Frank Reade, inventor extraordinaire, was one of the original "steampunk" characters. Published as a response to the popularity of Edward Ellis's popular dime novel The Steam Men of the Prairies (1860). Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, or, The Terror of the West, written under the pseudonym "Noname" ("Harry Enton, " real name Harold Cohen). was first serialized in the boy's magazine Boys of New York from February 28 through April 24, 1876. Reade went through many adventures, from building a stream man to building a steam horse to building a "steam team." The exploitss of the Reade and, later, of his son, Frank Reade, Jr., (who continued the family tradition of invention and adventure), lead to the publication of The Frank Reade Library, a weekly publication of dime novel adventures (a misnomer -- it actually cost only a nickel) from September 24, 1892 to August 8, 1898 and its follow-up magazine Frank Reade Weekly Magazine, from October 31, 1902 to August 26, 1904. Each issue of The Frank Reade Library contained a full "novel" of new and reprinted adventures -- most of which were written by Luis Senerans, who at sixteen, had already published a number of pieces for Frank Reade's publisher, Frank Tousey. (Senerans was hesitant to meet with Tousey, fearful that the publisher would realize his real age and deny him the series.)
Frank Reade, Sr., appeared in only five adventures -- four of which were eventually reprinted in The Frank Reade Library. The vast majority of the adventures -- 179 of 184 stories -- featured Frank Reade, Jr. Frank, Sr., began as a 16-year-old genius who suddenly became a middle-aged retiree in Senerans' first story (it gets confusing because in the book we discuss below, Frank Reade is in his late twenties), Frank Reade Jr. and His Steam Wonder (1876); as you can tell the mantle was taken over by the next generation. Later, in 1899, Frank, Jr., is overtaken by his son, Young Frank Reade, when Frank, Jr., is old and retired; Young Frank, assisted by his spunky sister Kate, builds a wonder airship.
Taken as a whole, the Reade family adventures are important more for their proto-science fiction
roots than for their literary qualities, which range from exciting to execrable. The adventures are fantastic and unusually inventive (ha-ha, but there is no better word) and take place on land, sea, and air. But they are rife with racism, sadism, exploitive capitalism, and white supremacy. In the first issue of the Library, Frank kills 250 Native Americans and destroys a village. In another episode, he finds a lost race of "original Hebrews," who are blond, peaceful, and perfect Christians, while later Hebrews are dark, course featured, and enemies of Christ. In another adventure, Frank joyfully kills dozens of Mexicans ("greasers"), who are cowardly, vain, and stupid. There are worse and more disgusting examples in the series. As pulp historian Jesse Nevins wrote, "The Reade stories can be fun to read, but you'll need to take a shower afterwards."
Confused? Yeah, sure. Is the Reade Family Saga worth your time, assuming you can hold back your gag reflex? Well, maybe.
The entire run of The Frank Reade Library was published in a ten-volume set by Garland Publishing (1979-1986). There were at least two adventures of Frank Reade, Jr., and one of Frank Reade, Sr., that were not published in The Frank Reade Library, the latter being Frank Reade, The Inventor, Chasing the James Gang With His Steam Team. Interestingly, this was the one adventure that was not signed "Noname." It was printed?/reprinted? in The New York Detective Library, November 15, 1890 -- the actual publishing history and author remain mysteries to me.
Before I get to the story in question, a few words about Luis Seranans. An early story of his led to a letter of praise from Jules Verne, something totally exhilarating for the 17-year-old. Verne later lifted many of Senaren's ideas for such books as The Steam House, Robur the Conqueror, and Master of the Clouds. For his part, Senerans lifted some ideas from Robur the Conqueror for one of his books. Senerans went on to write some 1500 dime novels under 27 pseudonyms for Frank Tousey, including most of the Jack Wright stories. (Wright, probably the second most important character published by Tousey, was a Frank Reade, Jr., clone, down to the amazing inventions and the blatant racism.)
The James gang, led by Jesse and Frank James, was a cash cow for New York Detective Library, having been the subjects of at twenty novels before their run-in with Frank Reade. Most were written by ""D. W. Stevens" (John R. Musick) for Tousey's James Boys Weekly, 191 issues, from December 28, 1900 to August 21, 1903. Three were written by "A New York Detective" (Francis Worcester Doughty) and had the James Boys up against famed dime novel detective Old King Brady.
In Frank Reade, The Inventor, Chasing the James Boys With His Steam Team, two hunters wandering through woods in western Missouri get lost. They know they are near to Spectre Bend, where a small village had been destroyed ten years before and is now rumored to be haunted. Spectre Bend is the one place the two do not want to visit, but one of the hunters stubbed his toe on something hidden under a pile of leaves. It is a small, rusted box that evidently had lain there for years. They scout the lid of the box to find the name Frank Reade written on it. Knowing Reade to be a famous inventor and probably very rich, they imagine the box contains great wealth. Overtaken by their greed, the two head to Spectre Bend to find the tools to open the box. There were no riches in the box but there was a diary containing "a full account of chasing the James boys with his Steam Team."
The framing device over, we turn to the diary.
One evening Frank was relaxing in the library of his New York home when there was a knock on the door. Often this meant some uninvited curious person wanting to view some of his inventions. This time it was a gentleman who introduced himself as Nathan Bristoe of Chicago, a representative of three mid-west railroads. All three railroad lines have been plagued by attacks from the James gang, "a more desperate gang of ruffians have never lived." The railroads have sent many detectives and lawmen to curb the gang but all have failed, some losing their lives. Frank and Jesse James often outrun their opponents by riding two of the fastest most powerful horses in the west, Jim Malone and Siroc, respectively. The only thing that might be able to catch those mighty steeds is Frank Reade's Steam Team. Bristoe wants to hire Frank to use his Steam Team to break up the gang and, if possible, capture or eliminate the two brothers.
