A New Book on Nevada Ned

Having already mentioned him in an article and lecture on medicine shows, I’m pretty certain I’d not have otherwise written an entire dedicated post about Edward Oliver Tilburn (1859-1940) a.k.a. Nevada Ned Oliver, as I’m certain I’d have assumed that a) that there wasn’t much to tell, and b) finding out one way or the other would take a prohibitive amount of dedicated work. Fortunately, scholar and author Donald K. Hartman has taken care of the latter part, revealing that, on the contrary, there is much to tell, and a lot of it as colorful as we should have expected.

Hartman is a librarian at the University of Buffalo, whose dozen or so previous works include such titles as The World’s Columbian Exposition: A Bibliographic Guide (a favorite topic of ours, too); Fairground Fiction: Detective Stories of the World’s Columbian Exposition; Hypnotic and mesmeric themes and motifs in selected English-language novels, short stories, plays and poems, 1820-83; Death By Suggestion: An Anthology of 19th and Early 20th-Century Tales of Hypnotically Induced Murder, Suicide, and Accidental Death, and The Hypno-Ripper: Or, Jack the Hypnotically Controlled Ripper; Containing Two Victorian Era Tales Dealing with Jack the Ripper and Hypnotism. The latter book includes a story by Tilburn, which led Hartman to explore the man’s background, resulting in the present work. The full title of the new book, which was published earlier this year, is Edward Oliver Tilburn: Profile of a Con Artist.

Though an obscure figure today, Tilburn’s career proves just as fascinating as that of many better known folks we have given attention to. Like Ned Buntline, he wrote racy dime novels. Like J.R. Brinkley (whom I got to play on stage), he was a medical quack lacking both shame and credentials. Like Buffalo Bill Cody, and many another, Tilburn presented himself as a colorful western character. We learn from Hartman, however that in reality Tilburn was as “Back East” as it was possible to be, having been born and raised in Philadelphia, and educated at Yale (although he never stuck around for his degree, despite later claiming to possess a PhD. and an M.D.). He dropped out of school to perform in minstrel shows, which then led to his gigs with the Kickapoo Medicine Shows and those produced by Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. Having studied for the ministry in his youth, he also worked the religious dodge as a phony preacher for a time, in a manner reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry; he was also a crooked political appointee for many years, allowing him to skim public funds. And, like Groucho in The Cocoanuts and many a doleful real life example, he ran sketchy real estate schemes. And he also lectured on spiritualism.

Needless to say, Tilburn was often in trouble with the law. Hartman’s book is full of great reproductions of Tilburn’s mentions in the press: half of which are Tilburn’s own puffery, advertising his wares and upcoming events; the other half being mentions of his arrests and trials. It is interesting to note the wide variety of hustles he engaged in. I’ve always been fascinated by and amused at how hard criminals work sometimes. It’s almost like some people are dishonest on principle; it certainly isn’t a question of laziness. We are also amused by the fact that, unlike the anti-hero of Nightmare Alley we imagine, Tilburn lived to a ripe old age, passing away when he was over 80. Could it be that crime PAYS? Nah!

At any rate, for those interested in such topics as true crime, and life on the show biz fringes, we highly recommend this thorough and thoroughly readable book. Get your copy here.