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Eventually Trying His Hand As A Newspaperman

Not many Old West gunfighters were born in Quebec. Not many Old West gunfighters eventually died slumped over a typewriter in Manhattan rather than, say, a card table at a saloon in Deadwood or Tombstone. The only man on both of these short lists is William Barclay "Bat" Masterson. Befitting such a contrast, many of the tales that made Bat Masterson a legend of the Old West were exaggerated or simply fiction, while the true story of his life contains many more surprises than many a novelist or scriptwriter could ever imagine.

In 1853, William Bartholomew Masterson (he later changed his middle name) was born in Henryville, Quebec of Irish descent. The future western legend was brought to the US by his family in 1861. By 1871, the Mastersons had moved to Kansas, and young William and his brother Ed left the family farm to take up buffalo hunting. Their brother James joined them later.

At this time, enormous herds of American bison (erroneously known as "buffalo") roamed the Great Plains. There was considerable money to be had in shooting them for their hides, as well as meat to sell to railroad construction crews. Buffalo hunting taught Bat a great deal about living on the frontier, and also earned him a place in Western history.

Bat's buffalo hunting party was on the plains of the northern Texas Panhandle in June 1874. The hunters camped at Adobe Walls, a trading post that had recently opened near the ruins of an older post that had been blown up with gunpowder and abandoned back in the 1840s. Unknown to the hunters, a Comanche war party of several hundred warriors, under the leadership of the famous chief Quanah Parker, was heading for them.

When the attack came, the trading post, with its two-foot-thick walls of adobe bricks, was a fine fortress to withstand a siege. Inside the walls were 29 people, including one woman who was married to the trading post's cook. Although vastly outnumbered, the buffalo hunters had a considerable advantage because of their .50 caliber Sharps rifles, which had a much longer range than the weapons carried by the Comanche. Hundreds of bullets flew through the windows and doors, but only four of the defenders were killed before the Comanche broke off the siege.

After a period of scouting for the Army, Masterson's fame as a gunfighter began in Sweetwater. Texas on 24 January 1876. An army corporal named Melvin King became jealous of Masterson after a dancehall girl named Mollie Brennan dropped King in favor of him. (By one of Old West history's odd coincidences, King and Masterson were both born in Quebec.) Drunk and enraged. King found the pair in a saloon and opened fire, fatally hitting Mollie Brennan as well as wounding Masterson. Bat fired back, killing King. Masterson recovered from his wound, but had to walk with a cane for a time.

Ed Masterson had gone into law enforcement, becoming an assistant town marshal in Dodge City. Kansas in 1876. Soon, he was promoted to town marshal. His brother, Bat, moved to the town and became a police officer. Bat Masterson found himself keeping order during some of the rowdiest years of that famous cattle town. Before his 24th birthdav. voters of Dodge City and the surrounding areas elected him sheriff of Ford County.

Bat Masterson

Some details of Masterson's early life are disputed. He is reported to have been born on November 24 of either 1853 or 1856 in either Quebec, Canada, or in Illinois, U.S.A. His birth name was either William Barclay Masterson or Bartholomew Masterson, but it is known that during his adult life he called himself "The Genius".

Some report that he was called "Bat" as a nickname for Bartholomew. A more colourful account is that he was called "Bat" because he carried a cane which he used as a club during fights.

Credited, at 30, with having killed one man for every year of his life. This may have been exaggerated, but he was certainly entitled to a record of a dozen or more. He was a cool, brave man, pleasant in his manners, but terrible in a fight.

He was a frequent visitor at Theodore Roosevelt's White House. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Masterson U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of New York. This appointment lasted until Roosevelt left office in 1909.

Bat Masterson spent the last half of his life in New York, hobnobbing with Gilded Age celebrities and working a desk job that saw him churning out sports reports and "Timely Topics" columns for the New York Morning Telegraph. His lifestyle had widened his waistline, belying the reputation he had earned in the first half of his life as one of the most feared gunfighters in the West. But that reputation was built largely on lore; Masterson knew just how to keep the myths alive, as well as how to evade or deny his past, depending on whichever stories served him best at the time.

