Prentiss Ingraham was one of the most prolific writers in the history of American literature and was easily the most fertile Mississippi writer. He is credited with writing six hundred novels and four hundred novelettes but may have written even more. Primarily dime novels, Ingraham’s writings may not be considered great works of literature, but they were extremely popular in the late 1800s. They made him famous and remained in demand after his death.
Prentiss Ingraham was born near Natchez on 28 December 1843. His mother was Mary Brooks Ingraham, the daughter of a wealthy planter. His father, Joseph Holt Ingraham, was born in Portland, Maine, but moved to Natchez in the 1830s, taught foreign languages at Jefferson College in Washington, Mississippi, and wrote romance novels.
Prentiss Ingraham received his early education at Jefferson College and later attended St. Timothy’s Military Academy in Maryland. When the Civil War began, Ingraham was attending Mobile Medical College but left to enter the Confederate Army in Withers’s Mississippi Regiment of Light Artillery. He later transferred to Ross’s Texas Cavalry Brigade, rising to the rank of commander of scouts. He was wounded in the foot while fighting at the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana, and the injury troubled him for the rest of his life. He was taken prisoner but escaped. He received a second wound while fighting at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee.
Following the Civil War Ingraham went to Mexico and fought with Benito Juárez against the French under Emperor Maximilian. By 1866 Ingraham was fighting with the Austrians against the Prussians in the Austro-Prussian War. He later fought the Turks on the island of Crete and then served for a time with the khedive’s army in Egypt. Ingraham eventually joined rebels fighting against Spain in Cuba, becoming a colonel in the Cuban rebel army as well as a captain in the navy. Captured by the Spanish while trying to smuggle arms into Cuba, Ingraham later escaped and thereafter always used the title colonel.
His literary career began in 1869, while he resided in London; by the following year he had moved to New York City and begun writing novels and plays. His first dime novel, The Masked Spy, was published in 1872. So many works in this genre followed that he is sometimes referred to as the King of the Dime Novels. His novels covered a wide range of subjects, from pirates to private detectives, but after the early 1870s most of his novels were Westerns. His Westerns were so popular that some historians credit him with popularizing the cowboy hero and shaping a popular perception of the western frontier that exists today. He published under at least thirteen different pen names, complicating any effort to count the total number of books he wrote.
Even though many of Ingraham’s Westerns were based on fictional characters, he also wrote more than one hundred novels about Buffalo Bill Cody, including some that were written two years before Ingraham actually met the Wild West showman in 1879. They became good friends, and Ingraham briefly served as the press agent for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
In 1903 Ingraham was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a fatal kidney disorder that was attributed to his foot wound. He retired to the Confederate home at Beauvoir in Biloxi for treatment and died on 16 August 1904.
- Albert Johannsen, The House of Beadle and Adams (1950)
- James B. Lloyd, ed., Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967 (1981)
- Linda Zimmerman, Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls website, www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/dp/pennies/cover.html