Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Shadow Knows…

When Street and Smith, a Depression era publisher of pulp fiction  decided to try and boost the sagging sales of its flagship magazine Detective Story Magazine they took a flyer on radio, which was just coming into its own as a platform for dramas.  David Chrisman of the Ruthrauff & Ryan advertising agency was hired to create a package that would frame stories from the magazine adapted by editor/publisher William Sweets.  It was decided to have the stories introduced by a mysterious, nameless narrator.  Several possibilities were tossed around until writer Harry Engman Charlot suggested the eerie and sinister sounding The Shadow. 
Detective Story Hour premiered on Thursday July 31, 1930 on the CBS Radio network.  It was the first interaction of an American cultural phenomenon which would go on to become one of the longest running an most popular radio dramas of all time, a long running series of twice-a-month pulp novel and spawn movie serials and features, comic books, and a TV series.  The character of The Shadow would help inspire the superhero genre on in comic books, especially The BatMan and the Green Hornet on radio.  The Hornet was depicted as the modern nephew of  Lone Ranger by as Detroit radio station desperate for a mystery program to match The Shadow.
But all of that was as yet in the future.  The character and the radio show both had some growing and adapting to do. 
In those early broadcasts, the eerie introduction that became famous was not yet in its full form.  The Shadow did not yet have a secret identity and was not an active participant in the stories, just a kind of omnipresent observer to the unfolding yarn.  But the narrator voiced by James LaCurto and later Frank Readick uttered the now familiar introduction “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?    The Shadow knows…”  Audiences were hooked from the beginning.  

Smith and Street were gratified by the success of the show, but somewhat stunned by the audience reaction to The Shadow.  But being smart purveyors of popular culture, the company wasted no time in cashing in.  On April 1, 1931 the company launched a new magazine, The Shadow, a quarterly which featured a complete novel in each issue plus additional detective short stories.  The editors commissioned Walter B. Gibson, a prolific pulp writer and stage magician as the principal author of the novels which were published under the name Maxwell Grant.
Gibson fleshed out the character and invented the mythos surrounding him.  The new book was such a sensation that within months it went from a four times a year schedule to twice a month—requiring the hyperactive writer to churn out 75,000 word stories every two weeks in addition to later contributing to the radio program, comic books, and a daily syndicated comic strip.  Although eventually other writers were brought in to take up some of the slack, Gibson would go on to pen 282 of the 325 Shadow novels.  And after the pulp magazine folded he went on to write three additional longer form novels under his own name in a new series issued by Belmont Books.
In the Gibson stories The Shadow’s secret identity was Kent Allard, a World War I air ace who flew for France and was known as the Black Eagle.  After the war, Allard turned to the challenge in waging war on criminals. He faked his death in the South American jungles, then returns to the States.  Back in New York City, he adopted numerous identities to conceal his existence, Lamont Cranston, a “wealthy young man about town,” being just one of them.  Alard blackmails the real playboy into allowing him to assume his identity while he travels the world.
Assuming the identity of Cranston and others the Shadow pursued villains relentlessly by night employing the skills of a cat burglar, hypnotist, magician, and master of disguise to seemingly be anywhere.  He would often torment the men—and occasional woman—he stalked with ominous taunts from the darkness, often driving them to near insanity.  In the end either The Shadow would cut the bad guy down in a blaze of gun fire or lead him into a police trap, or even have him killed by his own accomplices or victims.  For most of the duration of the pulp series there was no hint that The Shadow possessed any supernatural powers.
The lurid pulp covers gripped readers with an unforgettable image of the anti-hero. He wore a large, wide brimmed black hat pulled low over his face revealing on intense staring eye.  Over an ordinary black business suit he wore a crimson lined black cape pulled up revealing only a hawk-like nose.
With the magazine launched, the company was still a little unsure how to use the character on the radio show.  They even tried to employ him as the narrator for another short lived series based on a Smith and Street rag, Love Story Hour, which took over the original Thursday night slot.  Detective Story Hour shifted to Sunday evenings.  In September, 1931 the program acquired a commercial sponsor and was re-named the Blue Coal Radio Revue but it remained an hour long program with Frank Readick starring as The Shadow.  
The following year the show and its sponsor jumped to NBC on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.  Readick remained the star, although LaCurto sometimes filled in.  And the program was now officially what audiences had called it all along The Shadow.
As the radio dramas began to integrate the narrator into the story lines, some of them borrowed from and adapted from the novels for the sake of simplicity some elements of character as portrayed by Gibson were dropped or altered.  First to go was any mention of Kent Allard or other assumed identities.  The Shadow was Lamont Cranston.  To avoid bringing the action to a screeching halt to explain in each episode how the Shadow seems to be everywhere, a key part of the novels, it was said simply that he “had the power to cloud men’s minds.”  This was inferred to be a form of hypnotism mastered by The Shadow in the Orient.  Later in the series it he seemed to have acquired a super power of invisibility.
One of the most important differences between the books and the show was the introduction of a female accomplice, Margo Lane, who learns Cranston’s secret, becomes his companion and possible lover, and abets him in his crusade.  The part was added to give a feminine voice to the series, and Lane sometimes stepped in as narrator explaining her part in the unfolding drama.  Gibson was resentful of this change and refused for quite a while to include Lane in his novels, finally giving in to public pressure after 1940.  

