1934-09 Fear Cay

Cover Date: September 1934
Volume 4 # 1
Copyright Date: August 17, 1934
Author: Lester Dent
Editor: John Nanovic
WHMC: The collection contains nine folders for this story, f.197-205
Recurring Characters. The entire Iron Crew are all present in this story.


Fear Cay by Kenneth Robeson
Golden Freight by John E. Jennings, Jr.
The Killers by L. R. Sherman
Free Doc Savage Portrait
World’s Largest Gold Dredge

Doc Savage Club
– Codes and Deeds
– Seal Hunting

From Our Members

Note: The table of contents lists the Free Doc Savage Portrait on page six, but it appears to be missing. The story starts on page seven.

A policeman expresses his excitement with an utterance of “begorra.” The Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary lists this as an Irish euphemism for “by God.”

Doc Savage takes a blue army automatic from Leaking. This would be the Colt M1911 45-caliber automatic pistol.

Leaking perspires so freely that his garments are wet. This condition is known as hyperhidrosis.

Doc and his men speak Mayan in order to converse in secret.

Doc Savage initially forbids Pat Savage from joining them but backs off when Monk protests and mentions how well Pat managed herself in Canada (“Brand of the Werewolf”).

Hallot’s men use tear gas against Monk and Ham.

Q. Santini, the president of Fountain of Youth, Inc. presents a considerable a spectacle with his moustache, red sash, and derby. His name means holy picture in Italian.

Doc Savage uses iodine vapor to bring out pencil impressions.

Dan Thunden calls up Doc while at the Fountain of Youth, Inc. He tells them Kel Avery is at 1120 Fish Lane. Dent is telling the reader that something is “fishy” about this.

Doc has an innate time-telling ability.

Monk makes a derogatory comment about the Flushing marshes. He was well within his rights to do so as it was a huge dumping ground. F. Scott Fitzgerald used one of the more infamous dumps, the Corona ash dump, as “The Valley of Ashes” in “The Great Gatsby.” Reclamation would soon begin a few years later as the site for the 1939 World’s Fair.

Doc’s car has special plates.

The expression “Tutto ad un tratto” translates as “all of a sudden” from Italian.
Old Dan Thunden with his long white beard comes across something like Rip Van Winkle or Methuselah. One source of inspiration for the story may have come from the May 15, 1933, issue of Time Magazine which featured an article on Li Ching-Yuen and was reputed to be 197 years old at his death.

Dan Thunden’s schooner, which disappeared in 1843, was named the Sea Nymph; a name derived from Greek mythology.

The Evening Post, Thursday, October 14, 1836

Da Clima is a bodyguard for actress Maureen Darleen. His name means climate or weather conditions in Italian.

A couple of interesting slang terms crop up. Monk calls Dan Thunden a “gink” which means odd or strange. Later, Thunden refers to Doc’s men as scuts. The term is used to describe the stiff short tail on a deer or rabbit. Dan Thunden may have been indirectly called them all asses.

Readers learn that Doc is also an authorized postal inspector.

Doc has a pawn broker’s license pulled when Da Clima makes an illegal firearms purchase. New York passed the Sullivan Act in 1911 in an effort to restrict firearm ownership.

Dent makes a blunder in the scene where Johnny locates Santini and his men on the beach. “Several men besides Santini, Hallet and Leaking were in the shack, among them the killer of the banker, Thackeray Hutchinson, who had masqueraded as an elevator operator. However, the murderer of Hutchinson fell to his doom when he attempted to escape. But not to worry as Dan Thunden fixes this mistake a few passages later.

Flying toward Fear Cay in the Caribbean Sea, Doc’s plane picks up an SOS distress call on their radio.

Doc contacts the Navy’s hydrographic office and learns the location of Fear Cay.

Monk drops a rock into a deep pit in the tunnel complex and counts to twenty before hearing it strike. So how deep is the pit? It is a very deep pit if Monk’s twenty-count is equal to twenty seconds. It would take the rock about 16 seconds to fall 4,000 feet. Another four seconds would be needed for the sound to travel to the top of the pit, giving a total of twenty seconds in all.

Light-spot cartridges for the supermachine pistols are mentioned in the story.

The basic gimmick in the story turns out to be the Fountain of Youth. Florida is used as a story location which is a tip of the hat to Ponce De Leon. Johnny finds the ruins of a Roman galley and produces a nice hypothesis on how the silphium got to Fear Cay.

The mysterious skeleton death is revealed to be the work of carnivorous army ants.

The strange plant Johnny mentions in the story, silphium, was a real plant and not just some literary creation. The roman historian Pliny the Elder left some records about the plant. The story mentions ancient Egypt, Carthage, and Cyrenaica. It was native to Cyrene in what is now Libya. There were several different varieties of the plant growing around the Mediterranean region, but the one growing here was the most potent and therefore the most desirable.

Essex County Herald, Thursday, February 19, 1931

Uses for the plant ranged from a cooking spice to a variety of medicinal applications. The many distinct parts of the plant – stalk, flowers, sap – each had varied uses covering a wide range of aliments. The plant did not take to cultivation and seemed to only grow in its native region. Attempts to transplant this particular variety did not succeed. The plant became extinct around 100 A. D.  from overuse.

Little Orphan Annie
Silphium may be gone but it has not been forgotten.  The Dick Tracy comic strip made a mention of Doc Savage and Silphium in the daily comic strip that ran on February 1, 2017.  Oliver Warbucks from the Little Orphan Annie strip makes a special appearance in his search for Silphium.

A 1930 National Geographic article provided a source of descriptive text used in “Fear Cay.” 

Lester Dent’s Secret Source of Silphium

Several articles on silphium appeared in various newspapers between 1900-1933. A search shows over 130 matches. However, a search for the period 1930-1933 produces 33 results. These were undoubtedly inspired by an article in the June 1930 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The article was titled “Cerenacia, Eastern Wing of Italian Libia” by Harriet Chalmers Adams. The article fills some 37 pages with a multitude of large photographs accompanying text.

One section of the article is titled “The Home of that Miraculous Drug of the Ancients, Silphium.” The comparison of the descriptive text and order is very similar to that used by Lester Dent in “Fear Cay.”

The evidence is clear that Lester Dent got his information about silphium from this article in National Geographic.

National Geographic
A local source of wealth lay in the medicinal plants native to the plateau on which Cirene stood. Chief among these was the silphium, found in no other land. It became so valuable that the coins minted in Cirene bore a design of the king watching men weigh this precious plant.

Fear Cay
“Right,” Johnny nodded vehemently. “Cirene stood on a plateau, and its source of wealth was a fabulous medicinal herb known as silphium. Even the coins of Cirene bore a design of the ruler watching his subjects weigh this remarkable plant.

National Geographic
It was said to cure every ailment, from croup to the wounds made by the merciless whippings of that day. Ships from every land now came into the port of Apollonia… As the fame of silphium grew, its price soared.

Fear Cay
“Legend gives this herb great powers, claiming it cured every ailment; wounds — even disease. From all over the ancient world ships came for this herb, and it became extremely high-priced.

National Geographic

To free themselves from the enormous tax placed on it by the Romans, the natives living in the neighborhood of Cirene destroyed the plants. In time silphium became extinct, …

Fear Cay
“The Romans came and put a tax on silphium, an enormous tax. The people of Cirene were enraged and, hating the Romans tremendously, they set about destroying the herb to rid themselves of the high taxes. In time, silphium became extinct.