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Dime Novels

July 2024
12min read

This art form dismayed the moralist, delighted small boys, and somehow put its own stamp on the American legend

His sentence was finished in a ringing shriek, for Calamity had drawn a revolver and shot him, even while his sarcastic words left his lips, and he fell to the ground, wounded through the breast.

“ ‘So much for your lyin’, you miserable whelp!’ the girl cried, wrought suddenly to a high pitch of anger. ‘If I was dishonored once, by one such as you, no man’s defiling touch has reached me since …’

“Now she dashed away through the narrow gulch, catching with delight long breaths of the perfume of flowers which met her nostrils at every onward leap of her horse, piercing the gloom of the night with her dark lovely eyes, searchingly, lest she should be surprised; lighting a cigar at full motion …”

Attracted by the glowing panatela, four desperadoes leap from ambush, Colts Hashing, but this vintage cover girl simply rides them down, amid “howls of pain and rage, and curses too vile to repeat here,” and gallops off unscathed, whooping like a Comanche.

Here, in capsule form, we have the prototype of the classic dime novel scene, with a lair sampling of its normal ingredients—action and sudden death, virtue preserved and ambush outwitted, rough talk and high-flown writing. For those who appreciate the rarer spices in this vanished literary cupboard, there are finer points—the complicated syntax, delivered at a dead run by the leading character; the anticlimactical epithet (“whelp̶;); the new twist on the fate-worsethan-death; the totally unexplained villains; the note of pious forbearance by the author (“curses too vile to repeat here”); the difficult but admirable teat (“lighting a cigar at lull motion”). That Calamity can do this while also bending both nostrils to the heady prairie flora only goes to show that the killer behind the gun is really a girl at heart. Characterization in the dime novel was terse. This, for example, is the entire description of one Silas Rodgers: ”… a man honest and upright alter the fashion of frontiersmen. He was brave, and had shot two or three in brawls, but was not regarded as quarrelsome.”

During the hall century of the popularity of the dime novel, from 1860 to about 1910, millions of boys, vigorous parental opposition notwithstanding, luxuriated in this imaginative world. They took their reading straight, without benefit of “comics,” and in the closest, dimmest, smallest possible print—although even this could be reduced in size if, at the end of the yarn, the cascade of words outran the space, so that the final episodes might well be visible only to those equipped with magnifying glasses. The only visual lure was the cover picture.

The problem of the age, apparently, was not why Johnny couldn’t read, but how to stop him. Dime novel vocabulary was never simplified to suit a boy’s “age level.” An academy “derived its appellation” from a nearby lake. A man never crossed a plain—he “traversed” it. The silvery beams of the moon did not fall upon a face, but upon a “pain-distorted countenance,” which was “rendered doubly repulsive by the red streaks where the mingled blood and brains had oozed from the shattered skull.” Or, in another field of action: “Miss Howard patronized the elevated road to her home in the Bronx.”

Dime novels, of course, were not novels at all and during most of their long vogue cost only a nickel, forced down by competition among the publishers and from the candy interests. While many of the central figures in later days were fictional, the early ones were supposedly taken from life-Daniel Boone, Pontiac, Mad Anthony Wayne, Custer, Billy die Kid—and the tales were put forward unblushingly as gospel truth, down to the last bloodstained pool of gore.

Belief, apparently, was widespread, no matter how strange the speech which emerged from the grim lips of the actors, who were capable of such interesting phrases as “Hark, pard!” Anyone under stress was ready at the drop of a hat to utter a mouthful. Consider one bride-to-be, observing a posse closing in on her groom: “Those dreadful men, of which there are so many, who J believe would murder you; they may kill you at any time!”

Or Billy the Kid, rallying his men: “Hurrah! Hurrah! my brave lads. Strike hard and strike home. Hurl back the fiends, sweep them from the lace of the earth!”

Or a Texas Ranger, who has just completed the hanging of two Mexicans, whose sin seems to be a matter of mere birth: “Hang there! vile varlets! Hang, I say, and idly dangle above the mad waters, which shall soon be contaminated with thy loathsome carcasses! Hang higher than Haman, thou base, degraded sons of a semi-monthly, revolutionized, conglomerated, amalgamated, bastard republic! Hang!”

(“Yer sling the dang’est, biggest words I ever knowed any one else tew let loose,” remarks an admiring friend.)

