The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Old Cap. Collier Mysteries (1883-1898)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Old Cap. Collier Mysteries were created by William I. James, Jr. and began with “Old Cap. Collier, Chief of Detectives; or, 'Piping' the New Haven Mystery” (Old Cap. Collier Library no. 1, Apr. 9, 1883). James (?-?) wrote for several dime novel publishers, but nothing is known of his personal life.

Old Cap. Collier was one of the earliest recurring dime novel detective characters. He appeared in thirty-four stories in Old Cap. Collier Library before being relegated to the narrator of each issue, a role he held for the remaining 821 issues of Old Cap. Collier Library, through 1899. Although was never the hero of those issues–forgettable characters like “Lightning Grip,” “Pink West, the Baltimore Detective,” and “the Parisian Detective in New York” were–by virtue of his name on the magazine he became equated in the public’s mind with dime novel detectives.

Old Cap. Collier is a detective, based in New York City but operating around the eastern seaboard and even in the Caribbean. He is actually a young man, but he finds it advantageous to dress up as an elderly detective as a way to lull witnesses and criminals. His reputation is a good one, and he is seen as “the most successful of detectives.”1 Collier is a master of disguise, capable of looking like anyone, from a “fat Dutchman” to an organ grinder. Although intelligent, he is not brilliant, and his investigative tactics can be relatively crude. But the crimes he is called on to investigate do not require brilliance. Often they only require violence, and at that Collier is a genius. He is courageous and extraordinarily strong, capable of holding a burly thug over his head with one hand and of throwing men thirty feet with ease. He is a whirlwind of fists in a fight, happy to take on crowds of men by himself. He is more human than many of the other early dime novel detectives; he not only smokes and drinks, he gambles.

James’ intention in writing the first Old Cap. Collier story is disputed. The story is written in a melodramatic style, and some critics see that as evidence that James intended Collier to be a comic or burlesque detective.2 This is doubtful; the melodramatic style can be seen in a number of other contemporary dime novel stories, all of which were clearly meant to be taken seriously. Too, comic detectives were not nearly as popular in 1883 as more seriously-intended detectives, and it would have made little financial sense for Norman Munro, the publisher of Old Cap. Collier Library, to publish a burlesque detective series, not when the competition’s detectives were serious in intent and manner.

The early issues of Old Cap. Collier in which Old Cap. Collier appeared were not particularly popular with readers, and the writers of the later Old Cap. Collier stories—rarely was a character’s creator retained to write all of that character’s stories, as was the case with Edward L. Wheeler and the Deadwood Dick Adventures; more customary was the character’s creator moving on and other writers taking charge of the character, as happened with John R. Coryell and the Nick Carter Mysteries—responded by making the stories more imaginative, emphasizing Collier’s superhuman strength and endurance, and making Collier into a more standard dime novel detective: “in later stories…he displays startlingly modern methods of detection based on observation and judgment.” But the appeal of the Nick Carter stories was far greater than the appeal of the newer Old King Brady (see: The Old King Brady Mysteries) stories, and in 1898 Old Cap. Collier was forced into the role of narrator rather than protagonist in his own magazine.

Recommended Edition

Print: Gary Hoppenstand, ed. The Dime Novel Detective. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1982.

For Further Research

Edmund Pearson, Dime Novels; or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature. Boston: Little, Brown, 1929.


[1] Edmund Pearson, Dime Novels; or, Following an Old Trail in Popular Literature (Boston: Little, Brown, 1929), 151.

[2] Ross Craufurd, “Old Cap. Collier: A Dossier,” Dime Novel Round-Up (June, 1982): 4-5.


[3] Cox, Dime Novel Companion, 198.