Dr. C. Flemington Davenport, DDS (1837-1911)July 21, 2009 at 9:29 am | Posted in J. Frederick | Leave a comment
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Now all but forgotten, Charles Flemington Davenport was, at the height of his success, one of America’s most popular authors of mysteries, gothic horror-romances, and penny-dreadfuls. Born on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, the son of a charwoman and a pheasant-skewerer, Dr. Davenport was a successful and well-respected Philadelphia dentist when one warm night in July 1860, after an evening of port-drinking and scrimshaw-carving with some of his sailor friends at the Stabbed Hog Tavern, he was struck by a sudden burst of inspiration, so intense and vivid and fully-formed that he later described it in one of his many autobiographies as “quite not unlike suddenly feeling the effects of many draughts of whaletooth-dust–infused port while surrounded by sweat-drenched sailors in an enclosed wood structure.” After an estimated 32 nonstop hours of scribbling he had produced his debut novel The Strange Case of the Pirate’s Nefarious Curse (Being a Relation of Certain Recent Unusual Events). Published a fortnight later, it was an almost instantaneous success, eagerly embraced by a reading public hungry for pirate curse–themed literature (indeed, 1859-62 is remembered as the Pirate Curse Era in American fiction). Dr. Davenport was able to abandon his dental practice (in mid-patient, some accounts suggest) for the even more lucrative world of ink-stained fame. As it happened, however, Dr. Davenport almost immediately ran out of ideas and never experienced a similar burst of inspiration ever again, try as he did to imbibe as much port and whaletooth-dust (well, it was some kind of fine white powder, anyway) as he could comfortably stand. His follow-up novels were increasingly derivative, each of them featuring less and less original ideas: The Case of the Pirate’s Other and Also Nefarious Curse, then The Case of the Pirate’s Third Curse Which Was Also Bad, and culminating in The Case of the Other, Different Pirate and the Completely Different Curse, which consisted mostly of a hastily scribbled summary of the previous books, followed by 45 pages of recycled shipping reports and then 80 blank pages. Being an upstanding, well-bred gentleman with no desire to deceive the public out of their hard-earned money, Dr. Davenport was preparing to retire from his short-lived literary life and return to dentistry, when he and his publisher were met with a surprise: all of the books sold incredibly well, in astonishing numbers for their time, each one better than the last. America thirsted for new books from their beloved Dr. Davenport. With each new book, with each new desperate grasp on Dr. Davenport’s part for inspiration that never came, his fame and success only increased exponentially. Women fainted at his speaking engagements; men trampled each other just for a chance to shake his hand. Blood-soaked riots erupted at bookstores that ran out of his works. Pressed by his publisher for more novels, Dr. Davenport locked himself away in his estate, frantically drinking port, carving scrimshaw, and trying to come up with something new, deciding finally to turn his attention away from pirate-themed horror and toward drawing-room mysteries, and developing a habit of naming characters after objects that happened to be nearby. His most famous and lasting creations, the brilliant detective John Lamp and his plucky assistant John Curtains, starred in a series of novels that shattered all sales records, among them The Case of the Stolen Things, The Case of the Thieves, The Case of the Robbers, The Case of the Stealing Robbery Men, The Case of the Crime, and The Case of the Mystery. Dr. Davenport spent much of this phase of his career wracked with guilt, secretly hoping to be exposed so that he could retire in peace. He was sure that The Case of the Fraudulent Mystery Writer would do the trick, but it proved to be his most successful work to date, and was turned into the very first narrative motion picture in 1888. The public’s enthusiasm for his work unequivocally refused to subside. “Flemington” was the most popular name for both boys and girls in the 1880s, 40-foot solid gold statues of Dr. Davenport were erected in cities up and down the Eastern seaboard, and Mexico briefly succeeded in taking over about half of the United States in 1884 while the country was distracted by the release of The Case of the Thing That Happened. In the three years between the release of his smash hit The Case of Me Just Banging Out Nonsensical Strings of Letters on the Keyboard to See If You’ll Notice and his death at age 74, Dr. C. Flemington Davenport, DDS had written another 102 novels, not one of them, contemporary scholars agree, containing even the merest shred of a single original or innovative idea. All businesses were closed for four days as Dr. Davenport was given a state funeral, his grave still guarded at all hours by the National Park Service to this day.
Dr. Davenport was married for 52 loving years to his doting wife Laura, mother of his 11 children. Today, his numerous descendents live throughout the United States. In keeping with their esteemed ancestor’s proud tradition of not letting a lack of good ideas get in the way of giving the public what it wants, most of them currently work in the film industry. – J. Frederick