Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

Bat Masterson was not really much of a gunfighter


Known as a gunfighter (wrongly, as you’ll see) and something of a brawler (a well-deserved reputation) Bat Masterson is best remembered by Old West devotees as a former lawman in Dodge City, Kansas. What many people may not realize is that Masterson’s greatest claim to fame didn’t involve his six-guns. He was best known throughout the last 40 or so years of his life as a boxing promoter and sports writer. Masterson was passionate about boxing during the time when “modern” boxing was just coming into fashion. He helped shape the sport and both made and lost several small fortunes as a boxing promoter and a gambler.

In fact, when Masterson died in 1921, he did not die in the West. He was living fairly luxuriously in a New York City apartment, wealthy enough to employ house servants. He was a reporter/sports writer for the “Morning Telegraph” newspaper and actually died at his desk of a heart attack after completing his column for the next day.

In reality during his early days, much of Masterson’s reputation as a “man-killer” or gunfighter was based on false tales that started out as a prank!

In the introduction to his excellent book, “Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years,” writer Robert K. DeArment explains how Masterson’s reputation was born. It seems a “New York Sun” reporter was looking for stories of the Old West in Gunnison, Colorado, in 1881. The reporter turned to a friend of his in a Gunnison bar, a friend who’d lived long in the West, and asked him where all the “man-killers” and “bad men” were that he could write about. The long-time Westerner, a Dr. W.S. Cockrell, looked around and pointed the reporter toward a young man he said was W.B. Masterson of Dodge City, Kansas. According to Cockrell, Masterson was 27 years old and already had killed 26 men.

The good doctor spun some tall tales of Masterson’s prowess with a gun and adventures he had gone through. By the time the “Sun” correspondent returned to New York, the legend was born.

In reality, however, according to DeArment’s book, Masterson denied being in Gunnison at the time Cockrell was singing his praises with the six gun — and Cockrell actually apologized to Masterson later for pointing to the wrong man and making up the tall tales. He claimed the idea was just to prank the Easterner.

Fact of the matter is, Bat Masterson — aside from Indian fighting, which did happen in his early days on the Plains — only used his gun six times against other men, according to DeArment:

  1. In 1876, he shot and killed an Army corporal in Texas after the corporal had killed a woman and wounded Bat in the groin.
  2. In April 1878, Masterson show two cowboys after they shot and killed his brother, Ed. One of them died.
  3. In October 1878, he led a posse chasing a man wanted for murder. There was a shootout and Bat’s rifle shot the bullet that struck the fugitive. (Accounts of this man’s fate vary. Bat always believed he had killed the man; records dispute this, saying he recovered and died years later in Texas.)
  4. In April 1881, in a shootout on the Dodge City plaza, Masterson wounded a “saloon man” as DeArment called him.
  5. In Denver, in April 1897, Masterson wounded a man in a “polling place altercation,” the writer said.

Ironically, Masterson’s “killer” reputation and most of the drama attributed to him started as a prank on a New York City newspaperman — and Masterson spent the last 20 years or so of his life as a New York City newspaperman. He actually lived twice as long in New York City as he did any one place in the West — even serving as a U.S. Deputy Marshal in New York by the appointment of Theodore Roosevelt!

Bat Masterson’s friends and acquaintances would unanimously agree (and he really was friends with some well-known “gunfighters” and colorful figures of the Old West, notably the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, Ben Thompson, and Luke Short) that he was both fearless and possessed of a quick temper. He was never hesitant to fight it out with his fists if he felt the occasion required it. Not surprisingly, Masterson had  a lifelong love of “fisticuffs,” i.e., he was an avid boxing fan and lived during the earliest days of modern-style boxing matches.

Starting in Denver and traveling throughout the West, then on to New York City, Masterson became a supporter of the sport, and indeed promoted many matches. He also lost many big bets following his emotions and his heart about a particular fighter, rather than paying attention to the man’s ring performance.

By the time he died, he had ridden horses across the Plains capturing the “bad guys,” and he had flown over his New York City neighborhood in an airplane.

(Click Here to Find a Copy of “Gunfighter in Gotham,” the book cited throughout this article.)