by lyle e davis
Ever notice that so many of the stories about the Wild Old West center on the bad guys? The outlaws?
It seems today’s readers aren’t really all that different from readers of 100 years ago. They can’t get enough stories about the outlaws and their various exploits. There’s not quite as many exciting stories about the ‘good guys.’
Often, the lines between the two are blurred. There have been lawmen who had interesting careers . . . but who later became outlaws. And you had crooked lawmen . . . probably a lot more back then.
Wyatt Earp has developed, generally, a positive reputation as one of the ‘good guys.’ In fact, Earp was something of a rascal and not only dabbled in gambling but also in prostitution. Somewhere along the line he aligned himself with law enforcement (which he, on several occasions, managed to abuse). In the end, the dime novel writers and other adventure writers made him out to be a hero. He was not above assisting in building that image.
Another gent we’ve seen immortalized in film and on tv is the original Batman. A fella we know as Bat Masterson.
He even has a somewhat indirect connection to North San Diego County in that he is the great-grandfather of Robert Ballard, the marine scientist who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. Ballard’s family lives in San Marcos.
He was born on November 26, 1853 at Henryville in Quebec, Canada, and baptized as Bartholomew Masterson, but he later used the name "William Barclay Masterson." He was raised on a succession of farms in Canada and the northern United States until in 1870, his family finally settled on a homestead near Wichita, Kansas. After a few months helping the family get settled in, Bat and his older brother, Ed, headed for the western frontier.
For twenty years, beginning when he was thirteen, Masterson was pretty much on his own, learning to deal with Indians, or from the occasional outlaw. While he was no saint, neither would he be classified as an outlaw.
But, just as some folk are born poets, so others are born marksmen and sharpshooter. Masterson showed, early on, that he was good with weapons, be they rifle, pistol or shotgun.
He says that’s how he actually acquired the nickname of “Bat.” It was as a hunter. There was another chap by name of Baptiste Brown, or "Old Bat," whose fame as a great hunter was spread far and wide. Someone compared Masterson with “Old Bat” and he got stuck with the name.
Folks who were good with weapons, particularly rifles, found steady work as hunters and killers of the mighty buffalo. Masterson worked the territory between the Arkansas and Canadian Rivers for buffaloes as “the killer.” A dozen men would then skin and cure the animals. This was a major source of income for that era. Proof lies in the fact that in 1872, more than three hundred thousand buffalo hides, as well as one-fourth as many robes, were shipped eastward from the single town of Dodge City, Kansas.
Bat met Wyatt Earp, who began teaching him how to gamble while drinking. In mid-1872, the brothers contracted a grading job for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. This took them into Dodge City just as the town was beginning to be built. As soon as they arrived in town, the contractor they were working for skipped out with their $300. They went back to the buffalo camps to recoup their losses but next April, when that same contractor descended from the train in Dodge City, Bat put a gun to his head and demanded his $300. As soon as the money was handed over, Bat treated all the onlookers to a drink in a nearby saloon. Then he went back to buffalo hunting.
Crossing and re-crossing the buffalo ranges, Masterson came to know the country well. In an area not known for a lot of water, he developed a skill of locating most any spring or stream. As a result of this Colonel (later General) Nelson A. Miles was quick to enlist him as scout, in his campaigns against the Cheyennes, Kiowa, Comanche and Arapaho tribes in 1874.
The story is told about how one day Masterson was skinning a buffalo he had killed, when a quintette of Cheyenne bucks rode up. They belonged with old Bear Shield's band, whose home-camp was on the Medicine Lodge River. Masterson thought little or nothing of the five Cheyennes. They were everyday sights in his life, and the last thing he looked for was trouble. He kept on with his skinning. His rifle was lying on the grass -- a 50-caliber Sharp's buffalo gun, for which he had paid eighty dollars. One of the Cheyennes carelessly picked up the rifle, as though to examine it. As he did so, another reached across -- Masterson was bending over the dead buffalo bull, skinning knife in hand -- and whipped the six-shooter from Masterson’s belt. The Indian who had taken the rifle then slammed Masterson over the head from his own rifle. The 8-square barrel cut a handsome gash and covered his face with blood. Masterson was able to jump into a nearby canyon and then doubled back to his own buffalo camp. In spite of Masterson’s arguments for chasing the indians down, his mates insisted on packing their burros and heading back for Dodge, some 60 miles to the north. Masterson, however, was not to be consoled. That night – Christmas Eve night it was – he rode back, and ran off forty of old Bear Shield’s ponies. These brought him twelve hundred dollars in Dodge, and he more than recouped the value of the lost $80 rifle. He would get even more revenge back later against the Indians.
