Professor of English, Northern Illinois University

Nemo, King of the Tramps (1881) Spotlight

About the Novel

While dime novels habitually touch upon social issues, only occasionally do they represent specific historical events. One that does is Nemo, King of the Tramps; Or, The Romany Girl’s Vengeance: A Story of the Great Railroad Riots. The riots in question occurred in the summer of 1877, and were part of the tumultuous confrontation between workers and employers called the “Great Upheaval” by historians and compared by some to the Paris Commune of 1870-71.

First page illustration of Nemo in Beadle's New York Dime Library no. 132, published May 4, 1881.

Spurred by a series of pay cuts during an economic depression, railroad workers went on strike first in West Virginia, then Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. Sympathy strikes occurred as far west as Missouri and Illinois. The Great Upheaval was violent on both sides, with state militias and eventually federal troops called up to assert law and order. The riots were centered in Pittsburgh, where local militias refused to attack the strikers. National Guard units then sent west from Philadelphia did open fire on the strikers, killing at least twenty. The militiamen were, in turn, forced by furious workers and their town allies to take up defensive positions in a Pennsylvania Railroad roundhouse, which in the ensuing fight was gutted by fire.

These dramatic events are recounted in Nemo, King of the Tramps, and class conflict runs through the novel’s melodramatic story. The plot centers on a contest of family inheritance pitting cousins Harvey Calvert, Jr.—who adopts the name “Nemo,” “no name,” because his father has renounced him—and Oliver Calvert, president of the “Air Line Railroad” and heir apparent to his uncle, Senator Harvey Calvert, Sr.’s estate. Romantic betrayals and rivalries underpin the conflict. A ward of Senator Calvert, Helen Chester, is courted by Oliver but loves the disgraced Harvey, who alternately disguises himself as Nemo, the “king” of a band of tramps, and “Trevlac,” the impresario of a company of gypsy (Romani) performers. Even more various are the personae played by Jacqueline Reynaud, formerly Helen’s governess, who was seduced by Oliver, then abandoned, and now seeks revenge as “Spunky Jack,” a homeless boy; “Countess Cachuca,” lead heroine of Trevlac’s troupe; and John Raynor, a young equestrian dandy.

Nemo/Trevlac/Harvey is in league with Jacqueline, but despite being falsely charged with abducting her and stealing from his father, he cannot himself expose the true culprit, his cousin Oliver, because he has sworn by his gentleman’s honor to keep Oliver’s secrets before he knew what they were! Consequently it is the women who propel the plot resolution: Helen, Jacqueline, and “Gypsy” Nan, who disguised as Jacqueline is instrumental in exposing Oliver’s true perfidy, permitting Nemo to claim his inheritance and Helen’s love, and sending Oliver on a downward spiral out of his railroad executive’s suite and into the company of bums. As a seducer, thief, and instigator of militia attacks against the railroad strikers, Oliver thus receives his just deserts.

Nemo was first serialized in the Beadle & Adam's story paper, Saturday Journal, between nos. 564 and 576, from January 1-March 26, 1881. It then appeared as a thirty-two page volume in Beadle’s Dime Library no. 132 on May 4, 1881 and again in no. 1062 in July 1902 by M. J. Ivers and Company. A British reprint library, The Aldine “O’er Land and Sea” Library, also published Nemo in 1891, with a color lithograph for its cover.

About the Author

Frederick Whittaker was born in London, England, on December 12, 1838, but when still a boy moved with his family to the United States, where they settled in New York City by 1850. When the US Civil War broke out, he enlisted as a private in the Sixth New York Cavalry regiment, reenlisting in 1863 and rising to the rank of second lieutenant. Whittaker suffered a chest wound at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 and was honorably discharged after the war. Like many Civil War veterans, he proudly adopted his officer’s rank as a title throughout his life. “Captain” was likely a brevet rank conferred, upon his retirement, for valor in battle.

After trying out several lines of work after the war—book seller, school teacher, poet—Whittaker began publishing both fiction and nonfiction in periodicals by 1870. At about the same time he gained some financial stability by an inheritance from an English relation, married Elizabeth Day, and settled down in Mount Vernon, New York. Some of his work as a writer derived from his military experiences. Whittaker wrote a biography of George Armstrong Custer in the year he died at the Battle of Little Big Horn, 1876—a work that helped establish for Custer an heroic mythology of long standing. Whittaker also served as an editor at magazine and the Army and Navy Journal.

