The Hidden Hand was serialized in The New York Ledger beginning in February, 1859. At the time, Southworth was the most widely-read woman novelist and also the Ledger was the most widely-circulated newspaper, making The Hidden Hand a clear best-seller. In 1857, Robert Bonner of the Ledger recognized Southworth's selling power and asked for exclusive rights to serialize her fiction. Furthermore, The Hidden Hand was serialized two more times before its book publication in 1888, and reissues continued for thirty years after that.
The old Major Ira Warfield, alternatively known as "Old Hurricane," lived alone at his mansion in the mountains of Virginia known as Hurricane Hall. The estate is surrounded by gothic natural surroundings. Warfield is a grumpy old man, who prefers not to leave the comforts of his home. At the beginning of the novel, he is telling his slave Wool to warm his bed as he will soon retire for the evening. It is late, but a parson arrives in the night, with the urgent message that Warfield must go with him to hear the last testament of a dying old woman. Warfield has been recently appointed a Justice of the Peace and his duty charges him to go. The two men go out then into the cold, stormy night. The old woman turns out to be Nancy Grewell, a mid-wife who has disappeared from the area for thirteen years. She tells a harrowing story of being caught up in the night by two villains. The villains charge her with delivering the twin babies of a masked woman: her baby boy dies, but the girl survives. The woman enjoins Nancy to hide and take away her living girl, bequeathing Nancy with a wedding ring of hers which reads "Eugene--Capitola." Nancy and the baby (whom she says she had hidden with her all along) are sold on board a ship bound for New York which is wrecked. The only survivors are herself, the baby (whom she has named Capitola), and a young sailor named Herbert Greyson. In New York, Greyson helps them get situated, and Nancy and her charge make do in an area called Rags Alley. The woman says that she raised the girl, and after thirteen years, has finally managed to make enough to come back to Virginia to tell this story. Before she dies, Warfield promises to take on Capitola as his own charge; it is clear that he is more intimately involved with this story than is revealed, since he and Nancy whisper knowingly about the house where the masked woman gave birth.
In New York, Capitola actually comes upon Warfield--dressed as a newspaper boy, since that was the only way she was able to make enough money to keep herself. The tenement houses in Rags Alley had been torn down for over a year so she had been cast out. Major Warfield also makes the acquaintance of Herbert Greyson through Capitola, who turns out to be Warfield's nephew--his mother had become estranged from her brother when she made a marriage which Warfield objected to. Warfield wanted to do well by Herbert, and promises to send him to West Point, and also to do well by a widow, Marah Rocke, and her son who had taken in Herbert and his mother long ago, and who had continued to care for him after his mother died. When Herbert tells Marah the good news, she is elated and seems to know more about Warfield than she will reveal at present. Meanwhile, back at Hurricane Hall, Capitola hears a ghastly story from Mrs. Condiment, the housekeeper, about how a former tenant, Henry Le Noir, had let six Indian warriors to their deaths through a trapdoor, and of how Le Noir's family was later murdered by the vengeful sons of these warriors and thrown into the same pit. Apparently one son of Le Noir's escaped.
Unfortunately, when Old Hurricane actually hears that the widow's name is Marah Rocke, he rages and takes back his offer. It turns out that she was once his young wife when he was an officer, and he had found her with a younger man, Gabriel Le Noir. Marah's version of the story, however, was that he had stolen into her room one night when Old Hurricane was out late and she had already been asleep. Marah is then thrown into despair once again that her lover does not believe her even after eighteen years, and begins to waste away. Concerned, Traverse goes to Doctor Day, who had been generously allowing Traverse to study with him for free. The doctor realizes that Marah was wasting away largely because of lack of human sympathy. With his beautiful daughter Clara's prompting, the doctor takes in both Traverse as an apprentice and Marah Rocke as a housekeeper. Naturally, by this time, Traverse has fallen in love with Clara. Capitola, meanwhile, feels trapped by her new guardian's rules; despite the bounty which he has lavished on her, she is used to having the freedom of roaming about. She breaks his rules and rides out further than she should have alone, and meets with an unsavory young man. She manages to outwit this young man and run away from him; back at Hurricane Hall, Warfield fumes and sputters. On another night when Warfield rides out on an errand alone, he comes home to Capitola parodying his fuming and sputtering.
