Associate Teaching Professor, West Virginia University

The Society of Assassination (1904) Spotlight

About the Novel

In The Society of Assassination; Or, The Detective’s Double Disguise, detective Nick Carter infiltrates an extortion ring known as the Society of the Swords, “a sworn brotherhood … [of] descendents of … Latin families” (page 9). Carter’s case revolves around a wealthy Italian banker, Luigi Bonito, and a crazed murderer, Antonio de la Vuelta, who is a member of the Society. While Carter often wears disguises to crack his cases, in this novel he enacts not one, but two stereotypical portrayals that can be described as Italian minstrelsy, a performativity that foregrounds an attraction to Italian criminality and the Italian body.

Front cover of New Nick Carter Library no. 402, featuring Nick Carter in disguise.

The first disguise is Borgia Spada, a recently arrived Italian immigrant who wears a “semi-picturesque costume” complete with darkened skin “to a rich olive hue” and “a low-cut shirt, with a flaring collar, adorned with a tie of brilliant red, and trousers that were skin tight at the knees and which flared wide where they covered the shoes, and a crimson sash tied about his waist” (page 12). For all the exaggeration of his construction, Carter has faith that “every Italian” would know “he had come to America from the mountainous parts of their native land” (pages 12–13). Carter’s performance eroticizes the Italian body since the masquerade appears more as an idealized and romantic version of Garibaldi from the nineteenth century than a newly arrived immigrant at the height of twentieth-century mass immigration in the U.S.

As Spada, Carter switches from perfect Florentine Italian to a simplistic English sentence structure. He tests his disguise on his Japanese assistant Ten-Ichi, who is also disguised but as a “pseudo Chinaman” (page 13). Carter’s performance is dependent upon Ten-Ichi’s approval, but when Carter asks him: “You do-a de wash?” and “You wash-a da clo, eh?,” Ten-Ichi does not respond (page 13). Carter could not imagine that his disguise does not work; he ignores the possibility that Ten-Ichi is not amused by these simplistic and stereotypical markers of working class and immigrant Chinese identity. Carter’s minstrel performance imbues him with self-confidence in the possession of the Italian body.

Carter’s second disguise allows him to play Luigi Bonito, the banker being extorted by the Society of the Swords. When Ten-Ichi suggests Carter will be unable to double his disguises in one case, Carter states, “All Italians—or, at least, almost all of them—look enough alike so that there will not be any very great change necessary, in order to transpose myself … very quickly” (page 23). Italians weren’t subjected to Jim Crow laws like African Americans were; there was nothing equivalent to the Indian Removal Act that forced Native Americans off their homelands; and there was no immigration law written specifically to keep Italians out of the United States like the Chinese Exclusion Act did to those from China. In other words, although there was no legal target painted on Italian immigrants’ backs that said they were a racialized Other, Italians were still considered undesirable due to how they looked and what they sounded like. Immigrants are oftentimes categorized as “in-between peoples,” where status becomes ambivalent, not due to a lack of papers or citizenship, but because of racist and ethnic stereotypes that become normalized in public discourse as it does in this issue of The New Nick Carter Weekly (Roediger 2005, 12). The members of the extortion ring remain clueless that Carter has outwitted them twice in their attempt to extort money from Luigi Bonito, elevating Carter and subordinating the Italian immigrant to a criminal class. The Society of Assassination stereotypes Italians, Chinese, and Spaniards—de la Vuelta is of Spanish descent—so that the other characters in this dime novel are only criminal, complicit, or crazy.

The Society of Assassination; Or, The Detective’s Double Disguise was first published by Street & Smith in New Nick Carter Library no. 402 on September 10, 1904. The story was reprinted twice in thick book format, first in Magnet Library no. 411 on September 27, 1905 and again in New Magnet Library no. 1228 on February 2, 1928.

About the Author

Nick Carter appeared in thousands of dime novels written by upwards of 30 authors with their bylines usually attributed to “Nick Carter,” “Nicholas Carter,” or “Chickering Carter.” While no records have remained regarding who wrote which issues, outside of sometimes ambiguous copyright renewal notices, there is enough information to establish John R. Coryell as the creator of Nick Carter and Frederick Van Rennesselaer Dey as the author of New Nick Carter Weekly no. 402.