The following summer, Masterson managed to take some sweet revenge. It happened in a rather unusual and legendary way.
A superb rifle shot, on July 27, 1874, 21-year-old Bat was the youngest of 29 defenders at the Battle of Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle. A picket blacksmith shop, two sod stores and a sod saloon had been built to serve regular parties of buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls. With all these white buffalo hunters threatening their way of life, a force of about 700 Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Cheyenne warriors made a plan to sweep through the Panhandle, killing all the whites. Their first stop was a dawn attack on Adobe Walls.
There were 28 men and one woman inside, all excellent shots with the famous “Big Fifty” Sharps buffalo gun. Forted up behind these thick walls, they repulsed charge after charge of the Indians. The buffalo hunters were such good shots that one warrior was knocked off his horse almost a mile away. The Indians lost a lot of warriors before they gave up, the whites lost four men, including two who had been sleeping in a wagon outside the buildings. This fight triggered the Red River War of 1874-1875. Bat worked through this war first as a scout for Colonel Nelson A. Miles, and then as a teamster hauling out of Camp Supply.
After the Indians were beaten and driven onto reservations, the town of Mobeetie, Texas, came into being to serve the soldiers and the buffalo hunters who were returning to the area. It was in Mobeetie that Bat Masterson killed the only man he ever killed in a gunfight. And, of course, it was over a saloon girl.
Mobeetie, Texas - one of several stops by Bat Masterson and where he first killed a man in a gunfight |
Dodge City, Kansas, 1876
A Corporal Melvin A. King barged into the Lady Gay Saloon in Sweetwater on January 24, 1876, and found Bat Masterson and Molly Brennan together. In a jealous rage, he opened fire. The story goes that Molly jumped in front of Bat to protect him but both were hit anyway. As Bat fell to the floor he shot Corporal King, who had paused to cock his pistol. Both King and Molly died of their wounds, and Masterson began using his famous cane.
In 1877, Masterson returned to Dodge City and purchased an interest in the Lone Star Dance Hall. Shortly thereafter, he had a run-in with the City Marshall over the treatment of a man being arrested. Masterson was jailed and fined, although the City Council later refunded his fine. The results of this run-in with the City Marshall caused him to seek an appointment as a Ford County sheriff's deputy (alongside Wyatt Earp). Once in this job, at age 22, he had the City Marshall fired (Bat's brother Ed then took over as City Marshall). That fall, he and the former City Marshall ran against each other, seeking the county sheriff's job, and Bat won, 166-163. He immediately appointed Charlie Bassett as his undersheriff.
As Ford County Sheriff, Masterson's jurisdiction ranged 75 miles north to south and 100 miles east to west. Two weeks after taking office, he led a posse in pursuit of six train robbers who'd botched a robbery at Kinsley, Kansas. Outmaneuvering the bandits and two other posses, he set a trap and captured two of the bandits right away. Not long after, he captured three of the remaining four bandits (one of which was Dave Rudabaugh who later rode with Billy the Kid) and that started his reputation as an able lawman.
Bat's brother Ed (as City Marshal of Dodge City) had a different approach to enforcing the law. Bat was known as a top-notch gunfighter who practiced constantly. His opponents knew this and wouldn't get into any kind of shooting situation with him. In contrast, Ed was real easy going and hardly ever pulled his gun. As Dodge City grew and attracted more and more rowdy soldiers, con men and petty thieves, Ed found it harder and harder to do his job in his accustomed way. Finally, on April 9, 1878, Ed was fatally wounded in a gunfight with two drunken cowboys outside a saloon. Grief-stricken, Bat led the funeral to the military cemetery at Fort Dodge where Ed was buried. Then he went back to leading posses and capturing jail escapees, train robbers, con men, and horse thieves in his accustomed way.
In January 1879, Bat accepted an appointment as a deputy US Marshal. The following March, he hired on with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. He led a posse of gunmen to back up the railroad in its dispute with the Denver & Rio Grande over the right-of-way through Raton Pass in southern Colorado. The next November he ran for re-election in Ford County, Kansas, and lost decisively. In January 1880, he left the sheriff's office in Dodge City and made his living at cards and faro for a while in places like Trinidad and Leadville. Early in 1881 he spent some time with the Earp brothers in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Although his main activity in Tombstone was drinking, card playing and dealing faro, he did help Wyatt Earp with business at times. Then his younger brother Jim got into trouble in Dodge City and cried for help.