The scene shifts to a meeting of outlaws, "Black Donald" and his gang, at an old woman's inn. This is the house where Capitola was born, and where Nancy Grewell had been taken many years ago. Gabriel Le Noir has stopped by to speak with Black Donald, telling him that his son (the young man outwitted by Capitola) had found Capitola Le Noir, apparently the daughter of the woman whom Nancy tended. The conversation makes known too that Capitola is a heiress to a fortune, and Le Noir says that Black Donald and his gang must hunt down and kill her. Black Donald manages to exact a large sum for the work: ten-thousand dollars, which he dreams he will put to go use in order to move west, join Congress, the Senate, and maybe even become president one day. Gabe reluctantly agrees. Black Donald hatches a plan to do some surveillance, pretending to stop by Hurricane Hall as a peddler of fine goods when the women are home alone. They get to talking about Black Donald, and Capitola bravely says that she'd like to see him. Black Donald takes off his disguise, and Capitola latches on to him screaming for his arrest. Black Donald runs away, though he could have killed her, he doesn't because he thinks her worth having some fun with before killing.
More is revealed about Gabe Le Noir's past when Old Hurricane tells the parson about the murder of Eugene Le Noir, Capitola's father and Gabe Le Noir's brother. Gabe killed Eugene and got his wife out of the way in order to secure his own inheritance of the large estate at Hidden House. Black Donald sends three outlaws to capture Capitola, who ends up being too smart for them, having seen them under her bed in her mirror's reflection. She manages to trap the outlaws in the house and call for help; luckily, Herbert has just come by and the three outlaws are carted off to prison. As all of these things were happening, Doctor Day had sent Traverse to Washington for college, and he manages to get a diploma in just three years. Doctor Day has plans for Traverse to set up his career further west, and to thereafter take Clara as his wife. The young couple is overjoyed. Black Donald soon manages a ruse to spring his comrades from jail by disguising himself as an elderly preacher. Tragedy soon strikes when the Doctor has met with an accident with a cart--eventually, he dies from his injuries, but not before telling Traverse that Gabe Le Noir is Clara's guardian (the will having been made years ago). Neither Traverse nor the Doctor know much about Gabe, and because he was the Doctor's wife's half-brother and a reputable man, the Doctor didn't think much of it. Verbally, though, the Doctor has told two people, Traverse and a Doctor Williams, that he would like Clara to continue to live with Marah Rocke. Marah of course knows Gabe, and worries about what to do when Gabe comes upon the scene.
Gabe refuses to honor the verbal directions of Doctor Day and the court decides in favor of him. Clara goes to live at the Hidden House estate. Capitola hears of a young woman staying at Hidden House and gets curious; she sneaks out and spends the night there. On her way, she runs into the clairvoyant old woman, "Old Hat" who tells her that she will destroy someone dear to her in order that she will rise in the world. Capitola scoffs. At Hidden House, Clara and Capitola (Day and Night) become fast friends, and luckily for Capitola, Gabe is not home. During the night, Capitola fancies she sees the ghastly figure of a woman who takes her ring. When she leaves Hidden House, she has indeed lost her ring.
At Hidden House, Clara fancies hearing a body being dragged downstairs, screaming. Soon, Craven Le Noir, Gabe's son, falls in "love" with Clara, or rather he and his father are plotting to get her inheritance. She escapes matrimony by a plan hatched by Capitola in which the two of them trade places. Clara goes to Marah, while Capitola goes with a veil with Craven to the altar. In front of a large audience at the wedding, Capitol offers compelling testimony against Gabe Le Noir and his son; in court, she makes a similar statement which leads to Clara being restored to Willow Heights, her father's property, taking Marah with her. Unfortunately, Traverse who is trying to make his career in the West doesn't hear about this, and having been unsuccessful in establishing a practice, enlists to go into the army bound for the Mexican War in order to pay off his debts. Herbert and the Gabe Le Noir (who is a colonel) also go off to war.
