Hulbert Footner – The Travelling Author

William Hulbert Footner was born in Ontario, Canada on April 2, 1879. His parents were Harold John Footner and Frances Christina Mills, and his mother was visiting her parents at the time of Footner’s birth. The boy’s formal education was limited to grade school, but he spent the rest of his life teaching himself through reading and research. This resulted in him becoming a well-known novelist, playwright and historian, and Footner successfully combined his love of travelling and adventure with that of writing.

One of the first jobs that he held was as an extra in a Sherlock Holmes play, which opened in Baltimore, Maryland and travelled to 41 states and 4 Canadian provinces, during the time that he was in the performance. The lead actor had promised Footner that a play he had written would be produced, but when this did not happen the author wrote and performed in a two-person vaudeville sketch, His Long-Lost Child. After its completion, he journeyed to New York where he lived for a short period in extreme poverty.

The Art of Adventure

In 1906, shortly after Alberta became a Canadian province, Footner was offered a journalism position on the Calgary, Morning Albertan. This was a difficult task as there was no official system of upholding the law in place, and Footner found himself in dangerous situations. He accepted a post as historian to a legislative expedition, while on assignment in Edmonton, and set out with a group to venture into the previous unexplored northern part of the province. Even though the exhibition was abandoned, Footner continued the journey on his own. He paid for the trip by writing about it as he travelled, and selling his tales to several Canadian newspapers.

In 1910, after his northern exploration, the author returned to New York City and sold two westerns to a magazine. This funded his desire to row to Chesapeake Bay, and he set out shortly after. On the way, he was forced to stop in Solomons, Maryland, due to bad weather. He wrote his first novel, Two on the Trail, during this intermission which conveys a detailed account of his 3000-mile solo journey to northern Alberta.

In 1911, Footner teamed up with Auville Eager and once again travelled into the northwest territory, stopping only when they had arrived at Alexandra Falls. He continued basing many of his short stories upon these canoe adventures. They were serialized in Western Story Magazine, and others, and later published as novels. One of these, New Rivers of the North, became a guide for surveyors and mapmakers, who subsequently recorded this territory.

The surveyors honoured Footner for his guidance, by naming a lake (Footner Lake) and a large tree reserve in northwestern Alberta (Footner Forest) after him.

Family Travelling 

His short acting career instilled a great love for Broadway in the author and he wrote many plays. One of these, Shirley Kaye, was produced at the Hudson theater during the 1916-17 season. Even though it was not hugely successful, it was later turned into a film and Footner continued to write other plays.

In 1916, Footner married Gladys March, and used the proceeds from Shirley Kaye to buy and refurbish an old house, Charles Gift, near her birthplace. The couple had four children together: Mary Ann, Phoebe, Jane and Geoffrey.

As Footner’s family grew, he still yearned for travel and his canoe adventures were replaced with frequent vacations within the United States. After the war ended in 1918, the entire family began to spend extended periods in Europe, especially Britain, France and Italy; where Footner’s writing had become very popular.  His detective and adventure stories appealed to European audiences who were intrigued with the concept of life in the United States and Canada.

Christopher Morley, Footner’s lifelong friend and famous editor, inspired the author to concentrate on his well-received crime fiction novels. This sparked the creation of his most successful protagonist, in the early 1920s, Madame Rosika Storey. Her character fit in well during The Golden Era of Detective Fiction, and these stories were published in Argosy All-Story Weekly from 1922 until 1935.

When the Great Depression struck in the 1930s, Footner, like many other authors, suffered a severe financial setback. His health also began to fail, and during the winter of 1933 he had a heart attack. This combination of less income and Footner’s ill health, meant that the family was forced to stop travelling and they settled down in Baltimore.

To resurrect his book sales, and revive his spirit, Footner introduced a new detective to the world, Amos Lee Mappin. Working with his female assistant, Mappin focused on crimes which had taken place in New York’s ‘café society.’ The inclusion of women in many of his stories, in a time when this was extremely rare, appealed to female readers as well as publishers who welcomed the change. Throughout his crime writing career, the author also showed a milder side to crimes than many others of the era.

In addition to his fiction and adventure stories, Footner also wrote historical books about Maryland, including a semi-autobiographical story about his home. Upon his death, officials of the state praised his ability to capture its essence by referring to his non-fiction as ‘considerate, alert, thoughtful and self-effacing from the outside.’ Hulbert Footner died on November 25, 1944 due to a heart attack which occurred while he was proof reading his final novel, Orchids for Murder. He was buried at Middleham Chapel, Lusby, MD.