The Dime Novel Heroine

The evolution of the Beadle Wild Western heroine illustrates even more impressively the increase of sensationalism in the dime novel toward the end of the century.

Everyone is aware of the awe-inspiring gentility of Cooper's heroines. Lowell's remark that they were flat as a prairie and sappy as maples1 does less than justice to the address and energy which some of them could display on occasion, but it is nevertheless true that no lady in Cooper was capable of the remotest approach to indelicacy of thought, speech, or action. The escape of the Western story from the canons of gentility had greater consequences for the women characters than for the men, because the genteel female had been the primary source of refinement in the traditional novel. One method of transforming the heroine from the merely passive sexual object she had tended to be in the Leatherstocking tales was to introduce a supposed Indian girl able to ride and shoot who later proves to be an upper-class white girl captured long ago by the Indians. But this device, like that of disguising the genteel hero as a hunter, did not involve a fundamental change in the heroine's character. Beneath the savage costume she was almost as genteel as ever.

A much more promising means of effecting a real development in the heroine was the ancient device of introducing a woman disguised as a man, or wearing male attire. Maturin M. Ballou's Fanny Campbell, who appeared in 1845, was a female pirate captain;2 and Charles E. Averill caused the two Eastern heroines of his Life in California to disguise themselves as boys.3 The earliest Western heroine wearing men's clothing seems to be Eulalie


Moreau in Frederick Whittaker's The Mustang-Hunters; or, The Beautiful Amazon of the Hidden Valley, apparently published in the late 1860's.4 Eulalie is possibly derived from Emilie in Charles W. Webber's Old Hicks, The Guide, who is likewise French and inhabits a Hidden Valley in the Far Southwest. If this surmise is correct, it would suggest that Webber's experiment in cultural primitivism exerted some influence on the creation of the ferocious women who came finally to people the Beadle stories. Whittaker, like Webber, may have felt that violation of propriety was less shocking in a French girl than in an American one.

Eulalie, for that matter, is virtuous enough. She does not invariably wear male attire, but pays obeisance to her literary ancestors by appearing on occasion in the costume of an Indian princess.5 She lives with her father, an exiled "Red Republican" of 1848, in a luxurious establishment three weeks' journey northwest of Austin, Texas. With the "marvelous mixture of feminine gentleness and masculine firmness that marked her character" she easily tames the splendid Black Mustang stallion that the elegant hero Frank Weston has succeeded in lassoing on the plains.6 There is more than enough bloodshed of a somewhat sadistic flavor in this story, but Eulalie does not take part in it. At the end she is married to the hero and they go to live in New Orleans. The hunter Pete Wilkins, an authentic Leatherstocking type, continues a faithful friend of the family and this somehow makes the whole thing seem more domestic and respectable.

The first heroine who commits an act of violence is most likely Dove-Eye, alias Kate Robinette, half-breed daughter of the Indian trader Silas Wormley in Edward Willett's Silver-spur; or, The Mountain Heroine. A Tale of the Arapaho Country. Supposed at first to be a full-blooded Indian maiden, Dove-Eye rides astride and carries a battle axe, which she throws at the hero Fred Wilder.7 This initial misunderstanding is soon overcome and the two are betrothed; but Fred's father Colonel Wilder opposes the match as unsuitable. Dove-Eye thereupon rescues the Colonel from a buffalo and from hostile Indians, wielding her battle axe to great effect.8 Thus mollified, the old gentleman consents to the marriage. But Dove-Eye has to be revised somewhat before she can become a full-fledged heroine. She is given a large fortune by .


opportune inheritance from her father. Colonel Wilder then suggests the standard treatment of a few years in a young ladies' seminary. Fred, however, begins the full enfranchisement of the nongenteel heroine by rejecting this plan:

Do you think I could allow the ducks and turkeys of the settlements to laugh at my wild bird? Do you think I could be separated from her a few years, or a few months? She is sufficiently polished, and no one can educate her better than her husband.

