I’ve had a lifelong love affair with bicycles. My current heartthrob is a retro Electra girl’s bike with coaster brakes and baskets on the back. The baskets are collapsible and it’s black instead of pink, but otherwise it’s very similar to the bike I had as a kid and teenager. You can probably tell from this description that I don’t use it for 20-mile cross-country treks, but just now, in early February, I’m dreaming of leisurely summer jaunts on the bike trail. As a kid, I loved the sense of mobility my bike gave me — a freedom of movement that today’s kids can’t even imagine. And when I lived in a small town as an adult, I could do many of my errands on my bike. Now that I live in suburbia, my options are more limited, but I still appreciate the altered perspective on my neighborhood offered by moving through it on two wheels instead of four.
So here I’m paying homage to Bicycle Bess, the Boulevard Detective, who made three appearances in the pages of Beadle’s Half Dime Library in the fall of 1896. Her creator, Jesse C. Cowdrick, was a prolific writer of dime novels for both Beadle’s and Street and Smith, and is perhaps best known for continuing the Deadwood Dick series after the death of Edward L. Wheeler, whom you may remember as the creator of New York Nell and Santa Fe Sal. Bicycle Bess is hardly the most prominent or flashiest girl detective to appear in this blog, but I like to think that her intelligence, professionalism, and mobility were inspirational.
Bessie Blake, a sometime partner of Scorcher Sam (presumably named for his speed on a bicycle), makes her brief debut as an undercover agent in Scorcher Sam the Detective on Wheels; or, The Sensation at Washington Heights. By the second Scorcher Sam adventure, she has been promoted into the subtitle: Scorcher Sam’s Sweep-Stakes; or, Bicycle Bess, the Boulevard Belle Detective. In the third novella, what today we would call a “spin-off” (no pun intended, honest), the roles are reversed: The Girl-Cyclist’s Winning Hand; or, Scorcher Sam’s Death-Hole Drop.
I’ve introduced Bessie as a “bicycle detective,” although that representation of her seems only to have occurred to Cowdrick after the first novella. Her main assignment as a police detective seems to involve riding her bicycle up and down the boulevard to attract mashers and then have them arrested. In the second novella, she appears on the scene when she passes Scorcher Sam on her bicycle: “It was a young woman, jauntily attired and mounted on a fine wheel, coming toward him” (Sweep-Stakes 7). When she passes him with a covert sign, the narrator tells us:
She it was, the dauntless little boulevard detective, Scorcher Sam’s ally. As she came nearer, she looked irresistably [sic] bewitching. (Sweep-Stakes 7)
Sam follows to observe her at her work. She’s stringing along a notorious boulevard masher, nicknamed “Don Quixote” or “Donkey,” who takes advantage of the opportunity she gives him to collide with her and then pretend to examine her bike for damage. When he moves in to steal a kiss, Bessie is ready for him: “she brought him a couple of stinging slaps with her gauntleted hands, first on one side of the face and then on the other” (Sweep-Stakes 8). She screams as a signal to Sam, who chases down the fleeing Donkey on his bike and arrests him, despite this acknowledgment: “Sam would have been willing to bet that Bessie herself could overtake and arrest him single-handed, had the occasion required” (Sweep-Stakes 8). Bessie vows to press charges “not on my own account, for I think I rather got the best of him, but on account of the many others he has assaulted” (Sweep-Stakes 8). In fact, the Bicycle Bess stories all focus on female victims.
Bessie’s dual nature is typical of portrayals of early girl detectives. We are often reminded of her beauty, and even more often reminded, usually by Sam himself, of her small stature. In the above scene, she “shook her dainty fists at the masher” (Sweep-Stakes 8) and Sam calls her “my little lieutenant” (Sweep-Stakes 8). In the third novella, Sam calls her “little one” (Girl-Cyclist 3) and “my brave little ally” (Girl-Cyclist 14), just as the narrator has called her “the dauntless little boulevard detective.” But like other girl detectives, Bessie has more than her dainty fists to use against bigger, stronger opponents. In Sweep-Stakes, she holds a masher at gunpoint. In Girl-Cyclist, she uses a gun, first against a bully, and then during a police raid, when she captures a second pistol and shoots the chief criminal. The sight of a beautiful young woman brandishing two pistols seems to be particularly alluring: “with flushed face and flashing eyes she made a pretty but terrible picture” (13) (one that I wish they had chosen to paint in the cover illustration, but more of that later).
Bessie’s intelligence is commented on from the start, when she’s introduced as “one of the cleverest female detectives in New York City” (Scorcher Sam 13). In the context, this appears to refer to her facility with disguise, and her undercover assignments seem to occupy her time when she’s not cruising the boulevard to attract mashers. In the first novella, Sam has used her as a spy in a household where he suspects criminal activity. In Girl-Cyclist, she takes the place of a young woman threatened with a forced marriage. When the criminals get the drop on Sam and her, she assumes the role of a weak woman:
Bess covered her face with her hands and her form shook as if with sobbing, and she did not act much like the girl who had so spunkily handled a revolver so short a time before. (12)
Yet we have already been reassured that “Bicycle Bess was clever, and was seldom at a loss” (10).
Like others in this sisterhood, she does manifest some traits considered to be feminine at the time. She is said to be “something of a tease” (Sweep-Stakes 9) and shows some pity for the masher she entraps in Sweep-Stakes. And in a curious footnote, she chides Sam for his use of slang at one point; slang is often presented as a problem in early detective fiction, perhaps because it’s considered a sign of class in a society that is anything but classless, and the Angels in the House were often entrusted with the purity of the English language.
But I’ll end where I began, with Bessie as “the queen of wheelwomen” (Sweep-Stakes 15). This reputation is confirmed when Bess identifies her partner to the intended woman victim in Girl-Cyclist, and the latter responds, “Then you must be Bicycle Bess” (6). This victim, also an accomplished wheelwoman, has apparently heard of the detective who patrols the boulevard to make it safer for women on bicycles. In fact, all three of these characters take their wheels with them when they travel on the train. So closely identified with her bicycle is Bess that Sam infers her movements from the presence or absence of her bicycle in her room at one point.
I regret, therefore, that I cannot show you a picture of Bessie with her wheel. The women who appear in the cover illustrations are all victims of crime. Sam, on the other hand, appears in all three illustrations, accompanied by his bicycle in two of them. And yes, Reader, she married him.
The novellas are available here: Scorcher Sam, the Detective on Wheels; Scorcher Sam’s Sweep-Stakes, The Girl-Cyclist’s Winning Hand.
Thanks to Beth McGowan of the Northern Illinois University Libraries for furnishing information on Jesse C. Cowdrick.