"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bat Masterson in fact and fiction

One of the greatest

Of all the great characters of the Old West, the so-called gunslingers (it's actually a twentieth century term), the gamblers, the lawmen and outlaws and those somewhere in between, it seems to me that Bat Masterson was the most sympathetic and likeable. He was also one of the most interesting.
Bat as a young man
Buffalo hunter, Army scout, peace officer, politician, gambler, sporting man, journalist, William Barclay ‘Bat’ Masterson (1853 - 1921) had a full and fascinating career. He and Wyatt Earp were among the longest-lived of the great Westerners: Bat died as a newspaperman in New York in 1921.

Of course countless blood-and-thunder legends are told about him and sensational dime-novel exaggerations were commonplace. It’s not easy to identify the true Bat. But it can be done.

Definitive accounts

Just as you would read Casey Tefertiller to get the definitive Wyatt Earp, Robert M Utley for the George Armstrong Custer, TJ Stiles for Jesse James and Joseph Rosa for an authoritative Wild Bill Hickok, so you would be wise to read Robert K DeArment to get the real lowdown on Bat Masterson. If you peruse his Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1979, you will get an accurate historical picture as well as a very enjoyable read.
Great book
Western heroes of the Coltish persuasion are notorious not only for the supposed notches on their guns (which Bat did not have) but also for their sensational ‘biographies’ which were based on rumor, tall tales and often downright lies.

Deadly gunfighter

It is commonly thought that Bat Masterson was one of the most deadly gunfighters of the West. He is often credited with having killed 28 men. Right away Mr. DeArment tells us that it is perfectly possible that Bat did not kill anyone at all. It is, in fact, probable that Bat fatally shot Corporal Melvin A King in Sweetwater (later Mobeetie), Texas in 1876, after a dispute over a girl, himself receiving a bullet in the groin – although DeArment says even that ‘kill’ is in doubt. “I had a little difficulty with some soldiers down there, but never mind, I dislike to talk about it,” said Bat. But afterwards there is little or no hard evidence that Bat killed anyone. Not that Bat went out of his way to deny it. His reputation as one of the most dangerous men on the frontier served him well.
One of Bat's .45s
Buffalo hunter, Army scout

The book takes us from Bat’s birth (‘Bat’ being a diminutive of his birth name Bartholomew) in Canada in 1853 to his time as a buffalo hunter, which he began not yet eighteen, and the Battle of Adobe Walls against the Indians under Quanah Parker, when he was 20. In July 1874 Col. Nelson A Miles led an expedition to punish the Indians for their effrontery in firing upon treaty-breaking white invaders and in August young Bat signed on as a scout at $75 a month. In November, he was employed as a teamster at Camp Supply, helping to freight in the tons of provisions needed for the campaign. It was at this time that he got into the fight with soldiers which resulted in the death of Cpl. King.
Adobe Walls marker. Bat's name is second on the list.
Dodge City

Bat quickly recovered from his wound and, walking with a cane, rejoined his brothers Jim and Ed in Dodge, the buffalo ‘capital’. The Dodge years are interestingly dealt with by DeArment. Bat gradually morphed from peace officer to politician (of course there was a great overlap with these elected offices). Very much identified with the ‘gang’ and standing against the ‘reformers’, Bat and his many friends battled the forces of temperance and puritanism. At the time of Dodge’s supremacy as a cattle town (1877/78) Bat's party was in the ascendant. With James ‘Dog’ Kelley as mayor, Bat as Ford County sheriff and his brother Ed as marshal of Dodge (along with several friends as deputies), and with the Dodge City Times on their side, his party ruled the roost. Bat was notably successful as a lawman, leading posses that captured several of the Kinsley train robbers, and shooting and bringing back to Dodge the odious Spike Kenedy, killer of saloon singer Dora Hand.
Bat the dandy
DeArment has a whole chapter on the penchant of Bat and his compadres for practical joking, and it is entertaining, although I personally would have not included the Royal Gorge War in Colorado among the ‘frolics’.

