How 'Bat' Masterson Became a Wild West Icon

By: John Donovan  | 

Bat Masterson
Bat Masterson was a Wild West jack of all trades. Library of Congress

In the black and white daguerreotype capturing all the icons of the American Wild West, Bartholomew William Barclay Masterson is there, along with Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill and Doc Holliday and several others, and with his old friend, Wyatt Earp, too, all staring unsmiling and unblinking into the harsh flash of the photographer. Old W.B. Masterson — known in life and in lore as "Bat" — might well be standing in the back row, if such a print actually existed.

But that's a Hall of Fame of the American West that exists only in the imagination. No shame in standing among those greats.

Despite carrying perhaps a lower profile than many of his contemporaries, Bat Masterson (1853-1921) probably deserves, and history has largely provided, his own niche in the Wild West pantheon. Buffalo hunter, scout, lawman, gambler, gunfighter and, in later life, sports writer, newspaperman, raconteur and friend of a president; Masterson truly was someone who took whatever was thrown at him and grabbed for more. Canadian-born but American Western-bred, Masterson left the family farm as a teen, took up a rifle and rarely looked back.

"What intrigued me about Bat is that he had this sense of curiosity and wonder: 'What's next?'" says author Tom Clavin, whose interest in Masterson led to, "Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West," a 2018 New York Times bestseller. "He was in this time when America was younger, and so much of the American ethos of the time was 'What's next? What's on the other side of that hill? What's on the other side of those mountains? Let's find out.'

"That could have been on Bat Masterson's tombstone: 'Let's find out.' That's the way he viewed life."

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The Making of a Legend

Masterson's family emigrated from Quebec into the plains, finally settling in Kansas, not terribly far from where Bat would gain his greatest measure of fame. He began his career, as many young adventurers did then, hunting buffalo, and first distinguished himself in a Texas panhandle output known as Adobe Walls. It was there, in 1874 that he and more than two dozen other hunters (and one woman) fought off as many as 700 hostile Native Americans — the Indians saw the rival buffalo hunters as an existential threat — killing as many as 70. The story of the stand spread quickly. Masterson was 20 years old.

Bat Masterson
Bat Masterson was born in Canada and later moved to Kansas where he learned to become a skilled buffalo hunter.
Public Domain

Not two years later, in a bar in another Texas panhandle town, Masterson drew his gun for the first time in a fight against another man. The story varies — first-person accounts of gunfights are notoriously sketchy, whether from participants or witnesses — but in the end, a wounded Masterson gunned down his opponent, an angry cavalry soldier named Melvin King. According to legend, the fight, perhaps predictably, involved a woman, a "saloon girl" named Mollie Brennan. Both she and King were killed. Masterson came out of it with a limp that many say he carried the rest of his life (though that, too, is disputed).

In the 1958-61 television series "Bat Masterson," actor Gene Barry played a dandified Bat by carrying a cane along with his gun. No known photos of Masterson with a cane exist, though.

Whatever the details, when the 50-year-old Masterson visited Washington, D.C. in 1903, The Washington Times heralded his arrival with a gushing tribute that demonstrated how his reputation withstood the rigors of time:

Like most "bad" men "Bat Masterson" is good. This does not mean that there are wings sprouting from his shoulders nor that he can qualify as a gospel shark. But he has many sterling virtues, among which honesty and courage are prominent. He has killed many men, never unfairly and either in self defense or when it was necessary to get in the first shot to keep from losing his own life ... It is safe to say that where Bat Masterson is known he does not have to fire.

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The Dodge City Legend

Masterson returned shortly after his 1876 Texas shootout to his sort-of home base, Dodge City, Kansas, a frontier town that was on its way to becoming the epicenter of a booming cattle trade. Dodge City at the time was full of rich ranchers and cowboys with money to spend and steam to blow off. It was a town filled with saloons, gambling halls, brothels and violence.

