Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson's New York City Yearsby Robert K. DeArment
The legend of Bat Masterson as the heroic sheriff of Dodge City, Kansas, began in 1881 when an acquaintance duped a New York Sun reporter into writing Masterson up as a man-killing gunfighter. That he later moved to New York City to write a widely followed sports column for eighteen years is one of history’s great ironies, as Robert K. DeArment/i>/i>
The legend of Bat Masterson as the heroic sheriff of Dodge City, Kansas, began in 1881 when an acquaintance duped a New York Sun reporter into writing Masterson up as a man-killing gunfighter. That he later moved to New York City to write a widely followed sports column for eighteen years is one of history’s great ironies, as Robert K. DeArment relates in this engaging new book.
William Barclay “Bat” Masterson spent the first half of his adult life in the West, planting the seeds for his later legend as he moved from Texas to Kansas and then Colorado. In Denver his gambling habit and combative nature drew him to the still-developing sport of prizefighting. Masterson attended almost every important match in the United States from the 1880s to 1921, first as a professional gambler betting on the bouts, and later as a promoter and referee. Ultimately, Bat stumbled into writing about the sport.
In Gunfighter in Gotham, DeArment tells how Bat Masterson built a second career from a column in the New York Morning Telegraph. Bat’s articles not only covered sports but also reflected his outspoken opinions on war, crime, politics, and a changing society. As his renown as a boxing expert grew, his opinions were picked up by other newspaper editors and reprinted throughout the country and abroad. He counted President Theodore Roosevelt among his friends and readers.
This follow-up to DeArment’s definitive biography of the Old West legend narrates the final chapter of Masterson’s storied life. Far removed from the sweeping western plains and dusty cowtown streets of his younger days, Bat Masterson, in New York City, became “a ham reporter,” as he called himself, “a Broadway guy.”
“An intriguing biography looking at the man behind the legend. . . . Fascinating and much recommended.”—Midwest Book Review
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Gunfighter in Gotham
Bat Masterson's New York City Years
By Robert K. DeArment
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Sheriff, nut, crook, sport, regular guy, gambler, peace officer, buffalo killer. Note on the back of a photo of Bat in the Walter Noble Burns papers, Arizona Special Collections, Tucson
One hundred and thirty years ago the name of Bat Masterson was familiar to many Americans from their reading of their daily papers. He was, they knew, a hero of the western frontier, at the age of twenty the youngest member of a fearless little band of buffalo hunters who withstood repeated attacks by hundreds of Indians in the famous Battle of Adobe Walls; sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, headquartered in the wild cattle town of Dodge, when he was only twenty-five; and by the age of thirty a deadly gunfighter who had downed more than a score of men.
One hundred years ago members of another generation, readers of the sports pages throughout America and parts of the English-speaking world, recognized the name Bat Masterson as a leading expert on boxing and the fistic scene.
Fifty years ago the name Bat Masterson became familiar to yet another generation when the new medium of television introduced a highly fictionalized depiction of his western exploits into their homes with a popular weekly series.
A few years ago my wife, a friendly, garrulous sort, struck up a conversation with the man seated next to her on a cross-country commercial plane flight. It turned out the fellow was a coach for a big-league baseball team, and he enlightened her for some time with stats and records of the current teams and players. My wife, not a baseball fan, finally attempted to change the subject.
"My husband wrote the definitive biography of Bat Masterson," she offered.
The man turned and looked at her blankly before asking, "Who did he play for?" One of the reasons for the several incarnations of Masterson fame was the nickname "Bat." Like the sobriquets of other highly publicized western figures—the "Bills" for instance: "Buffalo Bill" Cody, "Wild Bill" Hickok, and "Billy the Kid" Bonney—the name "Bat" Masterson was catchy and easily remembered.
