COL. PRENTISS INGRAHAM, ADVENTURER, NOVELIST AND BUFFALO BILL’S PUBLICITY MAN
by E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra
Prentiss Ingraham, the only son of the clergyman and novelist Joseph Holt Ingraham (1809-1860) and his wife Mary Brooks, was born December 28, 1843, near Natchez, Mississippi. First educated by private tutors, he later attended St. Timothy's Military Academy, Maryland, and was a classmate of John Wilkes Booth. He enrolled first at Jefferson College, Mississippi, and later studied at Mobile Medical College, but left to enter the Confederate Army. He enlisted as a private in Co. D, Withers' First Mississippi Light Artillery, April 1861, attaining the rank of Ordnance Sergeant by 1863. (Mississippi Confederate graves registration records also list him as a member of Co. K.) He was wounded in the foot and taken prisoner during the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, and was sent north. Although he later recounted how he escaped with the aid of a friend in the Union army, he seems to have been regularly paroled and exchanged. He also claimed to have served as commander of scouts in Lawrence Sullivan Ross' Brigade, Texas Cavalry. Brigade muster rolls of the Whitfield/Ross Texas Cavalry Brigade list him as Ordnance Sergeant and later staff officer in the 9th Texas Cavalry. The unit participated in the Vicksburg siege, the battles around Atlanta and the Tennessee campaigns. All we know with certainty is that Ingraham was on “detached duty” from his Mississippi Artillery regiment during 1864-5.
After the war, he became a wandering soldier of fortune. (Nowadays he would be called a "contractor.") Like other Confederate veterans, he went to Mexico and fought with Juarez against the French. He next turns up in Europe, serving on General Leopold Hofmann's staff in the costly Austrian defeat at Sadowa (Koniggratz), Bohemia, in 1866, during the brief Austro-Prussian War. In Crete, he fought with the Greek army against the Turks during the Cretan uprisings of 1866-1868. Switching sides, he allegedly served in the Khedive's army in Egypt. (The "Khedive," or "Viceroy" was first authorized by the Ottoman Empire in 1867, although an unofficial khedive had ruled de facto since 1805. The Khedivate lasted until 1914.)
In 1869 he went to London, supporting himself as a writer for several periodicals, but soon came back to the United States. Ever restless, he joined the Cuban rebels against Spain in the "Ten Years' War," running the blockade in the "Hornet" several times before it was surrendered to the U. S. Navy. He was a colonel in the Cuban revolutionary army as well as a captain in their navy, and was captured, tried as a filibuster and condemned to death by the Spaniards, but escaped with the assistance of the British consul. He thus escaped the fate of Capt. Joseph Fry and 52 passengers and crew of the "Virginius" who would be executed for similar activities in 1873. His Cuban rank was the basis of the “Col.” which he invariably attached to his name. He traveled to the American West and met William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, with whom his career would forever become entwined.
In 1875 he was married to Rose Langley, an author, artist, and composer in New York City. They lived in New York and Ingraham began writing for Beadle and Adams. In 1881, with David Adams, he made a trip west and met the three Powell brothers, Frank George and Will. Dr. Frank Powell (aka. "White Beaver, Medicine Chief of the Winnebagoes") of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, was an ex-plainsman, physician and seller of patent medicines. In addition to stories featuring the Powells, Prentiss Ingraham later penned novels under Frank Powell's byline. In 1876, he wrote some or all of a Street and Smith New York Weekly serial about Buffalo Bill: The Crimson Trail; or, on Custer's Last Warpath. In 1879 he wrote a play for the Buffalo Bill Combination and became a "pard" of William F. Cody. In1884 he worked for a time as advance agent for Buffalo Bill's show. In 1893, he "edited" (read "ghostwrote") the memoirs of Cody's old friend and mentor Alexander Majors, founder of the Pony Express. Cody probably underwrote the publishing costs. Between 1897 and 1902 the Ingrahams lived in Easton, Maryland, and from 1902 to 1904 in Chicago. They had a son and two daughters.
Although his novels covered many areas of the action/adventure genre: westerns, pirates, detectives and exotic costume pieces, his Buffalo Bill stories were best sellers for half a century. They were hawked at all performances of the Wild West show and publicized not only Cody, but also his associates, living and dead: Buck Taylor, “King of the Cowboys,” Texas Jack Omohundro, Wild Bill Hickok, Pawnee Bill Lillie and others. “Ned Buntline” (E.Z.C. Judson) may have discovered Bill Cody and written the first few stories about the scout with the alliterative nickname, but Prentiss Ingraham deepened and expanded the legend until “Buffalo Bill” became an internationally recognized brand name. His dime and half-dime thrillers were translated into half a dozen languages. (A photo on p. 399 of the October 1936 issue of The National Geographic Magazine depicts a Madrid news stand with a display of Buffalo Bill novels in Spanish.)
Bowling Green State University, Ohio, has digitized nearly thirty of Prentiss Ingraham's novels. They are available HERE
Ingraham had suffered off and on from the old wound in his foot, but this was not to prove fatal, despite his belief that it would. He was diagnosed with Bright’s disease in 1903 and died August 16, 1904, at the Beauvoir Confederate Home, Biloxi, Mississippi. Beauvoir had been Jefferson Davis' retirement home from 1877 to 1889. It grew to include a museum, a presidential library and other buildings. The complex was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Ingraham is buried in the Confederate cemetery on the grounds. (His first name is misspelled on his headstone.)
