by John Adcock
That penny dreadful, “Deadwood Dick,”
Perhaps may charm the vulgar mind,
Though rather apt to turn one sick
Whose taste is cultured and refined.
But though the mind be high or low,
The body must its ills endure;
The thing for coughs and colds we know,
Is W. E. Woods great Peppermint Cure.
--Thames Star, New Zealand, 1901
Edward Lytton Wheeler wrote 33 “Deadwood Dick” novels between 1878 and 1885 for Beadle’s Half-Dime Library. His stories are well plotted adventures and his slang and dialect heavy narration is funny as hell. He wrote a lot of tales with female protagonists, maybe influenced by the New Woman of the 1890’s. Calamity Jane, heroine of the Deadwood Dick novels, smoked, drank, and carried two pistols. Some of his series characters were Deadwood Dick, Buffalo Ben, Rosebud Rob, Photograph Phil, Sugar Coated Sam, New York Nell (The Boy-Girl Detective) and Wild Edna.
Edward Lytton Wheeler was born in Avoca, New York in 1854 or 1855 and moved to Pennsylvania where his parents managed a boarding house. He was believed to have died circa 1885. A more complete biography can be read HERE.
Wheeler was probably the first dime novel author to feature cowgirl heroines. The October first 1877 issue of Beadle’s Half-Dime Library published Wheeler's first outlaw tale Deadwood Dick, the Prince of the Road; or, the Black Rider of the Black Hills. By the fourth novel Deadwood Dick was reformed. With Wheeler’s death in 1885 the series, beginning with Deadwood Dick Jr., or, the Sign of the Crimson Crescent, (19 Jan 1886) was carried on by a series of ghosts.
Deadwood Dick is said to have had a prototype in Robert Dickey (1840-1912), trapper, Indian-killer, and fur trader in the west. Negro cowboy Nat Love also laid claim to the name in The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, better known in the cattle country as "Deadwood Dick," by himself (1907.) Frank “Deadwood Dick” Palmer died in 1906 in Colorado. Another Deadwood Dick, English born Richard W. Clark died in 1930. He was also touted as the inspiration for the fictional character.
“Edward L. Wheeler made Deadwood Dick famous and Deadwood Dick made Edward L. Wheeler rich. As a fact there were a dozen or so Deadwood Dicks but only one Edward L. Wheeler... After Wheeler had made the name famous every fellow in the Black Hills whose name was “Richard” took the name “Deadwood Dick” to himself. But while many claimed the name, Dick Clark was the man upon whom Deadwood bestowed the title “Deadwood Dick.”” -- “Deadwood Dick is not Dead, He Yells,” The Observer 17 Sept 1926.
By 1885 Wheeler's Deadwood Dick had moved from the wide open range to the big city and detective adventures. Some series titles were Deadwood Dick's Dream: or, The Rivals of the Road (1881), Deadwood Dick's Defiance, or The Double Daggers (c. 1882), Omaha Oll, the Masked Terror; or, Deadwood Dick in Danger (c. 1885), Deadwood Dick, Jr.; or, The Sign of the Crimson Crescent (1886), Deadwood Dick's Protegee: or, Baby Hess, the Girl Gold Miner (1887), Deadwood Dick, Jr., in Chicago: or, The Anarchist's Daughter (1888), Bob Woolf, the Border Ruffian: or, The Girl Dead-Shot ( featuring Hurricane Nell-1878). Deadwood Dick on Deck: or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-Up (1878), and Blonde Bill: or, Deadwood Dick's Home Base (1880)
Just one example of his wild and wooly style is the following from Canada Chet, the Counterfeit Chief;
‘“Gosh all fried cakes!” the man from Michigan ejaculated, surveying the dwarf-scout critically: “Who be you, Cap? ‘Pears to me ye’re a dasted little cuss ter have whiskers on ye.”
“Big enough ter skeer the fits out o’ you, tho’,” Anaconda snorted. “Great hatchets o’ Washington! but you were skeert, tho’! Went kitin’ over thet stump like as ef all the devils in purgatory were at your heels.”
