By Michael Austin
Michael Austin is co-editor of the Mormon Image in Literature series from Greg Kofford Books, which includes annotated reprints of 19th-century novels about Mormons including many of the works mentioned in this article such as The Doomed Dozen, The Bradys among the Mormons, and Eagle Plume: The White Avenger.
During the first years of the Civil War three very similar novels about Mormons appeared in the United States—each featuring handsome heroes, Mormon Elders, and chaste young women who are kidnapped and taken to Salt Lake City as polygamous brides. In all three (spoiler alert!), the lecherous Mormons are defeated, the chaste young women are rescued, and the hero gets the girl.
Despite their many similarities, these books occupied very different positions in the commercial hierarchy of books. Captain Mayne Reid’s The Wild Huntress (1861) was published by the New York firm R.M. De Witt as a cloth-bound, gilt-edged volume that sold for the princely sum of $1.25 (about $35.00 in 2018) while Theodore Winthrop’s John Brent was issued by the prestigious Boston firm Ticknor and Fields at the slightly less princely, but still substantial sum of $1.00. Like most books published in the United States in the early 1860s, both volumes would have been beyond the financial reach of most readers. Though most Americans knew how to read—thanks to the compulsory education movement that began in the 1840s—very few of them actually owned more than a handful books, which were still considered luxury items and priced accordingly.
The third tale of Mormon perfidy, Esther: A Story of the Oregon Trail (1862) by Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, sold for a mere ten cents. Esther was a dime novel—Volume 45 in the Beadle’s Dime Novel series that began in 1860 with another book by Mrs. Stephens called Malaeska; The Indian Wife of the White Hunter. Dime novels did away with all the frills of book publishing—like covers. They were printed on cheap newsprint—looking more like small newspapers than novels—and they crammed 30,000-50,000 words into as few as 15 pages of text, using multiple columns and achingly minuscule fonts. But because they were inexpensive, almost anybody could afford them; and because they were exciting and fun, almost everybody wanted to read them.
Even though Malaeska had been published 20 years earlier as a magazine serial, when it appeared in this new format, it sold more than 500,000 copies and changed the publishing industry forever. Between 1860 and 1920, somewhere around 60,000 dime novels were published in the United States with an average count of about 30,000 words and prices ranging from 5 to 20 cents (the term “dime novel” was a brand name, not necessarily a price tag).
Though dime novels did a lot to promote literacy and book ownership, they didn’t do much for peace, love, and understanding. Their narrative formulas required spectacular villains, and their style guides did not allow for depth or character development, so they turned to the most simplistic and outrageous stereotypes that 19th-century American culture had to offer. Just about everybody got the same treatment: Indians, African Americans, Chinese workers, gold miners, riverboat gamblers, and, of course, Mormons.
It’s hard to tell just how many of these dime novels featured Mormons. They were not designed for long-term storage, and many thousands of titles have not survived in any form. Furthermore, title lists that we can reconstruct (often from the backs of existing issues) do not account for the common practice of reprinting the same material under different titles. After several years of searching, though, I have identified 36 dime novels (not including reprints) whose plots deal primarily with Mormons. I am certain that there are others, but even at twice this number, Mormon plots would account for around 1/10 of 1% of the dime novel universe.
The way Mormons were portrayed in dime novels was remarkably consistent over many decades and multiple genres. This consistency tells us that dime novelists were playing with common stereotypes that nearly all their readers recognized—indeed, these stereotypes worked their way into much of the more respectable literature of the day and influenced the way American culture has interacted with Mormonism ever since. These tropes were based on three things, perhaps the only three things that most Americans knew about the Mormons in the final decades of the nineteenth century: Danites, polygamy, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Whatever variation occurs in the dime novels comes from mixing these three ingredients into new concoctions.
