of “extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as the Senior Squadron Beachmaster, during action against enemy Japanese forces at Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, on 20 November 1943.”  The contrast between the lives of Louis M. Fabian and Maurice E. Balk is striking indeed.
            At the beginning of 1943, eighteen-year-old Gerald Fabian was a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley.  (Precociously, "Gerry," as he was known, had entered college when he was sixteen.)  On February 25 Gerry enlisted in the US Navy at San Francisco, where he then was living with his family in a penthouse apartment in the Russian Hill neighborhood.  According to his 2012 obituary in the Bay Area Reporter, Gerry like Louis served in the Pacific, including “once under his stepfather who commanded [his stepson’s] ship at Iwo Jima.” After the war Gerry returned to attend classes at UC Berkeley, where he majored in Romance Languages, but he was, according to a friend, the San Francisco writer Lew Ellingham, “expelled…because he was gay.”   
           Despite this setback, Gerry, who according to his obituary was a “person of culture, erudition, and talent” who had become acquainted while at Berkeley with Jack Spicer and other members of the San Francisco Renaissance, over the next half-century taught language classes at the University of San Francisco and elsewhere, worked as an actor in San Francisco stage productions, published poetry and was active in gay community groups in the City by the Bay.  In 2003, nine years before his death in 2012 at the age of 88, Gerry gave an interview to the Monferrini in America website about his Italian heritage (derived of course from his mother's side of the family), concerning which he was tremendously well-informed and justly proud.  “I think it’s important to find out as much as possible about one’s background and history,” he commented at the time.  Whether Gerry Fabian knew anything about the identity of his birth father is currently unknown to me, however. The son seems to have had some of the impressive mental capacities of his undeniably able birth father, yet happily the younger man developed these capacities in pursuit of altogether more admirable aims than those chosen by Maurice E. Balk.

             Note: Credit for making the connection between Maurice Earle Balk and Don Basil, the Roger Scarlett plagiarizer, goes to Jamie Sturgeon (see the comments section here).  Jamie also dug up key details on the Balk family, as did I and David Simkin, of the Sussex Photo History website.  For information on Gerald Fabian, I also drew on an interview with him conducted by author Kevin Killian on 19 September 1993.


  1. Fascinating story. Just one correction: although Shirley Williams is now the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, she was never a Lib Dem MP, having lost her seat by the time the Liberals and SDP merged.

  2. Curt, great archival research. You can give any golden age detective a run for his/her money:)

    1. That's very kind of you, neer. I do enjoy original research!

  3. Thanks, I'll have to make a slight correction!

  4. "The contrast between the lives of Louis M. Fabian and Maurice E. Balk is striking indeed."

    Kind of like Butch O'Hare and his dad, Al Capone's lawyer "Easy Eddie".