To the fast and heartless, the 1913 natural disaster = $$$. Four authors of bestselling instant disaster books monetized misery to ring up millions in sales before the flood was even over. Ka-CHING!
Hardly a day or two after the Great Easter Tornado of 1913 had roared through Omaha, Nebraska, killing 109 and dismembering countless others, chartered excursion trains chugged into the city; disembarked tourists ambled through still-smoking ruins and spread picnic cloths on piles of bricks to dine al fresco amidst the weeping and the misery. The streets of Dayton, Ohio, were still deep in mud and chaos when adventurous gawkers began showing up—until the Ohio National Guard roughly drafted the able-bodied males into service clearing flood debris.
But no one could get away from the instant disaster books, which raked in millions from the wreckage of other people’s lives. Four authors (at least two hiding
|Five 1913 instant disaster books, all plagiarizing other people's prose, were published and selling while the flood crest was still roaring down the Mississippi River. [Credit: Trudy E. Bell]|
behind pseudonyms) and publishers—including one Bible publisher— swooped down like vultures to feed on the carcass of catastrophe. With what must surely have been blatant disregard of the protections of other authors under the 1891 copyright law, they turned out entire hardbound books of lightly rewritten newspaper accounts, topical editorial cartoons, poems, sermons, and maudlin prose. They raced their pickings to print with a speed that would be impressive even with today’s digital publishing. Not three weeks after the Great Easter mammoth storm system had laid waste to the Midwest and the flood crest was still roaring down the Mississippi, publishers were registering copyrights to so-called “Memorial Edition” instant books immortalizing the agony.
These books still turn up today in second-hand bookshops and are widely available online. Who wrote them? Who published them?
As the books have such similar titles—and the authors have such suspiciously similar names—the captions to each photo here are scorecards clearly introducing the players. Note the key fact that a title on the cover of a book may differ from that on the title page.
By 1913, mass-market disaster narratives—their speed made possible by the invention of the linotype around 1880—had evolved over several decades into a well-defined pattern, appearing most recently after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Sometimes called “dollar books” for their standard price (equivalent to about $25 today), many were sold by subscription: A publisher would print up a prospectus with example photographs and text, which door-to-door salesmen could show to potential buyers, take orders, and collect payments in advance. Some of these books put today’s bestsellers to shame for sheer popularity, allegedly selling upward of a million copies; even if you skeptically drop those claims an order of magnitude, the sales figures still impress. The books profiting from the 1913 natural disaster followed true to formula. Their title pages promised a “graphic and tragic” “authentic account” of “the appalling loss of life, the terrible suffering of the homeless,” complete with “panic-stricken multitudes and heart-rending scenes of agony,“ “vandals plundering bodies of the dead,” and “thrilling tales of heroic deeds” with “Narrow Escapes from the Jaws of Death.”
Whew. Sakes alive. Pardon me, my dear sales clerk, while I fan myself before reaching with trembling fingers for my purse.
For all the books’ popularity, their authors remain in the shadows. Nor do most of the books name a publisher. Yet the tiny copyright notices on the backs of title pages—when paired with records of copyright registrations and catalogues of publishers—reveal clues to untangling identifies (thank you, internet!).
I have acquired five 1913 instant disaster books, but evidence found online suggests that at least two came out in multiple editions. Let’s start with what appears to be the least rapacious and work up to the most vulturous.
Horrors of Tornado Flood and Fire was written by Frederick E. Drinker “The Well-Known Author,” who later wrote biographies of Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt. No publisher is indicated in the book itself, but the Catalogue of Copyright Entries lists the book as being published by National Publishing Co., a Philadelphia publisher owned by the indicated copyright holder George W. Bertron.
Our National Calamity of Fire, Flood and Tornado was written by Logan Marshall, whose six or eight other books ranged from Mother Goose nursery rhymes to the Panama Canal to (several years after the 1913 flood) the Great War. This book seems to have come out in two separate editions. The edition I have is copyrighted by L.T. Myers, about whom I can find nothing. The Catalogue of Copyright Entries indicates that it was published by George F. Lasher and John C. Winston Co., Philadelphia. About the former I can find nothing, but the latter acquired the International Bible Agency in 1892, thereby becoming a major publisher of Bibles.