Of these standard tropes, the Danites will probably be the least familiar to modern readers since they do not have any basis in actual history—at least as they are portrayed in the dime novels. Historically, the “Danites,” or “Sons of Dan” were a short-lived group of Mormon vigilantes active during the Missouri War. Though we have no evidence that any such group existed after 1838, the group was a major aspect of Mormonism in popular literature for two generations, with stories operating under “the false assumption that there was a functioning Danite organization in Utah.”1
As Rebecca Foster Cornwall and Leonard Arrington explain in a 1983 article, Danites entered the world of 19th-century sensational fiction through Captain Frederick Marrayat’s 1843 novel, Monsieur Violet, a rambling travel narrative through the Southwestern United States with a section on the Nauvoo Mormons plagiarized from John C. Bennett’s anti-Mormon exposé, City of the Saints (1842). In the hands of dime novelists, these mythical Danites became a highly organized group of secret police, keeping the population of Utah in its thrall by murdering dissenters and tracking down runaway polygamous wives. They also planted spies across the country who fed a steady stream of information—and beautiful young maidens—to the Mormon prophet.
Albert W. Aiken introduced Danites into the dime novel vernacular in the 1870 novel Eagle Plume, the White Avenger, the story of a young man who becomes a Dakotah Indian in order to get revenge on the Mormon missionary who seduced his sister and abandoned her to die. When the Mormon avengers are first introduced in Eagle Plume, Aiken describes them as
that terrible band of men known among the Mormons as Danites—a troop of cut-throats who knew no law but that promulgated by the Mormon chiefs; they were the rod of iron used by the leading spirits of that strange horde, who sought to found a city of Zion in the great prairie wilderness—to bend unto their rule the “Chosen People,” as they styled themselves, and to silence any uneasy spirit who dared to murmur at their decrees.
Their leader was a man who, whatever his real title had been, was known simply as “Dan.” Assuming the name of the Israelite of old and pretending to have a mission from the Mormon prophet Smith, to act as an instrument of vengeance, a “Destroying Angel” to all obnoxious to the Mormons or scoffers at the Mormon faith, he was well fitted to head the ruffian band and execute the “Vengeance of the Lord” on all marked with the ban of the leaders of the new faith. (13)
The Danite band in Eagle Plume operates as a highly secretive parallel organization to the official Mormon hierarchy in Salt Lake City. Such a formulation connects the Danite myth to the contemporary anti-Catholic portrayals of the “Black Pope”—the head of the Jesuit Order, who secretly presided over a network of spies and assassins dedicated to wreaking havoc in the Protestant world. Both anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic stereotypes regularly infuse the dime-novel Danites, including a version of blood libel that has initiates sacrificing a Gentile as part of their induction. In the 1890 dime novel Keen Kit; or, The Border Detective Among the Mormons, our hero is on the wrong end of such a ceremony as the hooded Danite leader announces,
Brethren of the tribe of Dan . . . it is the custom of our secret order that every new member of our tribe be called upon to act as executioner at the first sacrifice that takes place after his having become a member of the tribe. We now have among us a newly-made member of the tribe, and therefore, according to our rules he must, upon this occasion, handle the sacred sword of the destroyers which is to cut the throat of the Gentiles whom we are about to offer as a sacrifice. (23)
Have no fear; Keen Kit escapes and routs the Danites, saving the maiden and all the rest.
The unsuspecting Gentiles in Thomas Hoyer Monstery’s California Joe’s First Trail (1884), on the other hand, aren’t so lucky. California Joe was a recurring hero in Beadle & Adams’ Half-Dime Library—novellas aimed at young boys that were both half the length and half the price of the publisher’s standard fare. In this origin story, California Joe sets out with a wagon train to make his fortune in the West. He meets a mysterious stranger named Simplicity Fox, who represents himself as a deacon in his church, but is soon revealed as both a Mormon and as the head of the “Destroying Angels”—a group of armed vigilantes who massacre wagon trains and kidnap women. Fox captures California Joe and compels him join the Destroying Angels:
Then the deacon made the prisoner repeat after him an oath of the most tremendous character, in which the man whom took it was obliged to call down on himself the vengeance of heaven, in this world and the next, if ever he disobeyed the order of the captain of the Lord’s host or any of his officers. Even Joe, bold as he was, shuddered as the oath was repeated, and the circle of Mormon “Destroyers” round him at every sentence uttered a solemn “Amen,” and repeated the formula “Damned be the traitor to time and eternity,” with a ghastly earnestness that left no doubt of their sincerity. (10)
As soon as this oath is complete, Fox tells Joe that he must now participate in the massacre of a wagon train. He is instructed to kill all of the men and boys, but spare the women to become polygamous wives. When the terrible deed is done (Joe intentionally misses his shots), the Mormons cast lots for possession of the women, but Joe, who is assigned advance-guard duty, takes his chosen woman and escapes with her to a nearby army fort where he surrenders and escapes the wrath of the Destroying Angels.
