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Dodge City War ends with no shots being fired

The “Dodge City War,” a battle-less battle which took place (or perhaps failed to take place would be more accurate?) in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1883, ended peacefully without anyone firing a shot. The incident (or non-incident) was filled with ominous possibilities for violence and brought several of the most infamous gunfighters in the history of the Old West into the Kansas town. Several of them were there to show support for friends, others were spoiling for a fight, but both sides strutted their might then calmed down.

Dodge City Police Commission members

The “Dodge City Peace Commission” June 1883. From left to right, standing: W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon. Seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown. (Public Domain Photo.)

Prospects were generally bad enough when one of the West’s so-called “gunfighters” arrived in town. Just imagine how riled up the good folks of Dodge City were when they heard that a whole group of gunfighters were headed their way in 1883.

The whole story of the “Dodge City War” unfolded between February and June of 1883 and centered around a colorful figure who variously played the roles of businessman “dandy” and outlaw in Kansas and the American Southwest: Luke Short.

In February 1883, Short, a friend of Wyatt Earp who had been managing the Long Branch Saloon since 1881, bought the gambling concession at the Long Branch. (Although gambling was technically illegal in Dodge, it was thought of as a “necessary tax,” as once source put it, and a network of legal/illegal/semi-legal resources of the town thrived from gambling income.) Short and his partner, W. H. Harris, did very well at the Long Branch and stirred the envy and ill feelings of other city powers-that-be, including Alonzo B. Webster, the city’s mayor and owner of a neighboring saloon, the Alamo. A hard-fought mayoral election in April 1883 brought plenty of accusations of corruption on both sides, i.e., one town faction supported Harris for mayor and the second supported L.E. Deger, the candidate backed by Webster and his supporters. The Webster faction won, seating Deger as the new mayor by a vote of 214-143.

Luke Short and friends forced out of Dodge

Almost immediately, the new leadership in Dodge City passed some new laws regarding prostitutes hanging around any of the saloons and/or singing/working in the town’s saloons. But what started the whole trouble was when that law was allegedly applied very selectively: Luke Short and his friends and fellow businessmen were arrested for violating the new law by allowing prostitutes to work in and around the Long Branch. Short was outraged, claiming that the same behavior was going on at other saloons, notably the Alamo.

In brief, Short and several other of his “followers” were rounded up by the sheriff and a hastily deputized group of supporters, slapped in jail overnight, and given the choice of leaving town the next morning. That is, they were escorted down to the train station and allowed to choose whether they would leave Dodge eastbound or westbound.

For the next few months, Short campaigned from Kansas City to gain the support of Kansas Governor George Glick among others, carrying on a vigorous effort via multiple telegrams, multiple lawyer friends, and numerous newspaper stories in Kansas City, Topeka, Wichita, and Dodge City. All the while, Short’s accusations were being challenged by counter charges from Dodge City Sheriff George Hinkle, Mayor Deger, and Webster — all of whom insisted that the moral, upright people in the town had led the crusade to rid their fair city of Luke Short and his ilk, bringing genuine relief to the moral climate for every decent citizen.

Big-name gunfighters throw their support to Short

Knowing they ultimately had the governor’s attention and support, Short and Harris and their supporters upped the anti from Kansas City, letting the newspapers know they had contacted their old friends Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Earp’s friend Doc Holliday. Earp and Masterson were well known in Dodge City, having both served their as lawmen in the 1870s. Holliday had an impressive reputation as an all around nasty guy and a skilled gunfighter.

In addition to these “Big Three” gunfighters, other named but lesser known companions brought their reputations to bear on the story included Black Jack Bill, Cold Chuck Johnny, Dynamite Sam, Dark Alley Jim, Three-Fingered Dave, and Six-Toed Pete. (Wouldn’t it be fun if we could find more information about such colorfully named desperadoes?)

How much impact this group may have made on Dodge City, how much mayhem might have come about if they appeared
and sought to force city leaders to take Short back and allow him to return to the saloon business, we will never know. Earp came to Dodge City by train on May 31 and attempted to work out a settlement. On June 4, Masterson and Short arrived in town separately and without fanfare. By June 9, a compromise had been reached. Short and the others who had been escorted out of town were allowed to return. Short put up a $1,000 bond and was allowed to resume business as usual at the Long Branch.

Famous picture worth 1,000 words of history

One interesting outcome of the “Dodge City War” was the photograph shown at the beginning of this article. Sometime during the second week of June 1883, after all the publicity and furor had settled, the leaders of the pro-Short group got together for a photo before Masterson and Earp left town. The Dodge City “Times” gave this information about the photo in its June 14, 1883, issue: “The photographs of the eight visiting ‘statesmen’ were take in a group by Mr. Conkling, photographer. The distinguished bond extractor and champion pie eater, W.F. Petillon, appears in the group.” (The reference to Petillon has to do with a role he played earlier when a bond deposited by Short was put in his custody and mysteriously disappeared. Petillon held the bond as a town official in charge of collecting and securing bonds. When Short was run out of town, Petillon was ousted with him.)

The picture was published six weeks later by the “National Police Gazette” and labelled — perhaps tongue-in-cheek? — as the “Dodge City Police Commission.”

Aftermath of the big fuss in Dodge City

Little changed in Dodge following the conflict, although the town’s notoriety and reputation for toughness must surly have flourished. In November 1883, Luke Short sold his interests in the Long Branch and moved on to Fort Worth, Texas.

Wyatt Earp eventually moved on to California, then to Alaska to follow the Alaskan Gold Rush. He eventually settled in Los Angeles and maintained his reputation as a controversial figure as he advised L.A. police and Hollywood movie makers. He died at the age of 80 in Los Angeles in 1929.

Bat Masterson left the West in 1902 and went to New York City. At one time, he served as deputy U.S. marshal for the southern district of New York (appointed to the post by President Theodore Roosevelt). He spent his last years as a writer and sports journalist. He died slumped over his desk after finishing his regular column at the “New York Morning Telegraph,” in 1921.

(A word about sources: There is a fascinating account of these incidents surrounding Luke Short and Dodge City, complete with multiple newspaper articles from Kansas papers of the day, in Great Gunfighters of the Kansas Cowtowns, 1867-1886 by Nyle H. Miller and Joseph W. Snell. I think that book is probably out of print, but copies can often be found at online auction sites and used bookstores. Another very useful source is the volume “The Gunfighters” in the “Time-Life Books of the Old West” series. There’s also interesting information under the “Dodge City War” and “Bat Masterson” entries online at Wikipedia.)

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