Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th Century, the most popular form of fictional entertainment in America was dime novels.
Dime novels were cheap paperback novelettes printed on pulpwood stock and sold for 5 to 15 cents each. They were pure entertainment, with no literary aspirations whatsoever; plots were lurid and melodramatic, characters were clownish and overdrawn, and heroes and villains were painted without shades of gray. Basically, they were pulp fiction before there was anything called pulp fiction.
One of the most famous dime-novel heroes was Deadwood Dick, a roving gambler, gunfighter and white-hat con artist, very much in the style of television’s “Maverick.” Deadwood Dick was the creation of Edward Lytton Wheeler, a New York native who cooked up the character for his Philadelphia Vaudeville theater and then used him in a series of 35 dime jobs published by the Beadle Brothers.
Wheeler, of course, didn’t make any trips out to places like Laramie or Cripple Creek or Roseburg to scout locations for his Deadwood Dick stories. So, most of them are geographically ambiguous, and those that do specify real locations contain geographical howlers for the natives to scoff over. But, they were great fun in an era before television or radio, and nobody complained (much).
Now, these old dime novels are hard to come by, and I have not been able to personally inspect all 35 of the Deadwood Dick stories — nor the 100 or so that followed starring our intrepid hero’s only son, Deadwood Dick Jr. But in his wanderings about the American West, Deadwood Dick does seem to have strayed into the Oregon country a few times.
DEADWOOD DICK’S BIG DEAL or The Gold Brick of Oregon
The first time appears to have been in “Deadwood Dick’s Big Deal or The Gold Brick of Oregon” (1883). In this one, “Gold Brick” is a nickname for a gorgeous golden-haired broad who owns a disreputable gambling house, the bank of which Dick undertakes to “break” because he’s recognized the “Gold Brick” as his estranged wife, Calamity Jane, the mother of their 3-year-old son. At the end of the book, having succeeded in this little quest of spousal vengeance, Dick puts a cherry on top of his victory by winning sole custody of Deadwood Dick Jr. in a hand of Euchre.
It’s probably safe to say the “heroic narrative” in “Deadwood Dick’s Big Deal” hasn’t aged very well. Although, who knows, it may have provided inspiration for one or two embarrassingly self-indulgent feature movies from the “auteur” era made by bitter, freshly-divorced directors. “Tequila Sunrise” comes to mind.
DEADWOOD DICK’S DANGER DUCKS or The Owls of Oregon
In “Deadwood Dick’s Danger Ducks or The Owls of Oregon,” the next Deadwood Dick story set in the Beaver State, our hero is actually Deadwood Dick Jr. — he who was, on his previous visit to our state, won by his father at a gambling table and torn from his mother, presumably never to see her again.
In spite of that bit of childhood trauma, he seems to have grown up fairly well adjusted, and when we join him at a campfire near Roseburg he’s a twenty-something “United States Detective” traveling with his two friends, rough-and-ready mountain man Job Johnson and clownish African-American Nicademus Noodle. (At least, he says it’s near Roseburg. But he also says it’s an hour’s ride east of the “famous lava beds.”)
Dick is there in not-so-hot pursuit of a murderer who’s escaped from the state pen in Salem. The trail has gone cold.
But, as he’s making plans to turn back, a strange forest girl with a head injury stumbles into their camp, and then two local horsemen join them for the night and, around the campfire, tell them of a gang of notorious bandits who have seized possession of an island in the middle of a lake “some ten miles down the valley” called Lake Sylvan. There is, of course, a rich mine of gold on the two-acre island, and it’s presided over by a dangerous damsel known to all of the thoroughly cowed neighbors as “Lady Sylvan.” Everyone who’s tried to swim out to the island has been turned back or killed by the desperados on the island, who call themselves The Owls. (This seems, to modern ears, a weird name for a gang of desperados to affect. Perhaps all the scarier and more gang-like monikers such as “The Bloods” and “The Crips” and “The James-Younger Gang” were already taken and all that were left were the names of Boy Scout patrols?)
The next morning, one of the two strange horsemen is dead as a doorknob, pinned to his bedroll with a big Bowie knife, and there’s no sign of the girl. The other horseman — who later turns out to be the murderer — tries to pin it on the strange girl, but Dick doesn’t buy it.
His interest piqued, Dick and his friends decide to join the locals in investigating the island by swimming out to it disguised as ducks — that is, each of them wearing a dead, unplucked duck, staged with some quick-and-dirty taxidermy to keep its head from flopping around, so that the island sentries would see not a bunch of invaders swimming ashore, but merely three very tall, stiff, rigidly immobile ducks slowly and silently drifting toward the island, their heads and necks gently rocking back and forth with the wave action like the masts of tiny ships.
This plan goes just as well as you would expect it to, and all our heroes are promptly captured and subjected to a sort of show trial presided over by the girl with the head injury from Scene One, who turns out to have been Lady Sylvan herself. The murderer whom Dick was pursuing is there as well. In good melodramatic fashion all appears lost, and then virtue emerges triumphant with a little help from the abiding love that’s been burning in the breast of Lady Sylvan since that night by the campfire when Dick fixed up her head injury and gave her a blanket.
She, it turns out, is a figurehead — the Owls are actually a gang of “counterfitters” who are, apparently, stealing gold from various places, bringing it onto the island, and pretending to mine it there.
(As a side note, this would not have worked in real life. Assayers in gold country in the late 1800s were surprisingly good at identifying the source of freshly mined gold based on average grain or nugget size and color and nature of impurities, and used those abilities fairly regularly to catch careless stagecoach robbers. Had someone tried this stunt, the locals would have known exactly what they were doing the minute they first tried to have their “diggings” weighed at the local assayer’s office. But, of course, our Philadelphia author didn’t know that.)
In the end, justice is more or less served. Nicademus Noodle, after forcing the murderer to change clothes with him, finds $1,000 in the pocket and hits the road with it. The murderer, thinking he’ll restore his fortunes by burgling the bad guy’s house, gets shot and killed, so Dick’s job is done; nonetheless he insists on riding off into the sunset to his next adventure, without bothering to say goodbye to Lady Sylvan, who we never hear of again.
All in all, it’s a pretty rough little story, stretched with a lot of unnecessary “business.” And the character of Nicademus Noodle, although endowed with resourcefulness and wit, is nonetheless a typical late-1800s African American character — that is, an insulting racial stereotype brought to life. But overall it’s a fun, fast read, and its descriptions of nonexistent Roseburg scenery and geography surely brought a smile to the face of more than one 1880s Douglas County resident.
(Sources: Fee, Chester Anders. “Deadwood Dick’s Danger Ducks: A ‘Novel of Oregon,’” Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 1944; Wheeler, Edward L. Deadwood Dick’s Danger Ducks; or, The Owls of Oregon and Deadwood Dick’s Big Deal; or, The Gold Brick of Oregon. New York: Beadle, 1887 and 1883 respectively)
— Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.