One gem in the HathiTrust Digital Library is a prospectus for Marshall's book whose title page indicates it would be published by the International Bible House—and that for that edition, the preposition “Of” would be changed to “By” so the title would read Our National Calamity by Fire, Flood and Tornado. It was also claimed that an unspecified portion of the profits would be donated to the National Relief Fund (whatever that was). Although the prospectus chapters seem similar to the edition I have, the numbering indicates that three extra chapters may have been added here and there throughout the subscription edition, which also may have had more pages.
Tragic Story of America’s Greatest Disaster, published by the J. S. Ziegler Company, Chicago, was written under the nom de plume of Marshall Everett, “The Great Descriptive Writer.” The real author was Henry Neil (1863-1939), who is listed as the copyright holder. Neil was apparently a judge in Chicago who actively pushed to get a statewide law for widows’ pensions enacted in Illinois, supposedly the first state to do so. He also founded an organization called The Centenarian Club, Inc., which (according to its letterhead stationery) was “a nonprofit humanitarian association which scientifically teaches people how to live and enjoy health and happiness for more than one hundred years.” (Too bad the portly Judge Neil himself fell short by 23 years). He was friendly with the likes of George Bernard Shaw; he published self-described “weird” short stories and later the self-described “world’s greatest novel” All Things Are Possible under his own name; and he wrote demanding letters to the U.S. State Department about military policy decisions that got the Feds to start a file on him that was later declassified. As “Marshall Everett,” Neil wrote book after book on widows’ pensions, biographies of U.S. Presidents, and major disasters.
Now we get to the greatest shape-shifter of shameless disaster profiteers, Thomas Herbert Russell (1862–1947). Although he usually wrote
books as Thomas H. Russell, his name on some books appears as Thomas Herbert Russell, T. H. Russell or Thomas Herbert (using his middle name). He seems to acquire degrees as needed for the subject of the book: generally he put “M.A., LL.D.” after his name (never mentioning the institutions of higher learning that granted the initials), but sometimes it is “A.M.” or “LL.B.” Topics of his book range from advertising and salesmanship to biographies of U.S. Presidents, the history of the Great War, several books on automotive ignition, timing, and valve setting(!), automobile driving self-taught, and motorboats—for which he conveniently acquires an “M.E.” in mechanical engineering. Depending on the topic of the book, he variously claims to be a member of the National Geographic Society and of the American Historical Association, former editor of Modern Machinery, former editor-in-chief of Webster’s Universal Dictionary, and “noted historical and military writer.” He gives himself room for more claims by ending each mini-biography “etc., etc.”
In 1913, Russell generated at least five editions of a single book under different titles and authors. Hey, five seemingly different books, no additional work, five times the profit, especially from those book collectors who want one of each. Clever business model. (One wonders how many times he sold the same house.) I own two of these books, but found the other editions online—and suspect there may be others. Two of the books he “edited” with Fred S. Miller; one he “edited”—under Thomas Herbert—with J. Martin Miller (despite the similarities in the names of the coauthors, the two Millers may have been different people according to birth dates in WorldCat). The editions almost require a degree in library science to differentiate them. Russell seems
to have used two separate titles—America’s Greatest Flood and Tornado Calamity and Story of the Great Flood and Cyclone Disasters—in different permutations and combinations of covers and title pages to get at least three editions, one with the bogus “Herbert” pen name. And for additional profits, he threw in a totally different title—Swept By Mighty Waters, allegedly written—not edited—alone by Russell, his baldest claim to original authorship of other people’s prose. This version was translated into German as Rasende Fluten und Tobende Stürm, in which his pen name became one-L Russel. The contents of all four books in English: absolutely identical, right down to the pagination.
The mystery is their publisher(s). The copyright holder of three of them is Thomas H. Morrison, about whom I can find nothing. The Catalogue of Copyright Entries indicates that at least two were published by the Robert O. Law Co., about which I can find nothing. The English and German versions of Swept By Mighty Waters were both copyrighted by William H. Lee and published by Laird & Lee in Chicago, which was a well-known subscription book publisher. Now, I hope there was a happy legal understanding between Thomas H. Morrison and William H. Lee, because bear in mind that both were copyrighting the identical text—only the titles differed! Ditto for the publishers Robert O. Law Co. and Laird & Lee.