In The House of Beadle and Adams, Albert Johannsen summed up Ingraham’s career as a dime novelist:
Some of his first work was done for Beadle and Adams, and he remained one of their most productive authors until the firm went out of business. He had short stories in the Saturday Journal as early as November, 1870, and a serial in 1872. His first dime novel, "The Masked Spy," appeared as No. 97, Starr's American Novels, in 1872, and after that novel after novel flowed from his pen in a ceaseless stream for nearly thirty-four years. Ingraham was unable to use the typewriter and so, in longhand, he turned out a couple of 35,000- or 70,000-word novels per month. He once wrote a Half-Dime Library in a day and a night, and a Dime Library in five days. It has been said that he had nearly a thousand novels to his credit; he himself claimed over 600 in 1900. Most of his stories were written for Beadle and Adams, but he wrote also for other publishers. In the late 1870's he wrote serials for the Family Story Paper and Saturday Night, and also wrote a number of Nickel Libraries. In the Saturday Evening Post, Vol. LV, No. 16, November 13, 1875, appeared the first installment of "The Boy Wrecker; or, The Waif of the Wave," and in one issue of Vickery's Fireside Visitor, in 1882, he had short stories under four different pseudonyms! After Beadle and Adams went out of existence, he became a contributor to Golden Hours, and also was responsible for a number of cloth-bound books. Among his non-fiction books was "Land of Legendary Lore: Sketches of Romance and Reality on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake," published in Easton, Maryland, in 1898.
Besides writing under his own name, Ingraham used the pseudonyms Dr. Noel Dunbar, Dangerfield Burr, Major Henry B. Stoddard, Colonel Leon Lafitte, Frank Powell, Harry Dennies Perry, Midshipman Tom W. Hall, Lieut. Preston Graham, and several more. Two novels with the byline "Capt. Alfred B. Taylor," were reprinted as by Ingraham.
Ingraham is said to have written some of the novels credited to Buffalo Bill, after Cody himself got tired of writing. One novel was written for Beadle over the name of J. B. Omohundro, and Ingraham told [Gilbert] Patten that he was the author of that story. His innumerable stories about Buffalo Bill, written for Beadle, were often reprinted. Many of them were published by Street & Smith in their Far West Library (1918 catalogue) as by "Howard W. Erwin," but later (1926 catalogue) they appeared among other Ingraham tales.
Ingraham was among the few Beadle authors to star in a dime novel about his adventurous life. In 1883, William R. Eyster’s A Rolling Stone: Incidents in the Career on Sea and Land, as Boy and Man, of Colonel Prentiss Ingraham, Soldier, Sailor and Wanderer, appeared as No. 13 of Beadle’s Boy’s Library of Sport, Story and Adventure. It is a largely fictional account, concentrating on his boyhood adventures, that provides only the sketchiest of details about his adult life in the last four pages of a 15-page narrative. Eyster’s novel may be read HERE:
Prentiss Ingraham’s writing style can be described as “workmanlike,” in contrast to his father’s florid prose. When he revised several of J.H. Ingraham’s novels for Beadle, Prentiss eliminated reams of unnecessary description and purple passages. Edgar Allan Poe had excoriated the elder Ingraham in a review of Lafitte, the Pirate of the Gulf (1835):
We are surfeited with unnecessary detail…[Not a character appears] without eliciting from the author a vos plaudite, with an extended explanation of the character of his personal appearance – of his length, depth and breadth – and, more particularly, of the length, depth and breadth of his shirt-collar, shoe-buckles and hat-band.
For modern readers, the chief flaw in Prentiss Ingraham's fiction is the convoluted frontier dialect used by his western characters. Perhaps as a reaction to his father's overblown style, his stories tend to skip the atmospheric descriptive passages and plunge straightaway into the action, a trait he shares with many of today's screenwriters.
Prentiss Ingraham’s account of the pursuit and capture of his old schoolfellow, John Wilkes Booth in the January 1890 Century Magazine may be read HERE:
Enraged with Street and Smith after Francis Smith gave him "a dirty deal" over his first serial, Ingraham had refused to deal with the firm for the next twenty years. His friend, Gil Patten, author of the Frank Merriwell stories, persuaded him to mend fences after Beadle and Adams went out of business in 1898. By this time, Francis Smith's son Ormond had inherited the publishing house, and pragmatically resolved to patch up his father's quarrel and secure a valuable literary resource at the same time.
In The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (1960) Don Russell observed that
No author was ever treated more handsomely than was Colonel Ingraham by Street and Smith. Not only did they give him full credit for all the Buffalo Bill stories he had written for rival publishers, but they also put his name on most of those anyone else had written, including their own writers.
Shortly before his death, the Street and Smith Corporation had acquired the rights to his Buffalo Bill novels for Beadle and began rewriting them as The Buffalo Bill Stories (1901-1912), later The New Buffalo Bill Weekly (1912-1919). These were credited to “The Author of Buffalo Bill,” and included tales penned by William Wallace Cook, W. Bert Foster, St.George Rathborne, Eugene T. Sawyer, John H. Whitson, Ernest A. Young and others. These were gathered into “thick books” in The Far West Library (1907-1916), Buffalo Bill Border Stories (1917-1925) and the Great Western Library (1927-1932). The earlier "Far West" series credited authorship to “Howard W. Erwin,” but the final reprints placed the “Col. Prentiss Ingraham” byline on all the Buffalo Bill books, including those written by Cook, Foster, et al.
Continue to Part II HERE
Continue to Part II HERE