Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 20: “King of the Dime Novelists”

Do you know who this is?
-He survived a hanging.
-He challenged seven sailors to a duel that was held on the same day.
- He once wrote a 610-page book in 62 hours.

He led a life as adventurous as the people that he wrote about in his stories. His life was one of contradictions – he had work published in literary journals and wrote lyric poetry, yet mad his money in sensational writing; he was a heavy drinker who gave temperance lectures; he was a moral reformer who exposed gamblers, yet would blackmail men he met while gambling to keep their names out of the newspaper.

He was born on March 20, 1823, in Stamford, New York, as Edward Zane Carroll Judson. He would become widely known under a pen name adopted for his stories: Ned Buntline. Levi Carroll Judson, Ned’s father, had been a writer on Revolutionary War themes and agricultural experiments. When the elder Judson moved to Philadelphia to study law, he required his young son to do the same. Ned would run away to sea as a cabin boy.

Ned was appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy by the time he was fifteen – and would fight a total of seven duels with other midshipmen who refused to eat meals with him because he had risen through the ranks. He had been appointed midshipman by President Martin Van Buren for ‘meritorious conduct’ in rescuing fellow seamen after a ferry hit the boat Ned and seventeen men were in. The men – Ned included – were being punished for arguing with an officer. They had been ordered to row across the East River to Staten Island to pick up some supplies. It was dark by the time they finished, and on the way back to their base they were hit by the ferry. The sailors were thrown from their boat, and it was Ned who kept his head, bringing the sailors to their capsized boat.

He would fight in the Second Seminole War as a midshipman serving on the Otsego, a revenue cutter assigned to the ‘mosquito fleet’ commanded by Lieutenant Commander J. T. McLaughlin. On board the Otsego, Ned would patrol the coast and inland waterways around Key Biscayne, Florida. It was during his tour in the Navy that Ned wrote his first story, titled The Captain’s Pig. He used a pen name to protect himself – a very wise decision as the story was not a complementary one for the Captain, who offered a $100 reward for the name of whoever had written the story. His pen name: Ned Buntline. He used the naval term buntline, which is the nautical term for the rope at the bottom of a square sail to keep it taut when furled.

He left the Navy in 1842 and went to the Yellowstone River region of the West as a fur trapper, working for two years for the Northwest Fur Company. He then took his experiences from the Navy and the mountains of the West to Cincinnati where, in 1844, and advertisement for Ned Buntline’s Magazine appeared in the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer. The magazine was a 32-page monthly magazine that contained serious article on the West, and would be short-lived, lasting for about six months.

Ned then started The Western Literary Journal - where he began including articles that he authored that were a combination of fact and fantasy; historical fiction touched with romance, exaggeration, and adventure. He would move to Nashville, rename the magazine the Southwestern Literary Journal, and close the magazine down a few months later. He again moved, this time back to Cincinnati, where he started a newspaper called Ned Buntline’s Own, which also would soon fail.

In 1846, Ned would have another life-challenging adventure. After killing a man in a duel, a mob broke Ned out of jail and hanged him. Fortunately for Ned, the rope broke, and he fell to the ground – to be taken back to jail by the Sheriff. He was later acquitted in a trial.

He became involved as a writer for the Eastern newspapers in the 1850s, riding a crest of social reform movements. He wrote in support of reform, and also worked on perfecting his style of adventure stories. During this time he also became involved in the American Nativist Movement, blaming immigrants for the problems of the country, and was a supporter of the Know Nothing Party.

In 1848 he was living in New York, and returned to sensationalist journalism and resurrected Ned Buntline’s Own – which lasted 36-weeks and attacked gambling, prostitution, drinking – and the other New York newspapers. The following year he was accused of starting the Astor Place Riot, which was a nativist reaction to William Charles Macready, a British actor who had displaced American actor Edwin Forrest as Macbeth. The riot resulted in 25 dead and over a hundred injured. Ned was found guilty of instigating a riot and sentenced to a year in prison.

Ned would try several other publications – all of which failed. However, he was working at the same time on perfecting the style of writing that created the genre called Dime Novels, which were low-price action thrillers. His first successful story was a serialized novel that appeared in the New York Mercury titled Stella Delorme – The Comanche’s Dream.

His articles kept appearing in the Mercury until he joined the First New York Mounted Rifles in 1862, where he soon became a sergeant and was made the regimental scout. He was in and out of trouble while in the military, but received an honorable discharge in 1864. He had a picture taken of him in a colonel’s uniform, and began spreading the word that he had served as a Colonel – chief of scouts.

While in the military, Ned had observed the wide-spread use of dime novels by the troops and public. He decided that to become successful, he had to write ‘trash’.

“I found that to make a living I must write trash for the masses, for he who endeavors to write for the critical few, and do his genius justice, will go hungry if he has no other means of support.”
In 1869, Ned went west to Omaha to find out more about the Indian wars that were being fought on the western frontier, with the intend of writing adventure thrillers about the Indian wars. But – he needed a white-American hero. In Omaha Ned met frontier scout William F. Cody, gave him the name “Buffalo Bill”, and began writing – using Cody’s frontier experiences combined with his own imagination to create a potent storyline for story after story – ultimately producing Buffalo Bill: King of the Border Men. More stories would follow, eventually making Ned the premier dime novelist of the era – and a wealthy man. He would also write a play starting Buffalo Bill – and Ned Buntline.

He continued writing dime novels, creating characters and situations – most of which were set in the West. His stories created a vision of larger than life characters taming a larger than life land that was later used in movies, which – in turn – continued and enlarged the mythology of the western heroes.
He settled into his home in Stamford, New York, where he died of congestive heart failure on July 16, 1886, at the age of 63. Although he was once the wealthiest author in America, his wife had to sell his beloved home "The Eagle's Nest" to pay the bills.
There are no books on Ned Buntline in our local libraries.


Catskill Mountain Foundation
Dime Novels
Ned Buntline Biography
01. Portrait of Ned Buntline: Wikipedia
02. Broadside advertising Ned Buntline's Own: Library of Congress
03. Buckskin Sam Cover: the Forum
04. Dashing Charlie Cover: The Forum


  1. Your blog is outstanding! Here is the url of the blog from the Archives of the Sandusky Library, if you would like to take a look:

  2. Thank you for your comments. I did take a look at your blog - excellent. I wish more of our libraries would be as dedicated...
    I wonder what librarians of the 19th century thought of Ned!