“Reckless Ralph” Cummings: Newspaper profile of a dime novel collector

Taken from the Kansas City Star, December 4, 1931

A Farm Hand and His Dime Novel Collection

The Hobby of Ralph Cummings Has Resulted in one of the largest “Paper Back” Libraries in America
Many Follow Same Pursuit.

Ralph Cummings, farm hand, believes that he owns the largest collection of dime and half-dime novels in New England. He is one of the most active collectors of these old books in America, editing, as he does, a monthly journal devoted to the adventures of the old-time crooks of the days long before Capone and publishing, as he also does, an annual equally devoted to what to him is a fascinating pastime.

The greater part of Cummings’s life, writes Karl Schriftgiesser in the Boston Transcript has been built around the adventures of those strange people who filled the pages of the Wide Awake Library, the New York Detective Library, Beadle’s Dime and Half-Dime Libraries, and the Boys of New York in the days when many a person thought the end of civilisation was at hand because the youth of the nation fattened their Imaginations on the lurid doings of Old Keen or Old Cap Collier.


The rest of his life has been devoted to working on a milk route and tending the stock and gardens of his father’s farm on the highway between Grafton and Farnumsville up Worcester way. He is a young man in his early 30s; he has been reading and collecting dime novels for at least thirteen years. He admits that his collection is far from the finest in the world; his life’s ambition is to spend a week in New York at the public library where the world’s finest collection of what may be called luridiana is housed.

It was a task to locate the Cummings farm. Reckless Ralph, as he calls himself among the brotherhood of novel collectors, was busily engaged at the moment of arrival in driving a small herd of cattle across the road from one pasture to another. He said we could see his books and talk with him but that we would have to wait until he had let the two horses out to be watered. One of the horses turned out to be a mule.

Then he took us up into his sanctum, a farmhouse bedroom on the second floor of the Cummings home. In this room, where the ghosts of Diamond Dick, Jesse James, Messrs. Merriwell and Fearnot and all the rest of those early American leading citizens have found sanctuary, was a broad bed, a chair, several cheats and bureaus, a cabinet or two, and shelves cram-jammed with sheaves of the literary brain children of 100 or so dead and done-for writers.


The story of Reckless Ralph’s career was one in which blood and gore were strangely lacking. He told it in about three minutes.

“I was going to school,” he said “when I was taken sick. I had St. Vitus’s dance. So the doctor told me to leave school and go to work out of doors. I went to work on my father’s milk route, got interested in reading and swapping dime novels. I’ve been swapping and trading and collecting them ever since.”

We had met his mother a few minutes before “It’s his hobby.” She told us just before she called to him across the field to come and meet his visitors. It’s a good thing, too. It keeps him from drinking.” Not that Ralph does drink, you know, but he might if he didn’t have his books.

Reckless Ralph is a mild-mannered man who talks in a low, monotonous voice. He doesn’t get excited about anything. We asked him to tell us about his books and about his fellow collectors. He pointed to a table by the bed. On it were a dozen or so letters, from as many states. He corresponds with people everywhere, and dime novels are always the subject of the letters. Scattered throughout the land are other people who like Reckless Ralph hold the dime novel in the same reverence that Dr. Rosenbach would hold a complete unsoiled and genuine copy of the Gutenberg Bible.


These people are banded together in what they call the Happy Hours Brotherhood, and their object is collecting any and all of those lurid old papers and magazines. They know all the points about the New Buffalo Bill Library, the Union Jack Library, the James Boys Weekly, Tip Top, Young Rover, Young Klondike, Pluck and Luck, Beadles, the Five-Cent Wide Awake Library, and the works of such sterling masters of English prose as E. Burke Collins, Tom Henshaw, Laura Jean Libbey, Richard Marsh, St. John Rathbone, Fergus Hume and Edward L. Wheeler. This last was author of the Deadwood Dick series, and in The Novel Hunters, the annual which Reckless Ralph gels out, we read that he was arrested in Philadelphia for non-support of his wife and big family of children. He later moved West.”

Surrounded by the leering villains, the death-defying heroes and the wasp-waisted innocent ladies of the past, Ralph edits his monthly magazine and his yearbook. The former is entitled Reckless Ralph’s Dime Novel Round-Up and is a neat little folder, with the front page generally devoted to the reproduction of an illustration from some old-time dime novel. The rest of the paper goes to chatter among the collectors, with the wants of them made known, and the chances for trading and swapping.

