The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Skeleton Crew; or Wildfire Ned (1866-1867)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The author of The Skeleton Crew; or Wildfire Ned is unknown. The Skeleton Crew is a surprisingly entertaining Depraved Dreadful.
Sometime in the seventeenth century, in the village of Darlington on the coast of England, Mr. Bertram, a wealthy farmer, is attacked by Philip Redgill. Bertram is a cruel man who threw his son Bob out of his house for loving the wrong woman. Redgill is the son of a lawyer Bertram owes a great deal of money to. Redgill succeeds in killing Bertram, but not before Bertram curses Redgill: “Murderer! My footsteps shall follow you wherever you go. When least you expect me I will appear to you!”1 Redgill takes the money which Bertram had and leaves, but when Redgill returns to dispose of the body he finds that the legs have been taken from the body. At that moment Redgill hears laughter outside of Bertram’s house and sees “the hideous forms of a dozen skeleton men, dancing and shouting in wild delight.”2 The men are the Skeleton Crew, a notorious band of murderers, and they terrify Redgill. Redgill hears someone descending the stairs of the house and hears Bertram’s voice cursing him. Redgill flees the house, and when he sees Bob Bertram, who he knows slightly, he persuades Bob to exchange clothes with him. Bob goes home and finds his father’s dead body. The village constables, who know about how Bob’s father treated him, arrest Bob on the charge of murder. As they do so, however, the bodiless legs of Bertram walk into the room.
At nearby Darlington Hall, the country home of the immensely wealthy Sir Richard Warbeck, one of Warbeck’s adopted sons, Ned is pining to go to sea and fight pirates. Ned, who is known as “Wildfire Ned...on account of his mad freaks,”3 talks with Sir Richard, who tells Ned that he should treat the Redgills more kindly. The Redgills are friends of Sir Richard, but Ned hates them, especially Philip Redgill. One of Sir Richard’s grooms tells Ned that the body in the Red Man’s Gibbet, a notorious landmark in the area, is alive and just spoke to him, telling him that Father Bertram was murdered. The groom ran from the gibbet and saw the Skeleton Crew dancing around gibbet. Ned does not believe this, but a one-legged sailor who was recently rescued from a ship wreck, Ralph Spray, verifies the story and tells Ned about the Crew. Spray fought against the legendary Skeleton Crew and lost his leg among them. The Crew are pirates, sailing on the Phantom Ship. When Spray went after the Crew while on a Navy ship, the Phantom Ship caught and sank them. Spray claims that the Crew are devils, that their ship changed its color from red to blue in mid-passage, and that the ship disappeared in the middle of a fogbank. The Phantom Ship attacked Spray’s ship while it was in a harbor; the Crew boarded Spray’s ship and killed its crew. Spray hid in the ship and survived the attack. He heard the crew talking among themselves; they claimed to lead charmed lives but knew that there was one boy, more charmed than they, who was destined to destroy them.
As Spray says this one of the Skeleton Crew pokes his head through the window of the room. Ned immediately draws a pistol and fires at him, but even at close range Ned misses. “With a loud laugh of derision and triumph the Skeleton waved his plumed hat and vanished.”4 The Crew invade Darlington Hall, hanging the servants and carrying off the women. The Crew are working with Philip Redgill and have come to Darlington Hall to slaughter everyone; the Crew are interested in plundering the Hall, but Redgill wants Ned dead because Alice, the daughter of Sir Richard’s sister, loves Ned rather than Philip. The Crew makes those servants they do not hang kill each other. Ned appears, leading fifty “bold English tars,” and a pitched battle follows. The Crew is being driven back when Ned attacks Death-Wing, the leader of the Skeleton Crew. Death-Wing defeats Ned and is about to kill him when “a man in armour, glittering from head to foot in polished steel, rose out of the stone flooring as if by magic.”5 The Skeleton Crew flees from the sight of the knight in armor, who walks around the room, encouraging the survivors, and then disappears. The Red Man from the gibbet appears, glowing with a will-o’-the-wisp light, and tells Ned that it is his fate to be the Red Man. Ned challenges the Red Man to a duel, which the Red Man accepts. He throws a glove on the floor, and inside it is “a SKELETON HAND!”6
Ned chases after the Red Man but loses him in the woods outside the Hall. Ned visits the gibbet and sees the Red Man inside it, but the Red Man taunts Ned and then vanishes from inside the gibbet. Philip Redgill visits Warbeck to offer his sympathies, and Philip and Ned are unpleasant to each other. Philip tells Sir Richard that Philip’s father has gotten Ned a naval commission. Ned is happy to accept the commission, but tells Philip that he is a murderer who will “one day grace a gibbet.”7 Back at the jail, seven thief-takers arrive to take Bob Bertram to London. The thief-takers are a crude, crooked lot, led by a giant man, Captain Jack. They are also highwaymen. While they are transporting Bob to London they encounter an aristocratic stranger who is rude to them and provokes a quarrel with them. The stranger defeats one of the thief-taker in a sword fight and cows the remaining men. He tells the seven that Bob did not commit the murder for which he is charged and that Ned Warbeck has just ordered Bob released. The stranger, who identifies himself as Colonel Blood, orders the thief-takers to return to London and hunt for the real murderer.
