Captain Billy

Wilford “Captain Billy” Fawcett was a one-off, a flamboyant character who fought in World War I, became a newspaper reporter in Minneapolis, then started a magazine, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, in 1919. It was intended to be a joke magazine for servicemen around the Twin Cities, but it took off and gained a national readership. Each issue began with a long piece by Captain Billy, called “Drippings from the Fawcett,” in which he talked about his life. The humor he published was bawdy for the time, and he wrote most of the jokes – especially the ones disguised as answers to questions readers sent in. – Sample:

What is Golf? – Ignoramus

Dear Ig: Golf is a game where old men chase little balls around when they are too old to chase anything else.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang sold so well that the Captain got rich, started another magazine, True Confessions, got richer and began hanging out with celebrities. In 1921 he acquired some land on Pelican Lake in north central Minnesota and built the Breezy Point Resort. Throughout the 20s, Breezy Point was a hangout for movie stars and millionaires. Guests included Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Tom Mix, Jack Dempsey and an aspiring politician named Harry Truman, who later bragged about his success playing Captain Billy’s slot machines. The Captain built a dance hall on another lake nearby, and was instrumental in turning what was basically a wilderness into a thriving vacation scene.

Fawcett publications expanded to publish pulp magazines, comic books and Mechanix Illustrated, and was a successful company right up until its sale in the 1980s.

You heard a lot about Captain Billy when I was growing up in St. Paul, and I always wanted to include him in a story. Indian Rose, published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 2009, is loosely based on some tales I heard about him, some other local characters, and their involvement in a bank robbery. Download Indian Rose free, and if you like it try Smoke Got In My Eyes, a novel with the same protagonist, detective Martin McDonough.