Reckless Ralph has read many of the old books in his collection, but he reads very few of them for pleasure now. Although when he first became interested he read all that he could lay his hands upon.


“I think they were better stories than what they are printing today.” He said, looking towards one of the popular wood pulp detective magazines of the present day. “They didn’t swear and there was- nothing dirty in them, then.”

All told, Reckless Ralph has about 5,000 assorted copies stacked and filed in his room. All are catalogued. He knows their contents intimately. Their points are not mysterious to him. He and some hundred or so other collectors all over the country take their hobby seriously. They write back and forth; others contribute bits to Reckless Ralph’s magazine and yearbook. They have a great time. And when Reckless Ralph isn’t lost in dreams of the days of Deadwood Dick he milks his cows and waters his horse and mule on his father’s farm at Grafton.


  1. I have to strongly disagree with Reckless Ralph’s statement that dime novels are better than pulp magazines. I see he stresses that the dime novels didn’t swear and that there was nothing dirty in them. That just about sums up the literary standards that Reckless Ralph uses.

    However, I do have to give him a lot of credit for publishing The Dime Novel Round Up. It is still being published 90 years later but the subscription list is not near as high as when I first joined The Happy Hours Brotherhood 50 years ago. Not counting the libraries there are less than a hundred subscribers.

    Which brings up the question, what killed the interest in dime novels? At one time, as the article points out, there used to be many collectors of dime novels but nowadays you will not see any real interest in dime novels at the two big multi-day conventions, Windy City and Pulpfest.

    I think there are three main reasons. The first one is that the paper is even of worse quality than pulps and the flimsy booklets fall apart easily. The second reason is that the dime novels are notorious for being unreadable and dated by literary standards of the twentieth century. At least you can actually read and enjoy many of the adult pulp magazines.

    But the third reason may be that the dime novel collectors made a big mistake by not forming and attending dime novel conventions which would have kept the hobby alive like the pulp magazines. Windy City and Pulpadventurecon have both been annual shows for over 20 years and Pulpcon/Pulpfest has been around for 50 years. Conventions have a lot to do with keeping magazines alive, not only because of the massive dealer’s room but also because of the contacts a collector can make with like minded collectors and dealers.

    The dime novels died out because of these reasons. By that I mean the interest in reading and collecting them. Most dime novels are very inexpensive and you can still find copies for a dollar or so.

    1. I agree with all your points, especially the one about attending the conventions. It must have been much harder back in his time to put a convention together.

      I think it’s hard for us to appreciate the dime novels just as some future generation will find it hard to appreciate the pulps. Maybe the comic collectors will pick up on the dime novels just for the covers, some of which are great fun. In which case they might be around for some more time.

      Do you know what happened to Ralph’s collection?

      1. Reckless Ralph’s collection of dime novels must have been snapped up by some other dime novel collector and in fact the details are probably discussed in old back issues of THE DIME NOVEL ROUND-UP. I have a complete set of the magazines but there are hundreds of issues since the early 1930’s.

        There is an index also but I just went through the horrors of cataract surgery and damn it, I can’t read well at all. I made it clear to the surgeon I’m a book collector and I read much of the day but he gave me good distance vision instead. Looks like I’ll be visiting another eye doctor to get reading glasses.

    2. Walker, Reckless Ralph didn’t collect Dime Novels for their literary standards. He collected them for the excitement they stirred in his Edwardian Era sensibilities. His statement about their comparative value with pulps was likely only meant to indicate how they seemed better to him, to how they fulfilled his entertainment needs, not to the history of story telling.

      And yes, there really was no convention circuit in the day. Hell, there wasn’t even a push for an Interstate Roadway System for almost another 20 years, so bus companies, if they existed at all, really did the bulk of their runs locally. Train travel was possible, but it was time consuming and not always affordable for the average American of 1931.

      You also have to remember the period in which he lived. Words like hell and damn would pull the reader right out of a story’s spell, providing a disruption that would have ruined the reading experience for Ralph and the other older members of the Happy Hour Brotherhood.

      Ralph was a child of a different era who was still trying to hold onto the things he thought pure, virtuous, and heroic.

  2. Reckless Ralph’s tombstone says he died August 19, 1984. As he died at age 86, I would suspect he made plans for his collection prior to that time,

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