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Grown men, scientific artists, pirates


Don Dickerman in the late 1920s, dressed, as was his habit, as a pirate.i

Somehow in all her long letters to Charles Mahaffie, Isabel Cooper failed to mention the presence of not one, but two men on the Arcturus Expedition who were obsessed with pirates. Don Dickerman and Dwight Franklin were pirate-obsessed. And along for part of the journey was David Putnam, 12-year-old son of the publisher George Palmer Putnam. David joined the grown men in reveling in the world of pirates.

Dickerman was a painter and illustrator, and Franklin an expert at modeling and sculpting. They were surely valuable to Beebe’s work, and likely went as proper paid staff on the Arcturus, but from their histories, it seems either would have leapt aboard the Arcturus on the first word that the ship would visit Cocos Island, a famed Pacific Ocean treasure island.

Don Dickerman

Dickerman was an artist, but more so a Greenwich Village personality. He gained multiple wry mentions in the gossip pages of The Quill, which tracked and spoofed, and celebrated the characters of the Village in the late 1910s.

Dickerman attended Andover and Yale, and studied art in New York. He had tried toy designing and worked in illustrating children’s books. Doing poorly at those, he opened a tea room in Greenwich Village, mainly as a place to try to sell his hand-painted toys. It did well, and by 1917, he had turned it into a pirate-themed, make-believe lair called “The Pirates’ Den.ii

He joined the Arcturus Expedition as an artist, but seems to have distinguished himself there too as a personality and adventurer, celebrating David Putnam’s 13th birthday with a pirate-themed costume party and a special pirate song.

David wrote: “The night of the birthday party Don Dickerman wore his ‘Marooned man’ costume. It is entirely rags and tatters and mended with bits of old string and leather. With a wig of tangled hair all knotted and a bandanna and a cutlass he looks pretty awful. John Tee Van [an assistant to the project’s director William Beebe] had torn trousers, bare body, a frightful long black wig and he painted on a terrible scar across his face, and slashes of blood on his insteps. Some of the others had fine clothes of velvet with old lace, the rich pirates or those who had stolen booty from some recent captive. And the girls looked like pirates’ wives or sweethearts, except Mother [Dorothy Binney Putnam] who came as a wild woman, my captive, all bound up with ropes and being dragged along.”

Pirate birthday_David Goes Voyaging

David Putnam’s 13th birthday party aboard the Arcturusiii

“About the grandest birthday present one could get was given me by Don. It was his favorite sword, a real old time cutlass which perhaps was used by pirates. He called it ‘Fury’ and got up an awfully funny card to go with it.iv

William Beebe wrote about Dickerman’s zeal in looking for pirate treasure on Cocos Island: “Our atavistic pirate threw his tiny Panama dugout and paddle overboard, dived after, baled it, crawled in, and sped shoreward, in the same spirit with which a pilgrim comes within sight of the Kaaba. No devotee ever climbed the 72 steps of St. Anne de Beaupre with more reverence than Don Dickerman, tumbled ashore by the breakers, crept up the pebbly beach.v

Dwight Franklin

Like Don Dickerman, the artist and sculptor Dwight Franklin was interested in pirates. A profile of Franklin in a theater magazine wrote of his modeling of pirates and other figures:

“Pirates have come into their own this season…For any lover of pirates and the Jolly Roger, there is one experience which is beyond all others. That is a visit to Dwight Franklin’s studio, which lies hidden on the fourth floor of a ramshackle old theatre building on Lincoln Square, New York City. here, with a switching on of the current, small scenes of gory adventure pop at you from the dark. Franklin has a facility for character and grace in modeling that are uncanny. One of his new groups, which is on the deck of a pirate ship, peopled with red-sashed and cutlassed gentlemen, so takes you back into the pages of your Stevenson, that you’ll be able to stand their for hours, dreaming of Long John Silver, and Jim Hawksvi….”

Dwight Franklin diorama 1933 eBay listing

Dwight Franklin pirate Diorama, 1933. This piece sold for just under $3,000 on eBay in 2015

Franklin was on the expedition to make plaster models of specimens. But he joined in the pirate fun. He had begun his career with the American Museum of Natural History, as a taxidermist. He later consulted on Hollywood movies and designed sets, including for Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1926). His work also included museum exhibit design, costume design, and theater set work.

Dwight Franklin at work on ship_Arcturus Adventure

Dwight Franklin, from The Arcturus Adventure

 Franklin drew a pirate scene for David Putnam’s birthday and it became one of the pictures in the boy’s book, David Goes Voyaging, which also had “decorations” by Isabel Cooper and Don Dickerman.

D Franklin Pirate Scene_David Goes Voyaging

From David Goes Voyaging.

Another pirate party

After the Arcturus Expedition the two men, in the Fall of 1925, joined in throwing a pirate-themed costume ball.vii Among the other named hosts, with the men each listed as “Captain,” were “Capt. and Mrs. George Putnam,” the Normal Rockwells, and the muralist Ezra Winter whom Isabel Cooper soon began to work for.

Though she hadn’t mentioned pirates or Dickerman in her letters to Charles, Isabel attended the costume dance.viii And later, in 1926, she and Charles spent time at Dickerman’s “camp” at Kezar Lake in Maine.ix


i Image: http://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2008/12/09/anatomy-of-a-restaurateur-don-dickerman/

ii ”Don Dickerman and His Blue Horse Pills Cigarettes” http://www.freewebs.com/cigpack/bluehorsepills.htm

iii David Putnam, David Goes Voyaging.

iv David Putnam, David Goes Voyaging, pp. 100-101.

v William Beebe, The Arcturus Adventure.

vi “The Gossip Shop,” The Bookman, December 1921, Vol. 54, p. 415.

vii Advertisement, Columbia Spectator, November 23, 1925.

viii Letter, IC to CDM, November 25, 1925.

ix Letter, CDM to IC, July 21, 1926.

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