If racial tolerance presented no problem to authors who classed red men, “greasers” and Latins in general with other wild game, body disposal was an acute one, constantly recurring. The writers approached it with cliches at the ready. For example, some Texas Rangers come upon “the swollen, mutilated corpse of a man, covered with blood and clotted gore. … Upon the dead, sun-bloated corpse … was his little son, seven years of age,” and the lad was oozing enough blood l’or one thrice his years. It was “in horrible contrast to the white, delicate skin, made more livid by the loss of his lire-giving fluid.” A paragraph or two on the approaching buzzards, circling coyotes, buzzing flies and crawling maggots, and the boy expires, probably in despair, without ever speaking a word. How his age and relationship to the dead man are established never comes to light. The twin burial is attended, among others, by several rescued girls who avert their eyes.

Eye-averting, next to being abducted or getting confined to asylums by crooked guardians, was the favorite pastime of dime novel heroines, excepting, of course, the tomboy types like Calamity Jane, Calamity Kate, Calamity Mary, etc. There is nothing new to the dime novel; it is almost as old as printing itself, and takes us back through the centuries to the chapbooks of old England and such titles as The Affecting History of Sally Williams, afterwards Tippling Sally. Shewing how she left her father’s house to follow an officer, who seduced her; and how she took to drinking …

The founder of the dime novel industry was a printer from Otsego, New York, named Erastus Beadle, who was early apprenticed to a miller and given the task of labeling bags of grain. Herein Erastus saw his release from wage-slavery. He cut letters from blocks of hardwood, and was soon traveling about the countryside as a stamper of bags, lap robes, and wagons. From this business he had clear sailing through the printing trade and magazine publishing to the ownership of a fiction factory where his hired hacks, from Ned Buntline to Buffalo Bill, scrawled their stories in longhand as rapidly as typesetter and press could handle them.

The year 1860, when Beadle set up his shop in New York City and issued his first orange-covered dime novel ( Malaeska, The Indian Wife ), was an opportune one. For the last decade America’s railroads had been growing at a rapid rate. And with them grew up thousands of local newsstands, supplied by freight and express from large wholesale dealers in New York. This movement had been encouraged by the cheap metropolitan newspapers—themselves the result of new mass production methods—and by another type of socalled newspaper which ran almost exclusively to serial stories. These papers catered to all the family, but were, perhaps, with their columns by Fanny Fern and their love stories by Mrs. Southworth and Mary Jane Holmes, slanted toward the women. Beadle saw his chance at the newsstand trade with stories which were slanted toward the boys and which, moreover, could be completed in one sitting, without the weeklong period of suspense from one installment to die next.

The new books did not differ materially from their story-paper predecessors. Heroes and villains were still made of simon-pure stuff. No psychological or sociological fog obscured the reader’s plain vision of a villain who was not in the least a victim of social injustice, of hereditary mental disturbance, or even of emotional conflicts and confused motives. He was a fine, lusty villain who “gazed into her white lovely lace with a thrill of fiendish triumph.” Or he was one among many who not only set fire to an entire railroad train, but, “yelling like demons, danced around the burning pile.” Nor was the villain, as long as the hope of life remained, ever inhibited by remorse. Only upon his deathbed did he make that confession which was so necessary to the happiness or reputation of the hero.

Against villains like these, even a dime novel hero required the aid of coincidence. Coincidences came with arms as long as lariats, and as supple; the authors gloried in them. It was a world of multiple aliases, populated with thousands of long-lost husbands, brothers, sisters, children and sweethearts, all falling into each other’s astounded arms just alter the villains, finally exposed, breathed their last. When all the forged letters were straightened out, the identifying birthmarks revealed, and the false beards removed from the true English lords and eastern millionaires, one needed only to wait for those suffering from drugsthat-simulate-death to wake up, and it was time for wedding bells.

“Florence!” cries one hero to his heroine alter all the reintroductions are complete, “You know me as I am—you know how red my hands are dyed with human blood. And yet I come to you to ask you if you will be my wife?”

“Yes,” she replies, “and in my love you shall forget the imbittered past.”

In most dime novels, it would be an impossible feat to remember the past, bitter or imbitter, for only a professional genealogist could untangle the characters, so profuse that they could barely be kept from marrying their own disguised blood relatives. Such scenes were called “grand reunions” in the trade, and were generally followed by double and triple weddings. Even then, characters would be left over and need disposal in a postscript. These quasi-social notes laconically listed those now engaged in ranching, hunting, managing their manorial estates or simply pushing up the daisies. “This last spring,” concludes Kit Carson, Jr. , “Fighting Ben had a fight with roughs in Ellsworth, and killed two.”

