Detective stories and Westerns were two of the most popular genres appearing in 19th-century dime novels and story papers, so it’s not surprising that they were frequently combined to enhance appeal. E.L. or Edward Wheeler was a prolific writer of dime novels who contributed several entries into the history of the girl detective, as you may remember from New York Nell, the first character whose exploits were reported in this blog. But whereas New York Nell is a good example of the urban detective, Santa Fe Sal is a Western figure.
The story is set in the Buckshot mining camp in Arizona. It opens in a barroom where a local tough proposes to bully a blind, elderly organ grinder into rolling dice for his organ, which is his sole means of livelihood. In the fashion of all Western heroes, Santa Fe Sal bursts onto the scene to see justice done:
“I’ll see that you ain’t cheated, old man!” cried a ringing voice — a voice that was so strange to the crowd that they wheeled about, simultaneously.
They beheld, standing near at hand, a girl of beauteous face and figure — a girl with midnight eyes and flowing dark-brown hair — a girl attired in [a] stylish, elegant-fitting gray suit of male attire, including patent-leather shoes, and a jaunty white slouch sombrero. She stood there smiling, while she twirled a light cane in her white hand. (2)
The strangeness of this apparition no doubt constituted a large part of its appeal to the reader.
Like New York Nell, Santa Fe Sal appears cross-dressed, the cane a superfluous ornament quickly abandoned by the narrator as an unworthy weapon. Later the villain will try to stir the crowd against her by referencing her male attire:
“She is evidently a desperate character; the very fact that she sports around in men’s clothing is against her, and casts a reproach on the fair reputation of your wives and daughters. I say the woman ought to be strung up without mercy!”
When another woman tries to shame Sal for her clothing, the detective nonchalantly cites economic practicality as her motive: “I’m bobbin’ around all over, and the petticoats I’d have to buy, through gittin’ ‘em tore, would bankrupt me.” Like other girl detectives, and detectives in general, Sal is also a master of disguise and enters one scene as Howlin’ Hank from Hardpan, whose true identity is exposed when an irate gambler makes to cut off Hank’s whiskers, only to have them come off in his hand. Disguise serves deception, another trait that was considered decidedly unladylike.
Like many early girl detectives, Sal invades forbidden space, the all-male space of the saloon; in contrast, the more conventional heroine of the story, the saloonkeeper’s daughter, says that she has tried to talk her father out of “that low business” and declares, “I never enter the saloon” (5). Although we hear of wives and daughters in the camp, its public spaces are dominated by men.
Sal violates feminine norms in other ways, as well. She is a practitioner of that Western art that so captivated Mark Twain: the art of the boast. Here’s her introduction:
“Who am I?” was the pert reply. “Well, if you want to know, I’m an angel without wings — a regular la-lah, you bet! I hail from Texas-way, an’ down there I’m known as Santa Fe Sal, the Slasher. Are you happy to meet me?”
After praising her own marksmanship with a gun, she introduces herself again:
“Down whar I cum from they call me Santa Fe Sal, the Slasher, ‘cause when I git inter a soiree, an’ hev a six-inch bowie, I kin carve the hull crowd, in no time!”
These are remarkable statements for a woman on many counts. They violate feminine ideals of modesty, certainly. They demonstrate an enjoyment of fame and a comfort with publicity that was supposed to be anathema to the Angel in the House, the 19th-century feminine ideal that Sal may be referencing here. And if they paint her as a woman of action, they also evince Sal’s fluency in slang, language that carried a heavy weight of social disapproval when used by men, much less by women. Indeed, she has the nerve to chastise the villain for his own language, which includes the words “thunderation” and “the deuce”: “You’r’ a reg’lar old hoss on expletives, ain’t ye? (5).”
In spite of her sobriquet, Sal’s first weapons are a pair of revolvers, as depicted in the cover illustration. On the second full page of the story, she kills a man, one of a threatening mob, who disregards her warning to stay back. Nor does she show any remorse, saying, “That man earned his fate! . . . And if any of the rest of you want a funeral just notify me” (3). When she is later called a “murderess,” she objects: “I put a pill in that feller’s cabeza, ‘ca’se I’d told him if he come for me he was a dead man. He came, and you bet he went, quicker’n he came” (5). But eventually Sal feels forced to draw her knife and justify her moniker, addressing an angry mob:
“Ef you’re bound to crowd on me, all I ask is that you leave yer shootin’-irons alone, and draw yer carvin’ tools, an’ meet me more on terms of equality. I’d ruther not have any scrimmage with you at all, fer some one’s bound to get dissected, but ef yer bound ter all pit yerselves ag’in’ one lone girl, you’ll be pretty apt to find Santa Fe Sal right to home, and the latch-string out!”
This speech so shames her would-be attackers that they back off and we never get to see a demonstration of Sal’s carving skills.
SPOILER ALERT. It may not surprise you to learn that Wheeler’s imagination only extends so far in the matter of gender-bending. Sal’s male client tells her at one point:
“This is no life for one to lead who is so beautiful and accomplished as yourself. If I live, we will take little Bertie and go to my home in the East, where your sole business will be to act as his governess.”
The modern reader may well wonder if little Bertie is quite prepared to learn shooting and knife fighting at the hands of his new governess, not to mention why the speaker believes that this vision of domestic life would appeal to Sal the Slasher. Our skepticism is further aroused when the narrator observes:
He spoke earnestly and kindly, but not passionately, yearningly, as a lover might have spoken.
So imagine our surprise when Sal blushes and considers the proposal in language devoid of slang:
“I wonder if I ought to take advantage of it, and give up this wild, roving existence? He is a true gentleman, and offers me a home, and — and maybe —”
The color came faster into her cheeks, and her eyes glowed bright as the stars that twinkled in the blue dome above. (12)
Yes, reader, she marries him, in a single sentence that strips her of her colorful sobriquet: “And Santa Fe Sal (otherwise Sara Wilmot) came with him, and became his wife” (15). This event marks the end of “the detective firm of Santa Fe Sal & Green” (15). A disappointment, surely, but perhaps we ought to acknowledge that a writer as prolific as Wheeler knew his audience and presumed that they wanted the ending that readers are said to have wanted from many generations of storytellers: a wedding.
Santa Fe Sal is not available in full text online.