- Historic Sites
This art form dismayed the moralist, delighted small boys, and somehow put its own stamp on the American legend
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
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.”