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Fawcett, Wilford Hamilton "Captain Billy" (1885–1940)

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Photograph of Minnesota-based publishing magnate Wilford Fawcett, 1925.

One of the most colorful characters on the scene in early twentieth century Minnesota was Wilford Hamilton "Captain Billy" Fawcett. He was editor and publisher of a bawdy men's humor magazine called Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. He was also a veteran of two wars, an Olympic athlete, a world traveler, a big-game hunter, and a resort owner.

Wilford Fawcett was born in 1885 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, to Maria Neilson and John Fawcett, a physician. He was the third of eight children. The Fawcett family moved to North Dakota three years after Wilford's birth. Fawcett ran away from home in 1902, at age sixteen, to join the US Army. His enlistment papers described him as a ruddy-faced, brown-haired youth standing just over five-foot-five.

Army life suited Fawcett. He spent two years in the Philippines, serving in the Philippine-American War, where he absorbed military culture and the war stories told by older soldiers. Fawcett was injured in the Philippines and returned to the United States. He married Viva Claire Meyers in 1906. Two years later, the couple moved to St. Paul, where Fawcett clerked for the Railway Mail Service.

The same year he began clerking, Fawcett's wife gave birth to twins, Marion and Wilford H. Jr. Three more sons followed over the next five years: Roger, Gordon, and Roscoe Kent. Fawcett gave up his railway job to become a cub reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. When America entered World War I in 1917, Fawcett enlisted the following year. He rose to the rank of captain in the US Army and worked on the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. During the wartime years, he adopted the nickname Captain Billy, which he used for the rest of his life.

Back home after the war, Fawcett was desperate for work. He tried running a bar, called the Army and Navy Club, in downtown Minneapolis. But in 1919, Prohibition became the law of the land. Unable to serve alcohol, Fawcett closed the bar.

Then, Fawcett had an idea that would change his life: he would publish his own men's humor magazine from his home in Robbinsdale, near Minneapolis. He called it Captain Billy's Whiz Bang. ("Whiz bang" was the name Allied forces gave to German artillery shells in World War I.) The first issue came out in October of 1919. By 1923, the magazine was selling 425,000 copies a month.

Fawcett became a rich man. In 1920, he bought land on Big Pelican Lake, near Pequot Lakes, on which he built the Breezy Point Resort in 1925. Friends, politicians, and Hollywood celebrities visited Breezy Point to hunt and drink illegal liquor. Among Fawcett's guests at the resort were movie stars Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, writer Sinclair Lewis, and Minnesota governor Floyd B. Olson.

Fawcett introduced a second monthly magazine, True Confessions, in 1922. Brother Harvey ran the publication until he was caught embezzling. Harvey bought his own humor magazine, the Calgary Eye-Opener, and brought it to Minneapolis. But ill health led him to sell it to Henry Meyer.

Divorced from his first wife, Fawcett married Antoinette "Annette" Fischer. They also divorced, in 1932. Annette purchased The Calgary Eye-Opener from Meyer with money from her divorce settlement. In 1936, Annette's name appeared in newspapers. Authorities questioned her regarding the murder of Minneapolis editor and journalist Walter Liggett. She had introduced Liggett to his suspected killer, gangster Isadore "Kid Cann" Blumenfeld.

Fawcett's publishing empire flourished. The success of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang spurred him to create more magazines, among them Modern Mechanics and Inventions and Triple-X Western. He kept himself busy outside of work, too. He competed in trap shooting (shotgun shooting at clay targets) in the 1924 Paris Olympics, hunted in Africa, took a round-the-world vacation, and purchased the St. Paul and the Minneapolis Boxing Clubs. He married again in 1935, this time to his secretary Marie Frances Robinson. A year later, he canceled the magazine that had made his fortune, Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.

Fawcett died of a heart attack on February 7, 1940, in Hollywood, California. His sons inherited Fawcett Publications. Not long after their father's death, the sons introduced Captain Marvel, a comic-book series about Billy Batson, who transformed into his superhero alter ego, Captain Marvel, when he uttered the word "Shazam."

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"'Bill' Fawcett Recalls Old Philippine Battle." Minneapolis Times, October 27, 1918.