California Joe’s First Trail manages to weave the three essential ingredients of 19th-century fiction about Mormons—Danites (called here “Destroying Angels”), polygamy, and wagon train massacres—into a mere 13 pages of six-point-font text. This being the Half-Dime Library, there is no room for subtle reflection on the themes. But in the full Dime Library—Beadle’s parallel series that allowed writers 28 pages to develop their stories—the same elements are frequently combined with interesting backstories to produce more sophisticated works. Such is the case with a pair of novels published in 1881: Velvet Face, the Border Bravo; or, Muriel, the Danite’s Bride and The Doomed Dozen; or, Delores, the Danite’s Daughter. Both novels were written—under different pseudonyms—by Colonel Prentiss Ingraham—perhaps the most prolific of all the dime novelists, with some 600 titles to his credit under his own name and nearly a dozen others.
Both stories deal with notorious Danite chiefs named, respectively, Jean Leo and John Leigh—variations of John D. Lee, who was executed in 1877 for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre twenty years earlier. Leo and Lee also lead massacres of civilian wagon trains at the beginning of their respective novels, but Ingraham uses the rest of each story to weave these men’s personal lives (with a reasonable amount of skill) into the standard polygamy-Danite-massacre story arc.
Velvet Face begins with an extended prologue describing the massacre of a wagon train. Soon thereafter, the titular hero appears in a frontier town that has been taken over by a group of vigilantes. He meets Muriel, a beautiful, headstrong woman who was forced to marry Phillip Barlow, to whom her father owed money. Barlow has now disappeared, and Muriel and her father are living alone. As Velvet Face tries to wrest control of the town from the agents of frontier justice, he finds himself in an all-out war with both the citizens of the town and with the notorious Danite leader, Jean Leo, who lives nearby. Soon we discover that Velvet Face (whose name is actually Cecil Bertram) was once Leo’s partner in a gold mining operation, but Leo had joined with some renegade Mormons, attacked the wagon train Bertram was traveling with, and stolen the gold for himself. Unbeknownst to Leo, Bertram survived the massacre and has been tracking down and killing the Danites one by one. Leo is hanged for his crimes, and we then discover that, unbeknownst to anybody, he was also Phillip Barlow, Muriel’s husband—leaving Muriel free to marry Velvet Face in the final scene.
The Doomed Dozen tells the story of the (once again) beautiful and headstrong woman Delores Moultrie, who is the secret daughter of the head of the Danite order. His chief lieutenant, John Leigh, tries to marry Delores in a plot to blackmail his boss. When she refuses, he has his Danites massacre her entire wagon train so that he can kidnap her. But Delores evades the trap (and several others) with the help of a young stranger named “Satan’s Pet.” Both Delores and Mr. Pet receive aid from none other than Buffalo Bill Cody, who just happens to be wandering by. Through the course of the narrative, Delores’s father abandons Mormonism to rescue her. Satan’s Pet, whose family had been massacred by twelve Danites (the “Doomed Dozen” of the title), kills all of the Danites, ending with John Leigh. And Buffalo Bill lives to have adventures another day.2
Novels like these helped the firm of Beadle & Adams tower over the world of dime novels from 1860 until around 1890. But the market began to shift away from frontier fiction, and other New York firms like Munroe, Frank Tousey, and Street & Smith moved in quickly with adventure tales, espionage thrillers, and—more than anything else—detective fiction. These new series featured the same characters solving different mysteries week after week. And their characters were modern: they rode on trains, drove automobiles, and had lots of bad-guy-catching gadgets. In 1897, Beadle & Adams closed up shop, leaving dime novels to the likes of Nick Carter, Frank Merriwell, Old Cap Collier, and Old (and Young) King Brady.
