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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Storied Life of Bat Masterson

By Tom Morrow

One of America’s most colorful characters was Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson, who was a buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, Army scout, gunfighter, county sheriff, town and U.S. marshal, gambler, prizefighting referee, bunko artist, and New York newspaper columnist.

Masterson was born Nov. 26, 1853, in Henryville, Canada East, (what today is Quebec), spending the first half of his adult life in what is remembered as the “Wild West.” Though he was baptized Bartholomew, he later changed his name to “William Barclay Masterson.”

He became a leading authority on prizefighting, attending nearly every important match and title fight from the 1880s until his death in 1921. He knew all of the Heavyweight Champions from John L. Sullivan and James J. “Gentleman Jim” Corbett to Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey.

In his early days as an important character in helping to tame the cattle towns of Kansas, Bat was noted for his ever-present derby hat and silver-knobbed cane, which he frequently carried.
In his late teens, he and his two brothers, Ed and Jim, left their family’s farm to become buffalo hunters on the American plains. During July, 1872 Ed and Bat were hired by Raymond Ritter to grade a five-mile section of track for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Ritter skipped out without paying the Masterson brothers their wages. A year finally, Bat collected the overdue wages from Ritter – at gunpoint.

Beginning in 1877, for the next 20 some years, Bat gained a reputation for being a lawman, faro dealer, and gunfighter. He began as a deputy in Dodge City, Kansas and later was elected Sheriff of Ford County, Kansas. He would work alongside Wyatt Earp, John “Doc” Holiday and other notable gunman, becoming a folklore legend. Brother Ed would be gunned down on the streets of Dodge City as town marshal, but Bat got revenge.

In 1902, after dodging a bunco charge of fleecing a Mormon elder out of 17,000, a friend got Bat a job as a columnist for the New York Morning Telegram. His column, “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics,” was sports in general and boxing in particular. The column appeared three times a week from 1903 until his death in 1921. In 1905, “The Sunset Trail,” a fictionalized biography of Bat, was published; one of many somewhat true depictions that have led to his fame as a gunfighter and gambler.

Bat was introduced to President Theodore Roosevelt that resulted in Masterson being a frequent White House guest, and regular correspondence. In 1905, Roosevelt arranged for Bat’s appointment as Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of New York. The President wrote Bat a letter which concluded with the lines: “You must be careful not to gamble or do anything while you are a public officer which might afford opportunity to your enemies and my critics to say that your appointment was improper…” Bat served in his $2,000 per year job until Aug. 1, 1909, when then-President William Howard Taft fired him.

Bat Masterson died at age 67 on Oct. 25, 1921, at his desk from a massive heart attack after writing what became his final column for the Telegraph. Close friend Damon Runyon offered this memorable eulogy:
“He was a 100 percent, 22-karat real man … he was always stretching out his hand to some down-and-outer. Bat had a great sense of humor and a marvelous fund of reminiscence, and was one of the most entertaining companions we have ever known. There are only too few men in the world like Bat Masterson and his death is a genuine loss.”

Bat Masterson is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City. His full name, William Barclay Masterson, appears above his epitaph on the large granite grave marker which reads: “Loved by Everyone.”

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