"It was a place that was doing great business because the cowboys were getting paid ... hotels were opening up, restaurants. There were people there who wanted to establish Dodge City as a good, peaceful town and raise a family, build churches and schools and all kinds of stuff," Clavin says. "But it was also a place that was pretty lawless. If you were trying to be a really effective lawman in the mid-1870s in Dodge City, there were a lot of bullets with your name on it.

"So it was a very raucous kind of town where the cowboys ruled. But there was also a business element that didn't want to tame Dodge City that didn't want it to be a place to raise a family. Especially the saloon business. They were making tons and tons of money, so why kill the Golden Goose?"

There in Dodge City, deputy Wyatt Earp — still a few years away from his starring role in the most famous gun-blazing showdown in American West history, at the O.K. Corral in the Arizona Territory town of Tombstone — approached Masterson about becoming a lawman. About a year later, days shy of his 24th birthday, Masterson was elected sheriff of Ford County. His brother Ed was named marshall of Dodge City, and a new era of law enforcement in west Kansas was launched.

Many of the stories in Bat's time in Dodge City involve, as might be expected of the time and place, gunfire and death. After his return from Texas, but before he was elected sheriff, he was involved in a scrape with a local lawman — sheriff Larry Deger, whom he would later defeat in an election for sheriff — when Masterson evidently interfered with an arrest. Masterson was arrested, but he didn't go quietly.

"Bat Masterson seemed possessed of extraordinary strength," a June 9, 1877, dispatch in the Dodge City paper read, "and every inch of the way was closely contested, but the city dungeon was reached at last, and in he went. If he had got hold of his gun before he went in, there would have been a general killing."

As sheriff, in 1878, Masterson avenged the shooting death of his brother by gunning down the two culprits. He captured known outlaws. He formed posses to track down outlaws. He was known as a tough, imposing presence all over the county. Still, he was voted out of office in 1879, closing perhaps the most exciting chapter in what would turn into an exciting, peripatetic life.

Masterson further polished his reputation as a gunfighter after his Dodge City law career ended, spent plenty of time in saloons, briefly became sheriff of a Colorado town, moved to Denver, got in another scrap or two, returned to Dodge as part of a famed "Peace Commission" that re-installed a Masterson favorite to power, and became a somewhat renowned expert on sports (especially boxing) and gambling. He attended prizefights throughout the nation, and made friends with many boxers and other athletes.

Dodge City Peace Commission
Bat Masterson was part of the "Dodge City Peace Commission," seen here June 10, 1883 (from left, standing) William H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, William F. Petillon; (from left, seated) Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Michael Francis "Frank" McLean and Cornelius "Neil" Brown.
Public Domain

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From Dodge to the Big Apple

By the early 1900s, after flipping between interests in the West and in New York City, Masterson settled in New York and, in 1903, became a sports writer and columnist (he dabbled in pieces on Broadway and politics) for the New York Morning Telegraph. He was introduced to President Theodore Roosevelt, who shared Masterson's love of boxing and the West, and the two became prolific letter-writing friends. In 1905, Roosevelt appointed Bat as a U.S. marshal for a New York district, a position he held until William Howard Taft took over the Oval Office in 1913.

Masterson lived for several more years, regaling admirers and hangers-on at his favorite New York City watering holes and generally reveling in his own celebrity. Clavin tells the story of an out-of-towner who insisted on buying Masterson's handgun, the one with 28 notches, used (supposedly) to kill 28 men. Masterson kept turning the man down, but the would-be buyer wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Finally," Clavin says, "the price got high enough that Bat would say, 'OK, but listen, you have to leave town, because if word gets around that I said yes to you but I said no to everybody else ....' So the guy hands over the money, grabs the gun, runs to the train station, and the next day Bat would go to the pawn shop and get the same [model] gun, stick the notches on it and put it back on his belt or wherever he carried it."

Masterson wrote hundreds of columns in his final years, manned the corner for many professional fights, frequented city bars and had just finished up a piece for the paper on an October night in 1921 when he had a heart attack and died at his desk. He was 67.

"For a journalist," says Clavin, a former Times reporter, "I guess it's like dying with your spurs on."

He's buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.

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