Casting a Little Light Among the Shadows



Arn McConnell


Ever since Walter B. Gibson, under the nom de plume of Maxwell Grant, brought to the public's attention that dark-garbed crimefighter known as the Shadow, there has been a great deal of uncertainty and controversy over the man in the slouch hat and inverness cloak. Mysterious is the keyword in describing the Shadow, and both biographers and bibliographers have made much of this point in the past. In the forty-seven years that have passed since the first issue of the Shadow's magazine appeared, a number of facts--both important and trivial--have been brought to light regarding this illusive individual; yet the Shadow's past, those years that fell before he took up the twin .45 automatics, has been almost universally ignored by historians. Many biographers have stated that there are no established facts to follow, and that any description of the Shadow's past could only be a matter of conjecture. Fortunately, this is patently untrue; there are facts, and indeed, they paint a fairly complete picture of the Shadow as a man.

Before introducing the new theories, we must first examine what has been previously established. What do we know exactly of the Shadow's early years, so far?

Not a lot. The following list shows just how clouded the Shadow's past really is:

1) We know that the Shadow claimed to be, in reality, Kent Allard, WWI aviator-cum-spy. (Walter B. Gibson, The Shadow Unmasks, 1937).

2) Philip Jose Farmer tells us that the Shadow's real name is Allard Kent Rassendyll, and he is brother to G-8 and the Spider. (Philip Jose Farmer, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, [revised edition], 1975).

3) Walter Gibson has placed the Shadow's birthdate at c. 1892. (Frank Eisgruber, Jr., Gangland's Doom, 1974).

4) The Shadow was known as the Dark (or Black) Eagle during the war, and he occasionally pretended to be shot down over Germany only to don black clothing and wreak chaos upon the Germans. (Gibson, The Shadow Unmasks).

5) Sometime during the war years or directly after, the Shadow's face was hideously scarred, leaving him without lips. (Will Murray, "Out of the Shadows," [ an interview with Gibson], Duende #2 Winter 1976-1977).

6) The Shadow undoubtedly spent a good deal of time in the Orient after WWI, where he learned many of his "tricks." (Eisgruber, Gangland's Doom).

7) During the war, the Shadow was in Russia as an agent of a foreign government and was given the honor of joining an elite Russian organization, the Seventh Star. His girasol ring was given to him at this time as a "key"--when it was sprung open, a seven-pointed star could be seen engraved on the base of the stone. (Gibson, The Red Menace, 1931)

8) According to Gibson, the girasol was not only an admission key into the Seventh Star, but was once a part of the Romanoff jewel collection, and given to the Shadow by the last of the Czars. (Gibson, The Romanoff Jewels, 1932; Death Triangle, 1933)

9) Contradictory to the Seventh Star story, a later text says the Shadow's ring flips back to reveal the sign of Chow Lee. This sign was an insignia given to only a handful of trustworthy people by Chinese leaders. (Gibson, Six Men of Evil, 1933)

This is virtually all that is known of the Shadow's pre-crimefighting life. As Frank Eisgruber, Jr. points out, the gap between his birth and WWI is both suspicious and disturbing. How could even so mysterious a character as the Shadow successfully cover up twenty-five years or so of his life?

The fact of the matter is he never made an attempt to do so. We have evidence of the Shadow's early life, physical appearance, and education before us, although it has been sadly neglected by pulp scholars.

The following statements appeared as clues in a contest to describe the Shadow, in Detective Story Magazine between February 7 and April 11 of 1931. At this time, the Shadow had not yet begun his literary career. The clues were as follows:


"By the mark of the cobra on my chest.


"Prison bars? Ha! A tight squeeze, perhaps, but it can be done.


"Artistic hands have I, and at my will, a pack of cards is twain.


"Tis hard for me to disguise features akin to those of the winged terror of the feathered tenants of the barnyard. An inky dye must I apply to hide my Nordic features.


"As the unrelenting hound is to the fox, so am I to malefactors. But a whipped gait I take when on the scent.


"A dove to those I love; a jungle thing that cannot change its spots to those whose wicked hands I'd stay; and oft like a bird, I take to the air when seeking out a lair.


"'8 triple A,' the salesmen say, and Beau Brummell's tastes are mine. But forty ways I look, and for forty persons am mistook.


"Twenty years ago, for me, precocious youth. 'B.A.,' and let those from any clime converse near by and their secrets will be mine.


"Low doorways please me not, and in college I stroked my crew.


"Many have I brought to durance vile, and made to sit where chained lightning strikes."

Exactly why these extremely specific clues have been ignored for so long is a mystifying question. Some historians have simply dismissed them; Robert Weinberg, for example, found it hard to believe the Shadow had blonde hair and a cobra tattooed on his chest, although both of these qualities were never actually denied in the texts. (The Shadow has become known with black hair primarily because the pulp artists chose to depict him that way). These clues are actually very helpful in determining the Shadow's history.

Let us take a look at the influences that helped shape this enigmatic man. Gibson, as previously stated, has placed the Shadow's birth at around 1892. Farmer tells us that the Shadow's father was a recent immigrant to New York, and we may safely assume that he brought up his children in the preferred Continental manner--within a strict and disciplinarian atmosphere. Since the Shadow's childhood must have fallen in the years 1982-1910, young Allard Kent Rassendyll grew up in an imperialistic, wartorn America reeling under the labor confrontations posed by the Industrial Revolution. All of these things--the strict household, the American Imperialism heralded by Teddy Roosevelt, and the growing trend towards socialism among U.S. employees--would have a great influence on Allard.

