Monday, September 14, 2009

Roy Norton: The Man Who Died Twice

Almost unknown today, Roy Norton was a newspaperman and author who contributed dozens of stories and articles to pulp and slick magazines for thirty plus years from around 1905. His name cropped up in the SF Encyclopedia work I've been doing, much of which involves tracking down birth and death dates. We already had the years (1869-1942). Even if I couldn't come up with an actual date, it should have been relatively easy to find where he was born as his life encompassed six available US census records.

And that's where I came unstuck, because the guy I found who seemed to be the guy I was looking for—he was a newspaperman, born in Illinois—but this Roy E. Norton was born in September 1867 according to the 1900 US census.

At that time he was living in San Jose, California, with his wife of five years, Anna S. Norton (b. California, Aug 1874), and sons Selkirk Norton (b. California, Mar 1898) and Robert Norton (b. California, Aug 1896).

Having a son named Selkirk makes life rather easier tracking the family. In 1910 Alma was the head of household, with no sign of her husband, and working as a vocal teacher. Both sons were still living with her. Selkirk, born on 13 March 1898, went eventually to Washington, where he died on 6 April 1982.

But no sign of his father in 1910. And no sign of him in either the 1870 or 1880 census.

But definitely a sign of him in 1917, when it was announced that Roy Norton, Story Writer, had been a victim of an auto collision. The New York Times (16 July 1917) carried the news from Los Angeles that, injured when a car in which he was riding crashed into another automobile, the popular short story writer had died early in the morning of 15 July without regaining consciousness.

"For a time there was doubt whether the man killed was really Roy Norton, the author, but tonight Charles E. Van Loan identified the body as that of the story writer."

The biographical details that followed in the obituary noted that Norton had "married Miss Anna Katherine Selkirk of San Francisco in 1884." This would appear to confirm that the man found in the 1900 census was, indeed, our man.

Only it wasn't. On 21 July 1917, the New York Times published a retraction: "The report from Los Angeles that Roy Norton, the author, had been killed in an automobile accident on July 15 was denied yesterday by the local office of Curtis Brown, his literary representatives. A. W. Barmby, manager of the New York office, said that he had received a cablegram from Mr. Brown in London saying that Mr. Norton was alive and well and engaged in literary work in London."

Roy Norton continued to publish more stories and novels, proving that reports of his death were indeed a little premature. He eventually died at the age of 72 at his home in Freeport, Long Island, following a heart attack on 28 June 1942.

Roy Norton was born LeRoy Elisha Norton in Kewanee, Illinois, on 30 September 1869, the son of Frank Elijah Norton and his wife Ellen Frances (nee Way). He was educated at the Denver School of Mines and prospected for gold in California and Alaska in 1890-92 and again just before the turn of the century.

However, some of the occupations given to Roy E. Norton in his obituary in the New York Times would appear to confirm that my original Roy E. Norton (the one we presumed died in 1917) is, in fact, the author Roy E. Norton. According to the Times, Norton was involved in various newspapers, founding the San Bernardino Sun in 1892, serving as editor of The San Jose Herald in 1899 and working on the staffs of The Seattle Star, The Portland (Ore.) Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle. But while he supposedly was editor on the San Jose Herald in 1899, newspaperman Roy Norton—the Roy Norton I thought had died in 1917—was living in San Jose. To confirm conclusively that the two were one and the same person, the Times obituary notes that Norton was survived by two sons, Robert P. Norton of Long Island City and Kirk (an abbreviated version of Selkirk) Norton of Seattle. Norton had married his first wife in San Bernardino on 26 November 1895 (rather than 1894, as the Times had reported).

In 1901, accompanied by the writer Rex Beach, he crossed Alaska from Nome to the Arctic Ocean with a dog team, the first white men ever to make the trip. Between 1903-05 he returned to mining, acting as manager of the Golconda mine in Oregon. In 1906 he was chief engineer for the construction of the Cuban Railroad.

