Deadwood Dick, Kit Carson Jr., Buffalo Bill and the Rest
Gallop Across the Pages of Beadle & Adams' Dime Novels
"I'd a blamed sight rather see the devil, horns, hoofs, and tail, anytime, than Will," Tom Clark tells his fellow Texas Ranger. Tom's concern is echoed by most Texans. Much of the time "Wild Will" is as sane as any other man - but let him get hold of a bottle of rum and one of his "mad fits" is bound to follow. He will surely set off on a rampage of terror and violence. Will, in his wild state, has charged into war-parties of Indians who "shrunk in horror from his insane, maddened eyes..." No one knows exactly what has caused his terrible insanity. Some believe a mysterious curse has transformed him into an omen of evil - the "Maniac of the Chaparrals."
"I ain't afeard o' nothin' human," Tom Clark informs his friend, "but there wasn't nothin' human about the look Will gi'n me as he went past, his horse's tail hissin' like a whip snake on the migrate."
Eventually though, human or not, Wild Will met his match, just like all the other sinister villains of the Beadle and Adams' dime novels. He didn't bow out of the story, however, until he had firmly raised rows of goose bumps on thousands of wide-eyed readers. Just like the villains who fought Deadwood Dick, Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack and all the rest of the novels' colorful heroes, poor old Wild Will was doomed from the start. He should have realized - a "bad guy" could never win in a dime novel, no matter how insane his "maddened eyes" were.
As he rode across the pages of "Kit Carson, Jr., the Crack Shot of the West" over a hundred years ago, Wild Will stirred up the same dust as the thousands of characters who rode before and after him. That dust was carried on the winds of the imagination of everyone from freckle-faced farm kids to battle-scarred Civil War soldiers. Those winds would start to blow the minute the reader's eager hands turned the first page of the latest Beadle and Adams' dime novel.
The driving force behind those classic mixtures of history and fiction, was Erastus Beadle. Early in his youth, Erastus discovered the power of printing. While he was working as an apprentice to a miller in Chautauqua County, New York, he devised a method to mark the grain sacks, using letters he cut out of hardwood blocks. His system worked so well that he soon left the mill and set out on a route, stamping mill bags, wagons and anything else the local farmers wanted to personalize. That route would eventually lead him into Western history. When Beadle reached Cooperstown, he was hired by an established printer named Elihu Phinney. Phinney's publishing plant was the ideal training ground for young Beadle. He learned the skills of typesetting, stereotyping, printing and bookbinding - the building blocks that would one day form the foundation of a towering word monument to Western history.
Before that monument would be constructed, two other characters would enter the scene - his brother Irwin and his later partner, Robert Adams. As with many great endeavors, the stepping stones leading to the creation of the famous Beadle and Adams' Dime Novels were not exactly laid out in a straight line. Erastus left Cooperstown for Buffalo in December of 1847 and secured a job with that city's oldest newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser. Irwin joined Erastus in Buffalo a couple years later. Before long, they joined forces to form Beadle & Brother's Buffalo Stereotype Foundry.
With the addition of Erastus's brother Irwin, the mixture that would eventually produce the famous dime novels was beginning to simmer. Although the stereotype foundry was profitable, Erastus wasn't satisfied with simply making the type. He yearned to publish the stories themselves. Teaming up with an engraver named VanDuzee, he began publishing a children's magazine. With this step, the simmering mixture of history-in-the-making, was slowly heating to a boil. Despite his interest in the printing field, Erastus once left it behind on a whim. The news had reached him that there were fortunes simply waiting to be made in the Nebraska and Kansas land booms. The enthusiastic Erastus set out for Nebraska with his dreams in high gear. Before he left, he sold his share of the business, which now published two magazines, to his newly acquired partner - a curly-haired young Irishman named Robert Adams. Robert had started in Beadle's little company as an apprentice stereotyper.
Fate, however, was simply not ready to let Beadle out of the publishing picture. He hit Nebraska a little too late. Just prior to his arrival, the great land boom suddenly collapsed. The over-inflated land shares transformed overnight into virtually worthless pieces of paper. Fortunately for millions of future dime-novel readers, Beadle, like many other would-be-millionaires, turned around and headed home. Both of the Beadle brothers, along with Adams, later moved to New York City. Erastus and Robert Adams continued to publish magazines, while Irwin tried something different - a small paperbound collection of popular music ballads that he sold for a dime. His Dime Song Book sold so well that Irwin began publishing dime books on other topics like cooking, baseball and etiquette.
By the end of 1859, the "cast of characters" again switched around. Robert Adams let Erastus handle the magazine production, and united with Irwin to publish the new dime books. Finally, the bubbling mixture had come to a full boil. Irwin decided to try publishing a series of small novels in the same format as his successful informational books. Short novels had been sold for a dime before, but never published in an established series. In the summer of 1860, the firm published Beadle's Dime Novels no. 1, "Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter."
