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New Bay Books Maryland Writer Series: Hulbert Footner 100 Years After

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

One of early 20th century's finest adventure and detective fiction authors wrote in Calvert County, branching out to New York, London and wherever his talent took him.

This is the 100th anniversary of Hulbert Footner’s The Woman from Outside, one of more than 50 novels he wrote in a literary career of notable output. Footner, who was born on April 2, 1879, also was a successful playwright, actor and storyteller whose charm was notable in his life and death.

The Woman from Outside, set in the Northwest Canadian wilds, features one of the Royal Canadian Mounted's finest pursuing a mad man, with moral quandaries about Native Canadians and a canoe journey down a ferocious, unexplored river. It revolves around a mysterious woman, a frequent approach of a writer critics called “unusually female-oriented.” His most celebrated character bequeathed to a genre is Madame Storey, an eminent criminologist in three of his 1920s novels.

Footner’s Woman from Outside (published in London two years before as On Swan River) is a worthy escape, recalling novels before terrorists, venal politicians and digital fiends crowded plots. A century ago, untamed North American lands beckoned writers as migration and avarice threatened doom to cultures and species.

Footner heeded the call. After a stint as reporter on the Morning Albertan in his 20s, he made a 3,000-mile canoe trek in the Canadian Northwest where mapmakers had yet to succeed and non-natives were a distinct minority. Later, he again traveled long and far in the region,

William Hulbert Footner was born in Canada, then came East with mother. He made his first canoe trip aimed at a published article down the Hudson River.

People offer stories about arriving in Maryland never to leave. Few tales would rise to the drama of Footner's.

He paddled a canoe from Manhattan to Baltimore and would have continued down the Chesapeake Bay had a storm not intervened. It was but a brief delay. He hopped a steamer to Solomons, where he found a woman from a fine family (Gladys Marsh), a home built in 1650 that he wrote a book about (Charles’ Gift), and a lifelong writing mojo.

Footner paid his Maryland writing dues with perceptive regional books, among them: a biography of Joshua Barney, a Marylander and Navy officer who served with gallantry in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812; and Rivers of the Eastern Shore (1944), completed after he’d turned from fiction back to journalism late in life. He was at work on a similar volume on the Virginia Tidewaters when he died.

“After three centuries of easy living, the Eastern Shore has established a tradition of the good life which consists of superior eating and drinking, leisure, sport and sociability. They are the greatest visitors and gossips in the nation.”

The enormity of Footner's body of fiction stands out. He was turning out two books a year at times in a fiction career that began in 1911 with Two On The Trail, his first book written in Solomons. Some of his work made it into film, beginning with Ramshackle House, a silent film in 1924.

It was an era of alluring titles, and Footner had his share, among them: The Fugitive Sleuth (1918); The Substitute Millionaire (1919); A Self-Made Thief (1921)' and Murder of a Bad Man (1935); Unneutral Murder (1944).

Footner died in 1944, after a heart attack, on a Saturday night in November. He had spent several days in the hospital just prior. He was said to be proofreading his next novel, Orchids to Murder, when he passed. The story of international espionage was published a year later. Footner is buried at Middleham Cemetery, in Lusby.

Footner wrote at a time when newspapers had the sense to serialize novels and lure subscribers with fiction. The Baltimore Evening Sun did so, like many papers, with Footner's The Owl Taxi, published in 1921.

“A dead body?” the man gasped again, and instinctively looked around for a policeman.

On the floor of the cab lay a bulky body, queerly huddled on top of an old valise. The light of the street lamp fell on the upturned yellow, dreadfully quiet face.

“Don’t miss this serial story in the Evening Sun,” the paper’s promo beckoned. “Fill out the coupon now and be sure not to miss a single chapter.”

Footner was a long-time fixture in newspaper pages in the United States and Canada, and in the early 1940s joined the Sunpapers staff, writing about war and the impacts.

While turning out novels noted for their humanistic approach, Footner wrote in newspapers about the need for moderation. He decried the internment of Japanese-Americans, warning of “mob spirit” dangers sweeping the land.

He offered tips that make sense a century later. He advised not to write in “high-brow” fashion and to look close to home for appealing topics.

“There is a wealth of literary material in southern Maryland quite untouched,” he told a Baltimore Sun interviewer in 1922.

When Footner died, the more famous Marylander H.L. Mencken, wrote in a note to Gladys Marsh Footner: “You were married for 30 years to one of the most charming men who was ever on earth. I needn’t tell you that I will miss him tremendously.”

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