By Nick Poppy
February 26, 2017
Any man fool enough to look for trouble in 1870s Dodge City could count on two things: finding it, and finding himself knocked over the head by the butt of a gun. And if he was especially unlucky or stupid, he could find a third thing: himself full of lead.
The infamous Kansas cow town had bloody beginnings, and violence, or the threat of it, was rarely far away. It started with buffalo. The seemingly endless herds on the nearby plains, coupled with demand for skins and tongues (considered a delicacy back East), birthed a buffalo hunting industry. And that industry, in turn, created a leathery class of buffalo hunters — skilled marksmen who could shoot from the saddle, subsist in harsh conditions and not shy from the sight of blood.
Out of these hunters’ ranks came two of the most fabled lawmen of the American West: Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, whose fascinating careers are brought to life in Tom Clavin’s “Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West.”
In the decades after the Civil War, Dodge City stood at the edge of the West, a boomtown at the intersection of buffalo hunting and cattle driving that boasted saloons, gambling halls and brothels to entertain men lonely from weeks in the wilderness. A colorful cast of characters swaggered through town, with names like The Stuttering Kid, Shoot ’Em Up Mike, Light Fingered Jack (not to be confused with Shoot His Eye Out Jack) and Stink Finger Jim. Poor Jim.
A town like Dodge City danced a delicate do-si-do between keeping these cowboys in line — i.e., not letting them break and shoot everything in sight — and being a hospitable place to blow off steam. After all, the city filled its coffers by catering to carousing cowpokes, and it couldn’t afford to drive the drovers out of Dodge.
Enter professional law enforcement to referee these paying rowdies.
In 1872, Bill “Bully” Brooks became the first peace officer in Dodge, and he was by all accounts bad at his job. Brooks’ approach to policing was marked by a trigger finger so itchy, he’d shot over a dozen people in his first month. Brooks was also something of a coward — perhaps any person so besotted with needless gunplay is — and few were sad when he got the hell out of Dodge.
When Earp and Masterson were eventually installed a few years later, things changed. Earp was appointed deputy marshal in the spring of 1876, and the then-28-year-old set about putting together a force to help him keep Dodge City in line. Among the half-dozen officers Earp brought onto the Dodge City force, his most important hire was his former buffalo-hunting companion, Masterson.
This unlikely pair couldn’t have been more different. Earp was a taciturn teetotaler who carried himself with a steely sureness of self, the very model of a no-BS cop. Masterson, though also tough, was a beloved raconteur, and no stranger to drink or the gaming table. Along with several other noted lawmen like Bill Tilghman and Bat’s brothers Sam and Jim, they brought a rickety order to a place that had none.
Unusual for a lawman of his time and place, Earp established guidelines for his deputies that discouraged deadly force. Officers were to avoid violence and first try to reason with wrongdoers; after all, when men were talking, they were not shooting. If a lawman did have to use his gun, he was to wound and not kill — all the better to avoid retaliation and an escalation of violence.
But Gandhis they weren’t.
These former buffalo hunters were expert practitioners of a technique known as “buffaloing”: incapacitating miscreants by knocking their heads with their pistol butts. “Buffaloed” men may have woken up with goose eggs on their noggins, and they may have found themselves in the “calabaloose” (Dodge City’s jail), but it was better than not waking up at all.
The most effective tool in their arsenals, however, may have been their reputations. As word of Dodge City’s law officers spread, it gave pause to anyone considering mischief. Having a close encounter with Wyatt Earp would put an end to anyone’s fun, so why start something?
As a result of their policing, over the next three years, gun violence in Dodge City fell, and arrests rose to somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 a month. The lawmen were able to implement a new law banning horses and other animals from saloons. And they enforced the “Dead Line,” an east/west division in town. North of the Dead Line, respectable businesses, merchants and residents could work and live in peace; south of the Dead Line, anything went. And did it ever. That Dodge City did not fall into utter bedlam, or burn to the ground, is a testament to the lawmen’s success.
Over the next few years, Earp and Masterson periodically would leave and return to lawing in Dodge City, seeking their fortunes as gamblers and saloon owners themselves. This was especially true during the quiet winter months, while the summer cattle-drive period was high season for corralling crooks.
After his heyday in Dodge, Earp went on to greater renown as one of the chief combatants in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in 1881. Though it burnished his fame as a gunslinger, the aftermath of the O.K. Corral was hard on him; violent reprisals killed his brother Morgan and crippled his brother Virgil, and the whole affair sapped the veteran lawman’s spirit.
Masterson, too, left Dodge City for other adventures. In the years following, he worked as a gambler, a casino dealer, a boxing promoter and, yes, a law officer.
The two would reunite briefly in Dodge City in 1883, to help a friend in a potentially violent political conflict there, the so-called “Dodge City War.” (The “war” was so called by the press, eager for a bleeding headline; in the end, no blood was shed.)
Masterson later moved east at the urging of another old buffalo-hunting friend: Teddy Roosevelt.
He spent his autumn years as a Broadway bon vivant, serving as sports editor and columnist for The Morning Telegraph, a New York City broadsheet. He made such an impression on a young Damon Runyon that Runyon named one of his “Guys and Dolls” characters Sky Masterson in Bat’s honor.
Earp bounced around the West, and his attempts to strike it big in mining, gambling and other businesses failed. He lived to his 80s, and after he died in Los Angeles, his legend as a gunslinger grew. His story has been told time and again in movies and TV, usually more fiction than fact.
Earp, Masterson and their compatriots didn’t “clean up” Dodge City so much as make the town safe enough for the cattle trade and the “sinful” businesses that operated there. Amazingly, at a time when there wasn’t much of it, Earp and Masterson kept the peace — even if that meant cracking a few skulls.