A Brief History
On April 16, 1881, Legend of the Old West and buddy of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, fought his last gun fight in Dodge City, Kansas. This archetypical macho man of the Wild West was a renowned gunfighter, lawman, scout, Indian fighter, and buffalo hunter, yet he is best remembered for wearing a suit jacket and a Derby hat!
Born in 1853 in Quebec, Canada, you may be surprised to know Bat was not even a native born American. Of Irish stock, the Masterson family were farmers in Canada, New York, and Illinois before ending up in Kansas.
Bat and his brothers went to work as buffalo hunters in 1872, and after being stiffed out of his wages, Bat tracked down his former boss a year later and collected his wages at gunpoint, already showing his proficiency with a hand gun. This incident was witnessed by a crowd on a train that actually applauded Bat’s derring-do. While still working as a buffalo hunter, Masterson was involved in a celebrated battle with Comanche Indians, the Battle of Adobe Walls. Bat’s first one on one gun fight happened in 1876 at Sweetwater, Texas, when he shot and killed a man that attacked him over a girl. Bat was wounded in the pelvis in that fight, an injury allegedly responsible for Bat carrying his trademark brass topped cane (made of bull penis!) as part of his dapper ensemble.
Bat moved to Dodge City in 1877, where he was both a rowdy and a lawman. Becoming Sheriff of Ford County (by only 3 votes) and then his brother Ed became Marshall of Dodge City. Bat successfully rounded up robbers, but Ed was killed in a gunfight in 1878, causing Bat to gun down his brother’s killer. Also in 1878 Bat teamed up with Wyatt Earp and others to mount a posse after a murderer, whom Bat shot and captured. In 1879 Bat enlisted a small army to fight in the Colorado Royal Gorge Railroad War as mercenaries, including notable gunmen Ben Thompson, John Webb, Doc Holliday, and “Mysterious Dave” Mather. Back in Kansas, this foray to Colorado was not exactly appreciated, and Bat lost the 1879 election for county sheriff.
Bat’s adventures took him to Nebraska to rescue the brother of Ben Thompson, a successful exploit in which he was aided by Buffalo Bill Cody. (“The” Buffalo Bill.) In 1880 Bat moved to Tombstone and hooked up with his pal, Wyatt Earp, the two gunmen working for a saloon. When called back to Dodge City by his brother Jim, Bat found a business partnership of his brother’s in dispute, a dispute settled by gunfire on April 16, 1881, what was to be Bat’s last gunfight, known as The Battle of the Plaza. One of the 2 opponents of Bat and his allies was wounded, and Bat was fined $8, with Bat and Jim advised to “Get out of Dodge!”
By now Bat was famous from the dime novels written about the Wild West back East. He worked as a lawman in Trinidad, Colorado and had further adventures with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Bat, Wyatt Earp, and Luke Short (another gun totin’ buddy of Bat’s) descended on Dodge City with a large group of gunmen in 1883 to forcibly return Short to Dodge where he had been kicked out by the mayor, none other than the guy unseated by Bat when he won his first term as sheriff.
Bat began an eclectic period in 1884 by starting a newspaper in Dodge, his first foray into journalism, and traveling over the country involved in boxing matches, gambling, chasing women and getting into fights. Bat even rode his fame to work as a bodyguard for a millionaire in New York in 1895. In 1897, Masterson went back to Denver, Colorado and again worked as a lawman, soon going back to working with boxers. By 1902 Bat was unceremoniously eased out of Denver, perhaps over being a drunk or perhaps after being belted by an umbrella wielding woman! He went back to New York where he was arrested for cheating a man out of his money (charges dropped) and then arrested again for carrying a concealed weapon.
Masterson then turned to his final career as a journalist, writing for New York Morning Telegraph, mostly about sports. President Teddy Roosevelt appointed Bat a US Marshall (1905-1909) and Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, saw to it that Bat was fired in 1909.
Bat continued to write for the newspaper, especially about boxing, until his death in 1921 from a heart attack at the age of 67. Bat Masterson was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, with sportswriter Damon Runyon delivering the eulogy. His epitaph says, “Loved by Everyone.”
Bat Masterson was famous in life, and perhaps even more famous in death, with innumerable cultural references to him, in books, movies, television, video games and even theater. The most memorable reference to me is the 1958-1961 television show, Bat Masterson, starring debonair Gene Barry as the well-groomed James Bond like gentleman that bopped bad guys on the head with his cane. Kids of the era bought up jillions of replica canes and Derby hats to be like Bat. Even the song from the TV show is memorable!
Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been in a gun fight? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Clavin, Tom. Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West. St. Martin’s Press, 2017.
DeArment, Robert K. Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend. University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.