Orson Welles as The Shadow

In 1937 the program moved to the Mutual Network and Sunday nights where it became an institution.  And with a new Shadow, youthful wiz kid Orson Welles and Agnes Morehead as Margo Lane the program took on the form that is most remembered, and which is still heard on old time radio programs and available on CD collections.  Although the famous introduction and the closing sinister laugh were still provided by recording of Readick,  Welles’s deep rich voice and nuanced performance built tension as never before.
Welles only stayed with the show for two seasons, moving on to his own ambitious Mercury Theater of the Air and Hollywood, taking Morehead with him on both adventures, but his stamp remained on the program through the several other actors called upon to portray the mysterious crime fighter including Bill Johnstone (1938-1943), John Archer (1944-1945), and Bret Morrison (1943-1944, 1945-1954).  Lane was portrayed by Morehead through 1940 then by Majorie Anderson (1940-1944), Grace Matthews (1946-1949), and Gertrude Warner (1949-1954).
The show remained popular and Blue Coal remained the usual sponsor on the East Coast until replaced by the U.S. Army and Air Force, and later Wildroot Cream Oil.  After 1953 no regular single sponsor could be found and the program was sustained by the network with spot advertising.  That was writing on the wall, listeners and advertisers were abandoning long form drama radio for the glamor of television.  The Shadow aired its last original episode on December 26, 1954.
The Shadow also lived across multiple other media.  There were several film versions, mostly by minor studios, beginning with a series of two reel shorts produced by Universal Pictures during the first flush of success on the radio in 1930-31.  The first entry in the series, A Burglar to the Rescue, was filmed in New York City with the voice of The Shadow on radio, Frank Readick.  Subsequent instalments were filmed cheaply in Hollywood with different actors.  In 1937 and ’38 Rod La Rocque starred in two Grand National Pictures releases. 
The Shadow was a 15 episode cliff hanging serial starring Victor Jory in probably the most memorable cinematic portrayal for Columbia in 1940.  Poverty row Monogram Pictures, best known for their westerns, made three super-low budget entries in the post war years.
In the 1958 two pilot episodes of a failed TV series were slapped together and released to theaters as Invisible Avenger. 
The character did not get a first class film presentation until 1994 when Alec Baldwin and Penelope Ann Miller appeared in The Shadow in what Universal Pictures hoped would be a block buster.  The film feature John Lone as an Asian supervillain working to develop an atomic bomb, and a supporting cast of Peter Boyle, Jonathon Winters, Ian McKellan, and Tim Curry.  Although the film made money, it was not warmly greeted by critics and failed to become a mega-hit.
The Shadow fared better in illustrated print.  Walter Gibson participated in a daily strip drawn by Vernon Greene which ran for two years, 1940-42 and covered six adventures adapted from his novels until it was cancelled along with many other strips to preserve paper during the war years.  The strips were assembled and released as two comic books.
Publishers Street and Smith published their own comic book series, Shadow Comics for 101 issues between 1940 and 1949 based on the magazine version of the hero.  Archie Comics tried to cash in on the super hero craze in 1964 with a new series based on the radio show.  In the second issue of an eight book arc, a blond Lamont Cranston and The Shadow was transformed into a muscular superhero in green and blue tights.  Loyal Shadow fans were not amused and neither was the intended teen age audience.
D.C. Comics produced four Shadow series—a 12-issue series (Nov. 1973 - Sept. 1975) drawing heavily on the atmosphere of the novels and the graphic content of their covers; a 1986 min-series, Shadow: Blood and Judgment that brought the old hero to modern New York; and in 1987 a new a monthly series by writer Andy Helfer and drawn primarily by artists Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker continuing the modern universe of the mini-series.  During this period The Shadow also made cross appearances in other DC Comics, particularly Detective Comics where Batman acknowledges the now elderly Shadow as his inspiration and we learn that the character had once saved the lives of Bruce Wayne’s parents.
From 1989 to 1992, DC published a new Shadow series, The Shadow Strikes, written by Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto set in the ‘30s and returning The Shadow to his pulp origins.
Marvel Comics also had a crack at The Shadow with a graphic novel, The Shadow 1941: Hitler’s Astrologer by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Michael Kaluta who had worked together on D.C.’s first series.
Dark Horse Comics acquired the rights to The Shadow and published the mini-series In The Coils of Leviathan in 1993, Hell’s Heat Wave, and The Shadow and Doc Savage both in 1995 as well as two single issue specials.
In 2012 Dynamite Entertainment began yet another new series written by Garth Ennis and illustrated by Aaron Campbell and a mini-series Masks, teaming the 1930 era Shadow with the Spider, The Green Hornet and Kato, and a 1930s version of Zorro.  More books are on the way.
It seems that after all of these years pop culture fans still can’t get enough of The Shadow.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Convenient Amnesia in Texas—The Slocum Massacre

