Dime-novel enthusiasts at two universities are cataloguing and digitizing the stories that thrilled generations of Western fans more than a century ago.
In his later years, the legendary frontiersman Kit Carson was shown one of the hundreds of dime novels allegedly chronicling his heroic exploits. One of the stories — Frank Starr's American Novels, No. 139 — included an illustration of Carson slaying seven Indians with one hand, while he clasped a fainting maiden with the other. He adjusted his spectacles, studied it a long time, and finally said, "That there may have happened, but I ain't got no recollection of it."
From the first one in 1860 to the early 1920s, dime novels delivered up to 30,000 words of thrilling tales for a mere 10 cents. The books were cheaply made and not designed to stand the test of time, but thankfully two fans of the genre have embarked on a project to preserve these stories online for future generations.
At Northern Illinois University, digital collections and metadata librarian Matthew Short oversees a project to digitize dime novels, which began with those published by Beadle and Adams, the company that launched the dime-novel craze. that project has since expanded to include works produced by other prominent publishers.
"Dime novels are enormously significant in the development of the history of popular fiction in the U.S., and they provide insight into what a vast and diverse group of people in the late 19th century were thinking," Short says. "My motivation is to preserve them before they fall apart and are lost forever."
At Villanova University, director of library technology Demian Katz's mission began with an unexpected discovery: "We had a dime-novel collection moldering in our basement that we didn't know existed until we found it by accident. Once we did, we decided it needed preservation, and it just snowballed from there."
Meet The Beadles
The Beadle and Adams books provided a natural starting point for NIU, as Erastus Beadles and his brother Irwin are generally credited with inventing the dime-novel format with the release of Malaeska: Indian Wife of the White Hunter, published in 1860. While paperbound publications had been around for decades, the Beadles were the first to issue stories in a continuous series, often with the same characters, in a fixed size and at the standard price of one dime (some lines were even cheaper, with a 5-cent cover price).
"At the beginning, the westerns were the most popular genre," Short says. "They were eventually joined by mystery and detective fiction, but stories about cowboys and bandits never really went away."
Most of the early sagas were more reality-based, chronicling the struggles and daily lives of frontiersmen and, later, westward-bound pioneers. The popularity of Malaeska, with its heightened drama, romance, and tragedy, convinced the Beadles there were bigger profits in taller tales. They filled the newsstands with the adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Texas Jack, Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Calamity Jane, California Joe Milner, James Capen "Grizzly" Adams, and many more.
"The tradition within westerns has always been to incorporate historical figures into stories, but at that time these figures were not historical — they were very much contemporary," Demian Katz explains. "Dime novels had no hesitation about telling a story right out of the headlines. There's one called Custer's Last Shot about Custer's last stand, which was on the newsstand within months of the Battle of Little Big Horn."
Some of the heroes of these tales like Buffalo Bill Cody even took to chronicling their own lives, under their own names or through a ghostwriter. Prentiss Ingraham, who wrote many of the "Buffalo Bill" stories for the Beadles, worked as an agent for Cody's famed Wild West shows.
Surprisingly, the most popular western character was not a historical figure like Cody or Wild Bill, but a black-garbed antihero created by New York novelist Ed Wheeler. Deadwood Dick was a former outlaw trying to outrun his violent past. Debuting in 1877, he appeared in hundreds of books over the next three decades.
Many readers were convinced that Dick had to be as real as Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane, who sometimes joined him in his exploits. Even the town of Deadwood, South Dakota, wasn't sure. In 1926, locals wondered about the true identity of the resident named Dick Clark. Clark "confessed" to being Deadwood Dick and took to dressing the part whenever a journalist needed a story or someone at the bar was buying. He was even brought to Washington to shake hands with President Calvin Coolidge.
Television revived the legend with a 1966 episode of Death Valley Days entitled "The Resurrection of Deadwood Dick."
Blood And Thunder
The success of the dime novels form the Beadles and other prominent publishers did not shield them from accusations of lowering the standards of literature with lowbrow "blood and thunder" stories that had little artistic value.
"When they were first introduced, dime novels were more mainstream and read by adults as well as children," Short says. "But by the end of the 19th century, you see certain publishers like Frank Tousey targeting teenagers and young boys, and then the reputation of the format began to change."
Stories about Frank and Jesse James raised concerns from postal authorities about distributing works glorifying outlaws. "[United States Postal Inspector] Anthony Comstock not only published a scathing critique of dime novels but also sent Frank Tousey to prison for, allegedly, corrupting children and leading them to commit violent acts," Short says.
Even the inclusion of reprinted stories from Charles Dickens and George Eliot did not cleanse the unsavory reputation of the dime novels — though that may have been just as well since the Beadles didn't always pay for the publishing rights. "These publishers were looking to make money as efficiently as possible, and that meant not just selling quick popular fiction in the U.S. but pirating material from overseas," Katz says. Even Malaeska, which helped establish the format, was a story that had first appeared 20 years earlier in a magazine called The Ladies' Companion. In this case, however, author Ann Stephens was compensated for the reprint with $250.
Famous Writers Famous Fans
Ann Stephens was a well-known novelist in her day, as were many of the writers who contributed stories. Perhaps the most famous was Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, although her work for dime novels was always published under pseudonyms. Other contributors came from all walks of life: Edward Ellis was a poet and the second cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson; Edward Willett was a lawyer; George Aiken was a playwright who was the first to dramatize Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; Dr. William Mason Turner was a Philadelphia physician; John H. Whitson was an ordained minister.
For their labors, writers received anywhere from $75 to $300 per story. Those that created a popular character with series potential could earn as much as $1,000 for each entry. That's the equivalent of more than $30,000 today.
The audience for those stories was as varied as the authors. Dime novels found their first enthusiastic following among military men serving in the Civil War. But they were also read by top executives and working stiffs, clergymen and musicians. Mark Twain was a fan, as were Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.
Collector Contributions Welcome
The Beadle and Adams preservation project wrapped up in 2019, but NIU and Villanova have been working hard to digitize the dime novels of the publisher Street & Smith, thanks to funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities; additional partner include Stanford University, Bowling Green State University, and Oberlin College. Short and Katz are currently digitizing Street & Smith and Frank Tousey thanks to NEH support and now have their sights set on George and Norman Munro, brothers who owned rival dime-novel publishing businesses.
"In the late 19th century most libraries did not collect fiction. It was mostly collectors who preserved these things, and they are the main reason we have so many today," Short says. "We identify any gaps in our holdings on our website, and if people have any that we're missing, we'd be happy to discuss a potential donation or purchase to add to the collection."
But with more books and articles being written about dime novels, a revitalized collector's market is beginning to form that might make these vintage publications harder to acquire for those hoping to preserve them.
"For a long time it was a mostly forgotten niche market, and you could still find some on eBay for $2 or $3. But now there are titles that fetch very high prices," Short says. "There's a lot of room for that collector's market to grow, so I think we got into this project at a good time, before there's too much competition."
Northern Illinois University has made available 2,249 issues published by Street & Smith of its "nickels" and "dimes" at dimenovels.lib.niu.edu/, which now has more than 9,000 total volumes, including the series Tip Top Weekly, with a full run of Buffalo Bill stories to follow. More collections of digitized dime novels can be found at dimenovels.org.