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Stars of the Wild West Show

In the latter part of the 19th century, before television, radio, or even movies with sound, traveling exhibitions were the biggest form of entertainment most people encountered. Oh yes, the circus! At the same time, newspapers and novels told of the adventures Americans experienced settling the western half of the country: exploring, fighting the natives, hunting strange animals, and building communities. The wild west show merged the entertainment of the circus with the adventure of the new west and brought it to crowds of the eastern US and beyond. The stars of the wild west shows were as famous as world leaders and military heroes -or even more so!

Buffalo Bill

200_Buffalo-BillWilliam Frederick Cody worked as a Pony Express rider, trapper, prospector, buffalo hunter, and military scout before he became the premiere showman of the American West. He earned the nickname Buffalo Bill in his early twenties by outshooting a rival hunter. In 1872, author Ned Buntline persuaded Cody to portray himself in Buntline's play The Scouts of the Plains. Cody caught the show business bug and returned to the theater every season while still working as a scout for the US military. In 1883, he organized a traveling show called Buffalo Bill's Wild West, an outdoor extravaganza which featured historical reenactments, rodeo events, shooting exhibitions, and generally any impressive act that could conceivably depict life in the wild west. Cody's exhibition traveled for thirty years, including a total of ten years in Europe, and was seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Cody's idea of a traveling western circus was recreated by many other show business entrepreneurs, including quite a few of his star acts. In 1893 the name of the show was expanded to Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World when a parade of horseback riders was added. In 1909 he teamed with Pawnee Bill and his Asian acts to form the show Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Far East. See Cody in a surviving film clip.

Dr. W.F. Carver

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Dr. William Frank Carver was trained as a dentist but made his name as a buffalo hunter and champion sharpshooter. The New York Times called him "as fine a specimen of fully-developed manhood as ever walked on Manhattan Island." A short-range marksman, his act consisted of shooting glass balls or wooden blocks his assistant would throw into the air. If that weren't impressive enough, audience members would throw their pencils into the air and watch Carver destroy those as well. He toured on his own and also with Bill Cody's show. Carver won numerous marksmanship prizes in addition to his show business income. Carver invented the horse diving act in which a horse would dive into a pool of water from heights of up to 60 feet. He was inspired when he rode a horse across a bridge that collapsed and the horse executed a graceful dive into a raging river, or at least that was the story he told. Carver's son, daughter, and daughter-in-law carried on the diving horse business in Atlantic City after Carver died in 1927.

Pawnee Bill

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William Gordon Lillie worked as a teacher, interpreter, and advocate for the Pawnee people who were relocated to Oklahoma. His lifelong relationship with the tribe earned him the name Pawnee Bill. He was hired to coordinate the Pawnee actors in Buffalo Bill's first tour. Five years later he went on the road with his own show called Pawnee Bill's Wild West. As time went by, he added Japanese acrobats and Arabian jugglers to the show. In 1908 he again joined Bill Cody, this time as an equal, as they formed "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Pawnee Bill's Great Far East." Lillie's wife May (pictured) was a rider and sharpshooter in his show while still a teenager.

Buckskin Joe

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Edward Jonathan Hoyt went by the nickname E.J. most of his life, and on stage was known as Buckskin Joe. Born in Canada and raised to use a bow and arrow and animal trap, Hoyt was employed as an acrobat and aerialist with the J.T. Johnson Wagon Circus before the Civil War. He played sixteen different musical instruments  and became an accomplished bandleader. Hoyt fought for the Union in the Civil War and stayed in the military afterward during the Indian Wars. Still, he performed with various shows and learned how to walk a tightrope. Hoyt put together a band that played cow horns, which was recruited for the Pawnee Bill show. Although he wore long hair most of his life already, in 1880 Hoyt vowed to let his hair grow until he was worth $50,000. A few years later he admitted he had enough money and cut fifteen inches off! Hoyt also owned a grocery, served as a US Marshall, mined silver, prospected for gold, and opened his own show called Buckskin Joe's Wild West Show.

