- 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
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.