The author assures us that Kate's "brains and will soon made amends for the deficiencies of her education," and when she arrived at St. Louis "no one who was not acquainted with her story would have supposed that the greater part of her life had been spent among savages."9

The earliest available case of aggressiveness on the part of a Beadle female is that of the beautiful white girl Aneola who, like Dove-Eye, has been reared by the Indians, and who has acquired a perfect command of English against what must have been very great odds. When the hero Uriah Barham is captured by the Indians and given the traditional choice of death or an Indian wife, Aneola offers herself as a solution, confessing her passionate love for him. On this occasion she has the decency to blush. But he loves another, and refuses her. Despite the blush, she threatens him with death, but relents, helps him escape, and then leaps from a cliff.10 Badger's Mountain Kate, the daughter of a white outlaw in the Northern Rockies, has a better fate. She is a master of the pistol. When the traitorous companions of the hero attack him, she turns fiercely on the miscreants, killing three and wounding one: "The stately thumb and forefinger worked like magic." But since she has not been guilty of overt aggressiveness she does not have to die. Instead, she marries the hero and achieves a home and children in St. Louis.11

Frederick Whittaker, creator of Eulalie Moreau, ventured a more pronounced Amazon a few years later in The Jaguar Queen or, The Outlaws of the Sierra Madre.12 As in the earlier story, the action concerns a secret valley in the Far Southwest but the coloring is noticeably more lurid. A certain Count Montriche who, like Webber's Count Albert, has become an Apache chief, maintains an imposing harem in a remote part of northern Mexico. The


Amazon in this story is the Wagnerian Katrina Hartstein, six feet tall, who is accompanied by seven trained jaguars. Because she loves the previously committed Gerald Leigh, Katrina must also die, and is accordingly killed in the course of an assault on Count Montriche's establishment for the rescue of the fortunate heroine Blanche Hayward.13

Toward the end of the 1870's the Amazons and heroines in male attire took a distinct turn for the worse, no doubt corrupted by the general increase of sensationalism. A date around 1880 might be suggested as the critical point in the transformation of the genteel heroine. Philip S. Warne's A Hard Crowd; or, Gentleman Sam's Sister, a tale laid in Omaha, "the `hardest place' east of Denver," and devoted to what the author describes as the scum and dregs of society in the low groggeries and gambling hells of this railroad town,14 has two women characters wearing men's clothing, expert in firearms, and fully at home amid the violence and bloodshed which surround them. Pepita, who sometimes appears in the guise of Nebraska Larry, is motivated by an insatiable desire for vengeance against the man who has wronged her.15

. The vengeance motive was a favorite way of accounting for the ferocious behavior of characters, especially of women. It has the advantage of affording a rationale of violence less cumbersome than the older method of staging a war between Indians and whites. But the narrowing of the frame of ethical reference involves a marked loss of social significance. Characters bent on private vengeance may owe something to the monomaniac Indian haters who had long peopled Western fiction, but their motivation seems more closely related to the melodramatic stage.

The character of Iola, Gentleman Sam's sister in Warne's story, who is "quite an Amazon," capable of shooting down instantly a man who accosted her on the street,16 marks a drastic weakening of the long prevalent taboos against sexual passion in women. The hero of the story has been wounded and is being nursed by Iola. One day, when his convalescence has set in, he slips an arm about her waist as she straightens the pillows on his bed.

Unconsciously she yielded to the persuasive clasp of his arms, until she rested, almost fainting, on his breast, and felt the throbbing of his heart, and his warm breath on her cheek.


Their love sought no expression in words. But the woman, whose free heart had been little curbed by the conventionalities of artificial society, let her arms glide about his neck, as was most natural that she should, and clasped him closer and closer until their lips met.

Thus lip to lip they drank in the first incense of mutual love....17

Not all writers who exploited the sensational possibilities of the woman desperado were inclined to take precisely this advantage of the decline of gentility, but there is certainly a more perceptible awareness of sex as a physical fact in the stories published after 1880 than in those published during the 1860's.