The Wolf of the Washita

DeArment discounts the story that famed gunman Clay Allison (who coined the term shootist) made Bat ‘hunt his hole’, that is, hide from Allison, in Dodge in 1878. He says this is legend and there is no evidence. I had always believed that Allison was hunting Wyatt Earp and that Bat had backed his friend Wyatt, with a shotgun, but Allison, seeing that his support had melted away, calmly left town. DeArment says the whole event simply never happened. Shame!
Clay Allison
Professional gambler

But it went sour in Dodge. Ed was shot and killed in April 1878. Bat was voted out as county sheriff in ‘79, beaten by George Hinkle of the reformist party. Bat, still only 26, seemed already an anachronism. The buffalo were gone, the Indians pacified, dirty politics ran Dodge. He was out of place. It was at this point that he became a professional gambler. He had always been good at cards and now he made a living from it.

He went west to Colorado, to Leadville, and then on to one boomtown and mining camp after another, pursuing his chosen profession.
In 1881 he was working in the Oriental in Tombstone with his friend Wyatt Earp. In April of that year he returned to Dodge after being warned that there was a plot to kill his brother Jim, who had remained there, and there occurred the ‘Battle of the Plaza’ as he descended from the train and straight away got into a shooting match with Jim’s enemies. He was back in 1883 to help his friend Luke Short who had been run out of Dodge. Loyalty to his friends was a very strong point with Bat. He even traveled to Ogallala, Nebraska and rescued from arrest Billy Thomson, the homicidal nuisance, because Billy was brother of Bat’s friend Ben. It was here that Bat met the bibulous Buffalo Bill Cody, who gave Bat his wife’s carriage to get Billy away in.


In early 1882 Bat joined his brother Jim, who was now a deputy in Trinidad, Colo. It was there that in a gunfight John Allen mortally wounded Cockeyed Frank Loving (who had killed Bat’s buffalo friend Levi Richardson in Dodge). Bat was appointed city marshal, while he ran a faro bank at the Bonanza saloon at the same time.
Bat (left) with Wyatt Earp
In May ’82, Wyatt and Warren Earp, accompanied by Doc Holliday, arrived in town after their ‘vendetta’ against the Cowboys in Arizona. The Earps soon departed for Gunnison and Holliday for Denver, where he was arrested. Although Bat never cared for Holliday, for the sake of their mutual friend Wyatt Earp, Bat went to Denver and managed, with the aid of the governor and a certain amount of legal jiggery-pokery to extract Holliday from the potentially lethal Arizona arrest warrant.

In April 1883 Bat was defeated in Trinidad elections and replaced as marshal. It was the last time he would stand in an election.

There followed more wanderings. Bat went north into the Dakotas where he met Theodore Roosevelt and began the ever-deepening friendship with the future president. Bat was in Fort Worth, Texas when his friend Luke Short shot and killed Longhaired Jim Courtright. In 1887, the town council of the lawless mining camp of Silverton, Colorado sent for Bat to act as a ‘clean up the town’ special marshal. Bat’s reputation and firmness were enough. At Buena Vista Bat saved a man from a lynch mob, though not from hanging, when he took the fellow to Denver for trial. Bat took a whole series of occasional jobs as agent for insurance or express companies, railroads and detective agencies. DeArment tells us, however, that he did not participate in the lethal Kansas County Seat Wars.


Despite all these peregrinations, from the late-1880s, Bat considered Denver home. It was a city he very much liked. He ‘bucked the tiger’ and also occasionally dealt faro for various gambling houses. In 1888 he bought the Palace Variety Theater and Gambling Parlors, a large brick building on the corner of Blake and 15th. It seems to have been rather like 1950s Vegas as the most noted showbiz acts came to Denver to appear there while gambling went on.

