American Mythmaker: Walter Noble Burns and the Legends of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Joaquín Murrieta

American Mythmaker: Walter Noble Burns and the Legends of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Joaquín Murrieta

by Mark J. Dworkin


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American Mythmaker: Walter Noble Burns and the Legends of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Joaquín Murrieta by Mark J. Dworkin

Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Joaquín Murrieta are fixed in the American imagination as towering legends of the Old West. But that has not always been the case. There was a time when these men were largely forgotten relics of a bygone era. Then, in the early twentieth century, an obscure Chicago newspaperman changed all that.

Walter Noble Burns (1872–1932) served with the First Kentucky Infantry during the Spanish-American War and covered General John J. Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. However history-making these forays may seem, they were only the beginning. In the last six years of his life, Burns wrote three books that propelled New Mexico outlaw Billy the Kid, Tombstone marshal Wyatt Earp, and California bandit Joaquín Murrieta into the realm of legend.

Despite Burns’s remarkable command of his subjects—based on exhaustive research and interviews—he has been largely ignored by scholars because of the popular, even occasionally fictional, approach he employed. In American Mythmaker, the first literary biography of Burns, Mark J. Dworkin brings Burns out of the shadows. Through careful analysis of The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926), Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest (1927), and The Robin Hood of Eldorado: The Saga of Joaquín Murrieta (1932) and their reception, Dworkin shows how Burns used his journalistic training to introduce the history of the American West to his era’s general readership. In the process, Burns made his subjects household names.

Are Burns’s books fact or fiction? Was he a historian or a novelist? Dworkin considers these questions as he uncovers the story behind Burns’s mythmaking works. A long-overdue biography of a writer who shaped our idea of western history, American Mythmaker documents in fascinating detail the fashioning of some of the greatest American legends.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806146850
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/27/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mark J. Dworkin (1946–2012) was the author of Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas: Mysteries of Ancient Civilizations of Central and South America and numerous articles, including several on Walter Noble Burns.

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American Mythmaker

Walter Noble Burns and the Legends of Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Joaquín Murrieta

By Mark J. Dworkin


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4901-1


Early Years

Until now, Walter Noble Burns's story has been a blank page in history. Although well known in his lifetime, he had no earlier biographer; nor is there any entry about Burns in modern western encyclopedias by prominent western historians. Much of the minimally available information about his life, some of it misinformation disseminated by the author himself, is proven incorrect by the research in this book. Until recently there had not even been a known surviving photo of Burns, and even the omnivorous Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia had no entry on him at the time of this writing. Virtually nothing is known about his childhood in Kentucky or his formative years spent in the West, where he gained firsthand knowledge of some of its legendary figures, or his successful journalism career in Chicago. By the time Burns published The Saga of Billy the Kid, the first book in his western trilogy, in 1926, he was already sixty years old and had had an eventful life full of experiences that shaped the way he approached his writing and interpretation of the American West.

Burns enjoyed a patrician upbringing in post–Civil War northern Kentucky. Although published sources, including obituaries, list his birth year as 1872, he was in fact born on October 24, 1866. After his mother died in 1870 when he was four, Burns grew up the only child of a single father. No state had been so bitterly divided between Northern and Southern sympathies as the "border state" of Kentucky. In the years following the war, Walter's father, Thomas Burns, found himself an object of controversy because he had served as a colonel in the Union Army during the war. In 1876 he obtained a coveted appointment as United States marshal for northern Kentucky, but the pro-Democratic local newspaper attacked his character. As anti-Union sentiment ran rampant in the area, President Grant suspended Thomas Burns. He acquiesced, writing that it was his wish "to avoid all embarrassment and litigation." Later that year, Thomas lost an election for county attorney in Louisville. Walter Noble Burns's childhood was shaped by the loss of his mother, the volatile political climate of his state, and his father's political ups and downs. Those early years in Kentucky remained part of his identity. Late in his life, when asked to identify himself, Burns chose the descriptors "Kentuckian, soldier, author and editor," in that order.

Despite the hardships, Walter Noble Burns grew into a promising young adult. A friend once described him as a good scrapper in his teens, handsome and popular with the girls. He was an outstanding scholar, winning the prestigious Louisville Polytechnic Society's Prize Lecture Notes competition at age fifteen. He also submitted forty pages of complex notes and detailed illustrations, a piece of writing impressive enough to qualify him for admission to one of Kentucky's postsecondary institutions. Regrettably, despite being a colonel and a man of standing in his community, Thomas Burns did not have the resources to finance a college education for his son.