Bat arrived in Dodge City at 11:50 am on April 16, 1881. Stepping off the train, he spotted the two men who were bothering his brother and started yelling at them. Within minutes, there were five people shooting at each other. When they paused to reload, the mayor and the new Sheriff of Dodge City appeared brandishing shotguns and put an end to the action. One of the troublemakers was wounded and they took him to the doctor's office. Bat paid a small fine for his participation in the shoot-out and then boarded the evening train out of town headed west. He was 27 years old and had just fought in his last gunfight.
Some of his Other Adventures
He wandered around the West for several years, gambling and working as a lawman in different places. In 1882, the City of Trinidad hired Bat to come in and clean up the town. He came with his own deputies in tow. While he was quite the drinker (Masterson was famous for staggering down Main Street late at night and shooting out business lights as he went, then returning in the morning and paying for his damages), his reputation with a gun was such that he was never forced to draw one while he was in Trinidad. His chief deputy, however, was tried and convicted of killing a man in a drunken shoot-out about nine months after he took the job in Trinidad. In spite of their own weaknesses (or, perhaps, because of them), Masterson's team succeeded in cleaning up what was previously one of the roughest towns in the old west. When they left Trinidad in 1883, that marked the end of the town's outlaw era, and the beginning of the era when coal was king.
The famous shoot-out at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, took place during this time. In the aftermath of that event, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday left Arizona and came to Trinidad, seeking Bat's help. As the Earp's were erstwhile law enforcement officers, Doc Holliday was not and the state of Arizona was seeking to extradite him back to Tombstone where he would be tried for murder. In Trinidad, they cooked up a scheme whereby a local judge arraigned Holliday on a series of minor but trumped up charges and then released him on bond. This way, as long as the charges never came to trial (and the judge had no intentions of ever...) and Doc didn't leave the state, the Arizona problem was legally held at bay (Doc Holliday died a free man in his bed at a sanitarium in Steamboat Springs five years later).
Masterson was in Dodge City in 1883 for the "Dodge City War," a bloodless conflict and gunfighter gathering (this was primarily an argument between saloon owners and the city fathers that went nowhere). As soon as Masterson arrived, with his friends, the saloon owners decided to make peace and the problem went away quickly. They had been sufficiently intimidated to get the point.
There's a story from 1886 wherein Bat pulled his pistol and struck the husband of Nellie Spencer with it. Bat and Nellie ended up running off together but that didn't last long. In 1889 he was living in Denver and got involved in the infamous election ballot stuffing scandal with Soapy Smith. After that he bought the Palace Variety Theater and then married the beautiful actress Emma Walters on November 21, 1891. In 1892 he worked for a while as a peace officer and ran the Denver Exchange Club, a gambling house in Creede, but he never got into any shooting matches. Fist fights were one thing but his reputation with a gun still kept everyone else's guns holstered.
Original photograph of the 'Dodge City Peace Commission' in June 1883. Front, l-r; Chas. E. Bassett, Wyatt S. Earp, Frank McLain, and Neil Brown. Back, l-r; W. H. Harris, Luke Short, W. B. Bat Masterson, and W. F. Petillon.
According to Masterson, “Gambling was not only the principal and best-paying industry of the time, but it was also reckoned among the most respectable."
Experienced faro dealers were customarily paid $25 for a 6-hour shift. Bat visited every railroad town and mining camp throughout the West playing or dealing faro and poker. He sat across the table from the likes of Doc Holliday, Luke Short, and the Earp brothers.
For a professional frontier gambler, Bat was considered successful. But, as with all gamblers, life was an up-and-down struggle. In a letter to a close friend he wrote, "I... have experienced the vicissitudes which has always characterized the [gambling] business. Some days - plenty, and more days - nothing." He concluded, "I came into the world without anything and I have about held my own to date."
During these years, Bat became more and more active as a sportsman. He especially liked horse races and prize fights. During this time he began writing a weekly sports column for George's Weekly, a Denver newspaper, and he opened the Olympic Athletic Club to promote the sport of boxing. He actively followed and attended boxing matches and was very good at picking the winners. Though he himself never fought in the ring, he often acted as a timekeeper, promoter, referee or second.
Bat Masterson, about 1893 where he managed a bar in Creede, Colorado
Denver, Colorado, 1859 - Masterson was formally invited to leave Denver because of his constant public drunkeness
In 1896, the world heavyweight championship fight between Peter Maher and challenger Bob Fitzsimmons was to be held in El Paso, Texas. Texas state law prohibited prize fights so the governor sent in the Texas Rangers to uphold the law. As the citizens of El Paso had themselves raised the prize money for this fight, the governor's action was very unpopular. Under heavy pressure, fight promoter Dan Stuart made arrangements with Judge Roy Bean and the scene of the fight was moved to Langtry, Texas (where Judge Bean was totally in charge). A ring was built in Mexican territory, just a few hundred yards from Langtry's courthouse and Fitzsimmons took less than two minutes to knock Maher out. One of Bat's functions in all this was to accompany Tom O'Rourke and the $10,000 purse to Langtry and make sure the winner got his winnings. Once this was done, Masterson reboarded the train and returned to Denver where he wrote about the fight in his weekly column.