A bit of explanation here. After inventing the steam man and the steam horse, Frank went on to invent the Steam Team, which consisted of two steam horses attached to a large bulletproof wagon. The team is steered by a driver with reins. The only person able to drive the Steam Team safely is your friendly neighborhood inventor. Powered by steam, it can outrun any horse and maneuver over all sorts of terrain. Frank Reade has no doubts his Steam Team can outrun any horse that the James gang has.
A deal is reached. Frank will go after the James gang for one thousand dollars a month, plus Bristoe will pay an equal amount to hire two detective-assistants of Frank's choosing, as well as all expenses. (Frank Reade may be a genius inventor, but he is also a businessman who can drive a hard bargain.) The two assistant Frank chooses are policemen Brass and Buttons, both of whom Frank has worked with before. Both are brave and fearless. As with everyone in this tale, their characters are delineated with simple broad strokes: Brass, addicted to action, is always eager for a fight; Buttons is a quieter man but just as useful in a fight; he likes to joke around, making "puns." (Please note that the puns are atrocious, often make no sense, and their is nothing pun-ish about them -- the author's idea of a pun does not match mine, to say the least.)
Our trio and the Steam Team head out west, frightening many people with the Steam Team along the way, most fainting as they utter the words "Ol' Nick" as they do so. Stereotypical persons of a certain skin tone are more apt to do this, although white folks are also affected.
In the distance, our heroes spot heavy smoke that could only come from a number of buildings being burnt. It wasn't just a number of buildings -- it was an entire town. Bodies were littered everywhere. They came across one survivor who told them that the town had managed to capture Jesse James and lock him up. Jesse, being Jesse, soon escaped. Angry at the town for having the audacity to capture him, Jesse (being Jesse) returned with a gang of twenty cold-blooded killers and destroyed the town. The survivor, a young man named Jack Cravens pointed to two bodies lying in the distance, his father and brother. Finding out that Frank and his Steam Team are hunting Jesse, Cravens asked to come along so that he can avenge his family. Sounds like a great idea.
Soon they come across the gang and Cravens feels a little better when he shoots and kills one of them using a special rifle that Frank has invented (it can shhot accurately a small target some two miles away). The rest of the gang get away. This little sortie angers Jesse and he goes after Frank and the boys.
Brass, Buttons, and cravens are hindered because Frank orders them not to shoot at Frank or Jesse James. Frank Reade wants to capture their powerful horses for his own, which means they cannot use some of the powerful weapons on the Steam Train that Frank has invented. Jesse attacks while Frank maneuvers his steam team to avoid many of the gunshots. The wagon has impervious sides some two and a half feet tall, protecting Brass and Buttons. (Frank has to be a bit more exposed because he is controlling the reins, but even that he can do through an ingenious hole in the front wall.) Craven gets cocky and stands up while firing the special rifle. He is riddled with bullets and falls off the Steam Train, taking the rifle with him. A plan for the James gang to reach the top of a mesa and shoot down at Frank and his men fails. The gang, except for Jesse, is outrun by the Steam Train, but Jesse, riding Siroc is able to come side by side with Frank and the Steam Train. Their conversation goes a little like this -- Frank: :Give it up, Jesse!" Jesse: "Never!" Repeat several times until even the mighty Siroc cannot keep up with Frank Reade.
Frank eventually swings back to Cravens's body. They cannot find the special rifle. The James gang must have taken it. No matter; it was out of the special ammunition it needed. They bury Craven and head off to find a place to shelter for the night.
(I probably should mention Professor Drydust. He's a ragged old man on a mule who was being chased by some of the James Gang. He is knocked off his mule and the animal runs away. the bad guys approach and are about to shoot the old man when team Steam Team drive them off. The Professor
is an odd duck with one overriding obsession his journal. He insists on stopping everything in order to write something in his journal. Since he couldn't abandon him alone in the wilds, Frank takes Drydust with him.)
They reach at a nearby farm. Even though most there are frightened ("It's Ol' Nick comin' fer us!"), the farmer himself is interested in the machine and invites Frank. A neighboring farmer rides up and tells the farmer that the James gang are near and will probably attack the town. This time the gang numbers about forty men. (It's said that Jesse could raise a hundred men if he wanted to.) All the farmers and men in the area are gathering guns to defend the town, knowing how Jesse had leveled the earlier town. Frank volunteers his crew and the Steam Team for the upcoming battle. This time, safety of the two horses, Jim Malone and Siroc, be damned! It's time to use the cannons on the Stream Team!
And we're off! Battles and fights, gunplay and strange weapons. dangerous encounters and narrow escapes, bodies falling...it's all standard juvenile pulp storytelling with carboard actors, each with one trait to define their character, and a gosh-wow, gee-whiz attitude to technology and marvelous inventions.
There's a long line that came be traced from Frank Reade to Tom Swift, from Tom Swift to the tales of super-science in the old science fiction pulps, to the popular technothrillers of today. This all started with Ellis's "Edisonade" in 1860, with the torch then being carried by Frank Reade and Frank Reade, Jr., beginning in 1976.
Not for everyone, but if you can manage to hold your nose while reading of the Reade family, you might be entertined.