How Masterson acquired the nickname has been the subject of much conjecture. He did not get it from his prowess with a Louisville Slugger, as the baseball coach presumed. Nor did he get it by shooting flying bats in caves in order to sharpen his quickness and skill with a six-shooter, as envisioned by western novelists. In his 1905 semifictional biography of Masterson, Alfred Henry Lewis suggested that his subject acquired the name through his prowess as a hunter, reminding frontier veterans of the feats of Baptiste "Bat" Brown, an intrepid frontiersman of an earlier day. Other writers have surmised that citizens of Dodge City tagged the young lawman with the name when he batted miscreants over the head with a walking stick he carried as a result of a gunshot wound.
Actually the appellation derived from his baptismal name, "Bartholomew," shortened by the family to "Bart" and eventually to "Bat." Masterson found no fault with "Bat" but disliked "Bartholomew" and as a young man discarded it for "William Barclay," the name he would use throughout his adult life.
Strangely, no one seems to have suggested that he picked up the sobriquet "Bat" as a shortening of "Battling" because of his pugnacious nature, as did several pugilists of the day, most notably Oscar Matthew "Battling" Nelson, lightweight champion, 1908–1910. It would have been a logical assumption, for Masterson was indeed a battler. Quick to take offense, with a short-fused temper, he carried grudges for years, and did not hesitate to back up bitter words with violent physical action. In his early years he engaged in a number of brawls.
His earliest recorded fistfight occurred at Adobe Walls when the buffalo hunters, having beaten off the Indians in the famous battle, began to fight among themselves, and Masterson tangled with another hunter named Frank Brown.
At Dodge City in 1877 he became embroiled in two fights within a month. The first occurred on June 6 when, objecting to city marshal Larry Deger's rough handling of a drunken prisoner, he took on the 300-pound Deger, a deputy, and a number of bystanders, and allowed the prisoner to escape. Although beaten over the head by the officers' pistols, Masterson "seemed possessed of extraordinary strength," according to a news account, and fought every foot of the way to the calaboose. After a night in the cooler, nursing his battered head and wounded feelings, he paid a $25 fine for disturbing the peace.
Bat was running the Lone Star Saloon and Dancehall in Dodge at this time. Charlie Siringo, later renowned as a Pinkerton detective and writer, was in the place on the Fourth of July when a free-for-all broke out between Texas cowboys and buffalo hunters. Bat began pitching heavy beer mugs, and when he ran out of glassware, he waded into the fray with an ice mallet. Then, said Siringo, "the blood flew."
In 1884 Bat engaged in what a local newspaper editor called "a little melee" in a Dodge City saloon. When a man named A. J. Howard attacked him with a long carving knife, "the stalwart form of Masterson rose in its majesty." Seizing a chair, Bat knocked his assailant down. The intervention of bystanders prevented him from administering more punishment, which, according to the editor, "was well for the safety of the chair and Mr. Howard's head."
By 1886 Masterson was spending most of his time in Denver, where his dalliance with variety hall singer Nellie McMahon led to two more clashes. Nellie was married to Lou Spencer, a vaudevillian appearing at Denver's California Hall. On the night of September 18 Spencer entered one of the theater boxes to find his wife perched on Masterson's knee. A fight broke out, and both men were arrested. Three days later Nellie filed suit for divorce and left town with Master son. The cuckolded husband attempted to allay his anguish with narcotics. Arrested in an opium den on October 3, he was bailed out of jail by a friend named Bagsby. Bat, who had returned to Denver, ran into Bagsby later that night in Murphy's Saloon and attacked him with a cane. Patrons, fleeing the scene, heard a shot. When police arrived, they found Bagsby sponging blood from his face and Masterson in a back room with a gunshot wound in the calf of his leg. Bat explained that he had been hit by a bullet accidentally discharged from a gun dropped by a saloon customer in his mad rush for the exits. No charges were filed.