Despite his dapper appearance and suave charm, Masterson could handle a gun. And despite his efforts to deny his deadly past, late in his life he admitted, under cross-examination in a lawsuit, that he had indeed killed. It took a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Cardozo, to get the truth out of Masterson. Some of it, anyway.

William Barclay "Bat" Masterson was born in Canada in 1853, but his familyâ€"he had five brothers and two sistersâ€"ultimately settled on a farm in Sedgwick County, Kansas. At age 17, Masterson left home with his brothers Jim and Ed and went west, where they found work on a ranch near Wichita. "I herded buffalo out there for a good many years," he later told a reporter. "Killed ‘em and sold their hides for $2.50 apiece. Made my living that way."

Masterson's prowess with a rifle and his knowledge of the terrain caught the attention of General Nelson Appleton Miles, who, after his highly decorated service with the Union Army in the Civil War, had led many a campaign against American Indian tribes across the West. From 1871-74, Masterson signed on as a civilian scout for Miles. "That was when the Indians got obstreperous, you remember," he told a reporter.

Masterson was believed to have killed his first civilian in 1876, while he was working as a faro dealer at Henry Fleming's Saloon in Sweetwater, Texas. Fleming also owned a dance hall, and it was there that Masterson tangled with an Army Sergeant who went by the name of Melvin A. King over the affections of a dance-hall girl named Mollie Brennan.

Masterson had been entertaining Brennan after hours and alone in the club when King came looking for Brennan. Drunk and enraged at finding Masterson with her, King pulled a pistol, pointed it at Masterson's groin, and fired. The shot knocked the young faro dealer to the ground. King’s second shot pierced Brennan's abdomen. Wounded and bleeding badly, Masterson drew his pistol and returned fire, hitting King in the heart. Both King and Brennan died; Masterson recovered from his wounds, though he did use a cane sporadically for the rest of his life. The incident became known as the Sweetwater Shootout, and it cemented Bat Masterson's reputation as a hard man.

News of a gold strike in the Black Hills of South Dakota sent Masterson packing for the north. In Cheyenne, he went on a five-week winning streak on the gambling tables, but he tired of the town and had left when he ran into Wyatt Earp, who encouraged him to go to Dodge City, Kansas, where Bat's brothers Jim and Ed were working in law enforcement. Masterson, Earp told him, would make a good sheriff of Ford County someday, and ought to run for election.

Masterson ended up working as a deputy alongside Earp, and within a few months, he won election to the sheriff’s job by three votes. Right away, Masterson was tasked with cleaning up Dodge, which by 1878 had become a hotbed of lawless activity.  Murders, train robberies and Cheyenne Indians who had escaped from their reservation were just a few of the problems Masterson and his marshals confronted early in his term. But on the evening of April 9, 1878, Bat Masterson drew his pistol to avenge the life of his brother. This killing was kept apart from the Masterson lore.

City Marshal Ed Masterson was at the Lady Gay Saloon, where trail boss Alf Walker and a handful of his riders were whooping it up. One of Walker’s men, Jack Wagner, displayed his six-shooter in plain sight. Ed approached Wagner and told him he’d have to check his gun. Wagner tried to turn it over to the young marshal, but Ed told Wagner he'd have to check it with the bartender. Then he left the saloon.

A few moments later, Walker and Wagner staggered out of the Lady Gay. Wagner had his gun, and Ed tried to take it from him.  A scuffle ensued, as onlookers spilled out onto the street. A man named Nat Haywood stepped in to help Ed Masterson, but Alf Walker drew his pistol, pushed it into Haywood's face and squeezed the trigger.  His weapon misfired, but then Wagner drew his gun and shoved it into Masterson's abdomen.  A shot rang out and the marshal stumbled backward, his coat catching fire from the muzzle blast.

Across the street, Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson reached for his gun as he chased Wagner and Walker. From 60 feet away, Masterson emptied his gun, hitting Wagner in the abdomen and Walker in the chest and arm.