But readers’ appetites for modern stories did not dull their appetite for dangerous Mormons. If anything, Mormons were featured even more prominently in dime novels published from 1890 until around 1920—precisely the time that Mormons were abandoning polygamy and doing their best to accommodate themselves to the modern world. A prominent theme in most of these later dime novels was that Mormons were only pretending to change—they were, in fact, more dangerous than ever! The new dime novel detectives faced much higher stakes than their Western forebears ever had combatting these new, more sinister Mormons. Along with the traditional tropes (kidnapped women, vengeful sons, spurned lovers), the new sleuths had to deal with Mormons plotting world domination and religious genocide.
Take, for example, Old Cap Collier in Salt Lake City (1892). In this volume, the disguise-master detective (Munroe Publishing House’s most popular character in the 1890s) is assigned by the U.S. government to investigate a global human trafficking network that provides Mormons with new wives for their supposedly defunct harems:
“For months we have received many complaints from foreign governments that women are being brought by Mormon elders or agents, and sold into slavery in Utah.”
“More than that: it has been reported that girls have been abducted from Eastern cities, taken out to Utah and forced to become converts to Mormonism; becoming the slaves of the licentious elders.”
“I thought that the government officials out in Utah had broken up all of this?”
“Outwardly it appears as if we had succeeded in breaking up the polygamous lives of the Mormons, but in reality, the same state of affairs exists under cover, that flourished in the days of Bringham [sic] Young. In fact, from the reports that come to me, the crimes committed are even worse.” (4)
As Old Cap Collier infiltrates the Mormon cabal and exposes the human trafficking scheme, he discovers a much broader conspiracy that involves massacre and political domination. In a secret meeting of the Mormons, their leader, Elder Proud, goes over the plan: “They would soon get together a formidable army,” he announces. “The revolution would spread. The government troops would be unable to cope with them. Everything would be swept down before them. They would get control of the government and establish a Mormon republic” (42). A perfect plan—almost. They didn’t count on the detecting prowess of the amazing Old Cap Collier!
By the turn of the 20th century, Frank Tousey’s detective series Secret Service, aided by the novelty of full-color covers, eclipsed the Old Cap Collier library to become the most popular detective series in the country. Secret Service had two detective-heroes: Old King Brady, the most famous detective in the world, and Young King Brady (no relation), his faithful sidekick. The Bradys made it to Salt Lake City twice—in 1903 in The Bradys Among the Mormons and again in 1906 in The Bradys and Mr. Mormon.
In the first novel, the Bradys are sent by a United States senator to find out if a wealthy Mormon, Joseph Smith Podmore—who is running for Congress (and courting the senator’s daughter)—is a polygamist. Though the Bradys discover that Podmore is indeed single, they also discover that he is a member of the Secret Society of the Golden Lions of Judah—the Mormon organization that serves “the same purpose as the old Danites” (19). Members of this new secret society wear the white robes and hoods associated with the Ku Klux Klan and operate from a vast system of caverns beneath Salt Lake City, which all Church leaders can access from secret passages in their homes. In these caverns, Mormon apostles imprison dissidents, execute prisoners, and sequester unwilling young women designated for polygamous marriage. The Bradys learn that Podmore was never really interested in a Congressional seat. Rather, he was courting the senator’s daughter to learn the location of a large sum of money her maternal grandfather had stolen from the Church. By helping the Mormons find the lost treasure, the Bradys manage to rescue the senator’s daughter and escape unscathed from the Golden Lions of Judah.
This plotline clearly reflects contemporary concerns over Reed Smoot, the monogamous Mormon apostle whose eligibility to serve in the Senate had been called into question after he was elected by the Utah legislature in January of 1903. (The Bradys Among the Mormons appeared in August of the same year.) The sincerity of the Mormon conversion to modernity was one of the most important questions of the year.
