1933-05 Quest of the Spider

Cover Date: May 1933
Volume 1 # 3
Copyright Date: Friday, April 21, 1933
Author: Lester Dent
Editor: John Nanovic
Story Length: 49,400 words

WHMC: The collection contains eight folders for this story, f. 57-64.


Quest of the Spider by Kenneth Robeson 
Gold in the Hills by Edward L. McKenna 
Double Jeopardy by Arthur J. Burks 
Paitan Light by Frank Chaloner Ames 

Treasure Trove 
 – High Flyers
 – Hawaii National Park
 – Mutiny!
 – Aerial Mining
 – Sailor Sayings
 – Libyan Desert
 – Ivory
 – African Blacksmith
 – Use for Cracked Bells

Gimmick: The main gimmick here would be the swamp dwellers who live in the remotest parts of the wetland.

Goal: Corporate piracy is at play here as an unknown entity kidnaps the owners of various timber businesses and liquidates the properties for cash.          

Recurring Characters: Doc Savage, Monk Mayfair, Ham Brooks, Renny Renwick, Long Tom Roberts, and Johnny Littlejohn.

Huey P. Long: Arriving in the Bayou State, Doc Savage directs Renny to visit the governor in Baton Rouge. Doc informs Renny that the governor will give him a special commission as a forest ranger. The question here is just exactly who is the governor?  Without doubt the name on the mind of most individuals would have been Huey Pierce Long. This flamboyant individual had achieved national prominence and notoriety as a formidable player in popular politics. Long was a revolutionary politician. As governor, he advocated public education, providing free textbooks to local schools. Under his administration, the charity hospital system expanded. Over thirteen thousand miles of new roads were constructed. If a single expression ever existed that described Huey Long it has to be “Every Man a King.”  This aptly describes Long’s social and economic policies.

He was a strong proponent of limiting personal wealth. Under his plan individual incomes would be limited to one million dollars per year. Personal fortunes could not exceed fifty million dollars nor could inheritances be more than five million. He advocated a national annual income of five thousand dollars for every family so that they could have a decent living. Coming during an era when many families lived in abject poverty, millions looked upon Long’s policies favorably. It was a widely held belief that Long would be a candidate for President of the United States in the 1936 election. In 1932, Long was elected to the United States Senate. Taking over as Governor of Louisiana was Oscar K. Allen, Long’s chosen successor. However,  I suspect that the man on most reader’s minds as Governor of Louisiana would have been Huey Pierce Long. Long’s political career ended in September 1935 when he was shot in the state capitol building in Baton Rouge. His wounds were fatal, and he died few days later from an infection.

Timber was big business in Louisiana during the Great Depression. Huge forests of old growth cypress still existed. The firm of Danielsen & Haas of New Orleans could easily have been modeled after existing lumber companies such as the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company or the Great Southern Lumber Company.

The backstory behind Danielson & Haas.

-1928 article

A large portion of this story takes place in Louisiana and references voodoo and cult. One of the more famous stories dealing with the occult and New Orleans would be “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft. Dent reference to sinister and oftentimes bloodcurdling rites of voodoo and awful things in the remote swamps including human sacrifice. Lovecraft and Dent both describe the swamp dwellers as low, mentally aberrant types of mixed blood.

Weird Tales, February 1928

Dent is obviously making reference to Creole peoples when he says the swamp dwellers speak a patois of French, English, bush African, and Spanish.

The story makes no mention of crossing the Mississippi River. The Huey P. Long Bridge was still under construction and not finished until December 1935, so it was impossible to cross the river except by way of ferry boat.

Locales in the story include Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou St. John, and City Park.

Spanish moss is drying in a shed. It was mostly used for mattress stuffing.

The swamp men use blowguns with tranquilizing darts.  Several native American tribes of Louisiana used blowguns. The article below comes from a 1929 newspaper article.  It refers to Bob Becker who published an article on hunting with a blow gun in the March 1929 issue of Field and Stream, “Blowing Up Your Game.”

Doc calls the leading newspaper in town which would be the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Gadgets: Doc uses a mind control drug that turns his captives into automatons incapable of doing anything except following simple orders.

Poisoned insects are used as weapons. Dent later expands this idea as the central plot of “The Invisible Box Murders” published in November 1941.

Supermachine Pistols: “Quest of the Spider” reveals that these armaments are made in secret for Doc Savage.  They are described as being “the smallest and most efficient killing mechanism in existence”.  Later it is explained that Doc makes them himself.

The Crime College: The followers of the Cult of the Moccasin in the Louisiana swamps are sent to northern New York State just as readily as a native New Yorker.  Patients undergo surgically induced amnesia. A deep hatred of crime in instill in each man.  Students learn a useful trade that provides them with a livelihood upon graduation and their reentry into the world.

Danielson & Haas

“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.

NEXT: The Polar Treasure