Bat then tended to his brother, who died in his arms about a half hour after the fight.  Wagner died not long afterward, and Walker, alive but uncharged, was allowed to return to Texas, where Wyatt Earp reported that he later died from pneumonia relating to his wounded lung.

Newspapers at the time attributed the killing of Jack Wagner to Ed Masterson; they said he had returned fire during the melee. It was widely believed that this account was designed to keep Bat Masterson's name out of the story to prevent any "Texas vengeance." Despite the newspaper accounts, witnesses in Dodge City had long whispered the tale of the Ford County sheriff calmly shooting down his brother's assailants on the dusty street outside the Lady Gay.

Masterson spent the next 20 years in the West, mostly in Denver, where he gambled, dealt faro in clubs and promoted prize fights. In 1893 he married Emma Moulton, a singer and juggler who remained with Masterson for the rest of his life.

The couple moved to New York in 1902, where Masterson picked up work as a newspaperman, writing mostly about prizefighting at first, but then also covering politics and entertainment in his New York Morning Telegraph column, "Masterson's Views on Timely Topics." A profile of him written about him 20 years before in the New York Sun followed Masterson to the East Coast, cementing the idea that he had killed 28 men out west. Masterson never did much to dispute the stories or the body count, realizing that his reputation did not suffer.  His own magazine essays on life on the Western frontier led many to believe he was exaggerating tales of bravery for his own benefit. But in 1905, he played down the violence of his past, telling a reporter for the New York Times, "I never killed a white person that I rememberâ€"might have aimed my gun at one or two."

He had good reason to burnish his reputation. That year, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Masterson deputy U.S. marshal for the Southern District of New Yorkâ€"an appointment he held until 1912. Masterson began traveling in higher social circles, and became more protective of his name. So he was not pleased to find that a 1911 story in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser quoted a fight manager named Frank B. Ufer as saying Masterson had "made his reputation by shooting drunken Mexicans and Indians in the back."

Masterson retained a lawyer and filed a libel suit, Masterson v. Commercial Advertiser Association. To defend itself, the newspaper hired a formidable New York attorney, Benjamin N. Cardozo. In May 1913, Masterson testified that Ufer's remark had damaged his reputation and that the newspaper had done him "malicious and willful injury." He wanted $25,000 in damages.

In defense of the newspaper, Cardozo argued that Masterson was not meant to be taken seriouslyâ€"as both Masterson and Ufer were "sporting men" and Ufer's comments were understood to be "humorous and jocular." Besides, Cardozo argued, Masterson was a known “carrier of fire arms" and had indeed "shot a number of men."

When questioned by his attorney, Masterson denied killing any Mexicans; any Indians he may have shot, he shot in battle (and he could not say whether any had fallen). Finally, Cardozo rose to cross-examine the witness. "How many men have you shot and killed in your life?" he asked.

Masterson dismissed the reports that he had killed 28 men, and to Cardozo, under oath, he guessed that the total was three. He admitted to killing King after King had shot him first in Sweetwater. He admitted to shooting a man in Dodge City in 1881, but he wasn't certain whether the man died. And then he confessed that he, and not his brother Ed, had shot and killed Wagner. Under oath, Bat Masterson apparently felt compelled to set the record straight.

"Well, you are proud of those exploits in which you killed men, aren't you?" Cardozo asked. "Oh, I don't think about being proud of it," Masterson answered. "I do not feel that I ought to be ashamed about it; I feel perfectly justified. The mere fact that I was charged with killing a man standing by itself I have never considered an attack upon my reputation."

The jury granted Masterson's claim, awarding him $3,500 plus $129 in court costs. But Cardozo successfully appealed the verdict, and Masterson eventually accepted a $1,000 settlement. His legend, however, lived on.

In 1921, Masterson died of a heart attack while working. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

One of the legends of Bat Masterson's life was that he shot it out with a gang of outlaws to avenge the murder of his brother. The real story was much different. On 9 April 1878. Ed Masterson stepped into the Lady Gay Saloon. At the bar was a boisterous and drunken cowboy named Jack Wagner, who was carrying a pistol in violation of town ordinances. (Visitors to Dodge City were required to turn their weapons into the marshal's office until they left town. Masterson took the cowboy's gun, but entrusted it to Alt" Walker, who was Wagner's boss.