Ironically, although Irwin was the originator, his would not be the primary name linked with the dime novel. Erastus soon stopped publishing the magazines and joined his brother and Robert Adams in the dime novel endeavor. Within a couple years, he and Adams bought out Irwin's share. Irwin would remain in the publishing field, but never again find the success of his earlier dime novels. His brother and former partner would ride the wave of popularity into the history books. Popularity was definitely the key word. "Malaeska," a little 128-page booklet, about four by six inches, was billed as "a dollar book for a dime." Apparently the readers of America agreed it was a bargain because they gobbled up nearly a third of a million copies. Suddenly, the "dime novel" was off and running.
The novel that launched the series that would eventually include hundreds of gritty frontier and Wild West tales, was far from a rough-edged adventure story. "Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter" had already been serialized in The Ladies Companion - hardly the expected breeding ground for a dime novel adventure. Many of the later novels in the series would be written by rugged individuals who had actually lived in the mountainous frontier or on the western prairie. Malaeska's author however, the cultured Mrs. Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens, was widely known for her romance novels and poetry. Nevertheless, Ann Stephens was the one chosen to pave the way for all the rough-cut characters who would march across the pages of the dime novels during the decades to follow.
Much like her own background, Ann's writing style was quite sophisticated. Rather than the bear-killing, bad man-shooting tales of many later dime novels, she painted a poignant word-picture of a beautiful young Indian woman who was married to a white hunter named William Danforth. Early in the story, Danforth is fatally wounded during a fight with an Indian war party. Even in describing the battle, Stephens presents the scene with a literary flair. "Heart to heart, and muzzle to muzzle, the white man and the red man battled in horrid strife."
Malaeska, Danforth's Indian wife, discovers him barely alive in the woods after the combat. As he lies dying in her arms, Danforth utters a last request. "To meet me in another world, Malaeska, you must learn to love the white man's God, and wait patiently till He shall send you to me. Go not back to your tribe when I am dead." Driven by her beloved husband's dying wish, she tries desperately to fit in to the white man's society. Sadly, she is not only rejected there but is also shunned when she eventually attempts to return to her Indian ways. During her ordeal, her son, William Jr., is raised by a white family. Unaware of his relationship to Malaeska, he thinks she is merely his nursemaid.
As the story nears its end, the two reunite near a river and Malaeska finally breaks the news to William that she is indeed his mother. Filled with bitter prejudice, he doesn't exactly welcome the information. "Woman, are you mad?" he cries out. "Dare you assert this to me?" "Great God," he shrieks, "I, an Indian? a half-blood? the grandson of my father's murderer?" Malaeska desperately wishes she had never told him, but is painfully aware she can not retrieve her words. As she sadly relates his heritage to him, her tormented son finally begins to believe her. Then he tells Malaeska that he has already proposed marriage to a white woman. Now, having learned he is half Indian, he feels he can't marry her. "I should have known this," William laments, "when I offered my hand to that lovely girl...Father of heaven, my heart will break - I am going mad!"
As the realization burns into William's tormented mind, he begs Malaeska to tell him her words were not the truth. "Oh, if you have mercy, contradict the wretched falsehood!" he pleads. But Malaeska's solemn agony convinces him the revelation was not false. As the waves of hatred and despair begin to subside, they are replaced by the realization that his mother spent her life in stoic resignation, never able to claim her true relationship to her beloved son. "I remember you were always meek and forgiving," he whispers, "you forgive me now, my poor mother?"
Through flowing tears, Malaeska sees William suddenly take on a child-like gentleness. "There is one who will feel this more deeply than either of us," he tells her, referring to his fiancée. "You will comfort her Mala…mother, will you not?" Her heart melts with the word "mother," but a cold shudder runs through her body as she surveys William's unnaturally calm demeanor.
"My son, why do you stand thus?" she asks. "Why gaze so fearfully upon the water?"
Then, in an instant, Malaeska's worst fear is realized. William draws her to him, gently kisses her forehead then turns and plunges into the rushing water below. Malaeska tries desperately but unsuccessfully to save him. As the heart-wrenching tale reaches its end, we find poor Sarah Jones, William's fiancée, sadly walking toward her lost lover's grave. In the filtered early morning light, she slowly discerns a still human form stretched out over the newly made grave. Drawing nearer, she discovers it is Malaeska, finally peaceful after literally grieving herself to death. Suddenly, Sarah understands the reason for her beloved's suicide.
In the final scene, many years later, Sarah painfully watches from the distance as William's old house is torn down. When the last wall falls, she turns and solemnly walks away. Symbolically, Sarah finally leaves the painful past to live the remainder of her life "without a murmur against the Providence that had made it so lonely."