"Fawcetts to Remove Office in Mpls. to East." Minneapolis Times, October 9, 1935.

Minneapolis and St. Paul city directories, 1908–1940
Minneapolis Central Library, Minneapolis.

Read, Eve. "Chateau at Breezy." Golfer and Sportsman, September 1941.

"Sudden Death of W. H. in Hollywood Reminds Friends of His Meteoric Rise." Minneapolis Times, February 7, 1940.

"Twin City Boxing Franchises Sold to W. H." Minneapolis Times, July 22, 1925.

"W. H. and Two Other Yankee Crack Shots Back from Olympic Match." Minneapolis Times, July 20, 1924.

"W. H. Weds in Mexico." Minneapolis Times, April 3, 1935.

Related Images

Wilford "Captain Billy" Fawcett and his wife, Antoinette Fischer Fawcett
Wilford "Captain Billy" Fawcett and his wife, Antoinette Fischer Fawcett
Photograph of an exhibition golf match between Wilford "Captain Billy" Fawcett and American champion Walter Hagen at Breezy Point Resort, 1926.
Photograph of an exhibition golf match between Wilford "Captain Billy" Fawcett and American champion Walter Hagen at Breezy Point Resort, 1926.
Photograph of Marion Fawcett and Viva Claire Meyers
Photograph of Marion Fawcett and Viva Claire Meyers
Photograph of Marie Frances Robinson Fawcett
Photograph of Marie Frances Robinson Fawcett
Photograph of Wilford "Captain Billy" Fawcett with his third wife (and former secretary) Frances Robinson.
Photograph of Wilford "Captain Billy" Fawcett with his third wife (and former secretary) Frances Robinson.
Wilford "Captain Billy" Fawcett with a trapshooting shotgun. Fawcett captained the U.S. trapshooting team at the 1924 Olympics
Wilford "Captain Billy" Fawcett with a trapshooting shotgun. Fawcett captained the U.S. trapshooting team at the 1924 Olympics
Front cover of the April 1921 issue of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.
Front cover of the April 1921 issue of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.
Front cover of the March, 1926 issue of the Calgary Eye Opener
Front cover of the March, 1926 issue of the Calgary Eye Opener

Turning Point

In October 1919, Wilford Fawcett self-publishes the first issue of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.

Chronology

1885

Wilford Hamilton Fawcett is born in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

1888

The Fawcett family immigrates to North Dakota.

1902

Fawcett enlists in the U.S. Army and is sent to the Philippines, where he remains until being discharged in 1904.

1906

Fawcett marries Viva Claire Meyers of Hawarden, Iowa.

1908

Fawcett clerks for the Railway Mail Service in St. Paul.

1911

Fawcett takes a job as a police reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune.

1915

Fawcett becomes president of the Minnesota Military Association.

1918

Fawcett enlists in the US Army at Fort Snelling and spends World War I at Camp Georgia, Virginia.

1919

Fawcett opens the Army and Navy Club in Minneapolis but closes it when Prohibition makes the sale of liquor illegal. In October, he self-publishes the first issue of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang.

1920

Fawcett and his first wife divorce. His brothers Roscoe and Harvey move to Minneapolis to help him run Fawcett Publications.

1922

Fawcett Publications introduces a second monthly magazine, True Confessions. Fawcett is forced to fire his brother Harvey after he learns that Harvey has been stealing from his company. Harvey buys his own magazine, the Calgary Eye-Opener.

1924

In July, Fawcett captains the American trapshooting team at the Paris Olympics.

1925

Fawcett builds Breezy Point Lodge on Big Pelican Lake. He hires the Minneapolis architectural firm Magney and Tusler to design his private residence, the Fawcett House, at the lake. He purchases both the St. Paul and the Minneapolis Boxing Club but sells

1932

Fawcett divorces his second wife, Antoinette "Annette" Fischer. She uses her divorce-settlement money to purchase the Calgary Eye-Opener.

1935

Fawcett marries his secretary, Marie Frances Robinson, in Tijuana, Mexico.

1940

Fawcett dies of a heart attack on February 7 in Hollywood. His sons inherit Fawcett Publishing and add books and comic books to its successful line of magazines.