Outside the saloon, Marshal Masterson saw that Wagner was again carrying his pistol. Once again, the lawman moved to confiscate the revolver, but the cowboy shoved his gun into the lawman's side and pulled the trigger. Walker also pulled a gun and started shooting. Fatally wounded, Masterson fired several shots that struck both of the cowboy assailants. Ed Masterson died an hour later, and Wagner died the next day.

In the aftermath of the murder, Bat Masterson stayed on as sheriff. The town hired as a new assistant marshal another soon-to-be-famous Old West character: Wyatt Earp. As sheriff, Bat Masterson's duties often took him out of town. Sometimes he pursued outlaws; other times, he escorted prisoners to the state penitentiary or brought suspects back from out-of-town jails for trial. He was lauded by the local press for bringing in a notorious horse thief named Dutch Henry. Masterson already knew the German-born outlaw, whose real name was Henry Born, because they had both been among the hunters trapped during the Battle of Adobe Walls. Born had stolen a pair of mules near Dodge City, but escaped from jail and spent a couple of years at large. Ranging from Kansas to New Mexico, Born stole an impressive number of horses and was said to be the head of a large gang.

Learning that Dutch Henry was in jail in Colorado, Masterson went to bring him back to stand trial in Dodge City. Bat went to considerable trouble arguing in a Colorado court to get custody of the prisoner, and bringing the notorious outlaw in for trial, only to see a Kansas court acquit the prisoner.

Another "high-profile case" was that of Dave Rudabaugh. Leading a gang of half a dozen desperadoes, he bungled two train robberies in one day. First, they staked out a water tank at Kinsley, east of Dodge City, on 27 January 1878. This robbery failed because the train they had their eye on didn't stop for water. Next, they rode to the depot at Kinsley to hold up an-other train. This time, the station agent escaped from the gang and warned the engineer, who sped his train away from the depot. Bat Masterson led a posse that caught Rudabaugh and another outlaw during a blizzard. Two more of the robbers fell into the hands of the law when they sneaked into Dodge City to break the other two out. In the end, Rudabaugh turned states' evidence on his accomplices and was released.

After their release, these outlaws brought in by Masterson took very different paths. Rudabaugh compiled a long list of crimes before being killed in Mexico. Dutch Henry became a changed man after later finishing a prison sentence for horse theft. Turning to prospecting and homesteading, Dutch Henry was never again in trouble with the law. For many years, he even refused to keep a gun in his home.

Bat Masterson ran for reelection as sheriff in 1879. He had, by then, secured an appointment as a deputv US marshal as well. So, he was not limited to staying within county lines, if he was chasing a fugitive who was wanted for a federal crime. "Haters of horse thieves everywhere," said the Dodge City Times, "will rejoice over Bat's triumphant election." Although he had been an effective sheriff, Masterson was enmeshed in town politics by his association with a local faction known as "the Dodge City Gang". The "gang" was led by the mayor, James "Dog" Kelley, a saloon owner. Kelley's allies included gamblers and saloon keepers, a group that included the Masterson brothers and Wyatt Earp.

The 1879 elections threw the "gang" out of office, including Sheriff Bat Masterson. Oddly enough, after the election, the victorious mayoral candidate of the rival faction appointed Bat's brother, Jim, as town marshal.

While he was out of office, an enumerator for the 1880 Census listed Bat Masterson as a "laborer" in Dodge City. Sharing his 'household was one Annie Ladue; her relationship was listed on the census as "concubine".

Masterson was soon looking for greener pastures. After working in Tombstone, Arizona with his friend Wyatt Earp, he found Colorado to his liking. Denver offered the delights of a large, growing city with plenty of saloons and gambling halls. But, Dodge City drew him back on occasion. In 1881, Bat Masterson returned to town in response to an anonymous telegram. The message said that political enemies were going to kill his brother Jim.

