10 Things to Know About…Lew Wallace

10-things-lewis-wallace.We weren’t afraid to ask.

  1. Lew Wallace got the idea for Ben-Hur after a chance discussion with “The Great Agnostic,” Robert Ingersoll. Wallace actually agreed with Ingersoll’s theology (or lack thereof) but he hated the man’s smugness. So Wallace decided to write a novel about religion and faith. Sometime during the writing of Ben-Hur, Wallace acknowledged a change of heart and a belief in Jesus Christ as savior.
  2. Ben-Hur wasn’t an overnight sensation. The book received good reviews but so-so sales for its first five years. But in 1886, purchases skyrocketed to about 4,500 per month—for no apparent reason.
  3. Ben-Hur sold for about $1.25, and Wallace received a 10 percent royalty. By 1890, Wallace was out of debt for the first time as an adult.
  4. Ben-Hur made its theatrical debut in 1899—on Broadway, no less. The play provided a breakout role of the villain Messala for one classically trained young actor. William S. Hart went on to greater fame as one of the silver screen’s top cowboy stars. He was also a pallbearer at Wyatt Earp’s funeral.
  5. Ben-Hur the movie hit theaters in 1907. But the producers hadn’t asked the Wallace estate for permission to make a film version of the book, so the estate sued and the case ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court. Its 1911 decision set a precedent that authors and their estates held movie rights for published works.
  6. How can you identify a first edition of Ben-Hur? The dedication is “To the wife of my youth.” Wallace took a lot of flak for it. Some readers wanted to know when his wife died, or how many times he’d been married. The very much alive Susan Wallace was embarrassed by the reaction, although originally she approved the dedication. So the message was changed for succeeding editions: “To the wife of my youth, who still abides with me.” (The last part shows Wallace’s sense of humor, since abide can mean “lives” or “puts up with.”)
  7. Lew Wallace never gave his full side of the New Mexico story. By the time he died in 1906, his autobiography was some 800 pages long, but covered his life only up to 1864. His wife Susan, who was also a noted writer, finished the work not long before her 1907 death. She crammed her husband’s remaining 42 years into fewer than 300 pages, with little insight about New Mexico.
  8. The Wallace estate sold his manuscripts, diaries and other papers in the early 1940s. A member of the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical family bought everything related to Wallace’s literature, including the final, purple-inked manuscript of Ben-Hur. That part of Lilly’s collection was later donated to Indiana University’s Lilly Library. The rest of the collection was acquired by the Indiana Historical Society (IHS).
  9. Up until the early 1950s, the IHS allowed photocopying of the correspondence between Wallace and Billy the Kid—some copies were sold to collectors. Wallace descendants objected, noting that they still held the copyright to the letters. Ever since then, photocopying has been forbidden.
  10. But there’s good news: the copyright expired at the end of 2002. Glenn McMullen, who oversees the manuscripts section at the IHS, says some photocopying will soon be allowed, but it will be limited to serious scholars and researchers. At the same time, many of Wallace’s Lincoln County War documents—including the letters—will be placed on the IHS website (www.indianahistory.org).

A Collectors’ Bonus

In 1994, the IHS published a booklet of the transcribed William Bonney letters. One thousand copies were printed. Only a handful remain. And the price is right: free. E-mail Glenn McMullen at gmcmullen@indianahistory.org or call the IHS at

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Mark Boardman

Mark Boardman is the features editor for True West Magazine as well as the editor of The Tombstone Epitaph. He also serves as pastor for Poplar Grove United Methodist Church in Indiana.