Dodge City

Authors, you really can sell some books on C-SPAN. (For the non-Americans, that non-profit company puts out three tv channels worth of “public affairs programming” and, on weekends, Book TV.) That’s where I saw Mr. Clavin talk about his book.

His talk was entertaining; I’d never read a full biography of either Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson before, so I picked this one up for the annual Old West reading during one of my trips to South Dakota.

I definitely got my money’s worth.

Review: Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterton, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Tom Clavin, 2017.Dodge City

If you were an ornery “cow boy” in the Dodge City of 1876 who got too rowdy in a saloon or hassled a prostitute or took your guns past the Dead Line, you could expect to encounter the law. And the lawmen you met might have been Marshal Wyatt Earp or his deputy Bat Masterson.

Wyatt probably wouldn’t shoot you. The town had had quite enough of that with its first marshal, Bill “Bully” Brooks. He shot 12 men in his first month on the job.

If you didn’t comply with Wyatt’s orders, he’d keep you talking though he was a laconic man himself. Reasonable conversation usually kept the gunfire down. If he or his deputies slapped leather, it was with an eye towards accuracy and not speed. And they wouldn’t be shooting to kill but just to wound.

Those were Earp’s guidelines for his men. I am somewhat skeptical how often the third rule was followed. It’s hard enough to shoot a man with a handgun while under stress much less do fancy aiming. However, the city wasn’t paying a bounty for dead men, just prisoners in the jail. And Earp’s encounters were no doubt at a very close range.

Close enough that he “buffaloed” many a ruffian. That was a trick he learned in his first law job in Witchita. Essentially, it was slamming a pistol barrel onto the top of a head of a recalcitrant cowboy, and he’d wake up in jail or in the saloon. And live to spend his money another day.

Dodge City was a lot more peaceful with Earp and his deputies around.

With a wry and dry wit and with minimal hemming and hawing about different versions of events, Clavin gives us the story of these two legendary lawmen as he sees it and makes his third character Dodge City.

There are a lot of books on Earp, and I’ve resisted most except for the scrupulously written and narrowly focused And Die in the West about the gunfight at the OK Corral (actually at the vacant lot behind the corral). Biographies of Earp started out with Stuart Lake’s hagiographic Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, and Clavin confirms they’ve mostly veered between worship and hostility since then.

Masterton has fewer and truer bios, but they relied on his memory and a minor bit of attention seeking later in his life.

Neither man was born in the west. Earp hailed from Illinois. Like another American legend, Buffalo Bill Cody, Masterton was actually born in Canada – which never stopped him from illegally holding federal jobs and voting. “Bat” was probably a pet version of his birth name: Bertholomiew Masterton though, of course, other stories offer other explanations.

Tall (which helped with that buffaloing), lean, blonde and blue-eyed Earp and stocky, dark-haired Masterton both had brothers who were also law officers.

The Earp family was, even by modern standards, peripatetic. The Mastertons less so.

Clavin opens his book in 1883 with Bat and Wyatt reunited in Dodge, called back by the Dodge City War. Like many other famous conflicts in the Old West – the Lincoln County War, the OK Corral, and the Johnson County War, it was a combination of economic and political conflict. And it looked like more than a few people were going to die of lead poisoning.

Clavin then backtracks to give us the history of Dodge – originally called Buffalo City and established as a drinking hole for soldiers from nearby Fort Dodge, buffalo hunting, Indian Wars in Kansas, and, Wyatt’s and Bat’s early life as well as their brothers’ who show up frequently.

Truth be told, a whole lot of this book talks about things other than Dodge and our heroes. Clavin wanders off on many a tangent about the famous people that crossed the two shootists’ paths: John Wesley Hardin, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, and Buffalo Bill Cody to name a few. But it’s all interesting, and who doesn’t want to hear about more obscure figures with names like Salvation Sam, Dog Kelley, Mysterious Dave Mather, the Hoodoo Kid, Shoot ‘Em Up Mike, Prairie Dog Dave, Deadwood Dick, Dynamite Sam, and Dirty Sock Jack?

Earp and Masterton both were buffalo hunters in their teens. At $3.50 a head, killing ten of them a day would earn more than most men got in a month. Before that, Earp was also a teamster hauling cargo between Prescott and San Bernardino. They first met while buffalo hunters in Kansas.

After surviving the 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls when that trading post was attacked by a band of Indians led by Qannah Parker, formidable offspring of a Commanche chief and a white captive, Bat decided to give up hunting.

Before coming becoming a marshal in Dodge, Wyatt had some early experience with the law both as a lawman and criminal. Mostly what men who met Wyatt remembered was that he was a coffee man and didn’t drink alcohol except for a bit of beer now and then.

Bat, on the other hand, liked his drink and cards in moderation.

Wyatt’s relationship with women was, as Clavin says, complicated. He had four “wives”.