Just after Bat Masterson returned to Dodge City, he got into a wild shootout with two other men, A.J. Peacock and Al Updegraff. Unlike the decisive and deadly gunfights in Western movies, this was a noisy but nearly harmless shootout. Despite numerous shots, only Updegraff was wounded and no one was killed. Masterson was fined eight dollars for this breach of the peace.

Factional squabbles continued in Dodge City. A gambler friend of the Mastersons, Luke Short became a partner in a saloon in town. After a political rival won election as mayor, Short complained and for expressing his opinion, was run out of town with several associates. Short raised a considerable ruckus after leaving. Eastern newspapers picked up the story and ran with it, exaggerating the disorder and danger of wild Dodge City.

When Short returned to town, he had some intimidating friends, including Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. By this time, both men were nationally famous from newspaper stories of their adventures. Many, if not most, of the stories were exaggerated, if not entirely made up. Just the same, few of Short's friends wanted anv trouble with them. The quarreling saloon owners and political bosses-hammered out a compromise and peace reigned. Short and his gun-fighter friends later posed for a picture, and the group was wryly known as "the Dodge City Peace Commission".

Like the "Peace Commission" incident, most of Masterson's adventures ended with no serious gunplay. In later years, reporters liked to write about the 25 notches on his gun, which supposedly stood for 25 men that he killed in gun-fights. The number of men actually killed by Bat Masterson is a matter of conjecture and controversy. As a lawman, he usually brought in prisoners unharmed. His reputation as a dangerous gunfighter might well have persuaded many a trouble-maker to "come along quietly" instead of risking becoming the 26th notch on a pistol. Possibly, Corporal King was the only man who fell dead by the hand of Bat Masterson.

Having tried farming, buffalo hunting, scouting for the army, and law enforcement, Bat Master-son really found gambling and the high life more to his liking. By the late 1880s, Masterson was based in Denver and made a new name for himself as a boxing manager and promoter. There was so much betting on sports events that the transition from gambler to sports was perhaps not a surprising jump. In 1890, he gained a fair amount of publicity when he was the timekeeper for a championship fight between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain, and his notoriety as a gunfighter. He was relaxed and talkative with reporters, always good for spinning some readable tales.

In the late 1880s, Masterson met a singer and dancer named Emma Moulton. She was a "club swinger"; that is, her specialty was a vaudeville juggling act using Indian clubs. Their wedding was delayed for a few years, as she was still trapped in an unhappy mar-riage with Edward Moulton, an athlete and trainer. A divorce came through in 1893; at the time, her husband was the coach of the University of Michigan football team. Moulton later trained several Olympic medal winners. The date of their marriage is uncertain, but Bat and Emma Masterson remained together until the end of the former gun-fighter's life.

In later years, Emma Masterson suffered from poor health, and struck reporters as a quiet and pleasant lady who lived in the shadow of her larger-than-life husband. But, she had some ad-ventures of her own. One hap-pened in 1891, when she and Bat Masterson were in New Orleans. A championship fight was arranged between Bob Fitzsimmons and Jack "Nonpareil" Dempsey (not the same man who was famous as a boxer in the 1920s). Boxing was illegal in many jurisdictions, and women were prohibited from attending the bouts. The New Orleans police arrested Emma Moulton just before the opening bell. Newspapers described her as a "handsome short-haired woman" who was caught taking a seat in the audience, wearing J^ men's clothing. She kept Masterson's ^ name out of the papers by giving the police her maiden name, Emma Walter. Identifying herself as a "variety actress from Denver", she was soon bailed out of jail by one of Masterson's friends.

Jim Masterson, who became a deputy US marshal in Oklahoma, died of tuberculosis in 1895. A mix-up caused by their surnames resulted in numerous papers across the US printing reports that the famous Bat Masterson was dead, rather than his brother.

A big change in Masterson's destiny came in 1902. Many of his old acquaintances from the Great Plains or Dodge City were dead, and others struggled to adjust to life in a rapidly changing West. Bat Masterson, who had traveled widely around the country and was as much at home with journalists as with marshals or Indian scouts, moved east to New York City.

