Quest of the Spider is the third
Doc Savage adventure from May 1933. Most of the
story’s action takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana and
the deep swamps. Stories are rarely made up entirely
of whole cloth and some of the characters in the story
appear to be based on actual persons. Louisiana had
the largest stands of virgin cypress forest in the United
States at the early part of the twentieth century. One
man, Francis “Frank” B. Williams was to capitalize on this
resource so successfully that he eventually became known
as the Cypress King. Williams was building timbered
bridges for the Louisiana and Texas Railroad across
southern Louisiana until its financial failure in
1869. The young man found himself with an abundance
of railroad timbers, a good work gang, and little money.
Utilizing what he did have, he was able to work up a
successful business repairing and building bridges for the
sugar plantations in the region. Frank Williams’
work with the railroad had made him very knowledgeable
about the geography of the local area and its vast timber
resources. The heart of the timber county was Bayou
Teche which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to points north
of Lafayette, Louisiana where it originates near Port
Barre. At the time, the swamp lands were seen as having a
low financial value. Williams used his knowledge,
skill, and political acumen to acquire timber rights to
build a large successful company. By 1892, Frank B.
Williams was the sole owner of the Frank B. Williams
Cypress Company and a man of considerable wealth.
The cypress sawmill he built in Patterson, Louisiana was
the largest such facility in the world. He married
Emily Seyburn in 1876 and was the father of a large
family. At his death in 1929, his worth was in
excess of $9,000,000. Adjusted for inflation, that
amount would be in excess of $100,000,000 today.
Returning to the literary world of Doc Savage, it is revealed that Eric Danielsen has a large mansion on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans. Before his death, Frank Williams bought a palatial home in New Orleans in 1912. It was named the Marks Isaacs Mansion and is located at 5120 St. Charles Avenue. The mansion is built on a Neo-Italian style and occupies an entire city block. After the elder Williams’ death, his son, Harry P. Williams took up residence in the estate. Harry was as interesting a person as his father. In 1918, Harry Williams married the popular actress and silent movie star Marguerite Clark. In Quest of the Spider we are told that Edna Danielsen is pretty enough to be a movie star. Harry Williams’ wife was a movie star.
Harry Williams was involved in his family’s timber business but aviation was his passion. He went into partnership with famed aviator Jimmy Wendell forming the Wendell-Williams Air Service Corporation. Harry Williams and Jimmy Wendell were involved in a large aviation enterprise and business expanding into air mail, flight training, and passenger service. What they were really interested in was speed. Air racing was a popular sport during this era and these two airmen were determined to be the fastest of the fast.
In 1932 the Thompson Trophy was won by aviator James Doolittle who was to go on to more daring adventures over Tokyo in 1942. The 1933 Thompson Trophy was won by Jimmy Wendell who was flying a custom built plane. He was flying a Wendell-Williams 44 which was one of the fastest aircraft in the United States at that time. The aviation business was a fast and furious enterprise but not without its risks. Before the decade was over, Harry Williams, Jimmy Wendell, and essential every pilot associated with the company had been killed in air crashes.
There are many other interesting items in Quest of the Spider. When Doc Savage refers to the governor of Louisiana the person most likely to come to mind at that time was the former governor and then United States Senator Huey P. Long. Dent is likely making reference to Creole peoples when he says the swamp dwellers speak a patois of French, English, bush African, and Spanish. Named locales in the story include real-life places such as Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou St. John, and City Park. Local industry is portrayed with Spanish moss drying in sheds. The swamp men use blowguns with tranquilizing darts. Several Native American tribes of Louisiana used blowguns for hunting small game. We cannot know exactly what Lester Dent was thinking when he wrote this story but these facts are good candidates for the germ of the story.