The Gunfighter



825 8th Ave, NY, NY

Neighborhood: Midtown

In the spring of 1902, the lawman swung down from the train. He was nearly fifty and a trifle stocky now. But he had worked for Wyatt Earp and known Doc Holliday, he had upheld the law in Dodge City and kept the peace in Tombstone. His shooting hand had lost none of its cunning, the .45 still swung on his hip, and as they say in Texas, he was one of those men it don’t do to fuck with.

Bat Masterson had been in Manhattan for barely two weeks when he was pinched for playing a rigged card game and carrying an unlicensed handgun. Welcome to New York.

William Barclay Masterson was born November 24, 1853 in Illinois. He stuck it out on the farm until 1871, when Bat and his brother Ed lit out for the Territory. They ended up broke in Dodge City, Kansas. They became buffalo hunters for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Working seven days a week, sunup to sundown, he slew thirty to forty buffalo at a time, skinned them for the hides, took the best cuts of meat, and left the carcasses to rot.

Bat also took revolver lessons from Wyatt Earp, a professional lawman and killer. With the art of the gunfighter — perfect accuracy with revolvers under pressure of time and emotion (less than one second to draw, aim, and fire) — he learned a master’s wisdom. Handguns are meant for killing the other fellow and nothing else. Don’t take out the gun unless you mean to kill him. Shoot first. Don’t miss. If you don’t drop him with the first shot, you may not have a second. Within three years, Bat and other hunters had killed most wild buffalo in Kansas. The herds still ran in Texas. But the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 had reserved them to the Comanche. Details, details. Masterson and his brother Ed went to Adobe Walls, Texas to go hunting.

The Native Americans disagreed with Bat’s employment decision, raised a war party, and put Quanah Parker in command. Half Comanche, half Irish, Parker was brave, ruthless, and wily. He enjoyed a ferocious reputation, and the rumor of his coming encouraged many buffalo hunters to go north for the summer. Bat and Ed stayed. On the morning of June 27, 1874, Quanah Parker rushed Adobe Walls with a thousand horsemen. Thirty-eight men, women, and children returned fire. The numerous dead and wounded warriors convinced Parker that war paint, however blessed by medicine men, did not stop .50 caliber slugs. He withdrew out of range to besiege the town, organizing roaming patrols of warriors to intercept escapees.

That night, Bat and Ed evaded the Comanche and rode for Dodge City to get help. Although a heavily-armed column was already riding to the town’s relief, the boys were welcomed as heroes and, as the hunting was over for the moment, became scouts for the U.S. Army at seventy-five dollars a month.

Bat stopped in Sweetwater, Texas, where luck at the tables and the charms of Molly Brennan, a pretty, sweet-natured whore, delayed his departure. Unhappily, Molly had previously entranced Melvin King, a cavalry sergeant at the local post. On January 24, 1876, Bat and Molly were dancing in a saloon when King entered, drunk, jealous, and armed. Molly turned to calm him. King shot her dead. She slumped into Masterson. King shot Bat, shattering his hip. Masterson drew while falling. He hit the floor. He aimed. He sent one shot through King’s chest, sending him before that Higher Court from which there is no appeal. All this took about a second and a half. After his recovery, Masterson and his brother Jim went to Dodge City. Wyatt Earp, the chief deputy marshal, hired them as deputies. The town was a railhead, where cattle driven north from Texas by cowboys boarded the Santa Fe for shipment to slaughterhouses at Omaha, St. Louis, and Chicago. Usually the cowboys were ready for rest and recreation, or just recreation, when they rode into Dodge.

Masterson was about five feet, nine inches tall. He limped. He wore a cane and derby hat, black suit and waistcoat, white shirt, black string tie, and two Colt revolvers. However, he preferred knocking down drunks with the cane to shooting them. Hence his nickname.

In 1877, Masterson became county sheriff. He was 26 years old. His brother Ed had succeeded Earp as chief deputy marshal of Dodge City. One evening, a drunk blew a hole through Ed’s stomach while being arrested. Ed managed to kill him, walk two hundred yards to a saloon, and collapse. He died an hour later in Bat’s arms. Richard O’Connor in his biography of the lawman quotes Bat: “Ma’ll never forgive me for letting Ed get killed.”

Then he arrested the four men who had been with the drunk. The legend said he hunted them down and killed them. Not so. They were held for trial. Nor was Ed buried at Boot Hill. That was for transients and criminals. Ed Masterson went to the town cemetery. After his defeat for re-election in 1878, Bat signed up for the Royal Gorge War. The Santa Fe and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroads both wanted to build through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River to the silver mines at Leadville. There was room for only one. From March to May, 1879, Masterson commanded a flying squad of Santa Fe gunmen. Before the lawyers settled things and spoiled the fun, he had even seized the Rio Grande’s station and roundhouse at Pueblo, Colorado with 33 men and a Gatling gun.

Bat then took up gambling, his livelihood for the next two decades. Early in 1881, he was wrapped in a bedsheet, playing cards in a Kansas City whorehouse when he received a telegram from Earp, then U.S. Marshal for the Arizona Territory at Tombstone (how, I wonder, did Earp know to reach him there?).

Earp needed someone to help Luke Short keep the peace in his Oriental Saloon in Tombstone. Luke’s booze was cheap, his girls good-looking, and his games not too obviously rigged. The competition were hiring toughs to break up his shop. Luke paid Bat four dollars an hour as a card dealer. This was then more than most men then made in a week. But the job was riskier than most. A losing player, convinced the dealer was cheating, might shoot first and ask questions later. Bat’s reputation helped: he didn’t have to kill anybody at the Oriental.

