Saturday, January 16, 2010

Owlet the Robber Prince

Owlet the Robber Prince; or, the Unknown Highwayman by Septimus R. Urban (real name James Malcolm Rymer), The New York Dime Library, no. 1068, Jan. 1903, J. M. Ivers & Co., James Sullivan, proprietor. The original American printing of this tale was in Beadle’s American Tales number 77 back in 1871. Next Beadle & Adams published it in The New York Dime Library number 166 in 1881. The only other known title under the pseudonym Septimus R. Urban was The Little Middy; or, Picked up Adrift published in New York in the Camp-Fire Library number 26 in 1888.

Owlet is described after a highway robbery as “not human but bore an exact resemblance to an owl.”

“An owl your majesty - a green- a sickly green sort of colour was over it. And the feathers, and beak, and eyes, were perfectly and exactly, those of an owl of very large size …”

Owlet is a mysterious work by Rymer which I have been unable to trace in a British penny dreadful. It may have originally been serialized in some weekly story paper. I’m sure the artist is British artist Robert Prowse Senior, which is also strange because Beadle and crew never used British artists as far as I know.

A similar owl-masked villain appears in Blueskin as a minor character named Captain Howlet, and the owl illustration is also the work of Prowse, although not one of his best (see below). Blueskin: A Romance of the Last Century was by the author of Black Bess; or, The Knight of the Road &c., illustrated by Robert Prowse and others, London: Edward Harrison, according to an advertisement published on 2 Aug 1863. Blueskin has been attributed to Edward Viles, but, based on a close reading, my theory is that the author of Blueskin was James Malcolm Rymer.

The Elizabethan era highwayman Gamaliell Ratsey was also said to wear the headdress of an owl or bird when robbing coaches. Ratsey’s tale probably influenced Rymer’s Owlet, who, at the end of the thrilling romance, turns out to be the rightful heir to the throne of England.


  1. I found this very interesting. I have just been reading old New York Weekly Mercury issues from 1859 - 1861, looking at works by another writer, and as I went through the paper I was incidentally very impressed by the illustrations for The Owlet. I did some online research, which quickly led me to your site. Funnily enough, I was struck by how The Owlet story (which I didn't read - I rather cavalierly inferred all this from the pictures and their captions) had a resemblance - however broad - to the Batman story. This comparison probably doesn't stand up to closer scutiny, but I was curious. There is a superhero aspect to the story and also to the art. The Owlet could be Wolverine, viewed from behind.
    Looking through your site, I also saw that you wrote about Frank Bellew, another of my interests. I wrote my PhD on the New York Bohemians, of whom Bellew was one. He was also, interestingly, friendly with Emerson and Thoreau.
    Anyway, thank-you for your very interesting site. I was surprised and pleased to see that somebody else has interests in this field.

    All the best,

    Fabian Ironside

  2. Hi Fabian, Bellew was also an acquaintance of Walt Whitman's. In that period the caricaturists often worked hand in hand with the writers, particularly comic writers like Twain and Doesticks. It is a fascinating field and nice to see that others share my interest.