These types of detective dime novels exploited the fear that just beneath their seemingly reformed surface, Mormons continued to be the same old multiple-wife-marrying, dissident-killing, wagon-train-massacring miscreants they had always been, but now, with the power of a new state behind them—including the opportunity to elect senators and representatives to the national legislature—they could infiltrate and influence the nation in ways that a persecuted desert theocracy never could.
But the authors and publishers of dime novels were also trying to keep their industry alive by wringing every last word out of the standard formulas and stereotypes that had served them so well. As the frontier disappeared, leaving most of the usual villains trapped in the amber of history, the supposedly modern Mormons became an irresistible target because they could be portrayed—not without plausibility—as thinly disguised versions of their worst 19th-century selves. Perhaps dime novel readers took comfort in the thought that, even with the Tabernacle Choir amazing the world in Chicago and Reed Smoot walking the U.S. Senate’s corridors, masked Danites and secret polygamists were still creeping around in caves beneath Salt Lake City keeping the excitement of the Wild West alive in the face of the prosaic ordinariness of the modern world.
- See Rebecca Foster Cornwall and Leonard Arrington, “Perpetuation of a Myth: Mormon Danites in Five Western Novels, 1840–90”, BYU Studies, 23.2 (Spring 1983), 147–65, p. 149. Cornwall and Arrington examine the portrayals of Danites in five novels: Frederick Marrayat’s Monsieur Violet (1843), Mayne Reid’s The Wild Huntress (1861), Joaquin Miller’s First Families of the Sierras (1876), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Dynamiter (1883), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1886). Though none of these were dime novels per se, they were all part of the general literary milieu of 19th-century readers and writers.
- Ingraham, in fact, would go on to write hundreds of dime novels featuring Buffalo Bill, most of which appeared in Beadle’s Dime and Half Dime Libraries. Along with being an astonishingly successful dime novelist, he was a paid publicist for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and he did more than anybody else to create and maintain the larger-than-life reputation of his boss that persists to the present day.
A Mormon Dime Novel Bibliography
Dime novels were generally published in series that were called “libraries.” Originally, publication was sporadic, but in time most libraries published a new novel every week (though publishers frequently reprinted old material under new titles without acknowledgment). From 1860 until the late 1880s, the various Beadle & Adams libraries dominated the industry. By 1890, though, firms such as Munroe, Frank Tousey, and Street & Smith entered the market with more modern stories and new printing technologies (such as color covers), leading to the demise of Beadle & Adams in 1897. The following bibliography lists novels by the original library they were part of. I have not included novels that I know to be reprints, though all issues of the Buffalo Bill Stories do reprint portions of earlier texts.
Beadle’s Dime Novels (Beadle & Adams)
#45: Stephenson, Ann. Esther. A Story of the Oregon Trail. 1861.
#196 Aiken, Albert. Eagle Plume, the White Avenger. A Tale of the Mormon Trail. 1870.
#312: Whittaker, Frederick. Dick Darling, the Pony Expressman. A Tale of the Old Salt Lake Trail. 1874.
Beadle’s New York Dime Library
(Beadle & Adams)
#41: Aiken, Albert W. Gold Dan; or, The White Savage of the Great Salt Lake. 1878.
#156: “Dangerfield Burr” (Ingraham, Prentiss). Velvet Face, the Border Bravo; or, Muriel, the Danite’s Bride. A Romance of Border Mystery. 19 October 1881.
#158. “Dr. Frank Powell” (Ingraham, Prentiss). The Doomed Dozen; or, Delores, the Danite’s Daughter. 1881.
#170: Badger, Joseph E. Sweet William, the Trapper Detective: Or, the Chief of the Crimson Clan. 1882.
#243: Cody, William F. The Pilgrim Sharp; or, The Soldier’s Sweetheart. A True Story of the Overland Trail. 1883.
#311: Wilton, Mark. Heavy Hand, the Relentless; or, The Marked Men of Paradise Gulch. 1884.