In the early years of the 20th Century when the rule of Jim Crow triumphed across the states of the old Confederacy and most border states, well organized violence against African Americans and their communities was rife.  The wave of lynchings, some extending far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, has been well documented.  Attacks which destroyed well established a prosperous Black communities like Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 and Rosewood, Florida in 1923 have become legendary.  In those attacks whole communities were put to the torch, residents killed and assaulted, and driven away.  They are usually categorized as simple race riots, a term which could lead the casual reader to believe that they were riots by Blacks like the urban upheavals of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.
But more than twenty years before either of those atrocities, something occurred in the sleepy and remote East Texas village of Slocum that was more horrible yet than a simple riot or the ethnic cleansing of uppity Negros.  For two days, July 29 and 30, 1910 well organized groups of between 200 and 300 white Texans engaged in a systematic hunt of the Black citizens of the unincorporated town, shooting them down where-ever they found them—on the streets, on their farms, in the scrub pine woods, fields, and dusty roads as they fled in terror of their lives.  In fact the killing may have gone on even longer, and included the later “disappearances” of Black witnesses to the original attacks.
After initial headlines in Texas and even national press and a brief spate of investigation and even indictments, the incident vanished from public consciousness.  This was made possible by the fact that Slocum was so isolated, 100 miles west of still sleepy pre-oil boom Waco, and the fact that survivors were dispersed across Texas and the South, some even heading to the supposed safety of Northern cities.  Those who remained in the area laid low, very low, in fear of their lives.  White participants might brag of it in saloons and living rooms, but were tight lipped when strangers poked around.
Texas historians, a special breed all unto their own, decided simply to ignore the evidence presented by contemporary news accounts and court records.  The incident is entirely absent from the Texas history textbooks which are mandatory reading in all public schools.  The Texas Historical Society, which has histories of virtually every community in the state, completely omits the Slocum Massacre from its listing for the town.  Even Wikipedia does not have an article on the incident, only three short paragraphs in their general entry on Slocum.  One could easily conclude that there has been a conspiracy of silence.
But thanks to the diligence of one maverick Texas journalist and historian E. R. Bills the story of the Slocum Massacre has come to light via a series of articles and a new book, The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas published this May by the History Press.  Bills dove into newspaper accounts, court and government records, and sought out survivor’s families to piece together the forgotten tale.  This account relies mostly on his magazine summaries of the events.

In 1910 Slocum was an anomaly in and the South.  The village was the center of a farming community established by former slaves following the Civil War.  Residents had prospered modestly.  Most farmers owned their land.  A handful of businesses, two churches, a one room school, and a Post Office served the community.  The businesses were black owned and three or four families dominated the town.  The town was unincorporated, but informally ran its own affairs.
Slocum was situated in Anderson County where a large majority of other residents were white.  Despite having lived side by side for decades, the relative independence and prosperity of the Black town galled some local whites.  It didn’t take much, grudges held over a couple of minor incidents, to get rumors flying and for certain influential white citizens to start plotting revenge.
Unlike the supposed causes of many lynchings and other acts of violence, there was no allegation of a Black on white attack, or the common “disrespect” of white women.  The sparks were more mundane than that.