Of this type of story Beadle alone sold over 2,500,000 in the first three years of his business—in the years when a sale of 20,000 made a novel a best seller. Beadle’s success meant that for fifty years the essential plot elements of the dime novel would remain the same, no matter who the publisher might be, or how the format might vary. Sometimes the little pamphlets were broad and thin, sometimes thick and pocketsized. As competing publishers entered the field, a dozen weekly “libraries” formed the most conspicuous display on most of the country’s newsstands. Back numbers were kept in print and constantly on sale. The capacity of the juvenile mind for this type of literature seemed infinite. One wonders if it would ever have gone out had it not been for the reluctance of modern advertisers to support publications aimed at a pocketmoney audience. The dime novel successors have been the pulp magazines, with a slightly more adult appeal. The youngsters themselves have been placated with the movies, television, and the comics.

Like the comics today, dime novels were attacked by the moralists—there was a scarcity of psychologists in those days. Anthony Comstock called the paperbacks “devil-traps for the young.” As a precaution, the publishers required their writers to insert a discreet number of Sunday school platitudes that could be forked out to captious critics upon occasion. Yet the youngster who surveyed the titles could scarcely have found them repressive in spirit. Perhaps The Doomed Dozen; or Dolores the Danite’s Daughter, A Romance of Border Trails and Mormon Mysteries appealed to his fancy; or Cibita John, the Prickly Pear from Cactus Plains; or Red Hot Times at Ante-Bar . In any case, he would find Desperate Duke, the Guadaloupe ‘Galoot’; or, the Angel of Alamo City far removed from the imprisoning doors of the schoolroom and the monotonous regularity of his early bedtime hour. And when he finished this tale he could begin Stuttering Sam, the Whitest Sport from Santa Fe; or How the Hummer from Hummingbird Feathered His Nest . The dime novel did not deny him the lawful right of his young manhood to a loud guffaw each and every time the worthy scout remarked, “You’ll have ter excuse me a few minutes … gentlemen, ef ye please, for it’s a scandulous fac’ thet I heven’t hed but six good solid snifters this hull blessed morning!”

When some of the dime novel authors were diverted from “westerns” to city detective stories, all of the moralists were up in arms. They now felt that a villain who pursued his women down rocky gorges or roasted his captive millionaire over a slow fire in the wide open air was a healthier sort than the villain whose activities were confined to windowless dance-hall chambers and dank, fetid, underground vaults. Be that as it may, the western hero had only to change his accouterments and lingo to become a detective hero, but the dime novel detective story was in no sense a predecessor of the modern “mystery.” From the very start it was perfectly clear to both detective and reader who had done it. The problem was simply whether the detective would catch the criminals, or would the criminals catch the detective. On the detective’s side were physical strength and, in an emergency, the forces of the law. On the criminals’ side were craft and imagination.

Criminals were always provided with a variety of improvised prisons—ranging from iron cells in the holds of ships to scientifically constructed torture chambers deep underground. Nevertheless, there was always a way out, especially for an inventive operative like Nick Carter. He was capable of making his escape past thirteen masked ruffians and one “radiant creature” named Elmora who carried a jeweled stiletto, through a succession of triply bolted doors separated by long passages underground, up an elevator which was guarded by a man leaning over the open hatchway with his finger on the rifle trigger, and out into the dark and vacant street. Nick then figured he had no time to go for the police, so he quickly changed his disguise and returned by himself the way he had come out. These particular criminals were given to cowls and robes of silver and gold and blue and white, and to marching to the chant of the radiant Elmora accompanied by an automatic organ. They had a torture chamber lined with skulls through whose eyes shone ghastly red lights, and filled with skeletons bending over the intense fire of an open furnace. Over the center of the furnace hung a tackle and sling, and on one side of the room was a chair, equipped with steel fingers to sink into the skull of the occupant. To Nick this was practically a playroom.

