THE MAN IN THE BLACK CLOAK (1886) by P.T. Raymond (Francis W Doughty). Before Batman there was the Shadow. Before the Shadow there was Judex. And before Judex there was the Man in the Black Cloak, or simply the Black Cloak as I’ll call him for short. And ironically, four years before The Man in the Black Cloak was published there was simply The Man in Black, a story I will examine another time.
Our present tale first appeared in serialized form in Boys of New York in July and August of 1886. The title figure is a neglected forerunner of dark-attired vigilantes like Judex and the Shadow, plus his paranormal abilities mark him as a very early proto-superhero.
I need to start right at the top with a certain amount of spoilers to make it clear the kind of place the Black Cloak should occupy when tracing early influences on Pulps and superhero stories.
Our title character at first appears to be a somewhat sinister figure as he effortlessly makes his furtive way around 1880s New York City, often glimpsed by young salesman Bob Leeming. Bob is increasingly disturbed, both by the way this man follows him around and by the man’s bright, burning eyes and chalky-white complexion, glimpsed just above his pulled-up coat collar and bandit kerchief.
Eventually, after Bob’s friend and coworker Joe Gill also becomes aware of the existence of the Man in the Black Cloak their place of employment is robbed of a fortune in jewels. Though the pair see the Black Cloak standing before the damaged safe they are unable to apprehend him due to his more-than- human strength, speed and ability to leap incredible distances.
Joe Gill is caught with one of the stolen gems on his person and is assumed guilty since nobody believes him and Bob about the Black Cloak. Joe is carted off to jail to await trial and Bob sets out to track down the black-garbed spectre that he believes framed Joe for the robbery.
As it turns out Bob Leeming and Joe Gill are designated victims of a wide-ranging conspiracy centered around the stolen jewels and a certain priceless piece of real estate. The Black Cloak is actually trying to save the two young men from the criminal scheme and deal out justice to the perpetrators.
Along the way readers get plenty of action and chills as the Man in the Black Cloak is opposed by the true villains of the story and also at times by the suspicious Bob Leeming.
The white-skinned Black Cloak has the ability to see in the dark, can glide like a bird since he is hollow-boned and is immune to certain types of pain due to nerve damage. Despite his emaciated, almost skeletal body he is very strong, as well.
The Man in the Black Cloak turns out to be Bob Leeming’s supposedly long-dead father Oliver and has been using the Leeming Mausoleum as a headquarters, anticipating Judex’s hideout by over two decades.
Long ago Oliver Leeming had been framed by the same conspirators who are now preying on Bob and Joe. The disgraced Oliver faked his death and left America, traveling first to Cuba (still under Spanish rule at that time), then to South America.
The fictional device by which Oliver came by his superpowers would really challenge a modern reader’s suspension of disbelief, but I find it kind of quaint given how old this story is. While in the jungles of South America, a place almost as exotic and alien to 1880s Americans as the moon would be, Leeming contracted a very rare disease.
In fact I’ll call this ailment “Oliver Leeming Disease.” This supernatural malady is fatal, but while slowly dying from the disease Oliver’s body underwent countless changes, his skin growing skeletal white, his eyes mutating to cope in a nocturnal environment and his body withering away – not to skin and bone – but more like muscle and bone.
I like to use the pseudo-scientific explanation that the disease altered the man’s frame the way vines soaked in certain mixtures can become incredibly strong. Hey, it was 1886! This way of acquiring superpowers makes as much sense for that time period as getting bitten by a radioactive spider would over 70 years later.
If there had been a series of stories about the Man in the Black Cloak all kinds of backstory could have been provided. Maybe the disease was carried to Earth by a meteor or something, or was caused by yet-unknown micro-organisms. There was all kinds of potential for prequel stories (as the Black Cloak retraced his path out of South America to Cuba and then to New York City) but that potential never got fulfilled.
At any rate, Bob’s reunion with his father is bitter-sweet since Oliver is still dying of the disease whose side-effects gave him the powers necessary to enact his revenge. ++
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