The Palace Variety Theater and Gambling Parlors in a more modern era

Bat had lived his youth in an essentially male world but it appears that it was in Denver that he settled down with Emma Moulton (the date of any marriage is unknown). He had quite a reputation as a ladies’ man but no evidence has surfaced of affairs. He himself was diplomatically silent. In any case he remained with Emma for the rest of his life. Their marriage was childless. Emma stayed very much in the shadows and we know little about her. I don't know of a picture of her.


But Denver went sour too. The reform movement gained ground there as everywhere. Bat got itchy feet again. The next stop was the boomtown of Creede in ‘92, where Bat was when Bob Ford, murderer of Jesse James, was himself shot to death. Photos of Bat at this time show him beefier, with receding hairline and gray in his mustache. He was still a dandy. When interviewed by a journalist he was wearing a corduroy suit of rich lavender.
A violent place: Creede, 1892

Like his friend Wyatt Earp, Bat had always been keenly interested in the pugilistic arts. He attended all the main championship prizefights and, like Earp, often acted as a referee, second or personal bodyguard to the boxers. Effective gunmen were an essential part of the prizefight circus in those days. In 1898 Bat climbed into the ring as second to Denver Ed Smith in his bout with Joe Goddard with two derringers prominently displayed. The derringers were designed, however, to oblige Ed to fight, rather than to intimidate Joe. Bat bet very heavily on the outcome of the fights, sometimes winning hugely, sometimes losing almost everything he had, for example when Sullivan beat Mitchell in 1894. In 1896 Bat was with the scoundrel Judge Roy Bean in Langtry, Texas when, after the retirement of Gentleman Jim Corbett, Pete Maher fought Ruby Bob Fitzsimmons for the title. In 1910 Bat was with Jack London, Rex Beach, John L Sullivan, Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons and many others to see Jack Johnson beat James J Jeffries. Bat was personal friends with a great number of noted fighters.
Jeffries versus Johnson, Reno, NV, 1910
Bat got to know a fellow fight enthusiast, the splendidly named Otto C Floto, and went into business with him to stage fights in Denver. Before long, however, Floto and Bat fell out and Bat set up his own rival fight club. They became the bitterest of rivals, doing everything possible to do each other down. In the end, Floto’s money, connections and political influence wore Bat down and his sojourn in Denver ended as bitterly as the one in Dodge had.
Otto C Floto
To Edwardian England?

In 1902, the Mastersons went to Chicago. Bat fell in with some sporting acquaintances who proposed a trip to England, where Edward VII had succeeded Victoria and the forces of puritanism were not quite so strong. Bat agreed and they entrained for New York City. Just before embarking for Europe, however, the group, including Bat, were arrested by police on the accusation of one George Snow of Salt Lake City, the son of a leader of the Mormon church and himself an Elder, who claimed that he had been swindled by them in a crooked faro game. Bat had never seen the man in his life before and the Mormon indeed backed down, withdrawing his complaint, but not before the police had confiscated Bat’s prize revolver, which was then auctioned and never seen again, to his great regret. The trip to England never happened.
Bat in later years
Last years

In 1903, Bat, now 50, joined the staff of the upmarket New York Morning Telegraph. He was to remain in this post for 18 years until he died at his desk. He became a noted personality of the New York scene. It was at this time that he got to know writer Damon Runyon, who was enormously impressed by Bat and created in his short stories the Colorado gambler Sky Masterson, later to feature in the musical Guys and Dolls.
Damon Runyon
In 1913 Bat met the crew of the 101 Ranch Wild West Show and became friends with one of the show’s performers, Milt Hinkle, who was the son of the George Hinkle who had beaten Bat in the election for Ford County sheriff back in ’79. History does not relate if Bat met other young performers with the 101, Will Rogers and Tom Mix. But Bat liked the new flickers and especially the Westerns. He wrote admiringly in his column of William S Hart and when Hart and Bat met it was uncertain who admired the other more.
William S Hart, admirer and admired
These last years of Bat in New York have been described in a separate book by Mr. DeArment, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York Years, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2013.
Bat in Gotham
Bat died in 1921, with his boots on and his chosen weapon, his pen, in his hand.