The transference of the skills and functions of the Wild Western hero to a woman, the use of the theme of revenge to motivate violence, and the promotion of the Amazon to full status as a heroine are all exemplified in Edward L. Wheeler's Hurricane Nell, who appeared in 1878 almost simultaneously with the first appearance of Deadwood Dick. At the opening of the story Nell is the conventional distressed female, victim of the ruffian Bob Woolf's cruelty in firing her house and hastening the death of her parents. She swears the customary oath of vengeance and reappears after a time in the Pike's Peak mining towns wearing men's clothing, a mistress of all the accomplishments of the Wild West. She can "outrun, out-ride, out-shoot, out-lasso, and out-yell" any man in town.18 When the hero, a handsome Philadelphia lawyer, hires her as a guide, she lassoes a mustang for him and rescues him from the Indians in a scene that reverses a vast tradition. As the hero's horse tires, Hurricane Nell seizes the man about the waist, raises him high overhead "by the power of her wonderful arms," and deposits him on the back of the wild stallion. She also kills three men with three shots from her rifle.19 The heroine's assumption of the functions of the Leatherstocking type is complete when the hero bets a thousand dollars on her skill in a shooting match and she wins:20 at the very beginning of Leatherstocking's career in literature, in , Elizabeth Temple had backed him in a turkey shoot.

The tendency to make the Amazon athletic might seem likely to detract from her feminine charms, but Wheeler does not mean to surrender this source of interest. He takes pains to make Hurricane Nell overwhelmingly beautiful, gives to her lustrous eyes a soft, dreamy, wistful expectancy when she looks at the hero, and


indulges in a touch of sadism by having her dangled over a fire by her torturers.2l Wheeler's Wild Edna, leader of a band of highwaymen in Old Avalanche, The Great Annihilator; or, Wild Edna, the Girl Brigand, is likewise but a wistful ingenue beneath her formidable exterior. There is "a vacant spot in her pure virgin heart" of which she becomes painfully aware when she meets the dashing titled English hero.22

Wheeler's celebrated creation, Calamity Jane, the feminine counterpart of Deadwood Dick, has much in common with these preliminary studies of the softhearted Amazon. Like much of the inner structure of the Deadwood saga, the relations between Deadwood Dick and Calamity Jane are hard to make out. For one thing, the date of publication of the stories seems to bear little relation to the supposed order of events in the hero's career. In Blonde Bill; or, Deadwood Dick's Home Base. A Romance of the "Silent Tongues," Calamity Jane, "the girl sport," "nobbily attired in male garb," is represented as being hopelessly in love with Deadwood Dick, who has a wife named Edith. Edith is killed in the course of the story.23 When Dick tells Calamity Jane of this event, she turns away "lest the yearning, hungry look in her wildly beautiful eyes should pain him,"24 and matters stand more or less at this point when the story ends. In the earlier part of Deadwood Dick of Deadwood; or, The Picked Party. A Romance of Skeleton Bend, Jane is jealous of Deadwood Dick, but at the end of the story they are to be married.25 Calamity Jane does not appear in No. 195 of this series, but Dick is involved with no less than three girls in men's attire, each of whom proposes marriage to him.26 One of these young ladies, Phantom Moll, the Girl Footpad, is the first Beadle female character within my acquaintance who lights a cigarette. In trying to persuade Dick to join her band and marry her, she exclaims, " 'Tis a jolly life we outlawed sinners lead...."27 'Shian Sal, developed at greater length than the other women characters, speaks dialect, and despite the fact that she is only eighteen or so, is proprietress of the Eureka Saloon. She confesses that she smokes, gambles, swears, drinks, "and sometimes I pop over a rough, jest to keep my hand in and let 'em know Sal is old bizness." She is also good with her fists; she knocks down one of the men with a single blow.28