Rather than attend college, Walter Noble Burns began to dabble in journalism. He began his career as a cub reporter for the Louisville Post in 1887. Like so many adventurous young Americans before him, in 1890, at the age of twenty-three, he headed west. He signed on for a year-long whaling voyage out of San Francisco. His first book, A Year with a Whaler, is a first-person narrative detailing his time as a member of the forecastle crew aboard the brigantine Alexander during a winter whale-hunting season. Burns learned the ropes on that voyage, both literally and figuratively. In the book he describes his attempts to furl the royal sail and to steer by compass. The reader learns about the rapacity of the carnivorous whale, the unanticipated blowback of blubber, and the native people who hunted the giant creatures. It is all rendered in vivid prose set against a backdrop of danger-filled escapades, coupled with riveting descriptions of the conditions of an enterprise that Herman Melville called "a butchering sort of business." While Burns certainly did not find his fortune at sea—pocketing all of one dollar for his year of troubles—he learned how to survive, and even thrive, under conditions of extreme duress. For the former midwestern landlubber, it was a formative, extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime episode. "It was an adventure out of the ordinary," he wrote wistfully in the book's final paragraph, "an experience informing, interesting, health-giving and perhaps worth while. I have never regretted it. But I wouldn't do it again for ten thousand dollars" (250).

Following the voyage, Burns pursued his calling as a journalist in small cities and towns of the American West. For the next eight years, he worked as an itinerant reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Times, the Denver Republican, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Ogden Daily Post, the latter of which was a new Democratic Party daily for which he served as city editor.

Despite his success, Burns heard the call of duty following the American declaration of war against Spain on April 25, 1898. He enlisted as a private in Company H of the First Regiment, Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, at the age of thirty-one. In the early days of the Spanish-American War, the First Kentucky was ordered to report to Chickamauga, Georgia, so that the troops could become acclimated to sweltering summer temperatures that would mimic the battlefield heat of tropical Cuba.

Although Burns was safely out of combat in Georgia, conditions at Camp Thomas soon became intolerable. The camp burgeoned to a city of thirty thousand but lacked adequate supplies and sanitation. Troops exiting for the theater of war left the area overflowing with sinks of refuse and human waste. Sewage drained into Chickamauga Creek, and widespread litter attracted millions of flies that triggered an epidemic of typhoid fever. Over the course of the four-month war, 750 soldiers died at Camp Thomas due to sickness—more than the number who were killed in combat during the brief conflict with Spain.

Fortunately for Burns, his regiment was soon ordered to Newport News, Virginia, en route to combat in Puerto Rico. It joined the island's occupation force there, remaining until December 5 before returning to Newport News a week later. The December 10 Treaty of Paris officially ended the war, and Burns's unit was mustered out in Louisville on February 24, 1899. Although the First Kentucky lost twenty-seven men to illness, one to an accidental death, and three to desertion, none were killed in action. Burns suffered no injuries or disease during his time of service.

Burns never wrote about his Spanish-American War service, thereby avoiding the need to explain why he was twice court-martialed and jailed during his abbreviated stint. Records reveal that he was in uniform less than a month before he got into trouble. On September 7 and 8, 1898, he was court-martialed, found guilty, and fined three dollars on each of two charges of theft of U.S. arms and equipment and their subsequent sale off base. A second court-martial followed on December 13. Found guilty of violating the 17th and 62nd Articles of War, he was sentenced to forfeit twenty dollars of his pay. Article 17 made it illegal for an officer to make a "false muster"—in essence, to record a soldier as present who was not in fact present, or to instigate someone else to do the same. Article 62 involved "contemptuous or disrespectful words toward the President, Vice-president, Congress, Secretary of War, governors and legislatures by any officer, or the governor or legislature of any State, Territory, or other possession of the United States in which he is quartered." As a result of his conviction, Burns was confined to Fort Monroe in Virginia from December 1898 to February 1899, and then discharged.

By early 1900, Burns had moved to the small downstate Illinois town of Centralia, where he shared a house with several other men described as "tramps" in that year's census, a term then used to describe itinerant workers—including, apparently, roving reporters. Never an idler, he soon moved again, this time to Chicago. It was there that his fortunes turned. Over the next two decades, he would become a prominent figure in the city's literary circle and earn a reputation as a star crime reporter.

