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William J. Benners Papers

Call Number



1850-1940, inclusive
; 1880-1920, bulk


Benners, William J. (William James), 1863-1940


1.5 Linear Feet in 3 manuscript boxes

Language of Materials

Materials are in English.


William J. Benners, (1863-1940), was a writer, publisher, and historian of dime novels, a class of popular fiction that flourished in the mid to late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. The William J. Benners 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. The collection includes material on and belonging to Benners gathered by Ralph Adimari during Adimari's extensive research on the history of the dime novel. It also includes some personal papers of dime novel authors Charles Garvice and Emma A. B. Sharkey (pseud. Mrs. E. Burke Collins), and publisher Frank Tousey.

Biographical Note

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 romances 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 Companionand 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. (Two copies of DNR Vol. 26, No. 9 are housed in Fales; one is part of the Ralph Adimari Papers.) The romance novelists Emma Burke Collins, Alex McVeigh Miller and Mary R. Estey were his most faithful correspondents. After his death a bulk of Benners's correspondence was destroyed by his nieces because of concern over their personal content. Ralph Cummings, the DNRUeditor 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 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 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.


Adimari, Ralph. "William J. Benners: The First Historian of the Dime Novel." Dime Novel Round-up, Vol. 26, No. 9, September 15, 1958.


Series IA consists of correspondence grouped into folders for each correspondent. The folders are arranged alphabetically by the correspondent's last name; within each folder the letters are arranged chronologically.

Series IBconsists of undated galleys and manuscript fragments arranged alphabetically by the author's last name.

Series ICconsists of miscellaneous items including cancelled checks, notes and photos relating to Benners's friend, writer Charles Garvice, several undated notebooks, including many that had been reused and annotated by Ralph Adimari, a birthday album for Emma Tell, a personal scrapbook, and a bound collection of serials.

Missing Title

  1. Series IA: Correspondence, 1869-1940
  2. Series IB: Galleys and Manuscripts
  3. Series IC: Notebooks and Miscellany

Scope and Content Note

The collection consists of personal correspondence from Benners's family and many dime novel authors, business correspondence from publishers, manuscript fragments, financial records and cancelled checks, notebooks, scrapbooks, and photographs.

Access Restrictions

Materials are open without restrictions. Please contact the Fales Library and Special Collections,, 212-998-2596.

Use Restrictions

Copyright (or related rights to publicity and privacy) for materials in this collection, which was created by William J. Benners, was not transferred to New York University. Permission to use materials must be secured from the copyright holder. Please contact the Fales Library and Special Collections,, 212-998-2596.

Preferred Citation

Published citations should take the following form:

Identification of item, date (if known); William J. Benners Papers; MSS 548; box number; folder number; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.

Location of Materials

Materials are stored offsite, and advance notice is required for use. Please request materials at least two business days prior to your research visit to coordinate access.


The William J. Benners Papers were acquired by Edward G. Levy, the dime novel collector who made large donations of dime novels to Fales, from Ralph Adimari, editor and historian, in November 1964. Adimari had obtained Benners's letters and notes throughout the 1950s from Ralph F. Cummings, the Dime Novel Round-Upeditor who nursed Benners at the end of his life. Levy also purchased parts of Benners's dime novel collection directly from Cummings. In 1970 Levy wrote to dime novel historian J. Edward Leithead: "As you may know, I wound up with most of William J. Benners's literary estate--about 2/3 of the items in my gift [to Fales] came from that source." Levy donated the Benners Papers to Fales in 1966.

Related Material at Fales Library and Special Collections

Levy Dime Novel Collection (MSS.028)

Ralph Adimari Papers (MSS.550)

Collection processed by

Maxime La Fantasie, with portions reprocessed by William J. Levay.

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-20 17:04:21 -0400.
Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language: Finding aid written in English.

Revisions to this Guide

September 2018: Collection renumbered from MSS 028B to MSS 548 by Jacqueline Rider.

Edition of this Guide

This version was derived from dimenov.htm


Fales Library and Special Collections
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