Back at Hurricane Hall, Craven Le Noir has fallen in love with Capitola and eventually proposes to her. She refuses him, and he slanders her reputation. She then challenges him to a duel and shoots him in the face with split peas in order to teach him a lesson. Capitola triumphs yet again when Black Donald makes another attempt to carry her away: she manages to trick him into sitting in an armchair placed over the trapdoor in her room. She springs it upon him and he falls, though he survives the fall (the trapdoor goes down to a cellar). Black Donald is taken to prison and receives a sentence for execution. Meanwhile, the scene shifts to the Mexican War, where Colonel Le Noir and another officer conspire to deprive Traverse of sleep, hence orchestrating his falling asleep at an important post and his execution. Herbert manages to eloquently defend Traverse in court, however, and Traverse goes free. At the end of the war, Le Noir is on his deathbed from his war injuries. He becomes repentant and gives Traverse's letters from Clara and his mother to him, raises him to the honor of ensign, and also gives a parcel to Herbert to be opened after his death.
Traverse doesn't go home, though, because he wants to return having made his career first. He goes to New Orleans, where he cures a rich Frenchman who heads a mental institution. It turns out that Capitola's mother is at the mental institution: she has been kept at Hidden House by Gabriel Le Noir for nearly eighteen years until dragged out of the house to the mental institution recently (hence the screams Clara heard during her stay). Gabe's confession in the parcel which Herbert opens upon his death concurs what Traverse learns from Capitola's mother. Traverse, Herbert, and Capitola's mom all return to Hurricane Hall, where Herbert is set to marry Capitola, Clara to marry Traverse, and Marah and Warfield are reconciled as well. Capitola, however, can't be happy because Black Donald is to be executed on their wedding day. At the last minute, she comes up with a plan to spring him from prison, giving him some tools that he had left behind in the woods. Donald becomes a reformed robber, and confesses to Capitola that he wouldn't have killed her anyways. The ending remarks that they didn't quite live "happily ever after," as each of the women would make necessary corrections of their men when they would be out of line.
Issues of serial publication: The success of periodical literature for a middle-class audience like The Hidden Hand was owed at least in part to the contexts of its circulation. Its serial publication was a closely-orchestrated event; it was common that before one novel's serialization was ended, advertisements would show up for the next. Specifically with respect to The Hidden Hand, the Ledger's Bonner sneakily bought room to print two installments of The Hidden Hand in the National Era, then announced that readers would need to buy the "great family paper," the Ledger, to read the rest.
Yet, cliffhangers are perhaps not as common as what one might expect from serial fiction whose subject was sensational, melodramatic, and (respectably) lurid. For example, Black Donald's plunge down the trapdoor happened in the middle of an installment, and readers are let in on the secret that he has survived the plunge in this installment before Capitola finds out later. I argue that there is a certain satisfaction for readers in observing characters finding out truths that readers already know, perhaps akin to something like being excited for someone's reaction to their own surprise party. This is, I believe, a more often overlooked feature of serialization--withholding not the truth of a mystery, necessarily, but characters' reactions to the truth. The Hidden Hand employs this trick throughout; indeed, the narrator herself acknowledges at the end when everything is revealed to Capitola about her past that the reader already knows all of this. It doesn't make it any less satisfying to witness the revelation to Capitola, however.
Genre, audience, and respectability: Certainly the sensational aspects of crime, murder, hired outlaws, mental institutions, etc. rendered some readers critical of such literature. A character like Capitola, too, breaks gender stereotypes and is clearly the "heroine" of the story, equally effectual in neutralizing Major Warfield's strict patriarchal authority (usually by revealing it to be humorous with strategies like parody), countering marriage proposals, and capturing a feared outlaw.
Yet Southworth's Hidden Hand is ultimately within the bounds of middle-class respectability. Readers are left to imagine what outlaws carrying away a young girl will do to her, what would be "worse" than murder, but these things are always left unsaid. In the end, any readerly assumption of Black Donald's lurid and sadistic tendencies is neutralized by his saying that he was not planning on killing her at all, and that he was just in love with her like any other honorable suitor. Capitola's gender-bending is often in the service of her own chastity, as Nina Baym points out in this article: she dresses up as a newsboy in order to protect her chastity, and this is why gender-bending ends up being okay. And ultimately, though she has boyish tendencies, she isn't just a boy with a girl's exterior, she is more sympathetic (and hence, womanly) than men, as evidenced in her capacity to love Black Donald and see him for who he was beyond his occupation as an outlaw. Her weapons against men are never violence but humor and strategem, and when she actually thinks that she has hurt Black Donald in springing the trapdoor, she is clearly distressed, like an "ideal woman" would be, if she had hurt someone. Thus, Capitola certainly crosses boundaries, but perhaps not quite as radically as one might perceive at first.