Francis Boggs, Forgotten Movie Pioneer

By Robert S. Birchard

 1) Why did early filmmakers come to Los Angeles

A) For sunshine and scenery

B) To avoid the clutches of the Motion Picture Patents Company

C) Neither of the above.

2) Who was the most important figure in the development of Los Angeles as the movie capital of the world?
A) D.W. Griffith
B) Cecil B. DeMille
C) Jesse Lasky
D) Adolph Zukor
E) Mack Sennett
F) Thomas Ince
G) None of the above

Despite anything you might have read or heard, the answer to question 1 is C; and the answer to question 2 is G. In fact, it was Francis W. Boggs who brought the movies to Los Angeles 90 years ago when he established the first permanent L. A. film studio for the Chicago-based Selig Polyscope Company; and he was motivated by nothing more lofty than homesickness.

For all his importance, Boggs is a hazy figure in movie history. In a four-year film career he wrote and directed nearly 200 one-reel films. Today, only three are known to survive. Colleagues rated Boggs as a man of great talent, rare vision and enormous energy–but if he is remembered at all today it is because he was the victim of the first movieland murder.

He was born in 1870, probably in Newman, California–we can’t be sure because Stanislaus County did not begin keeping vital records until 1873. On his paternal grandmother’s side he was descended from Daniel Boone. His grandfather was Lilburn W. Boggs, the notorious Missouri governor who evicted early Mormon settlers from that state; and who later came to California by covered wagon and became the first Alcalde under statehood of Northern California.

Francis Boggs became interested in the theater, and by 1899 he was a member of the Alcazar stock company in San Francisco. He toured the "southern mine country" around Sonora with the Boggs-Hernandez Stock Company in the summer of 1899, and in 1900, census enumerators found Boggs, his wife Lillian, and their son Edwin, in Los Angeles staying at the Ramona Hotel on Spring Street.

Around 1903, and probably separated or divorced, Boggs moved to Chicago, where he became associated with the May Hosmer Stock Company at the People’s Theater, appearing in theatrical war-horses like The Two Orphans. In 1907 he began moonlighting making movies for William N. Selig.

Boggs came to California in December, 1907, to shoot the climactic scenes of The Count of Monte Cristo. Never mind that the actor who played the lead in the rest of the film did not make the trek west. Boggs hired a mind reader from a struggling Los Angeles dime museum to double his star, rented a crepe beard and paid the grateful medium a buck and a half to assume the role of Dantes at the crucial moment when he emerges from the sea to proclaim "The world is mine!"

1908 found Boggs back in Chicago; then he embarked on an ambitious location jaunt that took him to New Orleans, Denver, and finally in the spring of 1909 to Los Angeles, where he set up operations in the side yard of the Sing Kee Laundry near Eighth and Grand. He hired local stage star Hobart Bosworth to appear in the first dramatic film shot entirely in Los Angeles, In The Sultan’s Power.

Summer 1909 found Boggs around Yosemite, soaking in the scenery for his Selig Polyscope camera; but in the fall he returned to Los Angeles and established headquarters in a small bungalow on Allesandro Street in Edendale. At first, William N. Selig balked at establishing a permanent satellite studio–but Boggs and Hobart Bosworth responded with a manifesto that touted the advantages of California; and Selig discovered that his L.A. films were selling better than his Chicago-made product. Reluctantly he relented, and the Edendale bungalow was soon engulfed within a California mission style walled fortress.

Selig came west to admire his new studio in the fall of 1911. The sky was full of drizzle October 27th, and the actors were told to stand by as Selig and Boggs conferred. Suddenly, Frank Minnematsu, the "gentleman janitor" of the studio, burst in to the office, and with a pistol borrowed from an actor’s dressing room, pumped four shots into Francis Boggs.

"Mr. Boggs was my best friend," Minnematsu told arresting officers. "He was always very nice to me. But a man told me he was evil and had to die."

Convicted of murder after a four day trial, the Japanese janitor lived out his last 26 years in San Quentin with visions of a "dramatic self expression" in which he would raise up the prison walls and ascend into Heaven as he caused god to shower billions in gold on the Golden State.

Francis Boggs was soon forgotten, his work allowed to crumble, his legacy erased except for the migration of picture people to the City fo the Angels that followed his pioneering efforts.

"I have often wondered," wrote Boggs’s lifelong friend Charlie Thall some fifty years after the murder, "what might have developed had my friend Francis Boggs come from Florida instead of California. Perhaps . . . ?