Although Masterson occasionally helped Earp track members of the Clanton gang, rude fellows with a weakness for gunplay and robbing stagecoaches, he was absent when the Clantons had their personal encounter with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral (Masterson cordially disliked Holliday: he thought the lunger a petty, greedy, and dishonest cardsharping drunk). A telegram had come from Dodge City asking Bat to help his brother Jim. Jim owned a half interest in a saloon. He had fallen out with his partner, A. J. Peacock. Peacock and his brother-in-law Al Updegraff proposed to salve A. J.’s wounded feelings by killing Jim. Bat stepped from the noon train to find Peacock and Updegraff on the platform. They had brought not peace but .45s. After ten minutes of gunplay, Updegraff was down with a bullet through his lung. Peacock and Bat were under arrest. The judge let off Peacock with a warning. Bat pled to firing his pistol on a city street and paid an eight dollar fine.

He drifted to Trinidad, Colorado, where he was elected city marshal, and then to Denver, where he went into business. In 1891, he married Emma Walters, an actress he had met in Trinidad. She began civilizing him and it took, mostly. He bought and operated the Palace, a theater and gambling hall, booking the entertainment, which ranged from highly artistic presentations featuring babes in tights to boxing matches.

He also became a boxing promoter and referee. He promoted a match in El Paso in 1901. Then the Texas Legislature prohibited prizefighting. Judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos,” invited him to stage the contest in Langtry, Bean’s town. Bat arrived to find the town crawling with Texas Rangers, sent to stop the match. Bean suggested that everyone wade the Rio Grande to Mexico. They did. The fight went one round. Bat closed the Palace and left Denver in 1902. The authorities had encouraged his departure: now, not even the Queen City of the West had time for an old gambler and gunman.

Despite his early arrest (Bat was acquitted), he liked New York. And he went into a new line of work. In 1903, after hearing Bat recount life on the frontier, William Lewis, editor of the New York Morning Telegraph, hired him as a reporter.

Founded in 1839 as a religious weekly, the Sunday Morning Visitor, the Morning Telegraph was among the city’s oldest papers. It was a breezy daily focusing on sports, racing, and the theatre. The paper was published from an old car barn at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. Alfred Henry Lewis, the muckraking journalist, once joined Bat for drinks. They strolled a block or so to some Hell’s Kitchen dive, full of young thugs, noisy with brag and bluster. Then they noticed the old man in the doorway, with the cold gray eyes gazing from under the derby. “The bar fell quiet as a church,” a reporter wrote, “as the old gunfighter (who now had a permit to strap on the equalizer) made his way to the brass rail.”

Its editors were unconcerned with the law of defamation, which got Masterson in trouble. In 1906, while reporting a murder case, Bat described the jury’s verdict of guilty as “lynch law” and “mob rule”, and the jurors as “Herkimer County bushmen.” He was fined fifty dollars for contempt of court: forty-two dollars more than for firing a pistol on the streets of Dodge City. The newspaper rewarded him with a column, “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics,” which appeared three times a week, “but never weakly.”

Theodore Roosevelt had met Masterson in the eighteen-eighties, when T.R., then a Dakota rancher, had joined a posse and captured two horse thieves. The two men had struck it off well. In 1904, President Roosevelt offered Bat the post of U.S. Marshal for the Oklahoma Territory. Bat courteously declined, writing, “Some kid who was born after I took off my guns would get drunk and look me over. The longer he looked the less he’d be able to see where my reputation came from. In the end he’d crawl around to a gunplay and I’d have to send him over the jump. I’ve finally got out of that zone of fire and I hope never to go back to it.”

T.R. persisted. Within two years he talked Masterson into becoming Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of New York. Bat’s admirers presented him with a 14-karat gold badge, studded with four diamonds. Some said it was a part-time job. In fact, Masterson appeared at the office only for his paycheck (nor did T.R. do this for him alone: Edwin Arlington Robinson, the poet, was appointed a clerk in the New York Customs House upon orders from the President that he draw his paycheck, never appear for work, and write verse full time). Bat never stopped writing for the paper and became its sports editor.

Violence still passed near him. Shortly after midnight on July 16, 1912, Bat was at the front table in the Metropole Hotel with former Assemblyman Richard “Dockwalloper Dick” Butler and other sporting and theatrical people when Herman Rosenthal, the gambler, stopped to chat. Rosenthal had given District Attorney Charles S. Whitman the goods on Police Lieutenant Charles Becker. After a few minutes’ talk with Bat and Butler, Rosenthal was interrupted by a message that someone needed him outside. He stepped through the revolving door and met Gyp the Blood, Lefty Louie, Dago Frank, and Whitey Lewis. They were professionally associated with one Big Jack Zelig, who specialized in violence tailored to his clients’ needs. Becker had requested “the big job.” It was done. Unfortunately for Becker, they talked. The bad lieutenant went to the death house in 1915.

On October 25, 1921, Bat went to the paper despite a bad cold. He wrote his column. As he leaned back in the chair to read the copy, his heart stopped beating. A reporter looked in a few minutes later. He thought the old man had fallen asleep. He lies in Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, beneath a granite marker bearing his name, dates of birth and death, and the words, “Loved by Everyone.”

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