A bookseller must beware when he handles a small volume with the phrase “a moral tale” tucked away somewhere in its title; such trappings of course give a volume the air of a didactic tract, a genre which has traditionally acted as a drug on the market. On occasion, however, something about the title–moral or no–tempts me to pick up the little item in question and, contrary to the inflexible received wisdom of the book trade, to start reading the volume. To read a book you are trying to catalogue is often somewhat enlightening (if not always entertaining), though on rare, happy occasions I find myself getting caught up in the book as an actual functional piece of literature and can while away a morning reading at my desk. And the nominally moralistic Henry Wallace; or, The Victim of Lottery Gambling. A Moral Tale. By a Friend to American Youth (New-York: Printed and Published by Wilson & Swain, 1832) is one such little gem, and it appeared in my Catalogue 37 (of which you can find a PDF here).
Henry Wallace has long been erroneously attributed to the pen of the crusading anti-prostitution activist J. R. McDowall (whose Magdalen Society’s first annual report in 1831 offered some rather stunning statistics that suggested upon closer examination that approximately one out of every three marriageable women in New-York was a prostitute), who instead provided a nice notice of this title in the preliminaries. As far as I can tell, nobody has yet dug up the correct author and the plot itself put me on the scent of a question: Is this the first American novel with a confidence trick as the central aspect to its plot? (The short answer is: I’m still not sure. But the description below, extracted from the catalogue, takes a rather more round-about way to arrive at that conclusion. The book has since sold and the entry here updated somewhat in verb tenses and wording to reflect that happy fact.)
[John Robert McDowall, erroneously attributed author]. Henry Wallace; or, The Victim of Lottery Gambling. A Moral Tale. By a Friend to American Youth. New-York: Printed and Published by Wilson & Swain, 1832.
A didactic moral work that happily also veers into a rousing tale of crime and deceit (albeit one of the lachrymose school); amid the broad strokes of a warning to youth against the corrupting effects of lottery gambling (with attacks in passing on intemperance, the decline in militia service, easy bank charters, and the diverting plenitude of cheap newspaper advertising) the plot follows the amiable but weak-willed young New York City native Henry Wallace—whose early facility for billiards and faro of course suggest an unhappy tendency to dissolution—and the change in his fortunes after he manages to rake in some $20,000 in a lottery. This evident good fortune is of course but the set-up for a complicated swindle involving the lottery’s silver-tongued agent (one Augustus Cornucopious Hoyle, a name redolent of the tables), the agent’s beautiful daughter Caroline (who is promised to Henry in marriage but who turns out instead to be Hoyle’s former mistress now trained up in the arts of seduction) and a supposedly wealthy planter recently arrived from Charleston with a can’t-miss scheme to reinvest young Henry’s winnings in a South Carolina lottery grant—this the planter Gorham who in reality is a confederate of Hoyle and a fugitive gambler on the run after a shooting in New Orleans, here bearing the key forged lottery document.
On the night before his wedding, Henry is taken to the theatre for one last carouse before the uxorious yoke should descend upon his shoulders, and he awakens the next morning from a drugged stupor to find that Hoyle and his confederates have fled with nearly everything:
After pressing inquiries by the landlord, how he came to leave so much property so carelessly secured, Henry frankly confessed, that, expecting to make a wife of Caroline, he had anticipated a wife’s fidelity, and entrusted her with all his property with as much confidence as if the knot had already tied, except his pocket-wallet, in which luckily now happened to be six or seven hundred dollars; which, with what was left him in the trunk, would enable him to pursue and punish the whole gang who had brought him to ruin.
(Henry pursues the gang to Havana and dies a lingering death after exchanging gunshots with Hoyle and Gorham, who are disguised as friars; Gorham dies of his wounds, Caroline retires to a nunnery, and Hoyle is eventually captured on the high seas and executed for piracy.)
Though the term “confidence man” did not appear until 1849 during the publicity surrounding the William Thompson case, this almost certainly stands as an early example of a confidence game in American fiction; while fraud and deception has of course always played a role in American fiction—Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry includes an episode in which Teague is convinced to pose as an Indian chief to receive gifts from government agents, and the roll of such tricksters and practical jokers as Sam Slick, Sut Lovingood, and Simon Suggs of course unfurls across the American literary landscape—most critics leap eagerly ahead of to Melville’s Confidence Man (1857), with perhaps a glance at Poe’s essay “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” (1843) or the works of ex-gambler J. H. Green (viz. his Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling, also 1843) as the early signposts in the literature of the swindle; but of a supposedly realistic tale in which criminals cultivate a mark and secure his cooperation with the promise of easy wealth and other carnal felicities, the honor of the first example of the confidence game proper in American fiction seems as yet still up for grabs.
(Need I mention that I believe this title might make a good candidate?)
The question of priority seems a vexed one, however, as Henry Wallace appears so little noticed; see Ann Fabian, Card Sharps, Dream Books & Bucket Shops: Gambling in 19th-Century America (Cornell University Press, 1990), which notes this title in an end-note (attributed to J. R. McDowell [sic]) but makes much less of the story’s pivotal fraud than one might hope; see also Susan Kuhlmann’s Knave, Fool, and Genius: The Confidence Man as he Appears in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction (University of North Carolina Press, 1973), which does not mention Henry Wallace and which notes, rather frustratingly for a scholarly examination of the topic, “Nor have I thought it necessary to canvass the entire field of minor works which properly belong to the category of nineteenth-century American fiction,” before falling back upon Hawthorne, Melville, and the other well-trodden paths of the American canon; one might also see Gary Lindberg’s The Confidence Man in American Literature (Oxford University Press, 1982), which takes a thematic approach to deceit that expands the definition of con man to such an extent as to be nearly useless and in any event can’t seem to be bothered to include a bibliography. And David S. Reynolds, to whose Beneath the American Renaissance (Knopf, 1988) one instinctively turns when crime and seduction crop up in this period, only notes McDowall and his anti-prostitution efforts in a few instances but make no mention of this small novel.
Further muddying the waters, the attribution of this work to the reforming anti-prostitution clergyman J. R. McDowall is almost certainly in error; per the catalogue description of the copy at the American Antiquarian Society,
Attributed by NUC pre-1956 to J.R. McDowell, probably in error. The first recommendation for the work is signed (p. xi) Rev. J.R. M’Dowell (i.e. John Robert McDowall), New York. No mention is made of this piece in the ‘Memoir and select remains of the late Rev. John R. M’Dowall’ (1836). The second recommendation refers to the author of this work as ‘an aged man,’ but Rev. McDowall was only 32 years old at this time.
The copy I hold in my hand is a small duodecimo volume in it original brown linen spine and orange boards, 108 pages. (Boards somewhat rubbed; rather foxed; a good, sound copy. Includes a bold ink gift inscription dated 1832 on the front blank and some penciling in the endpapers; early small bookplate on the front paste-down.) See Wright I, 1748.