Sometime after this, a club owner named Otto Floto started a vendetta against Bat for some unknown reason. Finally, they duked it out in the street one day and ended with Bat clearly the winner. The pretentiousness of Denver city life must have been hard for him because he turned to the bottle more and more. By 1902, he was so frequently publicly drunk and disorderly that he was formally asked to leave the city.
He moved to New York and his life improved immediately. In New York, he was a celebrity and not some troublesome old frontier relic. At one point, Teddy Roosevelt entertained him in the White House and offered him an appointment as U. S. Marshall for Oklahoma. When Bat declined the offer to return to western law enforcement, Roosevelt appointed him deputy U. S. Marshall in New York (at $2,000 per year).
Starting in about 1904, Bat became sports writer for the New York Morning Telegraph, earning $10,000 a year, which was a fortune in those days. He became one of the "Broadway guys" that Damon Runyon wrote short stories about. The character of "Sky Masterson" in Runyon's Guys and Dolls is based on Bat Masterson.
He was also a contributor to Human Life, the publisher and editor of which was Edward Lewis. Lewis once asked Masterson if he never yearned for the West. He shook his head.
"I'm out of that zone of fire;" said he, "and I never want to go back. I hope never to see those dreary plains again."
Bat Masterson in his senior years, when he was a journalist in New York, about 1921, shortly before
Roosevelt left office in 1908 and the next President, Taft, fired Masterson in 1909. About this same time, a Frank Ufer accused Bat of gaining his reputation by shooting Mexicans and Indians in the back. It took two years for the slander case to come to trial but in the end, the court awarded Bat $3,000 in damages after various scouts, gunfighters, sheriffs, and soldiers testified to his skill and his bravery.
But the plains came to Masterson on Broadway, or rather the men of the plains. One day he introduced Lewis to a well dressed but wiry, and eagle-eyed gentleman.
"Mr. Tilghman," said Masterson.
"Do you remember;' Masterson asked -- "do you remember my telling how, one Christmas eve, I ran off forty of old Bear Shield's ponies? And how I saw a party riding about among the herd that I took to be an Indian herder? It was Billy here; he got away with something like fifty good head himself that night.”
Mr. Tilghman -- later a sheriff in Oklahoma -- beamed at the memory and then he and Masterson fell to remembering how Mr. Masterson had one day given Mr. Tilghman warning at Leota to "look out for Ed Prather;" and how the next afternoon Mr. Tilghman "looked out'" so earnestly that Mr. Prather departed headlong into the misty beyond.
"Billy kept the tail of his eye on him," explained Masterson; "and when Ed reached for his gun, he beat him to it."
The authoritative Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters (Bill O'Neal, University of Oklahoma Press, 1979), lists Bat Masterson with one gunfight killing in three fights. When compared to many other well known gunmen of the Old West, Masterson has a less than impressive record. He was well-known as a gunman, probably because of his shameless self-promotion. Not counting any men he might have killed at the Battle of Adobe Walls or on the frontier, he is confirmed to have killed only one man in a gunfight. His brother James was involved in three more gunfights than Bat, but he earned no notoriety from any of them. As a Dodge City lawman, his brother Ed was in two shootouts and killed both assailants, although he himself was wounded in the first shootout and killed in the second. Therefore, it was most likely Bat Masterson's ability to promote himself, more than any actual accomplishments, that led to his fame. And then there's that TV show ...
His good friend, Edward Lewis, who published “Human Life,” also wrote a terrible book that included a chapter on Masterson. Bat was not an autobiographer, and Lewis wrote this article on Masterson in 1907. There is minimal reliable research on Masterson available in this book, “Gunfighters of the Western Frontier.” (Among other errors of fact, it said Masterson didn’t drink. He was, in fact, the town drunkard of Denver and was asked to leave town because of his frequent bouts of public drunkeness).
On the morning of October 25, 1921, he arrived at his desk to catch up on paperwork and write his regular column. As he worked on his column, he slumped over his typewriter and died of a heart attack. His last typewritten words: "There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I'll swear I can't see it that way."
Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, Kansas
Encyclopedia of Western Lawmen & Outlaws