“The Prairie Pirates”: Electric Steampunk in Texas — 1904

by Paula Bosse

What, you might ask, is going on here?

This is the cover art for Frank Reade Weekly Magazine, a magazine for boys “containing stories of adventures on land, sea and in the air.” And this one — “The Prairie Pirates; or, Frank Reade, Jr.’s Trip to Texas” — is a sort of science-fiction-y story which one might think of as “steampunk” except the inanimate star of this rousing tale is powered by electricity rather than steam.

The story — which I read a great deal of until I felt I had gotten what I needed from it (and I hasten to add that I enjoyed it…) — is, briefly, about a young inventor named Frank Reade, Jr. and his two companions (an Irishman and an African-American, grimacingly portrayed as racist stereotypes) who head down to Texas to battle the evil Hinkley gang, “200 of the toughest scoundrels in the Southwest” (200 is quite a gang!), in the area of the state known as the Llano Estacado.

The main reason young Reade seems to want to battle the bad guys is so he can test his latest invention: “The Detective,” a bullet-proof electric-powered vehicle which is a cross between a locomotive and a tank, able to travel at top speed (“like a meteor”) across all sorts of terrain, in a part of the world where “wild beasts and savage men” lurk atop every mesa and behind every tumbleweed. It is equipped with (among other marvels) a “swivel electric dynamite gun,” steel netting to repel bullets, hatchets, etc., and a powerful electric searchlight.

The fantastic cover art depicts an exciting scene in which The Detective is set upon by the Hinkley gang, weirdly and inexplicably dressed in black and wearing Batman-like masks (“all attired in black and look[ing] like demons”). The artistically rendered setting is certainly cool, but as far as real-life Llano Estacado topography goes, it’s pretty unrecognizable; the only thing more unlikely than this depiction of the Staked Plain is the fact that this well-dressed outlaw army is attacking an electric behemoth — which has an electric dynamite gun! — with lassoes. I don’t want to give too much away, but … lassoes are not to be sneezed at (keep this in mind if you find yourself in a similar situation).

The Detective is obviously not invincible — in fact it’s kind of weirdly vincible. Our heroes are constantly having to tinker with it or pull lariat-rope out of its spokes. There’s a whole quicksand thing, and then it almost falls off a mountain… and that’s just the first third of the story. It’s surprisingly violent but well-written and entertaining.

Even though this version was published in Frank Reade Weekly Magazine in 1904, it originally appeared in Frank Reade Library in 1897. “Prairie Pirates” was attributed to “Noname” but was actually written by the immensely prolific dime-novel writer Luis Senarens, who specialized in science fiction and was once called “the American Jules Verne.”

I’ve learned so many new things today, all because I stumbled across the Northern Illinois University digital collections site while looking for something so unrelated I can’t even remember what it was.

prairie-pirates_frank-reades-weekly-mag_1904_NIU

prairie-pirates_frank-reade_comicbookplus_1897

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Sources & Notes

Cover of the Aug. 26, 1904 issue of Frank Reade Weekly Magazine is from the Edward T. LeBlanc Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, Northern Illinois University; the entire issue has been scanned, and you can read the whole thrilling adventure here. I would be remiss if I did not direct you to the Nickels and Dimes homepage with links to the entire NIU collection, here — it’s fantastic.

The cover of the Jan. 22, 1897 issue of Frank Reade Library magazine is from the Comic Book Plus website, here. This site also has a huge number of scanned comic books (etc.) — the homepage is here.

Click covers to see larger images.

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Copyright © 2017 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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