Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912)


jacques-futrelleJacques Futrelle (John Heath Futrell) was born on April 9th, 1875 (some sources now state 1873) in Pike County, Georgia, and died on April 15th, 1912 on board the RMS Titanic. His father was Harmon Heath Futrell, a teacher in Atlanta, and his mother was Linnie Bevill Futrell. He was sent to the Pike County school, but was also taught at home by his father who taught him French among other things. The legend goes that the family was of French Huguenot descent but the name was in fact Futrell, and therefore English. According to his grandson Robert, he was born John Futrell. He adopted the name Jacques Futrelle as a literary pseudonym. He worked for the Atlanta Journal, where he began their sports section, the New York Herald, the Boston Post and the Boston American.  

In 1895 he married Lily May Peel who was also a writer and with whom he would have two children. In 1902, he became the manager of a small Richmond theater. He wrote several plays and even acted in a few of them. At the same time, he started writing detective short stories. He achieved fame when, moving to Boston, he worked for the local press, specifically the Boston American owned by William Randolph Hearst. Augustus SFX Van Dusen, aka ‘The Thinking Machine’, first appeared in 1905 in the Boston American with his first short story “The Problem of Cell 13”, a forerunner of the closed room mystery genre, in which the hero/detective proved it was not impossible to escape a prison cell, just by using pure logic. This story was featured in crime writer H.R. F. Keating’s list of the best 100 crime and mystery stories and it was also selected by science fiction writer Harlan Ellison for Lawrence Block’s Master’s Choice.

Returning from Europe aboard the RMS Titanic, Futrelle, a first-class passenger, refused to board a lifeboat, insisting Lily do so instead, to the point of forcing her in. He perished in the Atlantic and his body was never found. There’s a possibility Futrelle boarded the Titanic with six unpublished Thinking Machine stories in his suitcase that were lost forever. His works include: The Chase of the Golden Plate (1906), The Simple Case of Susan (1908), The Diamond Master (1909), Elusive Isabel (1909), The High Hand (1911). His last work, My Lady’s Garter, was published posthumously in 1912. (Excerpts from  The Venetian Vase and Wikipedia).

Jacques Futrelle is the protagonist in one of Max Allan Collins’ historical “Disaster Series” novels, The Titanic Murders, which is very well done tribute to the man. (Beneath the Stains of Time)

Jacques Futrelle’s tales of the Thinking Machine are some of the best detective stories even written. The Thinking Machine, a professor who received his nickname from the press for his intellectual acuity, appeared in a series of around 50 stories, from 1905 to Futrelle’s death on the Titanic in 1912. Even the less successful Thinking Machine tales have features which make them enjoyable and worth reading. (Mike Grost)

Mike Grost’s article on Jacques Futrelle is at A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection.

futrelle-thinkingFor the world’s most brilliant criminologist, every mystery has a solution

His name is Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, but to the newspapers he is known as “The Thinking Machine.” Slender, stooped, his appearance dominated by his large forehead and perpetual squint, Van Dusen spends his days in the laboratory and his nights puzzling over the details of extraordinary crimes. What seems beyond comprehension to the police is mere amusement to the professor. All things that start must go somewhere, he firmly believes, and with the application of logic, all problems can be solved.

Whether unraveling a perfect murder, investigating a case of corporate espionage, or reasoning his way out of an inescapable prison cell, Van Dusen lets no detail elude his brilliant mind. In this highly entertaining collection, featuring many of the stories that made The Thinking Machine a national sensation, ingenious criminals and ruthless villains are no match for an egghead scientist. (Source: Mysterious Press)

The Thinking Machine has been reviewed, among others, at Vintage Pop Fictions and Ontos.

5 thoughts on “Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912)”

  1. Two things that might be worth adding to the article: Jacques Futrelle is the protagonist in one of Max Allan Collins’ historical “Disaster Series” novels, The Titanic Murders, which is very well done tribute to the man. There’s a possibility Futrelle boarded the Titanic with six unpublished Thinking Machine stories in his suitcase.

    Keep up the good work!

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