by Richard Samuel West
LUTHER BRADLEY was one of the most admired and accomplished political cartoonists of the early twentieth century. But before that, he wrote and illustrated two charming children’s books that have largely been forgotten. Both were published in the fall of 1899 in a matching format by E.P. Dutton of New York and sold for $2 each. The first of the two, ostensively for boys, was Wonderful Willie! What He and Tommy Did to Spain It has the distinction of featuring cameo appearances by President McKinley, Spanish military men General Ramon Blanco and Admiral Pascual Cerveza, and the boy king Alfonzo XIII. The second of the two, ostensively for girls, was “Our Indians.” A Midnight Visit to the Great Somewhere-or-Other. It featured Bradley himself in a starring role.
Bradley was born in New Haven (Connecticut), September 29, 1853. He moved with his family to Chicago in 1857 and then a few years later just a bit farther north to Evanston. After attending Lake Forest Academy and studying at Northwestern University, he was admitted to Yale in the 1873. Two years later though he was compelled to drop out to return home to help his father in his real estate business. In 1882, Illness and boredom prompted him to take a sea voyage. After some time in Europe, he eventually landed in Melbourne Australia and took a job as the staff artist for a new weekly, Australian Tit-bits (published from June 12, 1884 to June 17, 1886; note the spelling; all American sources misspell its name as ‘Tidbits’) which became Life (June 24, 1886-91). In the late 80s, he switched allegiances and went to work for Life’s competitor, the Melbourne Punch (1855-1925). When his father took ill and died in 1892, Bradley reluctantly left Australian to return to Evanston to care for and support his widowed mother.
He was living with her in the family home, along with his sister Bessie, her husband, John R. Case, and their two children when he was inspired by the Spanish-American War to create his first children’s book, Wonderful Willie! What He and Tommy Did to Spain. It was a handsome oblong quarto full of color lithographs, some of them doublespreads, starring one of Bradley’s older sister’s sons, Willie and Tommy. Bradley explained in the opening words to the book:
“The following is mainly a facsimile of an old sketch book which was smeared with paint and ink to please a little boy who liked to be told stories and shown pictures “with animals in them.”
It was preceded by a smaller volume known as “Terrible Tommy” (now extremely rare as it has never been published) dealing with the adventures and misdemeanors of a youth of that name, who was reformed by the example of his brother, in cooperation with the well-disposed animals of a neighboring circus.
The simple idea of plugging the boys into the turmoil of war naturally suggested itself and was favorably received. So, in the hope that the little boy for whom the story was told is a sample boy of a large class, the author offers the book in its present form. The only distinction that he can claim for it is that it points no moral and hides no satire. And he even ventures to hope that it will not be taken seriously.”
Inspired with his second work before he had completed his first, “Our Indians.” A Midnight Visit to the Great Somewhere-or-Other is actually set during the time Bradley was writing Wonderful Willie! He states in the foreword:
“These pages were originally painted and scribbled to please a little girl by materializing some fancies with which she had amused herself and others. The theme was the growth of numerous breakfast-table conversations in which the imaginary adventures of the preceding night were agreeably dwelt upon. A brother and an uncle having been gradually admitted to the favored circle, the three became accustomed to spend what was popularly supposed to be their sleeping hours in some mystic realm known as the place where “Our Indians” are. Why these kindly beings should have happened to be Indians is a puzzle with which this recital has nothing to do. But the illusion grew upon those who shared in it, until the Great Somewhere became almost a reality. The pictures served to bring a number of friends, big and little, into the charmed company, and in the belief that here and there about the world are others who would join in our mild diversions, we offer our experiences publicly.”
 Note that an image from Wonderful Willie is pictured on the wall of the dining room.
Both Wonderful Willie! and “Our Indians” were well publicized upon publication, but we could not find reviews or sales figures for either title. We can presume that they were not bestsellers since Dutton never asked Bradley for any sequels. By the time they appeared, Bradley had a new job: political cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News. His very first cartoon published July 5 revealed his mature, confident style. He was secure in his new position when in 1901 just after turning 48 he married Agnes Smith of Evanston. They went on to have four children: Francis, John, Sarah, and Margaret. Bradley in part due to his talent and in part to his relatively advanced age became regarded as one of the deans of American cartooning. Charles H. Dennis, editor of the Daily News, said of Bradley, “He had no patience with milk-and-watery cartoons.” When World War I began, he churned out one cartoon after another declaiming the “gigantic criminality of militarism.” He was at the height of his fame when he died at his home in Wilmette (where he had moved in 1909) on January 9, 1917, aged 63.
* Richard Samuel West’s new book Iconoclast in Ink; The Political Cartoons of Jay N. “Ding” Darling can be purchased HERE.