Nick Carter was not the only dime novel hero who was heroic in so many different ways that he could be carried through hundreds of stories, year after year. Since all the central characters were stereotypes, there was really no reason for changing their names, anyway. The one essential was to change the setting. Before drawing up a contract with Gilbert Patten for the Frank Merriwell stories, his publisher specified that Frank must travel. Upon finishing school he must come into sufficient money to escape the monotony of even the most exalted of professions, and be left free to pursue his hobby of rescuing young ladies in all parts of the world. Both he and his author lasted out some 900 of these stories.

A competing publisher produced a pale and prosaic imitation of Frank Merriwell who called himself Fred Fearnot. He was run through 1,382 issues, over 28 years. Fred was a headline hunter, pure and simple. At one time he was “Battling for the Boers”; at another, hobnobbing with the Sultan on the Island of Sulu. A little later he was, like Teddy Roosevelt, giving advice to the Kaiser in his Royal Palace. Among his more humdrum activities were playing a part in the circus he owned, running a ranch, and assisting temperance crusades. Every now and then he was forced to return to New York for a few days to look after his highly speculative stocks.

Frank Reade, Jr., a scientific type, invented his own novel means of travel in the shape of a submarine sea serpent, an amphibious device known as the Electric Boomerang—especially equipped for crossing the heart of Africa in the face of savage tribes—an electric tricycle, a steam man and a steam team, an electric snow-cutter and numerous flying machines. So equipped he could rescue one fair female from the clutches of a polar bear one day, and her twin sister from the savages of Darkest Africa the next day. Rescuing, rather than pure science, was Frank’s primary business in life. He was always glad enough when his machine was accidentally wrecked at the end of the story, with’ all hands saved. In this way he could turn his mind to a new and better machine.

A dime novel hero might somehow, in the midst of his rough surroundings, have about him a mysterious air of gentlemanliness. In this case the eternally surprised reader would find his hero ultimately restored to the fame and fortune which he had lost through the machinations of the villain. On the other hand, he might frankly work—or fight—his way upward from rags to riches. Even in the Nineteenth Century this Horatio Alger theme had provoked a scolding from the moralists because of its lack of realism in dealing with the problems facing youth in modern industrial society. In the latter days of the dime novel, around 1900, this particular moral defect was remedied by means of an opportunism which must have caused the Alger hero to turn over in his fictional grave. An orphan discovered by the wealthy Fred Fearnot was taught a trick he could do with a chicken. With very little urging the orphan picked up a chicken, made a tour of the local taverns, bet repeatedly on his ability to hoodoo the chicken, and cleared five hundred dollars. When a lady protested that he had been gambling, the orphan solemnly explained: “No, ma’am, I never touched a card. It was not a game of chance at all. It was betting on a fact.” Thus early was it established that Our Hero was a Financier, not a Gambler.

Getting a start in the world of dime novel finance required, almost inevitably, a rescue. The messenger boys of Wall Street, 488 of them in as many issues of Fame and Fortune Weekly , seemed always to be passing when a young heiress was facing death on her runaway horse, a child needed snatching from in front of a speeding horsecar or a millionaire was going down for the third time. It was almost a matter of routine, suggesting that the rescue was only a symbol for the ability to be in the right place at the right time, an essential virtue which any businessman will recognize. As the “Young Wonder of Wall Street” himself remarked: “I’m $4,000 to the good, and it’s all due to the fact that Master Jack Meredith happened to lean too far out of his papa’s window and took a tumble in consequence, just as I was coming along in time to catch him. It’s better to be born lucky than rich.”

The Young Wonder’s method of improving upon his opportunities was to eavesdrop. Whenever, in a ferry, or in a crowded train, or at the baseball stadium, he overheard two brokers discussing a tip, or two directors explaining how they were going to boom their company’s stock, then unload and buy back at a low figure, the Wonder was all ears. Until such propitious moments, he cautiously kept his funds in a safe-deposit vault. But when he did invest he staked his all—he never stultified his heroic leanings with a diversified portfolio. As his profits mounted quickly to $80,000 he continued to report regularly for his messenger boy duties. Only when he reached a quartermillion did he resign and go into business for himself.

The dime novel worshipped success, as it exalted danger and adventure; it instilled many of our subconscious habits of thought. It was a common thing, cheap to buy, and like most common things, rarely preserved. But those few yellowed thrillers that survive have more than a mere nostalgic interest, for they teach us a great deal about our nationalistic ways and our creed of self-reliance. To this day they reflect, however crudely, the American spirit of an earlier and perhaps more innocent age.

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