For the next twenty years, Norton made his home mostly in London and Torquay, Devonshire, England. Between 1904 and 1911 he travelled in Europe and the Far East—The Times notes trips through Europe, Turkey and North Africa—with four trips to the U.S.A. He was in California in 1908 when he married his wife, Dorothy (b. Brooklyn, NY, 5 June 1883). He travelled extensively in Russia in 1910 and, in 1911, he and his wife were in Berlin, Germany, before moving back to the UK in May 1913, working for the Curtis Brown News Bureau as a journalist. Precisely what his duties involved were I don't know, but an article about Emperor William II of Germany, published in Contemporary Review in December 1914 and soon after as a pamphlet, was translated into French, German, Dutch, Swedish and Spanish. He served as a captain in the British Army Intelligence in France during part of the war.

After the war he continued to travel widely, to France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, leading an exploration party through the Sinai Peninsula in Northern Arabia. He also directed engineering work in the Sahara Desert for the French Government in 1926, two of his engineering accomplishments in this period being the designing of golf courses in Biskra (French Algeria) and Tunis.

Roy and Dorothy Norton returned to the USA permanently in 1926, although they continued to visit the UK, and I can find no trace of them in the 1930 census.

Having shown that the Roy Norton married to Anna Selkirk Norton in 1900 is the same person as Roy Norton the writer, we still have a few things to resolve. For starters that September 1867 birth date. Almost certainly a transcription error, a 9 becoming a 7. You'd be surprised how riddled with mistakes the census records are.

A little trickier is where Roy Norton was born. In 1900 he was said to have been born in Illinois, and this seems to be confirmed by the New York Times who gave Kewanee, Illinois, as his birth place. But his applications for passports say that he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and an IGI record gives two possible birth places: one states Kewanee, Illinois, while a second describes him as "of Kingsville. Ashtabula, Ohio". It is from IGI records that we know his full proper name and the names of his parents (his father's name is confirmed, by the way, on one of his passport applications, which notes that he, Frank E. Norton, was born in Maine).

The Times (again), notes that Norton had a brother "Gale Norton of Seattle". I'm reasonably sure this is Gale Norton, a hardware salesman, living in Seattle at the time of the 1930 census with his wife Leora and two children (Raymond and Gale) and mother Ella (although her name has also been given as Ellen). Gale, aged 55, was born in Iowa, c. 1874, so was a younger sibling of LeRoy. In the 1920 census their names are given as G. Norman Norton (43), W. Leora (34), W. Raymond (6) and F. Ella Norton (76). In 1910, Gale has become Norman G. Norton (34), living with his mother Ella S. (68) and brother Dean S. (36). In 1900, still as Norman G. Norton (24, born Iowa, July 1875), he is living at the home of his mother, Ella F. Norton (58, b. Ohio, July 1841).

Thanks to his brother, we now find the family in the 1880 census, living in Nodaway, Page, Iowa, where Frank E. Norton is working as a farmer. The family is listed as F. E. Norton (44), Ella F. Norton (38), Lee Roy Norton (10), Dean (7) and Gail (4). As Gale was born in Iowa, we might presume they had been there for at least four years.

Dean, incidentally, subsequently also moved to Washington and worked as a fiscal agent for a mining company. He is thought to have died around 31 January 1935.

Although I can find no trace of the family in the 1870 census, the earliest record I have of Roy/LeRoy/Lee Roy Norton is 1880, which gives his place of birth as Illinois.

Norton stood a half-inch under six feet, had brown hair, grey eyes and a dark complexion according to his passport application. Between 1910 and 1924 his stories were popular in Hollywood with no less than fifteen stories and novels adapted into silent movies (The Plunderer twice). Today he's all but forgotten. Except here... and we're left wondering why fellow writer Charles Van Loan would have identified a mystery victim of a car accident as Roy Norton... and whether it had anything to do with Norton's work for British Army Intelligence or was simply a mistake?

