Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Isa-Belle Manzer (1872 or 1873-1944)

Née Hattie Belle Sprague
Born May 14, 1872 or 1873, Genesee, Michigan
Died August 11, 1944, San Fernando, California

A reader of my blog requested that I write about some authors from the early days of Weird Tales. Isa-Belle Manzer will have to come first. Researching women authors is often difficult for at least two reasons. First, women usually took their husbands' names and can be hard to track in public records. Second, they were often housewives and did not list an occupation at the decennial census. In starting my research on Isa-Belle Manzer, I looked for her under that name and found a candidate in Milwaukee. Then my reader pointed out that she had written a letter to Weird Tales in November 1923, signed Mrs. D.M. Manzer, Amarillo, Texas. It didn't take long for me to find what I think was the real Isa-Belle.

She was born Hattie Belle Sprague in Genesee, Michigan, on May 14, 1872 (according to the 1900 census) or 1873 (according to a list of deaths in California). Her father, Cornelius F. Sprague (1830-1913), was a farmer. Her mother, Elizabeth (1836-1903), called Betty or Betsy, may have been a physician. (The 1880 census record is somewhat ambiguous. That census showed the family living in Lane County, Kansas.) The Spragues had eleven children altogether, six of whom died young. By 1900, Hattie Belle Sprague had married, borne a son, and had been widowed. Her dead husband was named Crouch and her son Raymond. At that census, Hattie was working as a hotel housekeeper in Jackson Township, Sac County, Iowa. She remarried in about 1901. Her new husband, Deward Martin Manzer (1877-1940), was a laborer and a salesman. Nineteen twenty found the Manzer family living in Antelope, Nebraska. By 1930, they had relocated to Amarillo, Texas. Together they had, I believe, four children.

As I said, Isa-Belle Manzer wrote a letter to Weird Tales, published in the November issue, 1923. In her letter (according to my reader), she told about a story that she hoped to have published in the magazine. The editor, Edwin Baird, asked his readers for their opinion. Whether they clamored for Isa-Belle's tale or not, it was published as "The Transparent Ghost" in a three-part serial in February, March, and April 1924. By the time the serial came to an end, Weird Tales was in trouble as it had been and would be so many times. The next issue was a giant-sized triple issue marking the first anniversary of the magazine. Hattie Belle Manzer never again wrote a story for or letter in Weird Tales. On August 11, 1944, she passed away in San Fernando, California.

Isa-Belle Manzer's Letter and Story in Weird Tales
Letter to "The Eyrie" (Nov. 1923)
"The Transparent Ghost" (three-part serial, Feb., Mar., and Apr. 1924)

Further Reading
Unfortunately, I don't know of any further reading on Isa-Belle or Hattie Belle Manzer.

Isa-Belle Manzer's serial, "The Transparent Ghost," appeared in three issues of Weird Tales without benefit of an illustration. I don't have any photograph of her or of any person or thing associated with her either. When all else fails, you can always post an illustration by Virgil Finlay. So here it is, an illustration from an unknown tale, showing a ghost who is more translucent than transparent and a man who looks a little like Bela Lugosi about to drive a wooden stake into the heart of an unseen corpse.

I should point out that many people of earlier times, even as recent as fifty or a hundred years ago, seem to have been obsessed with ghosts. You might think that's because they were uneducated or unscientific or superstitious. There could be another explanation, though, a better explanation. In our age, we are insulated from death. A century ago, death touched every family as a regular and too frequent occurrence. People died at home and not out of sight in a hospital or nursing home. They were often dressed for burial at home and laid to rest in a family plot close by. Death was a shock that could come at any time to any person, too often to children. It's no wonder people would hold out hope for something that might survive, for some possibility of contact with the departed. Hattie Belle Manzer came from a family in which half her siblings died young. Her first husband passed away before she was thirty. Is it any wonder that she might write a story about a ghost?
Postscript: I have heard from a reader pointing out that "The Transparent Ghost" is actually not a ghost story but "involves a mad doctor who has turned himself invisible, creating mischief [and] giggling all the while." I guess that shoots a hole in my proposed explanation of Isa-Belle Manzer's motivations. Well, what isn't true here may be true somewhere else. Thanks to my reader for the clarification.
Update (Mar. 31, 2019): John Locke discusses Isa-Belle Manzer and her story at length in his book The Thing's Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales, 1923-1924 (2018). Mr. Locke considers the story to have been a prank. Not having read it, I can't say. Whatever the case, the general opinion of "The Transparent Ghost" is pretty low.

Thanks to Randal A. Everts for Hattie Manzer's obituary.
Text and caption copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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