Early in 1881, news that his younger brother, Jim, was in trouble back in Dodge City reached Masterson in Tombstone, Arizona. Jim’s dispute with a business partner and an employee, A.J. Peacock and Al Updegraff respectively, had led to an exchange of gunfire. Though no one had yet been hurt, Jim feared for his life. Masterson immediately took a train to Dodge City.

When his train pulled into Dodge City on this morning in 1881, Masterson wasted no time. He quickly spotted Peacock and Updegraff and aggressively shouldered his way through the crowded street to confront them. “I have come over a thousand miles to settle this,” Masterson reportedly shouted. “I know you are heeled [armed]-now fight!” All three men immediately drew their guns. Masterson took cover behind the railway bed, while Peacock and Updegraff darted around the corner of the city jail. Several other men joined in the gunplay. One bullet meant for Masterson ricocheted and wounded a bystander. Updegraff took a bullet in his right lung.

The mayor and sheriff arrived with shotguns to stop the battle when a brief lull settled over the scene. Updegraff and the wounded bystander were taken to the doctor and both eventually recovered. In fact, no one was mortally injured in the melee, and since the shootout had been fought fairly by the Dodge City standards of the day, no serious charges were imposed against Masterson. He paid an $8 fine and took the train out of Dodge City that evening.

Masterson never again fought a gun battle in his life, but the story of the Dodge City shootout and his other exploits ensured Masterson’s lasting fame as an icon of the Old West. He spent the next four decades of his life working as sheriff, operating saloons, and eventually trying his hand as a newspaperman in New York City.

Life in New York began with a rough start. Newspapers reported his hotel room was robbed, and he was also arrested and accused of cheating by an unhappy loser at a faro game. After this dubious beginning, Bat Masterson settled into his new world quite well. There, he found himself a celebrity. Seen as a real-life Western hero who stepped from the pages of a dime novel, he mixed comfortably with the stage folk, millionaires, bohemians, literati, and shady characters of Broadway.

Not long after his arrival, Masterson got a job as a reporter for the New York Morning Telegraph, a lively and breezy newspaper specializing in sports, the theatre, sensational crimes and scandals, and celebrity gossip.

At the Morning Telegraph, Masterson wrote a regular column called "Bat Masterson's Views on Timely Topics". His specialties were boxing and horse racing. Eventually, he became one of the editors of the paper.

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Masterson as a deputy US marshal for the Southern District of New York in 1905. This post was much less dangerous than his old job in Dodge City. It was largely a political and administrative position, and an annual salary of $2,000 came with it.

From rubbing shoulders with the Wild West's famous gunfighters, Masterson's last years were spent with a very different kind of luminary. One of his friends was the silent film Western star William S. Hart. In the offices of the Morning Telegraph, Masterson worked with a considerable number of future celebrities. Heywood Broun, who went on to a distinguished career as a journalist, was also one of the wits of the Algonquin Round Table. Future Hollywood gossip maven Louella Parsons wrote for the paper. Reporter Stuart Lake later found fame writing about another Old West figure, Bat's old friend Wyatt Earp. Before his years as a famous actor, John Barrymore was a cartoonist for the Morning Telegram.

While working on a new column in his office, Masterson suffered a fatal heart attack on 25 October 1921. His coworkers found him slumped over his typewriter. Among the honorary pallbearers at his funeral was the writer Damon Runyon. Masterson was buried far from "Boot Hill", in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, the burial place of such luminaries as Joseph Pulitzer, Duke Ellington, and Irving Berlin.

Emma Masterson died in 1932, but the legend of her husband lived on. Several movies featured entertaining although inaccurate versions of his adventures. Actor Gene Barry starred in the NBC television series "Bat Masterson", which ran from 1958-1961. The real Masterson was known as a sharp dresser, and Barry played up the idea of a dapper gunfighter who instead of a Stetson hat sported a fashionable derby hat and a cane.

Something of William B. Masterson's view of the world was shown in his final newspaper column. Taken from his typewriter after he died, the piece included the following: "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."

David A. Norris. Bat Masterson, From Buffalo Hunter to Broadway Boulevardier. History Magazine. October/November 2013.


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