Wells, Carolyn (1862–1942)

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Wells, Carolyn (1862–1942)

Prolific American author and editor. Born on June 18, 1862 (some sources cite 1869), in Rahway, NewJersey; died on March 26, 1942, in New York City; daughter of William Edmund Wells (a real estate and insurance salesman) and Anna Potter (Woodruff) Wells; educated in Rahway public schools and the Sauveur School of Languages in Amherst, Massachusetts; married Hadwin Houghton (of the Boston publishing family), in 1918 (died 1919); no children.

Selected writings:

At the Sign of the Sphinx (charades, 1899); The Jingle Book (1899); Idle Idylls (verse, 1900); Folly in Fairyland (1901); Abeniki Caldwell (novel, 1902); A Phenomenal Fauna (1902); Folly in the Forest (1902); The Gordon Elopement (novel, with Harry Persons Taber, 1904); Folly for the Wise (verse, 1904); The Matrimonial Bureau (with Taber, 1905); Rubáiyát of a Motor Car (verse, 1906); The Emily Emmins Papers (1907); The Happy Chaps (1908); The Rubáiyát of Bridge (verse, 1909); The Seven Ages of Childhood (verse, 1909); The Lover's Baedeker and Guide to Arcady (1912); The Eternal Feminine (1913); Girls and Gayety (1913); The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913); The Re-Echo Club (1913); Maid of Athens (play, 1914); Baubles (1917); Ptomaine Street: A Tale of Warble Petticoat (1921); A Concise Bibliography of the Works of Walt Whitman with Alfred Goldsmith (1922); The Rest of My Life (autobiography, 1937).

Wrote the "Fleming Stone," "Alan Ford," "Pennington Wise," and "Kenneth Carlisle" crime novel series. Other crime novels: The Disappearance of Kimball Webb ("Rowland Wright" mystery, 1920); More Lives Than One ("Lorimer Lane" mystery, 1923); The Fourteenth Key ("Lorimer Lane" mystery, 1924); The Moss Mystery (1924); Face Cards (1925); The Vanity Case (1926); The Sixth Commandment (1927); Deep-Lake Mystery (1928).

Selected writing for children:

The Story of Betty (1899); The Merry-Go-Round (1901); Mother Goose's Menagerie (1901); Patty Fairfield (1901); The Pete and Polly Stories (1902); Eight Girls and a Dog (1902); Patty at Home (1904); In the Reign of Queen Dick (1904); The Staying Guests (1904); The Dorrance Domain (1905); Dorrance Doings (1906); Fluffy Ruffles (1907); Marjorie's Vacation (1907); Patty in Paris (1907); Patty's Summer Days (1908); Dick and Dolly (1909); Marjorie's New Friend (1909); Patty's Pleasure (1909); Dick and Dolly's Adventures (1910); Marjorie in Command (1910); Marjorie's Maytime (1911); Patty's Motor Car (1911); Marjorie at Seacote (1912); Patty's Social Season (1913); Two Little Women (1915); Patty's Romance (1915); Patty's Fortune (1916); Two Little Women and Treasure House (1916); Two Little Women on a Holiday (1917); Doris of Dobbs Ferry (1917); Patty Blossom (1917); Patty-Bride (1918); Patty and Azalea (1919); A Christmas Alphabet: From a Poem (1919).

Carolyn Wells was born in Rahway, New Jersey, in 1862, into the middle-class household of William and Anna Wells . A clever, precocious child, she mastered the alphabet at 18 months and reading by the age of three. An attack of scarlet fever at age six, however, left her deaf.

Although she graduated from high school as valedictorian of her class, Wells thought school a waste, and college an even greater waste. She attended the Sauveur School of Languages in Amherst for three summers, studying Shakespeare under the esteemed scholar William J. Rolfe, and delighted in private, informal studies on a variety of subjects, including medieval history, botany, astronomy, German, and French. She also worked for the Rahway Library Association, which gave her limitless access to the library's collection as well as the power to order whatever books and magazines she desired. According to Carlin T. Kindilien, "The flow of books that Carolyn Wells first let loose in 1895 is more than anything else the product of a bright and good-humored librarian."

She wrote her first book, At the Sign of the Sphinx, at the encouragement of Rolfe, who knew of her fondness for puzzles. Described as a book of charades, it marked the beginning of a prolific writing career for Wells, who quickly set a pace of publishing three or four volumes a year. All in all, she produced about 180 works of humor, mystery, and children's books in her career. Various magazines published her humorous pieces throughout the 1890s, including Chap Book, Lark, Philistine, Tatler, Yellow Book, Bookman, Youth Companion, and Life. She became so well known for her parodies and facility with limericks that publishers sought to incorporate her name into titles of humor books, such as The Carolyn Wells Year Book of Old Favorites and New Fancies for 1909. Wells herself edited numerous comedic works, produced her own notable collections, and crafted side-splitting parodies that made use of the works of other writers. Both The Rubáiyát of a Motor Car (1906) and The Rubáiyát of Bridge (1909) were comic models of Edward Fitzgerald's highly popular Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as the basis for her humorous observations on Americans' love affairs with cars and cards, while Sinclair Lewis' Main Street met its comic match in Wells' Ptomaine Street: A Tale of Warble Petticoat in 1921.

Of Wells' works, roughly half are from the mystery genre, which earned her the informal title "Dean of American Mystery Writers." Her main character, Fleming Stone, first appeared in 1909 and thereafter became the subject of 60 of Wells' mysteries. Other detectives created by Wells to solve her drawing-room crimes included Kenneth Carlisle, Alan Ford, Lorimer Lane, and Pennington Wise. Some critics found her mystery work formulaic to the point of parodying fellow mystery writers Edgar Allan Poe, Anna Katharine Green , and Arthur Conan Doyle, but Wells was considered enough of an expert to publish Technique of the Mystery Story in 1913.

Wells also made her mark in the genre of children's literature. As with her parodies, she sometimes drew from established literature to create her imaginative stories. Lewis Carroll's combination of humor and fantasy served as a model for Wells' Folly in Fairyland (1901) and Folly in the Forest (1902), and Rudyard Kipling inspired the title for The Jingle Book (1899). Following the trend of children's publishing, Wells produced several popular series for girls such as her "Patty," "Marjorie," and "Two Little Women" narratives around the same time that Edward Stratemeyer's "Tom Swift" and "The Bobbsey Twins" series were achieving fame.

Wells often traveled to England and cultivated a wide circle of literary friends on both sides of the Atlantic. She was also known for her rare book collections of writers such as Walt Whitman, Emerson, Longfellow and Poe. At age 55, Wells married Hadwin Houghton, related to the Boston publishing family, on April 2, 1918. Houghton, who was the superintendent of a varnish manufacturing company, died in 1919. Upon his death, Wells moved to New York City, living in a hotel overlooking Central Park until her death on March 26, 1942. She had suffered from arteriosclerosis and died in a New York hospital after breaking her leg and wrist in a fall. She was buried in the Rahway Cemetery in New Jersey.


Dresner, Zita Zatkin. "Carolyn Wells," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 11: American Humorists, 1800–1950. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1982, pp. 556–560.

Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kindilien, Carlin T. "Carolyn Wells," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Ed. by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Amy Cooper , M.A., M.S.I., Ann Arbor, Michigan