Calamity Jane is studied most fully in Wheeler's Deadwood Dick on Deck; or, Calamity Jane, The Heroine of Whoop-Up. A Story of Dakota. Although Wheeler, like other dime-novel writers, knows that his readers have little interest in psychological analysis and seldom bothers to offer details about his characters' motivation, in this story he causes an observer, Colonel Joe Tubbs, to discuss her case at some length. It appears that she belongs to the category of heroines whom great wrongs have transformed into ruthless Amazons. Deserted by her lover, she has become "the most reckless buchario in ther Hills. Kin drink whisky, shute, play keerds, or sw'ar, ef et comes ter et." But "Ther gal's got honor left wi'her grit, out o' ther wreck o' a young life."29 The most convincing evidence that Calamity Jane was once a lady is the fact that she can drop her dialect at will and speak a correct English.30 Her tough appearance and manner are, in other words, a voluntarily assumed mask like that of Seth Jones. Yet a woman cannot shed such a persona as easily as a man. Jane's beautiful face is lined with dissipation and hard usage. It is true that even in her buckskin trousers, beaded leggings, and boiled shirt she retains visible evidences of her former appearance -- her feet are clad in dainty slippers and her shirt opens to reveal "a breast of alabaster purity." But her behavior is extremely boisterous. She first appears dashing through the streets erect in the saddle, leaping sluices and other obstructions, "lighting a cigar at full motion," and uttering "a ringing whoop, which was creditable in imitation if not in volume and force to that of a full-blown Comanche warrior."31 Jane realizes what such conduct must mean to a young lady's reputation. Concerning another girl she remarks with a delicate sense of propriety, "life here in the Hills has -- well, has ruined her prospects, one might say, for she has grown reckless in act and rough in language."32

In this story Deadwood Dick has a wife named Leone, although she does not figure prominently in the plot. Calamity Jane loves Sandy, a handsome young Easterner who, deceived by villains into believing himself guilty of forgery, has come West to the mines. But the author says she will probably never marry. Her prospects, too, have suffered sadly from her neglect of appearances.33


By 1877, when Wheeler began his Deadwood Dick series, the Wild Western hero had been transformed from a Leatherstocking with an infallible sense of right and wrong and feelings which "appeared to possess the freshness and nature of the forest"34 into a man who had once been a bandit, and who even after his reformation could not easily be distinguished from the criminals opposing him. Cut loose first from the code of gentility that had commanded Cooper's unswerving loyalty, and then from the communion with God through nature that had made Leatherstocking a saint of the forest, the Western hero had become a self-reliant two-gun man who behaved in almost exactly the same fashion whether he were outlaw or peace officer. Eventually he was transformed into a detective and ceased in any significant sense to be Western. The heroine, undergoing an even more drastic evolution when she was freed from the trammels of gentility, developed at last into an Amazon who was distinguished from the hero solely by the physical fact of her sex.

. These changes in the characters reveal a progressive deterioration in the Western story as a genre. It is true that the abandonment of the artificial code of gentility was a necessary step in the development of American literature. But when a frontiersman in the Leatherstocking tradition replaced the genteel heroine as the pivotal center of plot construction, the Western story lost whatever chance it might once have had to develop social significance. For Leatherstocking was a child of the wilderness to whom society and civilization meant only the dread sound of the backwoodsman's axe laying waste the virgin forest. A genre built about such a character could not establish any real contact with society.

On the other hand, the theme of communion with nature in the West proved too flimsy to sustain a primitivistic literature of any magnitude. The spiritual meaning which a former generation had believed it found in nature became more and more inaccessible after the middle of the century. The static ideas of virtue and happiness and peace drawn from the bosom of the virgin wilderness -- the ideas symbolized in Charles W. Webber's Peaceful Valley -- proved quite irrelevant for a society committed to the ideas of civilization and progress, and to an industrial revolution. Devoid alike of ethical and social meaning, the Western story



could develop in no direction save that of a straining and exaggeration of its formulas. It abandoned all effort to be serious, and by 1889, when Erastus Beadle retired from the firm of Beadle & Adams, it had sunk to the near-juvenile level it was to occupy with virtually no change down to our own day. The Street & Smith enterprises like the Buffalo Bill stories, the Log Cabin Library, the Jesse James stories, the Tip-Top Weekly, and the Red, White, and Blue Library, together with Frank Tousey publications like the Boy's Story Library, Frank Manley's Weekly, the New York Detective Library, the Pluck and Luck Stories, and the Wild West Weekly -- the cheap series widening downward from the 1890's into the twentieth century almost baffle enumeration -- lead in a straight line from the Beadle publications to the Westerns of the present day.35 The movies and the radio have tidied up the morals, or at least the manners, of the genre, but plot construction and characterization follow an apparently unbreakable pattern.

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