His natural combativeness drew Masterson inexorably to pugilism, the "manly art." Prizefighting as a sport in the nineteenth century was developed and controlled by professional gamblers; many of the early boxers followed the calling themselves. Although Masterson never fought in the ring, by the early 1880s, having turned to gambling as a profession, he had forged close ties to members of the boxing fraternity and was becoming increasingly identified with the sport. The qualities exemplified in the best ring gladiators—courage, aggressiveness, and manly prowess—were those attributes he held in the highest regard in himself and other men. Over the next forty years he attended almost every important fistic event held in the United States and was personally involved in many of them.
The ring's first national celebrity was John L. Sullivan, a flamboyant, hard-drinking saloon brawler from Boston who defeated Paddy Ryan for the heavyweight title in 1882. Due primarily to fawning accolades in the pages of the National Police Gazette, the barbershop bible, Sullivan was widely believed to be invincible, a fighting man nonpareil. (Bat Masterson consistently held a minority opinion. The celebrated "Boston Strong Boy" was, he insisted, "the poorest excuse for a champion the American prize ring ever had," and his celebrity was a creation of sycophantic sportswriters.)
One of Sullivan's several managers was gambling house proprietor and fight promoter Charles E. "Parson" Davies of Chicago, who became a lifelong friend of Masterson's. In 1883 Bat induced Davies to bring two of the pugs in his stable, Fred Plaisted and Jimmy Elliott, to Dodge City and put on a match. This first Masterson promotion was billed as a gentlemanly "boxing exhibition," but quickly degenerated into a slugging roughhouse with fighters and referee Davies flailing away to the delight of the Dodge City spectators.
Other sports drew Masterson's attention during this period as well. He was a founder and vice president of Dodge City's first baseball club, served on the town's foot-racing committee, and officiated at football games. It was while referring a football scrimmage that he suffered a humiliating accident. The man who could "face a six-shooter without flinching," said a local paper, had to withdraw "when a football pasted him a gentle reminder under the left ear." Bat disliked football thereafter, likening the game to "organized rioting." He thought football was more dangerous and brutal than bull fighting, and it did not approach boxing as a "manly, decent, healthful sport." In the East he refused to attend the much-publicized Yale-Harvard games, saying he had seen many illegal riots and had no desire to watch a legal one. An observer remarked that he might disagree with the sentiment, but certainly admired Masterson's way of saying things.
Bat's first known attempt at written sports commentary was in the form of a letter to the editor, castigating two judges of a horse race held at Dodge in the summer of 1884. Its vituperative, accusatory rhetoric would become a distinctive element of his style in later years. A winner had been announced in a very close race Bat thought should have been called a dead heat. He called the judges "fop-eared nonentities" who "were willing to stultify their honor and manhood" and accused them of betting on the horse they said had won.
The following November Masterson made his first real effort in the journalistic field with the publication at Dodge City of a four-page newspaper he called the Vox Populi. There was only one issue, as the paper's sole purpose was to influence the November election. In this political screed Bat viciously attacked his political opponents with epithets like "scum and filth, crawling reptile, thief, liar, murderer, rapists, barn burner, and poisoner of horses." He counted the effort a success, for on Election Day his favored slate of candidates handily defeated his political enemies. In a letter to a Dodge City paper he announced that his "brief sojourn in the journalistic field" was ended and boasted that "the blows [Vox Populi] dealt to the venomous vipers whom it opposed had a telling effect."
Masterson's writing talents impressed at least two newspapermen. In a classic understatement a Dodge City editor remarked that Bat's views seemed to be "somewhat of a personal nature," but thought his writing held promise and he might accomplish much in the journalistic field. Olney Newell, editor of the Trinidad (Colorado) News, thought Bat "an easy and graceful writer [of] real journalistic ability."
During the 1880s, as public interest in boxing was heightened by the ascendancy of the ring's first charismatic superstar, heavyweight king John L. Sullivan, Masterson became increasingly involved in the sport. One of his first mentors was Billy Madden, a clever middleweight who introduced Bat to some of the complexities of ring strategy and became a friend for life. Madden helped train and manage Sullivan and, Bat always maintained, was largely responsible for making John L. a national ring idol.
