William J. Benners
William James Benners, Jr. (1863-1940) was a writer, publisher, and historian of dime novels, a class of popular fiction that flourished in the mid- and late-nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Benners, also a poet, actor, and avid traveler, maintained correspondence with many dime novel authors, aimed to compile a directory of popular writers, bought and sold stories and publishing rights, and penned some dime novels of his own.
Benners was born in Philadelphia on September 27, 1863, the son of William, Sr. and Frances Ann. He had two brothers, Harry H. and A. Eugene, and a sister Novella. At an early age Benners showed an affinity for the literary arts, and was not much interested in working at his family's lumber business.
Benners was an avid reader of dime novels from age eight and read romance novels later in life. At ten he wrote his first poem, and at 25 he began writing some serials for George Munro's New York Fireside Companion and later for the Chicago Ledger. His professional writing career did not last long, but he was a devoted letter writer for much of his life. It was when Benners was about thirty that he began his "vast letter correspondence with the popular writers of the day," according to Ralph Adimari in his biography of Benners in Dime Novel Round-Up. The romance novelists Emma Burke Collins, Alex McVeigh Miller and Mary R. Estey were his most faithful correspondents. After his death the bulk of Benners's correspondence was destroyed by his nieces because of concern over their personal (read: sexual) content. Ralph F. Cummings, the DNRU editor who nursed Benners in his last years and referred to the man as Uncle Billee, wrote to Adimari that Benners's nieces "didn't believe in his letters falling into other hands. They were putting stuff on the fire when I discovered what they were doing. I sure was lucky to get what I really did."
Benners planned to create a directory of dime novel and romance novel authors--a formidable task considering that so many writers published under pseudonyms, and different writers often used the same pseudonym--but this project never went beyond the research stage. He did, however, begin enterprising as a literary agent and a buyer and seller of stories and publishing rights. Adimari recounts that in 1902 Benners purchased the entire output of the Frank Leslie Company, publisher of the juvenile magazines Frank Leslie's Boys and Girls Weekly, Frank Leslie's Young American, and Frank Leslie's Boys of America. Two months later he sold the Leslie material to William H. Gannett for $950. It is not known how much of that sum was profit, but we do know that Benners profited handsomely selling the stories of romance writer Charlotte M. Brame, who wrote under the pseudonym Bertha M. Clay. According to Adimari, who consulted Benners's accounting books, "he was paid from $15 for a short story up to $300 for a serial. So that sales may have reached higher than $10,000... When Ralph Cummings gave me part of the William J. Benners collection, at least one-third of the notes were devoted to Clay-Brame productions and in many letters to others he lauds her stories to the skies." Brame penned some 200 titles as Bertha Clay. Indeed, the Clay brand was so lucrative that several other authors went on to produce hundreds of stories using this nom de plume, including Benners himself.
Adimari writes: "Although Benners had many sweethearts he never married." He was engaged to Laura Jean Libby, a romance writer, from 1891-1893 but they were not wed. In a 1958 letter to Adimari from Ralph Cummings, Cummings writes that, "according to what Uncle Billee [Benners] told me, was that Laura Jean Libby wanted his $3 or $5000.00 ring to wear, and he wouldn't let her have it, so that was the end of there [sic] romance, so he told me, as he has been going with her for quite some time." After a long illness, Benners died on April 4, 1940 in his native Philadelphia.
The William J. Benners Papers are housed in the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University's Bobst Library. The papers consist of: letters to Benners from family members, various authors, and publishers; fragments of dime novel manuscripts; several research and accounting notebooks; and miscellany such as scrapbooks and photos. They were donated by Edward G. Levy, the noted dime novel collector, in 1966. Levy had acquired them from Ralph Adimari in 1964; Adimari had received them throughout the 1950s from Ralph Cummings.
- Ralph Adimari, "William J. Benners: The First Historian of the Dime Novel," Dime Novel Round-Up, Vol. 26, No. 9, September 15, 1958.