Bat Masterson on the screen

Bat has appeared countless times in Westerns. The first time was in William S Hart’s silent Wild Bill Hickok (1923) when he was played by Jack Gardner. In 1943 Albert Dekker played Bat in The Woman of the Town, a Dodge story starring Claire Trevor as Dora Hand. Randolph Scott was Bat in Trail Street, a rather good 1947 Ray Enright-directed B-Western, also starring Robert Ryan. Here, Bat cleans up the town of “Liberal, Kansas”.
Albert Dekker is Bat, 1943
Monte Hale starred as Bat in Prince of the Plains in 1949. In this 59-minute Republic programmer, Bat is a young cowboy who arrives in a town and helps the sheriff clean up criminal goings on. Bat makes a brief appearance in the great Winchester ’73, played by an (uncredited) Steve Darrell, and is portrayed by Frank Ferguson as ‘Marshal Bat Masterson’ in another Randy Scott picture, Santa Fe (1951).
Montgomery is Masterson
George Montgomery was a rather preposterous Masterson of Kansas in 1954 (Bruce Cowling as Wyatt Earp, with the excellent and slightly cadaverous James Griffith as Doc Holliday). In 1955 Keith Larsen played a young newspaper boy Bat to Joel McCrea’s Marshal Wyatt Earp cleaning up Wichita, quite absurd, and then in 1959 Joel McCrea himself became Bat in Gunfight at Dodge City. In between, Bat again appeared (briefly) with Earps in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), this time impersonated by Kenneth Tobey.

Bat and Wyatt

Badman’s Country (1958) is a complete nonsense in which Pat Garrett arrives in Abilene where he catches five of Butch Cassidy's gang. He calls in Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson and they learn there is a half million dollar shipment of money arriving by train and Cassidy is collecting enough men to take it. Dear oh dear.
Great TV show
Bat, played by Gene Barry (taking over from Mason Alan Dinehart), appeared in no fewer than 39 episodes of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and then Barry starred in his own show, the great TV Western Bat Masterson, which aired in three series for a total of 108 episodes on NBC from 1958 to 1961. I actually rather like Barry as Bat and I think the series had quality. It gives us a tongue-in-cheek dandified Bat, a ladies’ man who travels the West. Many of the episodes, while fictional, capture the true Bat well. They don’t all: Bat was in fact against women’s suffrage yet campaigns for it in The Inner Circle (2:12).
Gene was Bat for millions

Back when the west was very young,
There lived a man named Masterson.
He wore a cane and derby hat,
They called him Bat, Bat Masterson.
The trail that he blazed is still there.
No one has come since, to replace his name.
And those with too ready a trigger,
Forgot to figure on his lightning cane.
Now in the legend of the west,
One name stands out of all the rest.
The man who had the fastest gun,
His name was Bat, Bat Masterson.

What deathless verse.

In the 1960s Bat (Ed T McDonnell) appears with every other known Western figure in The Outlaws Is Coming (1965), the last movie starring The Three Stooges, which is hilarious if you like unfunny films. Bat (Richard Beale) was also in the British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who in 1966 when the Tardis landed in Tombstone. I’ve seen a few episodes on YouTube and trust me, it’s awful. The actors have BBC 'American' accents which appear to be getting revenge for Dick Van Dyke's cockney.

Bat (Dan Ferrone) was on TV again in 1972 in the OK Corral episode of Appointment with Destiny (although heaven knows why); William Campbell was Bat in Damon Runyon’s Pueblo in 1981 and Gene Barry came back in 1991 in The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw.

Tom Sizemore was Bat in the Kevin Costner Wyatt Earp (1994) and Matt Dallas plays him in the recent straight-to-video Wyatt Earp’s Revenge (2012), some nonsense about Wyatt and not Bat leading the posse to capture Spike Kenedy. Earp's biographer Stuart N Lake often exaggerated Wyatt's role in events and always made him the boss. This seems to have translated into films. In Wyatt Earp, leader Marshal Earp tells young tyro deputies Bat and Ed Masterson what to do...
Tyros Bat and Ed Masterson with senior Wyatt - it wasn't quite like that...
Well, that’s a hell of a lot of screen Bats.

