“If the American boy is not gradually drifting into hopeless idiocy, it is from no lack of enterprise on the part of the publishers.” -- Dodge City Times 22 Dec 1877.
The Boy Detective; or, the Crimes of London a Romance of Modern Times, London: Newsagents’ Publishing Company 147 Fleet-street was first published in 1866 and became a regular melodramatic attraction at the Britannia and various penny gaffs throughout the metropolis. The Boy Detective ran to 72 weekly penny numbers totaling 566 pages. The author is unknown but at least part of the serial (the last third) seems to have been the wretched work of Vane Ireton St. John.
The Boy Detective was kept in continuous circulation throughout the eighties but the boy detective hero found his largest success in the United States where he was introduced in George Munro’s Fireside Companion story paper in 1872.
According to Johannsen Samuel W. Pearce, Jr. was born in New York 27 Feb 1849 and died 26 Jan 1892. At the time of The Boy Detective Pearce was the editor of the Fireside Companion under publisher George Munro and wrote stories for that paper until at least 1874. M. A. Donahue published Pearce’s Another Boy Detective, and The Boy Detective’s Triumph; or, a Life of Peril (both dated 1875). Another title, The Boy Yachtsman; or, the Cruise of the “Storm King,” was published after his death by George Munro’s Sons (1898).
It seems that the American Boy Detective was not based on its British predecessor, whose hero was Ernest Keen, -- Pearce’s detective was named ‘Butts,’ assistant to an adult detective named Thompson, and was played on the American stage in 1872 by a popular young English actor named Percy Roselle. Percy Roselle and his sister Amy were born in London about 1854 and began acting in pantomimes and burlesques at the Exeter Theatre while still children. Erroll Sherson, in London’s Lost Theatres of the Nineteenth Century described Master Percy as “being almost a dwarf” who was cast as “Number Nip, Pippin, Pigwiggin, and Tom Thumb in Drury Lane pantomimes, besides playing Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s “King John.””
The part of the Boy Detective was played by a variety of different actors both on stage and in silent movies. N. S. Wood, son of Wood's Opera House manager Col. J. H. Wood, made a success of the Boy Detective in 1882 and Wood’s play was produced as a radio show in 1930 by the Columbia Network. Biograph released a series of 500 foot films of “The Boy Detective” in 1910. “Willie Live” was the hero of “The Boy Detective” written by dramatist Charles E. Blaney in 1907. Harry Clay Blaney portrayed “Willie Live” and the play was introduced at Blaney’s Theatre. The Grand Opera House revived “Willie Live, The Boy Detective” in 1911 with comedian Lyle LaPine in the leading role. In 1914 “The Dummy” featured Ernest Truex as the boy detective “Edward Ellis” at the New York Grand Opera House.
By the eighties most of the dime novel publishers were publishing boy detective material. Established adult detectives like Nick Carter acquired boy assistants. Edward L. Wheeler contributed a neat variation with New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective for Beadle’s Half-dime Library. The boy detective also figured in more acceptable literature; in George Ade’s humorous Bang! Bang! (late 90’s), Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Detective (1895, also a stage favorite), and Booth Tarkington’s Penrod Jashber (1929).
Any real boy who performed a public service was deemed a ‘boy detective.’ In 1902 three young men in Minneapolis “trailed the famous criminal Nelson to his doom.” Nelson was a bicycle thief and he was jailed for ninety days. A true-life New York “boy detective” named Tony Musolino achieved fame when he took on the Black Hand society in 1905. The boy led police to “The Ship,” or, “the nest” as police called it, an abandoned hotel with “many and devious narrow stairways that twist up through the building to the dark little rooms that seem to be tucked into odd corners regardless of architectural system.” Twelve of the “society’s” leaders were arrested in the raid.
In 1921 “boy detective” Mike Grady helped check Chicago’s “crime wave” by singlehandedly capturing eleven bandits holding up a store. “He got two of the bandits at the time and ran down the others within 48 hours.” Grady broke up the “notorious Capainnza and Cardinella murder bands, several members of which were hanged.” Grady was put on the case when a policeman was murdered by a man named Eddie Morris.
“For three days he worked as a waiter and learned that the fugitive was a taxicab fiend. He became one too. For days Grady was just a jump behind Morris. Finally at dawn he cornered him in a cornfield on the outskirts of the city and captured him.”
Grady made a small fortune, nearly $11,000 in rewards altogether. The “youthful sleuth” was “only thirty-two years old,” a bit of a stretch for a “boy detective,” unless it was the result of a newspaper typo.
The appeal of the boy detective was exploited by the politicians during World War I in 1918. All across the United States “Boy Detectives” were enrolled in vigilante groups dedicated to fight ‘yellow-dogism,’ whether foreign or native born.
NOTE: The Fireside Companion: A Journal of Instructive and Entertaining Literature was a six cent weekly periodical published by George Munro from 1864 to 1903. Munro concentrated on romance and detective stories with an occasional western. Kenward Philp (likely a pseudonym) was author of the first detective story in the Fireside Companion. Philp’s The Bowery Detective ran from 28 March to 23 May 1870 but was not a series. Soon after publication a melodrama “with novel effects” was being staged at Tony Pastor’s Opera House in the Bowery.
The Boy Detective; or, the Chief of Counterfeiters was next (1871), followed by Old Sleuth, the Detective; or, the Bay Ridge Mystery (1872). Old Sleuth was the first American detective character to feature in a continuous series of tales.
An ‘Old Timer’ wrote to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle in 1942 that, while The Youth’s Companion, Golden Days and Golden Argosy were acceptable reading material for boys of the period, The Fireside Companion and The Family Story Paper were intended for an adult readership.
“To illustrate my point -- at home, a story published in the Fireside Companion that was entitled “Old Sleuth the Detective” by “Old Sleuth,” gained such a mastery over the emotions of the couple I boarded with that the seven days between installments seemed a long time to wait. To make it as short as possible I was delegated to be present in front of the newspaper store so that when the Fulton Street horse-car rolled along and a bundle of newspapers was thrown from the back platform I would be on hand to get a copy of the paper right away with no time lost. It was an assignment that had my approval.
Just off the press and still damp, the Fireside Companion smelled of printer’s-ink and a whiff like unto it today will carry me back in spirit 60 years to that little store and its environment where I waited so patiently for the four-wheeled horse-car, drawn by two horses with a jangling bell attached to each collar, bearing that precious periodical that carried the fascinating experiences of “Old Sleuth the Detective.” Arriving home, all activities were suspended for the reading aloud of his latest adventures, until that tantalizing line of type appeared -- “To be continued in our next.””
*Note: Most of the bibliographic material in the text is indebted to the indispensable Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book, by J. Randolph Cox (2000).
*Thanks to Joe Rainone for the Fireside Companion images of Pearce’s “Boy Detective.”