And one of them was a prostitute while they were married. In fact, while Clavin doesn’t call them the “Fightin’ Pimps” as others have, the Earp brothers frequently owned brothels.

Masterton found love later in life and just once when he married an athletic “club dancer”.

In case you’re wondering, only two chapters are devoted to Wyatt in Tombstone. Bat joined him there but left town by the time of the October shootout at the OK Corral. Clavin spends little time on Wyatt’s “vendetta ride” where he killed three men after his brother Morgan was murdered. Wyatt, as a Deputy United States Marshall, became a wanted man for a while.

It was after Tombstone that Wyatt returned for his second stint in Dodge.

One of the delights of the book is following these two men in later years.

Both men had an interest in boxing, and, after wandering about the west as far as Alaska, Wyatt ended up as a boxing referee in Los Angeles after bad investments in real estate and racehorses. (And his fourth and final “wife” developed a bad gambling habit.) In 1911, Wyatt again found himself on the wrong side of the law with a charge of “bunco steering”. Plans to do a biography fell through at first before meeting Stuart Lake. Earp died at 80 in 1929.

Masterton’s post-lawman life was far more distinguished. He became a noted newspaper columnist for the New York City paper The Morning Telegraph. He was a popular writer about sports and, sometimes, the theater.

Like Wyatt, he died with his boots on and in a spectacularly fitting fashion for a newspaperman. In 1921, just after finishing a column, he slumped over dead.

Both men, of course, have their place in pop culture as much as history. Wyatt has several movies about him, most centering on that day in Tombstone. Bat had a tv show, Bat Masterton, but it’s mostly forgotten now. But he wormed his way into memory in a sidewise fashion.

One of Bat’s newspaper protégés was Damon Runyon. A group of his stories were turned into the very popular musical Guys and Dolls. And in that show is one Sky Masterson.

A hearty recommendation for this book which skillfully presents the details of Bat’s and Wyatt’s life and times.

However, there is the minor matter on page 158 which has Wild Bill Hickok’s killer, Jack McCall, hung in Cheyenne. No, no he wasn’t. He was hung in Yankton, Dakota Territory. Not exactly an obscure or controversial fact though one I’m peculiarly sensitized to given my constant early exposure to the legend of Wild Bill.


More reviews of books about the Old West are indexed here.

6 thoughts on “Dodge City

  1. jameswharris January 24, 2018 / 8:41 pm

    You’ve hit another special interest of mine. I’ve read many Wyatt Earp biographies over the years. I’ve bought the one you review above but haven’t read it yet. The last nonfiction account I read was The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn, and it was very good. I also read two biographical novels Doc and Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell in recent years that were very good too. Writers keep digging and digging into Earp’s history and expanding the mythology. It’s amazing they can still find new information at all, but it seems like every few years a new biography comes out that has.

    • marzaat January 24, 2018 / 8:58 pm

      I’ve looked at The Last Gunfight. On your recommendation, I’ll check it out.

      I’ve also heard good things about the Mary Doria Russell books. Doc Holliday is an interesting character.

      My parochial interest in Wyatt in the Black Hills was somewhat satisfied, but Clavin puts the emphasis on events in Dodge.

      Have you ever read the more general Age of the Gunfighter by Joseph G. Rosa? He’s a Hickok specialist but that book has bios of many shootists? I’ve liked Rosa books on Hickok but haven’t read that one. It has material on Wyatt Earp.

      So is the Stuart Lake book as much a hagiography as many have said?

  2. jameswharris January 26, 2018 / 7:52 pm

    Haven’t read Age of the Gunfighter. I went to look at it on Amazon and discovered a used copy like new for sale with shipping for $5.60, so I bought it. Hope it’s good.

    Wyatt Earp Frontier Marshall was the first book I read on Earp many years ago. All the subsequent biographies have been correcting him ever since. Lake’s story was compelling and convincing though.

    Are you a fan of western movies? Even though I think of myself as a science fiction fan, that’s for books. For movies, I prefer westerns.

    • marzaat January 26, 2018 / 9:15 pm

      I’m not much of a fan of straight western stories or novels. I much prefer reading about the historical west.

      As for movies, I don’t know if I’d call myself a western or sf movie fan though some of my favorite movies are in those categories.

      Both, at their best, can be very good, but are generally mediocre.

      As far as western movies, in no particular order of preference, I’m fond of Tombstone, The Shootist, The Tin Star, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Lawman, How the West Was Won, High Plains Drifter (I’d say that’s a weird western), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Unforgiven).

      I’d put a lot of other John Ford westerns in the second tier.

      I’d like to see the original The Virginian with Gary Cooper

    • marzaat January 26, 2018 / 9:17 pm

      I’d like to see the original The Virginian with Gary Cooper and some odd sort-of-western movie called My Pal, the King which Michael Moorcock has mentioned.

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