Lecturer, University Writing Department, University of California, Riverside

One-Armed Alf (1874) Spotlight

About the Novel

Oll Coomes’s One-Armed Alf, the Giant Hunter of the Great Lakes; or, The Maid of Michigan is one of the few dime novels to feature a disabled main character. In many ways, One-Armed Alf is typical of dime-novels of its day: a frontier-story filled with action, romance, secret identities, and frequent plot twists, all set against a background of racist stereotyping. But in its one-armed protagonist the story offers an unusual variation on the figure of the heroic frontiersman, one that valorizes cleverness alongside the more typically featured masculine virtues of strength and courage.

Illustration on the cover to Beadle’s New York Dime Library no. 148, featuring One-Armed Alf, his dog, and his cane

The novel is set in Michigan during the opening days of the War of 1812. It opens on a meeting between British agents and representatives from various Anishnaabe tribes—most notably, the Ojibwe—as they agree to fight together against American forces. The plot unfolds against this background, with the various protagonists alternatively fighting and fleeing British and Ojibwe forces. One-Armed Alf occupies a strange middle-ground in this conflict: he is recognized as a white man by the local Ojibwe but thought by them to be a rather tragic, harmless figure because of his missing arm. As the Ojibwe chief explains, “His right hand the Great Spirit kept back when he gave him life that it might not be raised against the red-man” (page 2).

As it turns out, this story is a fiction constructed by Alf himself to trick the Ojibwe into letting him move freely through their territory, spying and sowing terror as the so-called “Great Spirit of the Woods.” He does so with the help of his trusty hound and a black man whom Alf describes as “my African servant and companion, Ethiope” (page 21). The Great Spirit’s weapon of choice is a small-bore rifle that Alf has disguised as a cane; a mysterious light that appears whenever the Great Spirit is around is actually a bit of phosphorus tied to his dog’s tail; and his super-human understanding of the movements and thoughts of the Ojibwe. The latter is made possible by Ethiope, who disguises himself as Jabez Muggins, a white whisky-seller who wanders into enemy camps to sell his wares and (pretend to) drink himself into a stupor, which allows him to listen to the enemy’s plans. With each reveal it becomes clear that Alf has managed to turn his apparent disability into an advantage, making use of the tools available to him to master the conflicted frontier. The fact that those tools include supposed superstitions of indigenous people and the body of his black “servant” speaks to the racialized nature of this mastery.

One-Armed Alf was first published in 12 parts in Beadle and Adams’ New York Sunday Journal, nos. 199-210, from January 3, 1874 to March 21, 1874. It was reprinted in a single volume as Beadle’s New York Dime Library no. 148 (1881).

About the Author

Oliver “Oll” Coomes was born in the Ohio countryside in 1845. Eleven years later, he moved with his family to a farm near Colfax, Iowa, where he attended school and learned the pottery trade from his father. His earliest publications were poems that appeared in the local Newton, Iowa newspaper. He attended Iowa College (now called Grinnell College) for one year before financial issues forced him to leave in 1866. In 1867 he married Adelia A. Kellogg, sister of William Pitt Kellogg, who was the Republican governor of Louisiana during the Reconstruction. They soon bought a farm, and in 1877 he began the first of two terms as representative in the Iowa State Legislature, serving as a Republican at a time when the party was abandoning its Reconstruction-era commitment to civil rights in the South.

Coomes found time, when not farming or legislating, to write numerous popular dime novels. In a Resolution honoring his life passed by the Iowa House in 1923, Ironsides, The Scout; Hawkeye Harry, The Young Trapper Ranger; Death-Notch, The Destroyer; The Dumb Spy; and his many Kit Bandy books were highlighted as his most popular works. The pseudonym “Will Dexter” was used on a handful of stories, but these were all eventually reprinted under his usual “Oll Coomes” by-line.

Drawing from a “little memorandum book” used by Coomes and kept after his death by Coomes’s son, the bibliographer Albert Johannsen describes the fantastic rates that Coomes commanded as a dime novel writer. While his first story, Wild Raven, the Scout sold for only $25 in 1870, his tenth story sold for $100, his thirteenth for $200, and soon he was commanding $500 per novel, when the going rate was usually between $75 (for Beadle’s Half-Dime Libraries) and $150 (for Dimes). One story, Omaha, Pride of the Prairie, sold for the princely sum of $1000. These fees indicate the high regard that Coomes was held in by the dime-novel industry, as well as his savvy in playing rival houses against each other—Omaha was purchased by a paper that was trying to corner the market and was never actually published! By the end of his publishing career, his rates had dropped back to the normal $75 range; as Johannsen notes, Beadle was reducing expenses. The memorandum book contained 77 entries, but between original stories and reprints, Coomes was published nearly 200 times. He died in an automobile accident near Storm Lake, Iowa in 1921.

Discussion Questions

  • To what extent is “One-Armed Alf,” as he calls himself, a disabled character? Although he is missing an arm, he is otherwise described as physically imposing and healthy, and he is very effective as a fighter and a spy. How might this story combat stereotypes about differently abled people? How might it reinforce stereotypes about conventional masculinity? Is there any contradiction between these two things?
  • What is the role of white Englishmen in the racial politics of the story? To what extent are the Ojibwe presented as threats, and to what extent are they presented as tools to be manipulated? Does Coomes treat his native antagonists differently than his English antagonists?
  • Discuss the idea of an “American” identity. How does the cast of characters—including both current and former British subjects; white, black, and indigenous folks; old veterans of the Revolutionary war and young frontiersmen; women and men—help to solidify a sense of national identity? Look specifically at the role that race plays in managing the differences between the various “white” settlers.
  • Discuss the racial passing of Ethiope/Jabez Muggins. How is it he can move between racial categories so easily? Why does the novel spend so little time explaining the mechanics of this move (especially compared to the elaborate explanation of Alf’s cane-gun or the truth behind the “Specter Skiff,” for instance)? To what extent might Coomes’s depiction of Ethiope/Jabez Muggins push back against even uglier stereotypes about formerly enslaved people then in popular circulation?
  • Discuss the use of dialect as an element of characterization (especially in Chapters 1 and 3). What information does non-standard spelling and syntax offer to the reader? To what extent is dialect racialized?
  • This is a novel full of secret and hidden identities. Why do you think Coomes chose to tell his story in this way? How would the story be different if the reader was aware of the true identity of the Spirit of the Woods, the Specter Skiff, and other hidden information from the beginning?
  • Discuss themes of patriotism, national identity, and kinship in the novel. Focus specifically on the historical setting of the story—the War of 1812. What relevance might this conflict (nearly 70 years in the past at the time of the story’s publication) have for the audience in 1881?

Further Reading