In the summer of 1883 Madden introduced Bat to Charlie Mitchell, the prizefighter Bat came to admire above all others. Mitchell, a young Englishman weighing no more than 150 pounds, had defeated the best heavyweights in his own country and was angling for a shot at Sullivan's American title. In Denver Bat showed his friends around town and then accompanied them to Leadville, where Mitchell took on all comers in four-round bouts.
Inspired by the example of Billy Madden, Masterson took up management of prizefighters. His first protégé was a youngster named John P. Clow, who Bat fondly remembered years later as weighing about 150 pounds and being built on the order of Bob Fitzsimmons, "with powerful shoulders and light underpinning." In August 1885 Bat matched Clow against heavyweight Harry Hynds in a bout at Rawlins, Wyoming. Special trains brought sporting men from around the country who wagered no less than $20,000 on the outcome. After Clow knocked out his opponent in the sixth round Masterson claimed the heavyweight championship of the Rocky Mountains for his fighter and toured Kansas and Colorado with him, setting up matches with local battlers. In 1886 Bat and Clow helped train and condition Charlie Mitchell and worked his corner in winning bouts against highly rated heavyweights Jack Burke in Chicago and Patsy Cardiff in Minneapolis.
Prizefights during this period were fought under London Prize Ring rules with the contestants bare-knuckled or wearing skin-tight gloves. A round lasted until one of the combatants went to the ground from the effects of either a blow or a wrestling move. With the aid of his handlers he then had thirty seconds to "toe the mark," a line drawn in the center of the ring, and resume fighting. The battle continued until one of the fighters could no longer continue. In these bare-knuckle fights emphasis was on physical strength and ability to withstand punishment. The description in a Dodge City paper of one such bout between two pugs named Nelson Whitman and "Red" Hanley was undoubtedly long on hyperbole, but gives an idea of the brutality of the early matches. At the conclusion of the forty-second round, ran the story, Hanley had to "put his right eye back where it belonged, set his jaw bone and have the ragged edge trimmed off his ears where they had been chewed the worst." In the sixty-first round Red "squealed unmistakable," and Whitman was declared the winner. Injuries sustained, reported the paper, included "two ears chewed off, one eye bursted and the other disabled, right cheek bone caved in, bridge of the nose broken, seven teeth knocked out, one jaw bone mashed, one side of the tongue chewed off, and several other unimportant fractures and bruises."
Masterson refereed many of these affairs, including a notable 1888 bout promoted by Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, Ed Gaylord, and other prominent Denver gamblers in which John C. Sterling of Cheyenne and W. A. Ross of San Francisco were matched for a $300 purse. Boxing was banned in Denver at the time, so a special train conveyed the fighters, their attendants, the officials, and about 400 sporting men into neighboring Douglas County, where a ring had been prepared in a field beside the track. Referee Masterson declared Ross the winner when, after one hour and fifteen minutes of slugging, kicking, throttling, eye-gouging action, Sterling could not toe the line for the twenty-seventh round.
When not managing or refereeing, Bat often acted as timekeeper and/or bodyguard for principals at important fights. He served in this dual capacity for Jake Kilrain in 1889 when Kilrain challenged Sullivan for the heavyweight title. Others in the challenger's entourage were Mike Donovan, one-time American middleweight champion, and Charlie Mitchell. Although Bat was Kilrain's official bodyguard, Mitchell also carried two revolvers, according to ring historian Nat Fleischer. "Gunmen were an important part of the pugilistic picture in those rough-and-ready days, when fair play was best maintained by a judicious display of force on both sides."
Excerpted from Gunfighter in Gotham by Robert K. DeArment. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Robert K. DeArment is a University of Toledo, Ohio, graduate whose field of interest is nineteenth-century American history with special emphasis on outlaws and law enforcement in the frontier West. He is the author of Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
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