Frank Spearman

Liz Goumas

Frank Hamilton Spearman was born on September 6, 1859, in Buffalo, New York, the youngest of three children of Simon and Emiline Spearman. His father had prospered earlier in his life as a planter in Maryland, and when Spearman was a child, the family lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, where his father ran a general store and later made a living as a traveling salesman. When his father died, Spearman was fifteen years old. He was a good student, but was urged by his mother to drop out of school in order to help raise money to feed his family. Two years later, his mother passed away, and Frank’s older brother, Harry, arranged for him to join him in Chicago to work for Towle, Carle & Co., a successful wholesale grocery company.

At eighteen, Spearman was working as a sugar broker in Chicago, and his association with the well-connected Towle family introduced him into affluent society where he met his future wife, Eugenie Lonergan (“Gene”), the youngest daughter of real estate developer Thomas Lonergan. After a three-year courtship, Spearman proposed to Gene in 1883, and she accepted on the condition that he convert to Catholicism. On June 5, 1884, Eugenie and Frank were married. Their marriage lasted until Frank’s death more than fifty years later. They had five children together: four sons, Frank Spearman Jr., Thomas Clarke, Eugene Lonergan, and Arthur Dunning; and a daughter, Elaine Emiline.

In the first few years of their marriage, the Spearmans lived in a rented house in Appleton, Wisconsin, and Frank continued to work as a salesman, selling coffee, tea, and spices for Franklin MacVeagh & Co. However, Gene wanted to live in a larger town with a more prominent Catholic community, which is one of the things that drew the Spearmans to McCook, Nebraska. McCook was also a railroad town, where as many as eight passenger and freight trains arrived daily. In the eight years he spent in this railroad town, Spearman found early inspiration for his future writing.

In October of 1886, the Spearmans moved to McCook and rented a house on the outskirts of town. With the financial help of his brother, Harry, and his in-laws, the Lonergans, Spearman opened up The Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank. The small bank was prosperous for a number of years, and the Spearmans built a two-story home at 311 Fifth Street. Their quirky homestead, featuring an outdoor tennis court, still stands to this day. Spearman’s work as a small-town banker put him in touch on a daily basis with all of the small-town characters including the railroad men. In 1887, he wrote about his experiences in an essay titled “The Great American Desert.” In this collection of insights about life on the Great Plains, he wrote passionately on all matters pertaining to the strenuous life of the homesteaders. The themes of rugged homesteaders faced with constant adversity and their ability to survive prevailed in his later works.

The Nebraskan droughts and worldwide depression of the early 1890s led to the demise of more than one hundred banks state wide, including Spearman’s. With no promise of a future in the town where Spearman once saw so much potential, Spearman and his family relocated to Omaha, Nebraska, in May of 1894. The memories of the railroad characters he met in McCook and the stories he heard would live on in his writing. Spearman spent a brief period of time in Omaha, and his job as a secretary for a distillery was short lived. While in Omaha, Spearman began to make a habit of writing on a daily basis, and it was there where he wrote “The Velvet Claw,” in which the character of Whispering Smith made his first appearance.

In 1894 and 1895, Eugenie’s parents both passed away, and she inherited a property in downtown Chicago that was valued at around $53,000. The Spearmans relocated again to Wheaton, Illinois, about twenty-five miles from downtown Chicago, and Spearman set up a business property rental company. He ran his business by day and wrote short fiction by night, until 1897, when, with Gene’s blessing, he set out to establish himself as a full-time professional writer. He wrote everything from sports coverage for the Chicago Daily News to boys’ stories for magazines and journals. His first railroad story “Second Seventy Seven” was published in 1897, and it drew the attention of Albert Lee, editor at Harper’s Round Table, who asked him to write more stories to be published as a collection for boys. In 1899, he was asked to write ten more railroad stories for Samuel T. McClure. McClure’s Magazine was publishing the top literary and political writers of the time, and at the age of forty, Frank Spearman was well on his way to becoming a successful writer. However, it was the publication of The Nerve of Foley and Other Railroad Stories in 1900 and Held for Orders in 1901 that truly established him as a prolific writer of railroad fiction.

Spearman began writing Whispering Smith in 1904 in Wheaton, Illinois, but he didn’t get very far. Weary of the cold Midwestern winters and concerned about his wife’s health, Spearman set out on a journey to take his family to California. He made advance arrangements to meet with railroad men along the way in order to gather further research for his new book. In a few weeks time, they arrived in Hollywood, a quaint little California town. It was here that he completed his most famous and beloved novel. Whispering Smith was published in 1906 and sold 38,825 copies within the first six months. The novel remained in print for forty years and has been adapted into film eight times, as well as serialized for television.

Spearman continued writing fiction until 1937, but aside from Whispering Smith, the only other of his works to become a bestseller and be adapted for film was Nan of the Music Mountain, published in 1916, and released as a film starring Wallace Reid in 1917. In 1915, Frank and Eugenie Spearman built a mansion in Hollywood where they would live for the rest of their lives. Spearman continued to write essays for Catholic publications, and also on politics, literature, and business. In 1934, The University of Notre Dame honored him for his wholesome writing with a Laetere Medal, the most distinguished award that can be presented to an American Catholic. Frank Spearman died on December 30, 1937, at the age of 78. Eugenie privately published a memoir, Memories, in 1941 and died in Los Angeles in 1945.


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