Violet Vane Sata Prescott
Johannsen Project Manager, Northern Illinois University
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Captain Volcano (1880) Spotlight

About the novel

Captain Volcano is one of the few dime novels that includes explicit references to homosexual romance. Despite its subject matter, the novel does not appear to have been popular enough nor infamous enough to have ever become the subject of controversy.

First page of Beadle's New York Dime Library no. 130, featuring an illustration of Captain Volcano.

The story concerns pirates, a treasure hunt, doomed romance, and the political tensions of gold rush era San Diego, featuring a wide cast of characters: Jackson Blake (the “Man of the Red Revolvers”); Captain Volcano, a smuggler of queer passions; the alcade of the San Diego area; his daughter, the beautiful Margerite; Louis Grandville, a cold-hearted gold prospector from France; and a mysterious pencil seller, Nixey (later revealed to be a Mexican spy). Captain Volcano pursues an agenda of revenge against Louis Grandville, while also courting Margerite. As the narrator puts it: "...being strangely unwomanly, not only in her appearance but in her feelings, she had conceived that strange liking for other girls which has been known, in rare cases, to exist in the female breast" (page 23). Although Captain Volcano is the most interesting character, readers spend most of their time with Blake, whose motivations for being present in the narrative never quite become clear. Captain Volcano's gender and sexual orientation, known earlier to Blake, are only revealed to the reader on the last page, after she has already succumbed to wounds inflicted during the final, climactic battle. 

Captaive Volcano was originally serialized in the story paper New York Saturday Journal between December 11, 1880 and March 5, 1881 for 13 issues and 38 chapters, then later reprinted in Beadle’s New York Dime Library nos. 130 and 1060.

About the author

Despite having been one of the most prolific dime novel authors, relatively little information is known about the life of Albert W. Aiken. He was born in Boston in 1846 to a family of actors and entertainers: his older brother, George L. Aiken, also wrote dime novel stories, and his cousin, George L. Fox, was a famous clown.

aiken rescan sm.jpg

Albert W. Aiken, 1846-1894

Aiken began writing for Beadle & Adams under the pen name “Agile Penne” in 1870, writing hundreds of stories under many pseudonyms for the publisher. Some of his more notable creations were Joe Phenix, a proto-noir detective character, and Dick Talbot, a frontier tracker.

Aiken established an acting company in 1885 called the Aiken Acting Co, and also owned and operated a theatre in Brooklyn under the name Aiken’s Museum. For at least one of his plays (in which he also starred), Aiken wrote a story adaptation that ran as a serial in the story paper Saturday Journal. He married in 1873, had six children, and died August 19, 1894.

Discussion questions

  • View “Autostraddle’s Ultimate Infographic Guide to Dead Lesbian Characters on TV” with students, then discuss the theme of the “tragic” LGBT character in American media. Does “Captain Volcano” fit into this trend? In what ways does it deviate from the trend?
  • Captain Volcano’s motives seem to change throughout the story. Why might this be? Are we meant to view Captain Volcano as more hero or villain?
  • Is Captain Volcano a Western? A pirate story? A romance? What aspects of the story help you come to your conclusion?
  • Characters in Captain Volcano sometimes appear to be from different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities. Cato, for instance, is Native American, but believes himself to be white. Pick a character from the story and describe how their gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality are expressed in the story, and whether these identities are known by other characters. How do these identities affect the options character have? How do these identities affect any motives characters have in the story?

Further Reading

Describes the reasons that some people in history would choose to cross dress, and considers the possibilities of gender identity and sexuality (as opposed to the need to move in gender-exclusive spaces) as motivations.

Discusses homoerotic text and subtext in dime novels and other early American popular literature, and in particular how “low” culture materials expressed social mores on topics of sexuality more clearly than “high” culture materials.

Discusses images and history of gender and sexual queering of the American West, particularly examining dime novels featuring women adventurers.