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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 845

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This is the grave of Bat Masterson.

The thing to understand up front about people such as Masterson, or anyone who was involved in the “classic” western gunfights of the post-Civil War period is that they were all violent thugs. As my undergraduate advisor Richard Maxwell Brown long ago noted, whether you were a “good guy” or an “outlaw” really just depended on your political party and place of origin. Law enforcement were Republicans from the North and outlaws were Democrats from the South. These issues were about political patronage in the territories and access to resources. Both sides had their gun thugs and thugs they were indeed.

Masterson was born in Quebec in 1853, but was not of French extraction. Rather, his parents were Irish immigrants. They did not stay long in Canada. Like many people during these years, they were always searching for the next big chance and thus moved around to new country, hoping to find something that they didn’t in their last place. As a child, Masterson’s parents moved from Quebec to New York and then to Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. Living near Wichita, Masterson and his brother Ed, now fully imbibing in the frontier restlessness, signed on to slaughter bison in 1872. This was done for a number of reasons–to feed railroad workers, for fun, and to eliminate the food source for the still independent tribes on the Plains. They did this for a bit and then got a job grading railroad track. The guy who hired them? He skipped out on paying. This did not make the Masterson boys happy. By the next year, they were in Dodge City, Kansas. When Masterson found out that the guy was on a train passing through and that he was carrying cash, he boarded the train, pulled out his gun, and forced him to pay $300 at the threat of his life.

Masterson was pretty justified in getting his back wages, but this sort of thing can be addicting and pretty clearly was for the 20 year old westerner. He was out hunting more bison in 1874 when he and his party were attacked by a huge group of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne at Adobe Walls. Led by Quanah Parker, the half-white Comanche who was feared by racist white Texans who wanted the Comanche exterminated, Masterson and his fellow hunters were under siege for five days but survived except for four of them. He then joined up with Nelson Miles‘ forces as a scout to redeem white girls who had been captured by the Comanches. See, for whites, this was horror incarnate. For the Comanche, if you were accepted into the tribe, you were Comanche, regardless of background or skin color. Parker’s mother was a white girl taken during a raid and integrated into the tribe. Nothing touched on the fears of whites more than this, with the possible exception of interracial sex with Black men. That included Masterson. Over a period of six months, they were able to “redeem” to use the term that extended all the way back to these Native practices and white fears in 17th century New England (seriously, one of my favorite places to start a hike is at Redemption Rock in Massachusetts, where Mary Rowlandson was redeemed in 1680 and where an inscription was later carved into the rock; the excellent rugged stretch of the Midstate Trail connects with the road there and I was very excited to discover this!).

By 1876, Masterson was usually his violent skills to serve the forces of order as a lawman. He was shot in a gunfight in Texas in 1876, but survived. He then went back to Dodge City, which is where he became famous. At first, he was not in law enforcement but rather interfered with the sheriff there attempted to arrest his friend. But by 1877, he was hired on as a cop. He was elected as sheriff of Ford County that year while Ed became sheriff of Dodge City. Ed was killed by some train robbers the next year. Masterson shot the guy who killed his brother. There were more shooting and killings around Dodge City that Masterson was involved with. Again, these western towns were full of murderous thugs on both sides of the law so there’s no real way to dissect “good” and “bad” here. Masterson was good at this though and so when the Santa Fe Railroad hired him to raise troops to be their private army in a war of passage with the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, he was glad to do so. This was just pure corporate thug hiring, but he was getting paid and didn’t care one way or the other. In 1878 and 1879, he and his hired band of thugs were out in Colorado doing the railroad’s bidding. While the issue was settled for good in court and not through guns, this led Ford County voters to elect someone else next election, since why have a county sheriff who is never in the county?

In 1880, Masterson was still in Dodge City. He went to rescue the brother of a friend from a lynching in Nebraska after that guy had shot someone else, working with Buffalo Bill Cody to see this through. Later that year, Masterson decided to move to Tombstone, Arizona. There, he got to know the Earp thugs. He and Wyatt Earp got jobs as faro dealers. He soon had to go back to Dodge City to protect his brother who had gotten into some violent dealings of his own. There was a gunfight, Masterson probably shot a guy, but he couldn’t be fully identified as the shooter so rather than face trial, he was allowed to leave the town for good. Masterson got a big enough reputation by this time that writers, seeking western mythologies that were already popular, made up a bunch of exploits and claimed that Masterson had killed 26 men. The insatiable eastern appetite for these violent stories led to more than a little confusion for a guy like Masterson, who was living it.

Masterson next ended up in Trinidad, Colorado, a mining town near the New Mexico border. There, he was both appointed as city marshal and was working as a faro dealer. He also convinced the governor to not extradite Doc Holliday to Arizona Territory. The people of Trinidad were soon tired of this questionable character in law enforcement and he lost his reelection to the position. So he went back to Dodge City again with his old buddy Wyatt Earp, was involved in more violence, and then very briefly opened a newspaper there. Soon though, he was back in Colorado, this time to Denver. Not surprisingly, he was soon involved in more violence. He and a date went to see a comedy show in 1886. The problem was though that the date was the wife of the comedian. The comedian saw them, entered the audience and confronted Masterson, who then smashed the guy across the face with his gun. Well, not much came of it outside of the couple getting a divorce. Instead, Masterson went back to his faro dealing. He started his own place, was involved in some good ol’ election fraud with the growing organized crime scene in Denver, and became a prizefighting promoter. Soon, he was friends the white heavyweight champions of the period–John L. Sullivan, Gentlemen Jim Corbett, Jack Dempsey. He started traveling more during these years as well, following the boxing matches around the nation. A celebrity in his own right due to the love of western mythology, he managed to make ends meet.

In 1895, Masterson briefly went to New York as the personal bodyguard of George Gould, son of the railroad scumbag Jay Gould. That didn’t last long and he came back to Denver. As a deputy sheriff of Araphoe County, he shot a guy on election day in 1897 during a fight. By 1902, he was forced to leave Denver entirely, possibly for being a complete drunk that was causing a lot more problems than he was worth. In any case, that year, he settled in New York City, where he would live for the rest of his life. Knowing all the sports reporters, he got a job with a newspaper allowing him his own personal column on the sporting life. Evidently, for all the thuggery, he was a pretty good writer. He would publish this column from 1903 until his death. He also, taking advantage of the market for wacky western tails, wrote some biographical sketches of his western friends that he sold. He was the timekeeper for many prize fights as well, including the Jack Johnson-Jess Willard fight in Havana.

Of course, all of this led to one very prominent American being very excited to meet Masterson–President Theodore Roosevelt. This isn’t surprising. Roosevelt genuinely, at his very soul, loved killing people. He thought it was great, when they deserved it, whether Spaniards in Cuba or bad guys in North Dakota. He had sought out people such as Masterson to pal around with for decades by the time they met. TR decided to give Masterson a sweet gig–deputy U.S Marshal for the Southern District of New York. Had Masterson done anything to deserve this? Of course not. William Howard Taft had him canned almost immediately after becoming president in 1909 after ordering a brief investigation that showed Masterson doing all sorts of sketchy things while in federal employ. In October 1921, Masterson was at his writing desk, working on his latest column, when he had a massive heart attack and died. He was 67 years old.

Bat Masterson is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

Is there anything in Masterson’s life actually worth remembering? Unless we value “colorful characters,” no. But that western mythology was so powerful in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that I’ve spent the last 45 minutes remembering him for you.

If you would like this series to visit other violent thugs of the frontier-era American West, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Wyatt Earp is in Colma, California and Pat Garrett is in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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