After the requisite number of plot twists Captain Jack is captured, Philip Redgill is killed, the Skeleton Crew is wiped out, and Colonel Blood is convicted of plotting against the Duke of Buckingham.
The Skeleton Crew is one of the most enjoyable of the 1860s Depraved Dreadfuls. There is no didactic intent in the novel and there are no long asides with moral or political messages. There is simply a long procession of adventure, spectacle, and supernatural incident. The Skeleton Crew is meant only to entertain, and largely succeeds at that. The dreadful has the usual complex, ever-complicating plot of the dreadfuls, but the author includes a number of unexpected twists; in one scene a character, to impress a band of smugglers, pretends to fight the Skeleton Crew on an abandoned ship, but when the smugglers rush on to the ship the Skeleton Crew emerges from below deck to attack them. Surprisingly, the author includes black and Jewish characters who are not stereotypes but are individuals and are positively portrayed. The pen and ink sketches which illustrate the dreadful are among the best of the medium, fluid, filled with action, and depicting the skeleton masks and costumes of the Skeleton Crew in a surprisingly creepy and effective way. The way in which the various main character appear and disappear at the convenience of the plot is distracting but is the only significant aspect of The Skeleton Crew which requires the modern reader to suspend disbelief.
The most notable aspect of The Skeleton Crew is its level of Gothic gore. The dreadful has severed, bloody legs walking independently of their body; paragraphs-long descriptions of the death throes of the victims of hangings; loving descriptions of maimed men; skeletons dancing around maypoles; rows of newly-hanged bodies dangling from tree limbs; living men being used as clappers inside of giant bells; and women kidnapped to be raped by Colonel Blood and then used to pander to the lusts of Blood’s master, the King. The Skeleton Crew has husbands beating their wives, illustrations of Skeleton Crew members being shot in the face by Ned, Jacko the ape tying a baby to the mast of a ship, stories of thieves roasting villagers alive if they won’t reveal the location of their money, ghosts walking the earth, and the sudden cessation of the spell keeping the Red Man on earth once Ned kills Philip Redgill and extinguishes the Redgill line.
The Skeleton Crew was the subject of scathing criticism on publication, mostly on moral grounds but occasionally to convince Edwin Brett, the publisher of The Skeleton Crew, that The Skeleton Crew Went Too Far, and that Brett should stick to publishing tamer material or else the authorities would step in and ruin penny publishing for everyone.8 Those fearful of the latter possibility were eventually proven correct, as the 1872 suppression of The Wild Boys of London by the Lord Chamberlain, John Robert Townshend, 1st Earl Sydney, demonstrated. The Skeleton Crew’s graphic illustrations–surprisingly so even by the standards of the penny dreadfuls of the 1860s–and graphically-described violence pushed the boundaries of legal and moral propriety during its publication, and “it was among the last of the NPC’s [Newsagents’ Publishing Company] bona-fide penny dreadfuls, as full-blooded yarns like The Skeleton Crew were discarded by Brett in favour of more tame fare.”9
Print: The Skeleton Crew, or Wildfire Ned. Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2015.
1 The Skeleton Crew, or Wildfire Ned (London: Newsagents’ Pub., 1867), 5.
2 The Skeleton Crew, 5.
3 The Skeleton Crew, 7.
4 The Skeleton Crew, 11.
5 The Skeleton Crew, 20.
6 The Skeleton Crew, 25.
7 The Skeleton Crew, 29.
8 Christopher Banham and Elizabeth Stearns, “Introduction,” in The Skeleton Crew, or Wildfire Ned (Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2015), 10.
9 Banham and Stearns, “Introduction,” 16.