The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"Heller's Pupil; or, The Second-Sight Detective" (1883)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Heller's Pupil; or, The Second-Sight Detective” was written by “W.I. James” and first appeared in Old Cap. Collier Library no. 4 (May 7, 1883). Nothing is known about “W.I. James,” and the name may be a pseudonym; alternatively, he may have been William I. James, Jr. the writer of the Old Cap. Collier Mysteries.
While Seligman, the protagonist of “Heller’s Pupil,” is fictional, Heller is not. Robert Heller (1830-1878) was a famous British-born stage magician who popularized conjuring in the United States. He was famous for his “second-sight,” or mind-reading tricks.
Seligman is the pupil of Robert Heller, who in “Heller’s Pupil” actually possesses the ability to read minds. Heller passed on something of this ability to Seligman: “He taught me how to discover what no mortal eyes except his and mine can see.”1 Seligman not only has the ability of “second-sight,” he can psychically summon up an image of a crime being committed. Seligman uses his abilities to find out who committed a crime, and then he uses his skills as a detective to gather the evidence to convict the criminal.
“Heller’s Pupil” passed without notice and did not earn a sequel, and Seligman stands as just one of hundreds of dime novel detectives published in the 1880s and 1890s whose sole distinction was that the story’s detective protagonist had a unique ethnic background or unique shtick, ala “Sam Sly and His Dog Detective,” “The Dandy Detective,” and “Old Stealthy, the Government Detective.” Yet “Heller’s Pupil,” crudely-written though it is, has two interesting aspects.
First, Seligman is a part of the great movement in American popular literature toward transforming and mainstreaming the idea of a man or woman with superhuman abilities. The first recurring, serialized dime novel detective was Old Sleuth (see: The Old Sleuth Mysteries), first appearing in 1872 and possessed of superhuman strength. The second recurring, serialized dime novel detective was Old Cap. Collier, who like Old Sleuth had superhuman strength and who debuted three weeks before Seligman, on Apr. 9, 1883. When Seligman appeared, the idea that a superhuman was not an outsider, neither “monsters, villains, or adherents of unusual faiths like Rosicrucianism and Theosophy,”2 was a strange one. The great majority of the superhumans of the nineteenth century had been one of those. It wasn’t until Old Sleuth that the mainstreaming of the superhuman began, and Seligman was a part of that.
Secondly, Seligman is an early example of the tendency in late nineteenth and early twentieth century American detective fiction to give a detective superhuman abilities. The dime novel detectives of those decades, starting as mentioned with Old Sleuth, often had superhuman strength and endurance. But in the twentieth century other, more unusual abilities—like Seligman’s mind-reading and psychic clairvoyance—appeared. Samuel M. Gardenhire’s Le Droit Conners (1905-1906) is a “supersensitive” who has a psychic intuition about crimes and criminals that is never wrong; he gained this ability from “his Native American mother, who gave birth to him while being partially eaten alive by wolves.”3 Thomas Hanshew’s Hamilton Cleek (1910-1932) had the ability to “rearrange the features of his face, somehow making the bone and cartilage go as flexible as putty”4 thanks to his mother having played with a rubber-faced toy while pregnant. Ernest Bramah’s blind detective Max Carrados (1913-1934) has his other senses heightened to a superhuman level of acuteness. This trend only began to wane in the 1920s, with the advent of the hard-boiled detective, when the taste of the reading audience changed in preference of more realistic crimes, criminals, and detectives.
Thirdly, the casual use of Robert Heller in the role of Seligman’s mentor is representative of a tendency in the nineteenth century toward casually incorporating public figures into popular literature. Such an incorporation does occasionally take place in twenty-first century popular literature, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when considerations of the appropriate use of a famous person’s image and persona had not been given sufficient thought, incorporations like Heller’s in “Heller’s Pupil” were far more common. So Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla appear in Edison’s Conquest of Mars, and New York Police Inspector Thomas Byrnes (1842-1910) stars in The Thomas Byrnes Mysteries, and anti-Mafia crusader Joseph Petrosino (1860-1909) and internationally-famous strongman Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) appear in The Nick Carter Mysteries. These men and women were nationally- and in some cases internationally-known celebrities, their fame driven by the mass media of the day, newspapers and magazines, and their use in detective and adventure fiction functioned in much the same way that a Very Special Guest Actor or Actress does in a modern television show: their fame created an additional selling point for the text as well as lent it a modicum of the man or woman’s power as a celebrity.
Lastly, to contemporary audiences Seligman’s name would have been instantly identifiable as Jewish. The tradition of Jewish detectives is an old one in Jewish literature, dating back to the second century C.E. and tractate Bava Metzia 83b, in which Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Simeon becomes a thief-catcher for the Roman king.5 But in modern detective fiction Jewish detectives were missing for decades after the creation of the detective character. Seligman is arguably the first fictional Jewish detective in modern mystery fiction. In real life Seligman was preceded by the Jews working for the Pinkerton Agency in the 1870s and early 1880s.
“Heller’s Pupil” is of more interest for what it represents than what it contains.
Print: W.I. James, “Heller's Pupil; or, The Second-Sight Detective,” Old Cap. Collier Library 4 (May 7, 1883).
1 W.I. James, “Heller’s Pupil; or, The Second-Sight Detective,” Old Cap. Collier Library 4 (May 7, 1883), 2.
2 Nevins, Evolution of the Costumed Avenger, 136.
3 Jess Nevins, The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (Seattle: Amazon Createspace, 2017), 561.
4 Nevins, Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes, 504.
5 Laurence Roth, Inspecting Jews: American Jewish Detective Stories (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 8.