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THE SOCIAL ROLE OF THE OUTLAW OR DETECTIVE

"Here lies Deadwood Dick. Brave, Honorable and Kind in Peace: Cool, Daring and Fearless in War."
- From Deadwood Dick Jr., page 17

<em>Deadwood Dick's Dozen; or, The Fakir of Phantom Flats</em> (Beadle's Frontier Series no. 32)

A broody outcast clad in all black, Deadwood Dick surprised even the publishers by becoming the dime novel industry's most popular serialized hero. Beadle attempted to conceal news of creator Edward L. Wheeler's death in 1884 so he could continue releasing Deadwood Dick Jr. books under his name. 





Various trends in the second half of the 19th century - the closing of the frontier, rapid urbanization, immigration, growing social class divisions, and declining opportunities for advancement - left many young Americans feeling adrift in an increasingly competitive, institutionalized world. Small wonder that in dime fiction from the late 1870s onward, as scholar Bill Brown notes, “white greed replaced Indian savagery as the most familiar source of villainy.”1 It was in this climate that outlaw heroes and urban detectives rose to popularity. The first iconic outlaw hero, Deadwood Dick, appeared in 1877; and the first periodical focused on urban detective stories, Old Cap. Collier Library, was established by Norman Munro in 1883.2

Outlaws and detectives countered the new enemies of crime and personal injustice by exposing the truth to the general public. The outlaw hero was typically portrayed as the victim of some conniving villain, a wronged everyman seeking retribution that the law cannot provide him.3 The denouement of his revenge plot often involves a lengthy explanation both for the benefit of the readers and for the broader community within the story. This explanation justifies the hero's use of violence against his oppressor. Urban detectives were not as bloodthirsty and they operated within the justice system, but their quest for truth was similar in essentials. Both hero types worked on a case-by-case basis to resolve crimes while expressing popular sentiments like distrust of civil institutions, nostalgia for a simpler past, and concerns about urban decay and growing disparities of wealth.

1. Brown, Bill, ed. Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Westerns. Boston and New York: Bedford Books, 1997. Print. 34.
2. Cox, Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Westport, CN and London: Greenwood Press, 2000. Print. 180.
3. Jones, Daryl. The Dime Novel Western. Bowling Green: Bowling Green Popular Press, 1978. Print. 81.