|Title on cover: Rasende
Fluten und Tobende Stürm|
Title on title page: [very similar]
Author(s): Thomas H. Russel [sic], A.M., LL.D., translated by Max Heyer
Publisher: Laird & Lee, Chicago
Copyrighted by: William H. Lee
The speed with which all the instant books were rushed into print is given by their copyright dates. Logan Marshall, Russell/Russel/Herbert, and Everett/Neil were racing each other to file on April 11 and 12—literally less than three weeks after the Easter tornadoes. Drinker brought up the rear on May 5. Even Russell’s German translator Max Heyer was cracking the whip to convert all the words by May 19. These are 300-page books! Drinker at least was trying to be a writer rather than a compiler, and Heyer had to have been a UN-class simultaneous translator. If the printers and binders worked as fast, people may have been paging through bound volumes before the 1913 floodwaters were exiting from the mouth of the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico around May 1.
Although the books are disjointed and self-contradictory, and they plagiarized almost verbatim newspaper stories written by others, they all recognized one great truth that somehow later faded from collective consciousness: the national scale of the disaster from Nebraska to New York and down the Mississippi. Marshall’s Our National Calamity—a title inspired by words of President Woodrow Wilson, and that inspired the name of this blog—pictured the eastern half of the U.S. on its front cover. The frontispiece of Russell’s Swept By Mighty Waters is a map of the nation showing the states
|Map at the front of Russell's Swept by Mighty Waters shows recognition of the 1913 natural disaster's national scale.|
afflicted. Although Everett’s Tragic Story of America’s Greatest Disaster also mentions the Mississippi Valley States on the cover, none of the books actually cover what happened in the south because they were rushed to print too soon.
Lasting legacy? For better or worse, the instant disaster books actually may have helped show the Red Cross how to use an emotional hook raise money: shortly thereafter, the Red Cross itself began using pulp narrative style of “delicious horrors” in its own magazines to set female hearts a-flutter and excite sympathy that translated into donations.
Important postscript: The author who wasn’t. Google has perpetuated (created?) a spurious attribution that one 1913 disaster book was written by Herbert Victor Prochnow (1897-1998). Prochnow was real (a well-known banker and toastmaster who wrote several books on public speaking), but was still only a boy of 15 in March-April 1913. No actual 1913 instant disaster book bears his name. (All over the internet, Google—and, alas, other websites whose creators must not have looked at the actual book—erroneously lists Prochnow as a coauthor of one Russell book whose title page reads America’s Greatest Flood and Tornado Calamity with the pseudonym Thomas Herbert. Why is a mystery, because nowhere does Prochnow’s name appear. One can only speculate that the error may have started as a cyber-glitch associating Prochnow’s first name Herbert with Russell’s pseudonymous last name Herbert.) Know thy authors!
©2013 Trudy E. Bell. For permission to reprint or use, contact Trudy E. Bell at email@example.com
Next time: March 1913–2013 Centennial Month! Commemorative Events Update
Supplementing the instant books themselves, these references provided highly useful background:
A gold mine about Henry Neil a/k/a Marshall Everett amassed by the Federal government appears at this Fold 3 portal, which will get you into the declassified dossier of Judge Henry Neil.
Library of Congress. Copyright Office. Catalogue of Copyright Entries. Part I. Books, Group 1. 1913. N.s. vol. 10. For the Year 1913. Nos. 1–156. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913. Absolutely key to verifying pseudonyms and revealing publishers and copyright filing dates.
The American Catalog 1908–1910. New York: Office of Publishers; Weekly. 1911. I was unable to find the volume for 1912–1913, but this earlier volume still answered some questions about publishers.
Rozario, Kevin, “’Delicious Horrors’: Mass Culture, the Red Cross, and the Appeal ofModern American Humanitarianism," American Quarterly 55 (3): 417–455, September 2003, builds a compelling case that the extraordinary rise of mass humanitarianism in the early twentieth-century was fueled by judicious use of sensationalism and pulp fiction techniques in print and other promotional media—that the display of the appalling was key to making the appeal.
White, Jay, “’God’s Ark’: Subscription Book Publishing and the Titanic,” Acadiensis 28 (2): Spring 1999. Although focused on the instant disaster books for the sinking of the Titanic, there is much history relevant to 1913, and the cast of characters is the same (including Marshall Everett. Fred S. Miller, Logan Marshall, Thomas H. Russell, plus the publishers).