“Pshaw! I weren’t skeert a bit,” protested the man from Michigan, snapping his fingers. “I know’d you was behind me all the time, an I jest got up thet sarcus fer the fun o’ it.”
“Git out! You war skeart ni’ ter death!” declared Old Anaconda. “Who be ye?”
“I’m Amasa Scroggs, from Kalamazoo, Michigan.” was the reply.
“Kerwhoop! thet settles it. Never see’ a man from Kalamazoo yit who warn’t afeard o’ his own shadder. But --”
The Dwarf Destroyer did not finish his sentence, for at this instant a chorus of fierce yells resounded upon the night, and a swarm of painted savages sprung from the forest into the glade.
And Sitting Bull headed the Gang!’
Wheeler was an ex-school teacher which makes his massacre of the English language even more astounding. Kids were called ‘younkers’, men were ‘galoots.’
In Photograph Phil, The Boy Sleuth; or, Rosebud Rob’s Reappearance, the hero is described in a poem;
“Oh, Photograph Phil
Is a glorious Pill:
A boy of the period, you bet!
And the coins he rakes in, are not earned by sin,
But made by the brow of his sweat.”
I imagine Wheeler meant ‘sweat of his brow’ but reversed it for the sake of a rhyme, losing all sense of meaning in the process.
The story takes place in Cascade City, a mining camp that was invented by Wheeler and hosted many of his characters through the years from Deadwood Dick to Rosebud Rob. The only weirder western town I have ever encountered is Desperate Dan’s Cactusville, a Scottish city with Bobbies, gas-lamps, coal-cellars and factories with a Plains Indian tribe living on the outskirts.
As Photograph Phil tries to sell a crowd on getting their portraits taken he hears a murmured “humbug!” from the crowd; “Humbug? Where did I hear that whisper, then? It wafted unto me like the cackle of an eight-day heifer!” He addresses the crowd as ‘benign-faced descendants of the ape,” “Half-witted sons of sea-cooks,“ and “bums, bull-whackers and beats,” and asks “where is that pilgrim who durst aver that I am not a beat, a sleuth, a snoozer, gifted with a gab like unto perpetual motion?” He says he has “tried his hand at nearly every trade and profession from cheating babies out of their bottles of milk to murdering blind mice out of pure cussedness.” This perplexing bafflegab causes a rush of customers for his “Rogue’s Gallery.”
Photograph Phil sneaks into a secret society on the main street with a strange sign “Temple of Bacchus,” full of masked spies with names like Diablo and Cross-Bones who are known as the Infernal Forty. They tightly bandage him up and toss him in the air in a blanket a few times culminating in an attempted branding with a red-hot iron from which he is saved by Rosebud Rob. Photograph Phil goes on to solve an axe-murder by photographing the pupil of the dead mans eye, “an art I once learned in the East, and have used several times in convicting murderers.” The murderer is immediately strung up, which is not surprising, all Wheelers mining town tales have a lynching or two.
The Deadwood Dick series was published by Aldine Company in London with original cover art and shipped to all the colonies. In New Zealand all penny dreadfuls were lumped together under the description “Deadwood Dicks,” and were considered enticements to juvenile crime. In 1910 two boys in Wellington pled guilty to firing a revolver at a Chinese gardener at Paraparamau; the result of a close reading of “Deadwood Dick literature.” George Newnes published 34 titles in the “Deadwood Dick Library” between 1928 and 1929 in London.
Warren Eldridge Price’s San Francisco monthly The Newsdealer published a full list of Deadwood Dick novels in 1890 with the following introduction:
“This month I reproduce the most complete list of the very saleable, ever returnable “Deadwood Dick” novels ever printed. The great favor previous lists of famous series of trash have met with, is the reason for the following compilation. Any suggestions as to useful similar lists will be gratefully received.”
*See also Deadwood Dick Library HERE. Thanks to E. M. Sanchez Saavedra for images.
Edward L. Wheeler Part II HERE.