Of course he also appeared in comics, dime novels songs – in fact all over the place.
Comic strip
And don't forget your Bat gun, derby and cane set.
I would have killed for that aged 10
So there you go. You’ve had around 2800 hundred words on the great Bat Masterson. Hope you enjoyed them. But if I were you, I’d read the book.


  1. Very good!

    You mentioned that Bat's birth name was Bartholomew. At what point did he change it?

    1. Bartholomew was on his birth certificate but he always called himself William Barclay. Perhaps he disliked the name Bartholomew. He once signed a hotel register 'Bartholomew Masterson' but otherwise appears not to have used the name at all. His signature was always 'W.B.Masterson'.

  2. Trying to sell Bat Masterson's old house in Mobeetie Tx , any idea of the value ? samueltabor@gmail.com ph# 2146209400

    1. None whatsoever! Still, I'd quite like to live in it.

  3. We have a picture of my grandfather and Bat Masterson that we believe was taken in 1888 while Bat owned the gambling establishment in Denver. My grandfather, Maurice Dorney and his brother moved from Chillicothe MO to Akron Colorado in 1888 to homestead land and farm. In January 1889, my grandfather moved back to Chillicothe and became a prominent city marshall and chief of police from 1900 until 1948 when he died. He was elected to 24 two year terms. Many times my grandfather mentioned that Bat Masterson strongly influenced him to become a lawman. The information in your blog is the evidence that I have been searching for many years. Thank you.

    1. Fascinating. Thanks for the comment. 24 two-year terms as city marshal? Incredible. That must be a record.

  4. I enjoyed reading your article on Bat Masterson and look forward to reading other pieces you have written. However, in fairness to Mr DeArment you may want to revise your paragraph on "Deadly Gunfighter". His first book on Bat was written nearly 40 years ago and more information has come to light in the interim, including court testimony from Bat and others. In his 2013 book "Gunfighter in Gotham" DeArment writes: "Aside from his Indian-fighting experience, Bat Masterson actually used a firearm against a fellow man on only six occasions. In January 1876 he shot and killed army corporal Melvin King at Sweetwater, Texas, after King killed a woman and wounded Bat in the groin. As lawmen in Dodge City, Bat and brother Ed fired at a rampaging cowboy named A.C. Jackson and succeeded in killing his horse. Jackson was unhurt. In April 1878, after cowboys Jack Wagner and Alf Walker shot and killed Ed Masterson. Bat downed them both. Wagner died. James Kenedy, a fugitive wanted for the murder of a woman at Dodge, was pursued by a Masterson-led posse, brought down by a bullet from Bat's rifle, and captured in October 1878. Bat wounded saloon man Al Updegraff in a wild shootout in the Dodge City plaza in April 1881, and he nicked a man named C.C. Louderbaugh during a polling place altercation in Denver in April 1897."
    Also the book includes a contemporary line drawing of Emma Masterson as well as a photo of her when she wss older.

    1. Hello Chris
      Thanks for your interesting comment.
      It's true that Bat used a firearm against a person very few times. He probably did kill Cpl. King, as I said. He may have contributed to Spike Kenedy's murder (see recent post on Wyatt Earp's Revenge), though Kenedy did not die until 1884, six years after Bat shot him. As for Wagner and Walker after the death of his brother Ed, opinions seem to vary on that. Newspapers reported (probably erroneously) that Ed had survived long enough to put bullets in Wagner and Walker, from which wounds Wagner died the next day. Bat was there and with other Dodge citizens almost certainly fired shots. Bat testified so in a court hearing in 1885, saying, "I shot those parties who killed my brother" (though he said "shot" and not "killed"). He could have killed Wagner or contributed to his death.
      Overall, the balance of probability is that Bat killed two men (King and Wagner) but we can't be absolutely certain.