During his first year in the Windy City, he also met his future wife and life partner. As a junior reporter covering a divorce case before Judge Marcus Kavanagh, Burns began a discussion of the merits of the case with twenty-five-year-old Rose Marie Hoke, who was in the same courtroom due to an interest in other litigation. At some point a few weeks later, the relationship took a more personal turn, resulting in a commitment between the two to marry. After a brief illness that put Burns in the hospital, he insisted upon an early wedding, and with no objection from Rose Marie, the two were married on November 10, 1902. His bride was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1877 to German immigrant parents. She was an accomplished musician, music teacher, and artist. While a professional woman in her own right, she played a major part in his life.

Burns worked as a journalist in Chicago for twenty years, beginning with a brief stint at the Chicago Examiner before joining the Chicago Inter Ocean, a paper considered by many to be the best in the city, in 1902. At the same time, he contributed freelance stories to national magazines, like the one that appeared in the March 1903 issue of Leslie's Monthly Magazine. That illustrated short story, "Ditched at Provo," was a comic tale about a poor soldier with an unmistakable Irish accent who put on airs while courting a young Utah girl. By 1908, Burns's writing had earned him his own byline on a literary column at the Inter Ocean. A scant two years later, he was appointed that paper's Sunday editor, though he continued to write his literary column "Books and Men Who Make Them" until 1914. At that time the Inter Ocean merged with the Record Herald and became a syndicated newspaper service, for which Burns procured, edited, and distributed articles well into the 1920s at what he called "a fairly good salary."

A glance at any of the "Books and Men Who Make Them" columns that ran in the Inter Ocean will demonstrate Burns's versatility as a journalist. The text for each entry ran over five columns and included literary commentary and gossip, illustrations, photos, book reviews, comments on forthcoming books and magazine articles, and responses to letters to the editor. The books and magazine articles he reviewed were diverse and included fiction, poetry, autobiography, history, belles-lettres, and biography. Though he favored the adventure novels of Richard Harding Davis, he reported on topics as disparate as notable library auctions, the history of drinking customs, murder mysteries, travel books, and Jack London's autobiographical novel. He also noted the appearance of new books by such luminaries as H. G. Wells, Maxim Gorky, Edith Wharton, Ambrose Bierce, O. Henry, William Dean Howells, Rudyard Kipling, James Russell Lowell, Henry James, and André Castaigne. The following headline, from December 4, 1909, gives a flavor of the diversity of subjects Burns took on, and his éclat in reporting them:


"Ann Veronica, H. G. Wells Latest Novel Deals With Relations Between the Sexes in a Particularly Frank and daring Way.


"Abaft the Funnel," by Rudyard Kipling, Embodies First Fruits of Author's Genius—Some December Magazines—Other Volumes

During his tenure as editor of the Inter Ocean Sunday Morning Magazine, Burns took a brief foray back to the West through an interview with William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody at Chicago's Auditorium Hotel. The meeting took place in preparation for a book Burns was thinking about writing on the legend of frontiersman James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (1837–76). Burns's interview with Cody resulted in a widely syndicated lengthy article in 1911 titled "Greatest Fighter of the Frontier: Buffalo Bill, Last of the Great Scouts, Tells Thrilling Stories of Wild Bill Hickok, Gamest of Western Gunmen." It formed the basis of a project Burns would return to time and again in his lifetime, though he would never complete the work.

Burns later reported for the Chicago Tribune, where he reinvented his journalistic identity. Formerly known as a literary columnist and editor, he switched to crime coverage during the infamous period when Chicago, "in the mind of the country, [was] notorious for violent crime." The coverage of Burns's prominent crime reportage for the Tribune ranged widely. He profiled the popular evangelist and former major league baseball player Billy Sunday, whom he labeled "A Man's Christian" for his work in the city's high-crime districts. He reported on the "Black Hand" criminal organization and did a "think piece" considering whether life imprisonment was worse than hanging.

