‘This is Master X’

Jesse Lee Boland was a burly, alluring con man who, in the 1930s and 1940s, sold spiritual advice to thousands of people. His act was absurd, but popular. A retrospective on on a conjurer who would mess up your mind.

As confidence men go, Jesse Lee Boland was in a league of his own. A self-styled mystic, shaman and healer who lived in and around Richmond until his death in 1962, Boland used a mix of mystery and affability to sell spiritual advice to unlucky or unloved people—and apparently made a lot of money doing so. A large man (he weighed upwards of 400 pounds) with a Van Dyke beard and outsize personality, Boland practiced what he called “hoodoo” at a shop at 510 North First Street in downtown Richmond before later moving to Hanover County, where he kept a small collection of World War II military airplanes. Those who remember his Richmond shop say that powdered cat bones and jars containing dead snakes were on display behind the shop’s front window. And emblazoned on it was the proprietor’s alluring and enigmatic trade name: Master X.

Clients who entered the shop found themselves in a dimly lit, curtained-off area. At some point, Boland, as Master X, would emerge from behind the curtain. He would usually be wearing his favorite regalia—a bright yellow tunic covered by a striking scarlet cape—ready to perform his spiritual act. Writing in the Richmond News Leader in 1946, reporter (and later editor) James J. Kilpatrick wrote that when dressed for work, Boland “looked like Orson Welles made up to play Othello.” Beyond that, nobody really knew quite what to make of the man, and that was part of Boland’s strange charm. “He always told me that he was no more than a spiritual adviser,” says William Robinson, age 91, who would later become a neighbor of Boland’s in Hanover County. “But people said he was many things.” Robinson recalls a friend describing Master X as “a conjurer” with venal intentions, adding: “He’ll mess up your mind in a minute.”

If Boland messed with heads, he apparently did so in an engaging way, because by all accounts he was popular. Boland, who died at age 58, counseled thousands of Richmond-area residents—both black and white—during his life, though he had no formal qualifications. Says Ray Tyson, a pilot who knew Boland, “He was an easy guy to talk to. He seemed to make friends easily.” Richmond newspaper reporters certainly found Boland fascinating, especially when he would call and intone in his deep voice, “This is Master X.” What followed was usually some zany tale that would wind up in the newspaper.

African-American, Boland was born in Roanoke in 1904. As a youngster he wanted to become a stage magician, but even as a young man his weight was a problem. His fingers were too plump for prestidigitation. So he joined a carnival, finding work telling fortunes and reading palms. He lived in Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore—and it was in that last city where, according to a 1962 retrospective on Boland in the Richmond Afro-American newspaper, his destiny was set. According to the newspaper account, “A woman stopped him on the street and asked him if he was a spiritualist. Before he could decide what to answer, she had invited him to her house to help solve her marital problem.” The woman paid him $6 for the advice. Master X was in business.

For reasons that aren’t clear, Boland moved to Richmond in 1938, at age 34. He set up his spiritual healing business and reportedly had upwards of 80 clients a day. His counseling fees ranged from $1 to $50 typically, and occasionally he would get $1,000 or more. “Poor people pay poor prices, and rich people, rich prices,” he told Richmond’s Afro-American.

The late Robinson Horne, a former senior board member of Richmond’s Black History Museum and Cultural Center who lived just around the corner from Boland’s First Street storefront, described Boland as “huge,” adding: “He was quite a figure, you know, and attracted a lot of attention.” Boland “loved cameras, expensive cars, airplanes and eating tremendous meals,” wrote the Richmond Afro-American.

According to William Robinson, Boland started acquiring property along U.S. Rt. 1 in Hanover County in the 1940s. He occupied an old farm tenant’s house on the property, across from Robinson’s farm. By then X had given up fortune telling: He told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that his conscience had begun to bother him because he was “mostly faking it.”

Still, like the magician he never became, Master X always had a trick up his sleeve. During World War II, for example, he made money selling tires, even though they were being rationed by order of the War Assets Administration. Master X found a loophole, explains Robinson: “He bought a lot of old cars, and he [therefore] had the right to buy tires for every vehicle that he owned. He bought all the tires he wanted…and sold them to people who needed [them].”