From 1870 until his death in 1889, Whittaker became a prolific author of dime and nickel novels, with some seventy titles published under his own name and another six attributed to him under the pseudonym “Launce Poyntz.” Including reprintings of these titles, Whittaker’s catalog includes over one-hundred-sixty publications. He also may have ghost-written some or all of fourteen books attributed to Thomas Hoyer Monstery. Whittaker produced titles in nearly all of the subgenres in which dime novels were written: historical romances (The Severed Head, or, The Secret of Castle Coucy: A Legend of the Great Crusade, 1878), many seafaring tales (Old Double Sword, or, Pilots and Pirates, 1883), tales of foreign adventure (A Yankee Cossack, or, The Queen of the Nihilists: A Story of the Great Coronation at Moscow, 1883), numerous westerns (California Joe’s War Trail, or, The Minnesota Massacre, 1885), and detective stories (The Showman Detective, or, The Mad Magician, 1890).

In the same general vein as Nemo, King of the Tramps, Frederick Whittaker penned both rags-to-riches stories such as John Armstrong, Mechanic, or, From the Bottom to the Top of the Ladder and more class-conscious labor narratives such as Larry Locke, the Man of Iron, or, A Fight for Fortune: A Story of Labor and Capital, both 1886. The latter was reprinted in 1986 by the University of Illinois Press as one of two exemplary nineteenth-century novels depicting working-class life and the Knights of Labor.

Captain Fred Whittaker died on May 13, 1889, killed by the accidental discharge of his own pistol when he tripped and fell while running up the stairs of his home. He was only fifty years old and left his wife, three daughters, and a step-son.

Discussion Questions

  • While several scenes in Nemo, King of the Tramps recount historical episodes from the Great Uprising of 1877, especially the Pittsburgh riots associated with the strike, it is notable that the railroad workers are anonymous. In contrast, several named characters are part of the National Guard who fired on the Pittsburgh strikers, including Oliver Calvert. What attitudes toward labor are conveyed through the generic character of the strikers, and what attitudes toward management and the militia are conveyed through their more individuated characterization?
  • Michael Denning finds that pro-labor novels often feature a workingman who inherits great wealth. One variant of this is the hero who already is heir to great wealth at the beginning of the story, although this information is only gradually disclosed to readers. Nemo is a story of this latter type. Denning argues that stories and characters of these kinds serve to ennoble blue-collar workers and manual labor. Do you find this argument applies to Nemo, King of the Tramps? Why or why not?
  • Yaron Matras discusses how the Romani people, or “gypsies” as they are popularly known, have often been denigrated as thieves or charlatans. The itinerant trades and lifestyle of many Roma have led to negative stereotypes, Matras further notes, although these very features of the Roma have lent them an aura of mystery, even positive stereotypes as independent spirits and rugged individualists. How are the Romani, or "gypsy," characters represented in Nemo? Does Whittaker’s treatment of them get beyond the negative—and perhaps also the positive—stereotypes?
  • Women characters take the lead in initiating the action in Nemo, King of the Tramps. They are central in exposing Oliver Calvert, restoring Nemo’s good name, and effecting their own stated romantic goals. Given the strength of characters such as Helen Chester, Jacqueline Reynaud, and “Gypsy” Nan, are you satisfied with their rewards, and their presentation by Whittaker, at the conclusion of the story?

Further Reading 

Denning focuses on the proletarian resonance of dime novel characters and plots, attending to the ways dime novels appeal to a working-class readership. Chapter 8 is focused specifically on narratives of the “Great Strike” of 1877.

Grimes’s introduction provides a biographical sketch of Whittaker as well as analysis of the labor movement in the United States in the years after the Civil War.

Matras offers an account of the Romani people, including an historical overview, a description of cultural practices, and present-day circumstances of Roma throughout the world.

Chapter 2, “The Great Upheaval,” features the conflict between railroad workers and executives in the strikes of 1877 and sets that conflict into a wider historical context.

“Picturing Protest” provides a short illustrated essay on the Great Upheaval as it touched Pittsburgh, particularly in the violent confrontations between strikers and National Guardsmen on July 21-22, 1877. Featured are the photographs taken by Pittsburgh native S. V. Albee showing the wreckage in downtown Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the conflict.

Sanchez-Saavedra’s contribution to the Yesterday’s Papers blog comes in two parts: the first a substantial account of Whittaker’s life and work drawing from Albert Johannsen’s The House of Beadle and Adams, the second featuring covers of selected dime novels by Whittaker and a reprint of his “Dime Novels: A Defense by a Writer of Them,” which originally appeared in the New York Daily Tribune on March 16, 1884.

Trumpener offers a reading of the Roma as perceived in Western culture, arguing that an Orientalist understanding of “gypsies” says far more about the racial and cultural projections of the Occident than about the Romani people themselves.