Although PJF never says so, the Shadow must have grown up in a wealthy home. In later years, Gibson would relate how easily the Shadow could fit into the role of Lamont Cranston, and many of the Shadow's other disguises were rich and distinguished personas. Undoubtedly, his leanings towards wealthy characters stemmed from his childhood days.

The Detective Story Magazine clues are quite specific in stating the Shadow went to college. Clues 8 and 9 both mention college, and in the later clue, the Shadow states: "in college I stroked my crew." This clue is very helpful in telling us which college the Shadow attended.

"Stroked my crew" refers to the collegiate sport of rowing. The Shadow is saying here that he acted as "stroke" for his rowing team. (The stroke is the crewmember that sets the rowing pace). He speaks of this fact proudly here, so we may safely assume his was a winning team. If the Shadow was born in 1892, then he must have attended college around 1910 or so. The two winning teams from the New York area in that year were Cornell and Princeton.

Even a cursory amount of research can determine which, of the two, the Shadow probably attended. In the Encyclopedia Brittanica, under "Princeton University," we find the following paragraph:

"Characteristic of life at Princeton...are the...system of elective upper-class eating clubs, and the form of student self-government, illustrated particularly by the honor system, under which undergraduates participate in the administration of university discipline."

Surely this was the Shadow's university. Here, in 1910, he was already becoming active in administering discipline to his peers...and the Princeton establishment of upper-class eating clubs must have appealed to the young man who would later spend much time in even more tightly-restricted eating clubs like the Cobalt Club.

So there can really be little doubt that the Shadow entered Princeton in c. 1910, (the same year, interestingly enough, that Woodrow Wilson resigned the presidency at Princeton. Wilson would, of course, go on to become president of a much larger organization). Perhaps it was here, at Princeton, that the Shadow first met his "old friend," Burbank. Burbank would go on to become one of the Shadow's most prized agents.

We can safely say that college life must have been good to the young Shadow. He surely felt at ease in Princeton's complex social structure; he was probably doing well in his classes. But college, like all good things, eventually had to come to an end.

It's conceivable that the Shadow achieved his diploma early. The eighth Detective Story Magazine clue would indicate this, and we know that the Shadow must have entered the military a few years before America herself became active in the war.

Where the Shadow first learned to fly, we cannot say for certain. Perhaps he had learned before he ever entered the martial way of life; no one can say for sure. We do know, from PJF in The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, however, that he was flying for the Russians by 1916. PJF also tells us he was going by the name of Kentov at that time, and that he had already started fighting the Germans. Although Farmer says he was flying under the control of the Czar, he must have been loaned to Russia by some other country (perhaps the U.S.), as the Shadow himself has stated that he was in Russia as an agent for a foreign country. It's possible that the Shadow section of Peerless Peer is fictitious, but PJF says the book is really by John Watson, and neither Farmer nor Watson have a reputation for lying.

The Shadow, nee Rassendyll, alias Allard, aka Kentov, probably spent some of his military life in China, also. Here he learned his many magicks and built up friendships with prominent Chinese officers (like General Cho Tsing). Here, also, he had the cobra tattooed on his chest; one is indeed led to wonder if the Shadow learned baritsu, Sherlock Holmes' Tibetan fighting style, while in China.

From this point on, the Shadow's career is fairly well mapped-out. After the war, the Shadow rejected the idea of becoming a mercenary as too inhuman; soon, he noticed the growing crime rate in his native country and started the machinations that would lead to the creation of the Shadow. From what Gibson has revealed, we may assume this dreaded crimefighter made his first appearance c. 1920 or so.

Only one major mystery is left in the Shadow mythos. In the February, 1929 issue of Fame and Fortune Magazine, there appeared a story called "The Shadow of Wall Street." Written by Gordon C. Jenks, under the pen-name of Frank S. Lawton, the story dealt with a mysterious figure who protected small investors on Wall Street. A good two years before the Shadow's first magazine, we have a story about a crimefighting character called the Shadow!

At first, it might appear these two Shadows are the same man. It is clearly stated in the Fame and Fortune story, though, that the Wall Street Shadow was in reality a broker named Compton Moore. Then one might think that, since this story predated "our" Shadow's literary career, Compton Moore might have been the original Shadow and that Allard Kent Rassendyll, having heard of this Shadow, took some of the man's modus operandi as his own. Unfortunately for this theory, the evidence is too strong that our Shadow started his career a good five years before Compton Moore appeared on the scene. One is led to wonder if , perhaps, the real Shadow had a hand in Moore's retirement as a crimefighter.

So what are we left with? A much clearer picture of the Shadow, hopefully. Instead of the dark-garbed, mystery-drenched figure before, we now see a blonde, lipless (perhaps faceless) ex-aviator. From New York, to Princeton, to Russia, and back to New York, there are still mysteries in the Shadow's story. There always will be mysteries in the Shadow's story.

And so it should be.


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All rights reserved. The text of the article is copyright 2000 by the author, Arn McConnell. No copying or reproduction of this article or any portions thereof in any form whatsoever is permitted without prior written permission and consent of the author.