#368: Willett, Edward. The Canyon King; or, A Price on his Head. A Tale of the Wahsatch Range. 1885.
#463: Manning, William H. Gold Gauntlet, the Gulch Gladiator; or, Yank Yellowbird’s Hot Campaign. 1887.
#701: Holmes, Howard. Silver Steve, the Branded Sport; or, The Man-Mystery of Moonstone. 1892.
#758: Sims, A. K. The Wizard King Detective; or, The Sharper Duke in Utah. 1893.
Beadle’s Half Dime Library (Beadle & Adams)
#73: Wheeler, Edward L. Deadwood Dick on Deck; or, Calamity Jane, the Heroine of Whoop-Up. A Story of Dakota. 1878.
#205: Wheeler, Edward L. Deadwood Dick’s Doom; or, Calamity Jane’s Last Adventure. 1881.
#221: Wheeler, Edward L. The Miner Sport; or, Sugar-Coated Sam’s Claim. 1881.
#240: Wheeler, Edward L. Cyclone Kit, the Young Gladiator; or, The Locked Valley. A Strange Mountain Tale, of a Stranger Place and People. 1882.
#376: Monstery, Thomas Hoyer. California Joe’s First Trail. A Story of the Destroying Angels. 1884.
#387: Ingraham, Prentiss. War Path Will, the Traitor Guide; or, The Boy Phantom. 1884.
Beadle’s Weekly (Beadle & Adams)
#72: Wheeler, Edward L. Bullion Bret; or, The Giant Grip of Git-Thar. A Tale of Silverland. 1884.
#139: Aiken, Albert W. Iron Dagger; or, The High Horse in Silverland. A Tale of Strange Adventures in the Mogollon Country. 1885.
#261: Lewis, Leon. The Sons of Thunder; or, The Rivals of Ruby Valley. A Romance of Nevada. 1887.
#407: Ingraham, Prentiss. The Texan’s Double; or, The Merciless Shadower. A Revelation of the Mystery of the “Bravo in Black” in the Romance of “The Three Bills.” 1890.
#419: Ingraham, Prentiss. Gentleman Jack, the Man of Many Masks; or, Buffalo Bill’s Peerless Pard. 1890.
Beadle’s Boy’s Library (Beadle & Adams)
#1: Ingraham, Prentiss. Adventures of Buffalo Bill: From Boyhood to Manhood. 1881
Cap Collier Library (Munroe)
#285: Aiken, Albert W. Old Lynx, the Mormon Detective; or Saved from a Terrible Fate. 1888.
#426: James, W. I. Old Cap. Collier in Salt Lake City: Or, “Piping” the Mormon Conspirators. 1892.
The Boy’s Star Library (Frank Tousey)
#147: Fenton, Walter. Keen Kit; or, The Border Detective among the Mormons. 1890.
The Five Cent Wide Awake Library
#184: Pad, Peter. Chips and Chin Chin Among the Mormons. 1874.
Secret Service (Frank Tousey)
#239: Doughty, Francis Worcester. The Bradys Among the Mormons; or Secret Work in Salt Lake City. 1903.
#410: Doughty, Francis Worcester. The Bradys and Mr. Mormon; or Secret Work in Salt Lake City. 1906.
Tip Top Weekly (Street & Smith)
#62: Frank Merriwell Among the Mormons; or The Lost Tribe of Israel. 1897.
The Buffalo Bill Stories (Street & Smith)*
#38: Buffalo Bill and the Danite Kidnappers or, the Green River Massacre. 1 February 1902.
#215: Buffalo Bill’s Mormon Quarrel; or, At War with the Danites. 24 June 1905.
#364: Buffalo Bill’s Waif of the Plains; or, At Odds with the Danites. 2 May 1908.
#366: Buffalo Bill Among the Mormons; or, $5000 Reward, Alive or Dead. 16 May 1908.
*Authors are not listed in this series, but internal evidence, including large passages of recycled materials from earlier dime novels, strongly suggests that all four were written by Prentiss Ingraham.