The Vanishing Fleets. New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1908.
The Toll of the Sea. New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1909.
The Garden of Fate. New York, 1910; London, Everett & Co., 1911.
The Plunderer, illus. Douglas Duer. New York, W. J. Watt & Co., 1912; London, Mills & Boon, 1914.
The Mediator, illus. Douglas Duer. New York, W. J. Watt & Co., 1913; London, Mills & Boon, 1916.
The Boomers, illus. W. Goldbeck. New York, W. J. Watt & Co., 1914; London, Mills & Boon, 1914.
The Man of Peace. London & New York, Oxford University Press/H. Milford, 1915
The Flame. A story of what might have been. London, Mills & Boon, 1916.
The Unknown Mr. Kent. New York, George H. Doran Co., 1916; London, Mills & Boon, 1916.
Drowned Gold. Boston & New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1919; London, Skeffington & Co., 1919.
The Scamps. London, Skeffington & Co., 1920.
The Turned Worm. London, Skeffington & Co., 1920.
Mixed Faces. New York, W. J. Watt & Co., 1921.
The Caves of Treasure. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1925.
The Land of the Lost. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1925.
The Shaman. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1926.
The Benevolent Liar. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1927.
The Crusader's Casket. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1928.
The Liberator. London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1928.
The Frozen Trail. New York, E. J. Clode, 1932.
Below the Rio Grande. New York, E. J. Clode, 1933; London, George G. Harrap, 1934.
The Blossom Belle. New York, Curtiss Press, 1934; London, Philip Allan, 1937.
Tangled Trails. New York, E. J. Clode, 1934; London, G. G. Harrap & Co., 1935.
The Canyon of Gold. New York, The Macaulay Co., 1935; London, George G. Harrap, 1936.
Big Jim. London, Cassell & Co., 1937.

Novels as Norman Way
Mary Jane's Pa. New York, The H. K. Fly Co., 1909.
Captains Three. New York, E. J. Clode, 1912.
The Moccasins of Gold, illus. A. W. Parson, New York, E. J. Clode, 1912; as Red Gold, Grant Richards, 1913; as by Roy Norton, London, Mills & Boon, 1918.

Guilty: The Magazine-Gun Tragedy, with William C. Hallowell. Chicago, Laird & Lee, 1904.
The Man of Peace. London, Oxford Pamphlets, 1915.

(* This would have been impossible to cobble together without the help of Victor Berch, John Herrington and Al Hubin to whom I owe many thanks.)


  1. Thanks for the detailed information. I have a 1914 copy of the Sunday Magazine for the Philadelphia Press in which there is a story entitled Honest Joe and written by Roy Norton. From your information, I am assuming he is one and the same. Lynn Simms

  2. Roy Norton was my father's godfather. Roy and my grandfather Jack (John Alexander) Stock who worked for the Amalgamated Press and later set up his own literary agency were good friends. We have a few sad letters from the 1930s when they were both in severe financial difficulties.

  3. Hi Mel,

    I'd be interested in learning more about Jack Stock... I'm always keen to know more about Amalgamated Press employees and I must admit his name is unknown to me.

  4. We don't have a great deal of detailed information about his work as he died when my father was in his early teens. We do know he was editor for the Red and Yellow magazines. He edited "What More do You know" and worked on the Strand Magazine too.

  5. Hi Steve, thank you so much for your article. Roy Norton was my great grandfather, the estranged father of my grandfather Robert. He is a larger then life figure in our family history, we have wonderful photos of his travels around the world. Mel, I'd be very curious to see the copies of the letters exchanged between Roy and Jack Stock. It will be another puzzle piece of the Roy Norton history. Thank you so much, Eleanor Norton

  6. Roy Norton also owned the Blue Devil, a "valuable mine in the Yukon district, with an annual output of $95,000", according to The West Virginian., July 26, 1915 (

    I have collected a dozen of his stories from old newspapers.



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