Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master Trickster

Edgar Rice Burroughs' parents quickly took note of his humorous trait while he was yet a young child.  The trickster, prankster in him remained until his dying days.  Some of Burroughs first written humor appeared in his school paper, The MirrorMost of his contributions were submitted under a pseudonym, or no name at all, and many can not be positively identified.  In an 1872 issue of The Mirror under the contributors section, it expresses indebtedness to E. R. Burroughs for cuts only.

As he grew older Burroughs' quick sense of humor and love of practical jokes often got him into trouble.  One can uncover many a prank by the youngster when reading about his days at the Michigan Military Academy.  Although Burroughs' pranks did often get him into hot water they were never of a devious nature.  In the majority of his troublesome cases it was just an innocent joke carried a little to the extreme and never anything too serious.

This humor was even carried into his adult life through his stories, art and actual living.  In more than one letter to an editor it was Edgar Rice Burroughs', the Virginian, (narrator of the introductions Tarzine #34), doing the writing and not the struggling author from Chicago, Illinois.  Burroughs' loved to mix reality with fantasy, as well as delivering off stage messages.

In Swords Of Mars, Burroughs devised the first word in the prologue and in each of the first 24 chapters that follow, so that the first letters compose a message to his second wife.  "To Florence with all my love Ed."  It was also the author's common practice to give his heroes names that were the same as friends and relatives.  The same holds true about dates.  Most are usually someone's birthday he knew, or some other special date that played an important role in his life.  The following are a few examples that were not mentioned in Tarzine #28 and #39.
  1. The Mad King:  Beatrice, Nebraska is the hometown of Burroughs' life long friend Herbert (Bert) T. Weston who he first met at Phillips Academy.  Bert's wife, Margaret, is also mentioned.  Victoria, at the beginning of the story, wants to go riding with Lieutenant Butzow and regrets her promise to Margaret to play bridge.  The Princess Emma Von der Tann is named after his first wife Emma.
  2. The Son Of Tarzan:  Both Korak and Burroughs' son were named John, but were called Jack.
  3. At The Earth's Core:  David Innes most likely got his name from David Burras of Connecticut who was Burroughs' ancestor who was responsible for changing the families last name to Burroughs.  Abner Perry most likely gets his name from Abner Tyler Burroughs, the author's grandfather.
  4. Pellucidar:  Frank Downes, the English telegrapher's name, is very close to the pseudonym used by Burroughs in November 1935 when the author entered the hospital and used the false name of John B. Downs.
  5. The Land That Time Forgot:  Bowen Tyler most likely gets his name from Burroughs' family name of Tyler.  Both the author's father and grandfather had the middle name of Tyler.
  6. The Master Minds Of Mars:  Ulysses Paxton may have received his name from two sources.  In 1891 while Burroughs was cow punching in Idaho the author became friends with a man that had been a hired gunman in the sheep and cattle wars.  He told Burroughs a story about the time he had killed another gunman named Paxton.  There was also an H.C. Paxton who was the editor of The Country Gentleman which Burroughs dealt with in 1926.
  7. Pirates Of Venus:  Carson Napier probably received his name from an English fellow that belonged to "The May Have Seen Better Days Club" which Burroughs was a member.
  8. Tarzan And The Lion Man:  At the books end John Clayton tries out for the movie role of Tarzan but is beat out by a fellow named Cyril Wayne.  He most likely got his name from Cyril Rothmund, Burroughs' secretary who began in 1927. 
The author's sense of humor is a trademark few are aware of except for the most in-depth Burroughs fans.  The listed examples are not the end of Burroughs' pranks, however.  They go much further.  Most fans are aware of the author's most famous pseudonym, Normal Bean.  Bean was the slang of its day for gourd or noggin head.  But how many are familiar with Burroughs' other pseudonyms; Edgar Burr, John B. Downs, John Mann, John Tyler McCulloch, Joe Leuis and others not yet identified from his days writing for The Mirror.

Burroughs loved a joke with taste, and when the opportunity arose where one could be played you could rest assured it would be.  Back in 1929 the magazine editor of The Literary Digest asked the author for some photographs of a biographical nature to illustrate an article he had submitted, entitled "How Tarzan Kept The Wolf From The Door."  Burroughs conspired with his son, John Coleman, who resembled his father, to create the required photographs.  Needed were shots of the author as a cowboy in Idaho, a member of the 7th U.S. Cavalry in the Arizona Territory and as a railroad cop in Salt Lake City.

Earlier Burroughs had rented his land to a movie studio with the understanding that the set be left intact so that the author could rent the facilities to other interested studios.  Still standing in the back pasture of the Tarzana Ranch were the remains of this set which was used in the movie "Rio Ritta".  Using this set and costumes rented from the Western Costume Company in Hollywood the two (ERB & JCB) shot the pictures.  After  the film was developed, Burroughs carefully 'aged' the negatives with a few scratches and soaked off the emulsion at the corners using hot water. 

In The Literary Digest article of November 30, 1929, Jack, at age sixteen appears as his father dressed as a 7th Cavalry officer with a mustache.  Jack also appeared as a cowboy in Idaho.  Burroughs with the same false mustache at the age of fifty-four, posed as the Salt Lake City railroad policeman.

In one of Burroughs' columns in the late 1930's the author even announced that he was going to run for president, jokingly of course.

Before closing I would like to offer one more example of just how crafty Burroughs was with words.  In 1942, while stationed in Honolulu, the author had a coded message contest with the Army.  Burroughs' friendly opponents were Brigadier General Tom Green and Colonel C.A. Powell of the Signal Corps.  Green boasted the Signal Corps. could decipher in fifteen minutes any message the author could create.  Burroughs supplied them a note in what he called the 'Burroughs Undecipherable Cipher'.  Three weeks later the Signal Corps. still had not decoded the message.



James Michael Moody


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