Marsh Holley, whose family owned a store, a dairy and several hundred acres of farmland, had been approached by a white an over a debt.  There was a dispute and the white man left unsatisfied.  He began to circulate rumors that Holley had threatened or intimidated him.  Then Abe Wilson was put in charge of some local road improvements by a county construction foreman, a job evidently coveted by prominent white citizen named Jim Spurger.
Spurger took the lead in circulating wild rumors around the county, including charges that Blacks in Slocum were arming themselves for a rampage against whites.  It was all ridiculously easy.  Within days passions were inflamed.  Then Slocum and his allies planned their attack.
On the morning of July 29 between 200 and 300 hundred men armed with shotguns, rifles, and pistols converged on the town from all side in automobiles, wagons, and on horseback.  They cut telephone and telegraph lines into town and blocked the county road and various farm roads converging on the village.  As they closed in, some men dismounted and spread out advancing in what amounted to a skirmish line.
The first victims fell at the Holley family dairy farm near Sandler Creek.  Whether their connection to Holley was known or if they were just the first to get in the way of the mob was never established.  Three teens were found feeding cattle.  18 year old Cleveland Larkin was killed, 15 year old Charlie Wilson was wounded, 15 year old Wilustus “Lusk” Holley, escaped. 
Young Holley’s safety was short lived. Later in the day while he and his 23 year old brother, Alex, and their friend William Foreman, were found as they were fleeing to Palestine, the county seat. Alex was killed and Lusk was wounded. Foreman fled and disappeared never to be found again. Lusk pretended to be dead so a group of 20 white men would not finish him off.  Foreman was one of dozens of men who fled into the surrounding pine woods and marshes where they were hunted down and killed, their bodies left to the “tender mercies of the buzzards” and never found.
The attackers continued to advance, shooting any black men they encountered on sight.  John Hays, 30, was found dead in a roadway and 28 year old Sam Baker was shot to death at his house.  The next night three of Baker’s relatives Dick Wilson, Jeff Wilson, and 70 year old Ben Dancer sat up with his body.  The house was attacked and all three men executed.
As residents began to realize they were under attack, they began to attempt to escape in all direction.  The mob stalked them, sometimes for miles. Two bodies found near the town of Priscilla had bundles of food and clothing at their sides. They were shot in the back.  Will Burley’s body was found south of town across the line into Houston County.  The death of Anderson Austin was reliably reported to have occurred near Slocum by a local bank president, but his body was never found.  Likewise Abe Wilson, the man who had gotten the road construction appointment, was never found alive or dead.
Marsh Holley was found alive on the just outside of Palestine.  He begged authorities to put him in jail for his own protection.
Systematic hunting of refugees continued all day, through the night and into the evening of the 30th.  Gunfire was regularly reported from the scrub lands around the town.
Word got out about the attacks and newspaper carried initial reports on the 30th.  All initially repeated charges that the violence was due to a planned Black uprising.  County authorities in Palatine already knew better.  A district judge issued an order closing saloons and banning the sale of alcohol—the white mob was known to be well lubricated with liquid courage and forbidding stores from selling arms and ammunition.  Sheriff William H. Black prepared to act but perhaps doubting the loyalties of his deputies and any possible posse he could raise, needed to wait for reinforcements from the Texas Rangers and state Militia.
When Black and the Rangers arrived on the scene late on the 30th executions were still going on outside of town.  On July 1 Rangers fanning out along the roads, recovered six bodies.  Two more had already been found.  Yet Black knew the death toll was much higher.

Men were going about killing Negroes as fast as they could find them…These Negroes have done no wrong that I can discover…I don’t know how many were in the mob, but there may have been 200 or 300. Some of them cut telephone wires. They hunted the Negroes down like sheep.
Because many residents simply fled never to return there was no good way to know how many had been killed in the country side or whose bodies may have been hidden.  Estimates range from a dozen more than the official tally of eight to twice that.  And the disappearances were not over.
The arrival of the Rangers and Militia, who remained posted in the town for weeks, allowed some residents to return.  Most of them planned to pack what belonging they could salvage and permanently leave. 
Judge B. H. Gardner convened a grand Jury in Palestine to investigate the attack.  In his charge to the jury he said that the massacre was “a disgrace, not only to the county, but to the state.”  The grand jury called as witnesses virtually every resident of the area and suspected members of the mob it could find and interviewed several hundred witnesses.  Some Blacks on the witness list who had returned to town went mysteriously missing.  They may have run for their lives rather than testify—or they may have become late additions to the death toll.
Eventually 11 men were arrested, including Jim Spurger, relatives, and close associates.  Seven were indicted.  Eventually all were released on bail and the trial venue was changed to Harris County where local judges refused to proceed with the prosecution.  After spending short periods in jail before being bonded out, all of the men got off free.
Many local white residents benefited handsomely by the abandonment of Slocum by its former residents.  By hook or by crook—on liens for loans, in tax sales of abandoned property, or outright appropriation—they came into possession of farms, homes, and business establishments complete with inventory.
Seventeen years after the massacre Slocum was hit by a tornado in 1927 which leveled all but two buildings in the town, including all of those which had been erected by the original inhabitants.  The town rebuilt and went through ups and downs with a population that yo-yoed between 75 and 350 over the decades.  The lingering effects of the massacre are still felt.  While other Anderson county towns and villages now have 20% African-American population, only 7% of the current 250 residents of Slocum today are Black.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of E. R. Bills and rising interest on the 100th anniversary, the Texas Legislature finally passed a resolution in 2011 acknowledging the incident and issuing a sort of apology.  Efforts by family members to have an official state historical marker placed in the town has been vigorously resisted by current residents and has gone nowhere with the state authorities.  And unlike the better known cases of Rosewood and Tulsa, no whisper of possible restitution to the families for their losses has been heard.
Texas media took note of the anniversary yesterday.