John R. Coryell (1851-1924) was born in New York City on December 15, 1851 and educated in the city’s public schools. He dropped out of Harvard Law School to follow his father to China, where Coryell became a magistrate in Shanghai Civil Courts (Coryell iv-v). When he returned to the U.S., Coryell tried his luck at a ship-brokerage house, but lost everything in the gamble. He turned to journalism, but by his own admission “was a mighty poor newspaper man” (Coryell v). Coryell was related to the Street & Smith publishing house through his uncle Francis S. Smith, who approached him to write a detective story in the style of dime novelist Ned Buntline. The result was The American Marquis, or, Detective for Vengeance: A Story of a Masked Bride and a Husband's Quest, bylined “Nicholas Carter.” Coryell wrote 14 more issues with Nick Carter as the protagonist for Street and Smith's New York Weekly starting in 1886 before turning the character over to Dey. He died in Readfield, Maine on July 15, 1924.

Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey (1861-1922) was born in Watkins Glen, New York on February 10, 1861. He graduated from Columbia Law School and practiced law until he became ill. Dey wrote his first story for Beadle and Adams in 1887 while recovering from this illness. After taking over for Coryell, Dey wrote over a thousand Nick Carter stories for Street & Smith, consulting with Deputy Commissioner Faurot and Inspector Thomas Byrnes on many of them. He died on April 25, 1922 at Gramcery Park’s Hotel Broztell of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His body was discovered by then Smith & Street managing editor Charles E. MacLean after Smith & Street president Ormond S. Smith received a note from Dey outlining “his intention” (“Creator of ‘Nick Carter” 1). In addition to his wife, Hattie, Dey was survived by a brother, Warren S. Dey. Dey ended his letter to Smith by requesting assistance in finding his brother a place to live. Coryell’s son Russell took issue with the headlines of Dey’s New York Times obituary, which stated: “Creator of ‘Nick Carter’ Kills Himself.” Russell Coryell’s demand for a correction was ignored by the editor because the title was “good copy” (Cox 497).

Discussion Questions

  • Not only are Nick Carter’s portrayals of Italians stereotypical, but so is Ten-Ichi’s portrayal of a Chinese laundry washer. What kinds of stereotypes do you see in contemporary portrayals of immigrants or minorities that align with these kinds of discriminatory and marginalizing one-dimensional portrayals?
  • How do you view Nick Carter’s insistence that he is able to fool Italians?
  • Carter wears black and brown polish on his skin, his eyebrows, and hair in order to appear Italian. How does this use of pigment align with minstrel portrayals of African Americans in the 19th and early 20th century? Where else have you seen white people choose to darken their skin tones in order to portray a racialized other?
  • Discuss Ten Ichi’s relationship to Nick Carter and how these two men work together. Think about similar duos in literature and film from Nathaniel “Natty” Bumppo and Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, twentieth century duos such as the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Green Hornet and Kato, or 21st century re-imaginings such as Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills in the television series Sleepy Hollow (2013-2017).
  • The character of Nick Carter is at least partly based upon an actual New York Police Detective—Joseph Petrosino, the first Italian American policeman in New York. Petrosino led a group of Italian American police detectives called the Italian squad until his assassination in Palermo, Sicily in 1909. Petrosino is not named in this issue, but Carter’s elaborate disguises and his insistence that he understands all Italian dialects suggests more than a passing knowledge of Petrosino’s work by Van Rensselaer Dey. In fact, Petrosino is mentioned in The Black Hand; or, Chick Carter’s Well-Laid Plot (New Nick Carter Weekly no. 656), published on July 24, 1909. How have white ethnics, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans been erased from history or re-imagined in even fictional history, in order to solidify positions of whiteness?

Further Reading

Excellent overview of the tropes of detective fiction.

Bingham became New York Police Commissioner in 1906 and excoriates all immigrant groups, but shows particular disdain for Italians as “the greater menace to law and order” (385).

The former president of the United Italian Societies D’Amato argues that Italians were blamed and framed for crimes committed by “every dark-skinned European, not speaking English,” suggesting that U.S. xenophobia was based upon an already established racialization of the Italian body (547).

This case study of Chicago’s Italian community offers an in-depth examination of how Italians assimilated into American life.

Lott’s discussion of blackface minstrelsy as a driving force of American exceptionalism and nation building is central to any discussions having to do with performativity of another.

  • Tirabassi, Maddalena. “Why Italians Left Italy: The Physics and Politics of Migration, 1870–1920.” The Routledge History of Italian Americans, edited by William J. Connell & Stanislao G. Pugliese. Routledge, 2018: 117–131.

Tirabassi’s piece contextualizes how, why, and where Italians left Italy after Italian unification.

Vellon discusses “in-betweenness” as a marker of difference before southern Italians arrived in the U.S. contextualizing that difference through language, religion, and politics.

Works Cited