While Burns lived in Chicago, the city's industrial productivity soared and its growth appeared unstoppable. The city's newspapers commonly fostered literary careers, and Burns's was among them. The city's hyper-competitive newspaper business often prompted violent circulation wars. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst had entered the race as early as 1900 with his Chicago American, followed a few years later by his Examiner, both of which competed directly with the McCormick family's more established Tribune. Both ownerships hired thugs to bully and terrorize newsboys, newsstand dealers, and subscribers caught reading copies of the "enemy's" papers. Between 1913 and 1917, a period that coincided with Burns's most productive years at the Tribune, at least twenty-seven people died as a result of such tactics.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, America's intellectual arbiters, including the famous H. L. Mencken, were drawing national attention to the literary and artistic significance of the work being produced by Chicago's writers. This phenomenon was quickly labeled "the Chicago Literary Renaissance." Walter Noble and Rose Marie Burns found themselves an influential couple at its intellectual center, the former as critic and writer of the widely discussed Inter Ocean Saturday literary column "Books and Men Who Make Them," the latter as a talented pianist, teacher, writer, and lecturer and the owner of the Burns School of Music, Physical Education and Etiquette.

Despite the success that the couple found in Chicago, a national crisis drew Walter Noble Burns to the West once again. On March 9, 1916, roughly one thousand Mexican revolutionaries led by el jefe Francisco "Pancho" Villa launched an assault on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. The attackers killed eighteen Americans and wounded eight others, including soldiers in the 13th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, and then torched the town. The ruined town burned for several days, and smoke plumes could be seen fifty miles away. Tension along the U.S.-Mexican border had been high since 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson had further inflamed the already volatile situation by declaring that Villa's Mexican revolutionary insurgency had no legal standing. Instead, he officially recognized Villa's enemy, the government of Venustiano Carranza in Mexico City, and sent a detachment of the U.S. 13th Cavalry to Camp Furlong. However, this additional protection did not secure the town of Columbus from Villa's raid. Faced with a collective outcry from an outraged public, Wilson ordered General "Black Jack" Pershing to form a punitive military expedition to bring Villa to justice.

Midway through his tenure at the Tribune, Burns asked to be assigned to cover the expedition. It would be a pivotal period, renewing his interest in the West after a nearly two-decade absence from the region. Typical of the fierce competition of the era, rival newspapers dispatched their star war correspondents to the border. The Hearst papers assigned A-list reporters Damon Runyon, Alfred Henry White, Edward Gibbons, and Wallace Smith, but the fifty-year-old Burns proved to be a fierce competitor. He left Chicago for Columbus and within days was filing feature stories for the Tribune. His twenty-eight dispatches on the expedition and its aftermath, dating from March 12 to July 11, 1916, constitute a valuable primary source for understanding that volatile chapter in U.S.-Mexican relations.

Burns's reportorial resourcefulness in the face of stringent military censorship is impressive, particularly in light of the fact that he could get no closer to Mexican soil than his visit to an international bridge. In a March 15 article, "Obregón to Lead Carranza's Men Hunting Bandits," Burns bemoaned truth as the first casualty of war: "Through a thick veil of American censorship sufficient information leaked through today to confirm the belief that the advance guard of the first expeditionary force may start in pursuit of Villa in a time measured by hours. Villista bandits are doing their worst before actual pursuit by the American troops begins." His bylined dispatches contain interviews with key figures and astute observations of the situation on the ground, providing insight into the brinkmanship that characterized American policy as the nation teetered on the edge of war with Mexico. His articles likewise suggest that he listened to officers and enlisted men alike, probing beyond the official line and the mundane, finding the tragic, the comic, the good, the ugly, and the ludicrous in events as they unfolded.


Excerpted from American Mythmaker by Mark J. Dworkin. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Author's Note xv

Part I The Making of a Writer

1 Early Years 3

Part II The Saga of Billy the Kid

2 The Story of Billy the Kid 15

3 The Research and the Creation of Characters 20

4 The Critics 37

5 The Saga of Billy the Kid in Folklore and the Arts 63

Part III Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest

6 The Story and the Sources 81

7 The Writer and the Angry Old Lion 93

8 Creating Legends 114

9 The Critics 130

Part IV Final Works

10 The Robin Hood of El Dorado: The Saga of Joaquin Murrieta, Famous Outlaw of California's Age of Gold 145

11 The Legacy of The Robin Hood of El Dorado 159

12 Later Years 165

Epilogue: The Legacy of Walter Noble Burns 179

Appendix A John Gilchriese and the Walter Noble Burns Papers 183

Appendix B Unpublished Fragment from the Walter Noble Burns Papers about Bear River Tom Smith 186

Appendix C Selected Writings by Walter Noble Burns 189

Notes 193

Bibliography 239

Index 255

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