But that was child’s play compared to later ploys. One of the reasons X moved to Hanover while keeping his First Street storefront was to pursue his lifelong fascination with airplanes and flying. Boland, who was a pilot, needed room for that. Before World War II, he owned two small planes, and after the war he bought a dozen military surplus aircraft, including two de-fanged B-17 bombers and a B-25 bomber. (The government was eager to remove surplus military equipment—planes, vehicles, even tanks and warships—from the public books, and sold much of it at cheap prices.) Boland berthed his smaller planes on his Hanover property—which ultimately grew to 181 acres, now a part of Northlake Business Park—and parked the B-17s at Byrd Field, the predecessor to Richmond International Airport.

Master X used his collection of airplanes to carry out one of his more audacious schemes, which centered on selling “irradiated” rocks. He supposedly loaded his smaller planes with rocks and flew around at low altitude. He claimed the rocks acquired vague healing properties by absorbing cosmic rays from the atmosphere—and then he sold the rocks by the hundreds to credulous clients for solace, peace or prosperity; a rock for every need. According to news accounts, he sold thousands of dollars worth of rocks in his First Street shop, as well as some $12,000 worth in 1943 when he rented the Mosque, Richmond’s civic auditorium now known as the Landmark Theater, for some sort of spiritual show.

Emboldened by that success, Boland told Kilpatrick in a 1946 Richmond News Leader interview that he was planning a much more grandiose irradiated rock adventure. He would load his B-17 with 15 tons of rocks and fly them over the Atlantic Ocean. And he would bring his grandmother’s “wishing pot” along, too. For a fee, clients could put wishes in the ancient pot to be burned. And the bigger cosmic rocks, presumably with even more powers, would be sold for even more money than his first generation. Tyson says that it’s “highly doubtful” that Boland himself ever flew the B-17, but press accounts whetted public expectations that stratospherically blessed rocks would soon be available to the public.

To promote this scheme, Boland enlisted the aid of a local pilot named Al Curry. According to both Robinson and Tyson, Boland paid Curry to stage a series of airplane wrecks using three T-6 Texans—military training aircraft that were among Boland’s collection. “I saw [Curry] wreck three planes,” says Robinson, standing on his property and pointing at the surrounding countryside. “He tried to land them in corn fields right over there.” Adds Tyson: “[Curry intentionally] turned two planes over and put one in on its nose. The idea was that if you had [Master X’s] rocks in your possession, you could crash airplanes and do all kinds of things and not get hurt.”

Boland was married for 35 years to Vernice Boland, and they had six children. According to the Richmond Afro-American, the couple divorced in 1956 or 1957. Vernice moved to California with the couple’s four daughters while the two sons stayed in the Richmond area. (According to Benjamin Ross of Sixth Mount Baptist Church in Richmond, all of the children are dead.)

In 1950, Boland and one of his sons spent months repairing a 40-ton “Yankee Clipper” Navy seaplane berthed in Baltimore Harbor. According to the Richmond Afro-American, he formulated a plan to fly the seaplane to Moscow so that he could talk to Joseph Stalin about world peace. Both the idea and the flight were short-lived, however. As Robinson recalls: “He took off with the plane’s anchor still on the bottom of the harbor.” It tore a hole in the hull, and the Yankee Clipper partially sank.

Master X wasn’t just into planes. He also wanted to buy a decommissioned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, and reportedly made a deposit on one in a surplus emporium at Norfolk Naval Station. The Richmond News Leader reported that he was “toying with the idea of loading [it] full of earth, his B-25 and taking off from the carrier’s deck somewhere at sea.” (The “earth” apparently was meant to represent minerals.) But the deal fell through when X balked at paying the Navy $4,000 to tow the carrier from its base in North Carolina to Virginia.

In his later years, Boland got into more than a few scrapes with the law. The War Assets Administration dogged him about the way he was using his military airplanes. (To buy a surplus military aircraft, one had to agree to use it for educational purposes. The government alleged that he was profiting from the aircraft.) And Sumpter T. Priddy Jr., a long-time Hanover County resident, says that Boland faced legal action for unpaid back taxes, local and state. The Richmond Afro-American reported that at Richmond’s Chancery Court, “Master X kept the clerks busy during the last few years.”

When Boland died, 49 years ago, the Richmond News Leader published a respectful eulogy of the grifter. “In a world that sometimes seems to get a little drabber and more regimented all the time,” the paper wrote, “the Master will be sorely missed. He was the most colorful character we ever met.” Indeed, it wasn’t easy for a black man to make a living—honest or dishonest—in the first half of the 20th century, and for that this big man with moxie perhaps deserved the attention he received. He stepped off the carny circuit—his biggest asset his audacity—and created something that people would buy—an act. In that sense, Master X might have been ahead of his time. •

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