In the summer of 1860, stacks of "Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter" were delivered to newsstands and dry goods stores. Thousands were loaded aboard trains for the magazine-and-candy sellers or "butchers" to peddle. When the new dime novels were quickly replaced by piles of dimes and urgent requests for more, the message was clear - dime novel #1 would definitely be followed by further issues. The search was on for more writers. One after another, the succeeding issues reinforced the success of the new venture. People just couldn't seem to buy them fast enough. The first dime novel to feature a Wild West background - number 8 - particularly hit pay dirt. Edward Ellis's "Seth Jones, or The Captives of the Frontier" was published in the fall of 1860. The use of this kind of double-title was a hallmark of the early dime novels.
"Seth Jones" was preceded by a clever advertising campaign. Newspaper ads and posters across the country posed the question, "Who is Seth Jones?" A few days later, the novel was released to satisfy the public's curiosity. Apparently that curiosity had been intense, because "Seth Jones" sold over half a million copies. As Beadle and Adams cast their net to collect writers throughout the years, they often dragged in some pretty fascinating personalities. In addition to professional writers and poets, they pulled in many of the actual characters who had made the Wild West "wild." Buffalo Bill Cody - with the help of a ghost writer - added his tales to the mix. His stories, like "Deadly-Eye and The Prairie Rover," "The Dread Shot Four" and "My Pards of the Plains" gave plenty of day-dream fodder to bored farm boys longing for action-filled lives on the plains.
Since the stories were often written by those who had actually lived the life they wrote about, they were sometimes quite realistic. Often, they painted a more accurate picture of everyday life on the frontier or the plains than the history textbooks of the Eastern scholars. It was, however, common knowledge that the hair-raising tales could often stretch the outer boundaries of fiction. Kit Carson, for instance, in his later years was once shown an illustration of a Beadle and Adams dime novel written about his exploits. He donned his spectacles and surveyed the picture. The illustration depicted him clasping a fainting maiden in one hand while he slayed seven bloodthirsty Indians with the other. "That there may have happened," he quipped, "but I ain't got no recollection of it."
Not only did Buffalo Bill and Kit Carson stride across the pages of the dime novels, but so did many of Beadle's ancestors. The exploits of Erastus and Irwin's grandfather Benjamin, a Revolutionary War veteran, were thoroughly described, and of course - thoroughly embellished. In addition, several of Benjamin's children were transformed into dime novel heroes. There were plenty to choose from since Benjamin's three marriages produced twenty-three offspring. The roster of Beadle and Adams' heroes is packed full of colorful characters. As the decades rolled by, the various styles of Beadle and Adams' dime novels introduced the country to such luminaries as Billy Bowlegs, Mohawk Nat, Dick Darling, Big Foot Wallace and a nearly endless cast of one-of-a-kind characters.
One of most durable of these was "Deadwood Dick." Dick was the subject of a series of thirty-three novels. Apparently convinced that the reading public was tired of Dick's exploits, the author, Edward L. Wheeler, let him die in the thirty-third issue. Dick's popularity, however, didn't perish along with him. In response to complaints by fans, Beadle and Adams simply "resurrected" the character in the form of Deadwood Dick Jr., who ran for another ninety-seven issues.
Along his busy path, Deadwood Dick not only found western adventure, but unlike most cowboy heroes, he finally "got the girl." In "Deadwood Dick's Doom; or, Calamity Jane's Last Adventure," he ended his adventure by marrying Calamity Jane. As the two rode off into the sunset, Edward Wheeler spoke for his prospective reading audience. "Dick and the poor, sore-hearted but brave and true Calamity were married," Wheeler informed us, "and the author joins in the wishes of his readers that they may 'live long and prosper'..."
The heroes weren't the only things repeated throughout the years. In order to cut down on expenses, the cover illustrations sometimes served double-duty as well. Since there were hundreds of issues, the readers likely didn't recognize the same cover-picture with a little "touching up." For example, the illustration of Buffalo Bill in Dime Library # 1000, was originally that of a bearded stage driver in Dime Library # 361. To transform the stage driver's face into Buffalo Bill's, he was simply given a partial "shave."
Despite an occasional cost-cutting trick, the dime novels continued to give their readers a full measure of entertainment. From the Civil War soldiers who traded them back and forth until they disintegrated, to the hundreds of thousands of "armchair pioneers and cowboys," the readers remained avid disciples of their favorite dime novels. Those disciples came in varying degrees of loyalty. Likely none, however, carried their devotion to a loftier level than Senator Zachariah Chandler. He once expressed it publicly, regarding the 1862 Beadle and Adams' dime novel, "Oonomoo, the Huron" by Edward Ellis. "The man who does not enjoy 'Oonomoo, the Huron,' " Chandler stated flatly, "has no right to live."