Thursday, December 14, 2017
'I am no umpchay, and I never seen the proposition I can't beat.'
Theodore "Ted" Copp had a fairly short pulp career, publishing only eighteen stories over the course of a decade, according to the FictionMags Index. He published his first stories in Fiction House's Black Aces, then had his busiest period as a regular contributor to Street and Smith's Complete Stories. "Corn Doctor" (June 22, 1935) was his Argosy debut, the first of six stories (including a serial) he'd publish in the venerable weekly over the next year. As this is my first encounter with Copp, I can't say how representative this ten-pager is, but the story itself reads like an exercise in the Damon Runyon style. The protagonists are amiable con men who can't make it on 14th Street in the big city with their spiels -- the colorful narrator sells overnight bags for a quarter, tricking marks by leaving counterfeit coins inside to make them think they're profiting, while his friend Corny tries to sell a patent medicine for corns. Corny's real talent is an uncanny quickness of the hands that allows him, on a bet, to pluck flies off any surface. But as his nickname indicates, he's obsessed with podiatry, though he disdains the snake-oil he actually sells. His heart's desire is to remove corns from sufferer's feet, which our narrator finds vaguely creepy. They decide to try their luck, and Corny's dexterity, in Binghamton NY, despite their agreement that rustic "apple-knockers" are wiser to grifts than city folk. Their hope is that the easiest marks are those who think they're wise to everything. They find their ideal smart-mark in Jake the Barber ("a very common name among barbers, even when their mothers call them Thomas or Richard or Harold"), luring him into the trap by dropping a lot of bad bets to him before Corny does his fly trick. In case the readers were wondering how Corny does it, apparently he's just that good with his hands, as Jake learns when, suspecting that Corny keeps dead flies on hand to palm, puts him in a closed room with a single fly in it. Jake's not a good loser though, and when he invites Corny and friend to help him clean out two local suckers, our narrator suspects a set-up. Sure enough, Jake's pals lose a lot of coin, but the idea is to put the interlopers' money on the table when the inevitable stick-up man, another of Jake's cronies, shows up. The inevitable melee ends with the robber routed, the suckers on the run, and Corny on top of a disarmed Jake, going after the corns Jake had earlier admitted were plaguing his feet. There they remain when the cops arrive, though our narrator is smart enough to make his escape. He reports in an epilogue that Corny used his fly gag to pay his way into podiatry school and finally set up practice in Binghamton. This looks like a tragic waste of talent. "I hear it is a big week for Corny when he takes in five bucks," he closes, "which only goes to show you what happens to a guy who gives his natural genius the wave." Copp pulled out of pulp after 1936, with one exception, to concentrate on writing novels and publicity for Met Life. Apparently he was very close to his mother, famous in her own right as the inventor of a popular piano-teaching method, for when she died on New Year's Day 1945 he wrote her obituary, went to bed, and died in his sleep overnight at age 42.