Annie Oakley

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Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey) later became known as Annie Oakley, the greatest shooter of any wild west show. Her father died when she was six years old, and Oakley learned to hunt and trap to help the family. She gained a reputation as a crack shot, and when she defeated professional sharpshooter Frank Butler in an arranged match, he was so impressed he began to court her. They married in 1882. Butler trained Oakley in riding and developed a show around her skills. Oakley and Butler joined Buffalo Bill's show in 1885, where Oakley became the biggest star outside of Bill Cody himself. She headlined the show for 17 years, then turned to acting when a play was written especially for her. She taught thousands of women to shoot, and even volunteered to put together a regiment of female sharpshooters for the Spanish-American War, but president McKinley did not accept the offer. Oakley continued to stage shooting demonstrations for the rest of her life. You can see Oakley in action in an 1894 Edison film.

Bee Ho Gray

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Emberry Cannon Gray was part Chickasaw and grew up friends with a Comanche family, whose chief gave him the nickname Bee Ho. By the time he was a teenager, Gray was an expert with whips, ropes, knives, and horses. At 19, he joined Colonel Cummins Indian Congress to perform at the World's Fair in St. Louis. He worked with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West for many years and was with California Frank's All-Star Wild West and the Irwin Brothers Cheyenne Frontier Days Wild West Show. Gray won two world championship roping competitions and held one of the championship titles for several years. When the wild west shows faded, Gray took his act to vaudeville, radio, and Hollywood. His vaudeville act with his wife Ada featured trick roping, banjo music, humor, and his pet coyote. Bee Ho Gray also appeared in two credited films plus several uncredited roles.

Mexican Joe

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José Barrera was only 15 years old when Pawnee Bill hired him as a trick roper. He was an expert rider and participated in a "horse ballet" in which a group of riders danced to a live Mexican band. Barrera married a fellow performer, trick rider Effie Cole. He performed with Buffalo Bill's show and the Miller Brother's show in addition to Pawnee Bill's productions. When he and Ellie retired from show business, Barrera became foreman at Pawnee Bill's ranch in Oklahoma.

Sitting Bull

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Tatanka-Iyotanka, also known as Sitting Bull, was a Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux warrior and later chief who led the defeat of General George Custer. He was a guerilla fighter against the US Army in Red Cloud's War and fought in the Great Sioux War which included the battle at Little Big Horn. After years of exile in Canada after Little Big Horn, Sitting Bull surrendered and was confined to a reservation. He joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a star attraction in 1885. He was not required to perform, as his fame was enough to draw crowds. Sitting Bull made an appearance riding around the arena once for each show, then charged spectators to sign autographs. His show business career only lasted four months, but exposure to audiences only increased his fame as a warrior and freedom fighter. Sitting Bull returned to the reservation as a leader and advocate for his people. In 1890, authorities decided to preemptively arrest Sitting Bull because they suspected he would the join the Ghost Dance movement of Sioux who refused to live on the reservations. When they came to arrest him, Sitting Bull was killed along with seven of his followers and eight Lakota police officers.

Montana Frank

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Frank McCray was a messenger and government scout in Montana before joining Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a trick roper. He performed with the show for six years, then took his act to several other traveling companies and vaudeville shows as well as staging shows on his own.

Will Rogers

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You know Will Rogers as a movie star and humorist, but he began his show business career as a trick roper with Texas Jack's Wild West Circus, after honing his skills as a cowboy in the American west, Argentina, and South Africa. He later joined the Wirth Brothers Circus in Australia. Rogers returned to the US and was working for another circus when he was recruited by William Hammerstein to star in a vaudeville show. He added more comedy to his act, which led to a run with the Ziegfield Follies, and then to movies as well as a career as a traveling humorist and political pundit. He had perfected his show business persona to the point that he no longer needed to do rope tricks.

Iron Tail

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Wasee Maza was a Minneconjou Lakota who participated in the Battle of Little Bighorn as a teenager. His name translated to English as Iron Tail. After defeating Custer, he followed Sitting Bull into Canada and then back to South Dakota. Iron Tail joined the Ghost Dancers and was injured at the Wounded Knee Massacre. His parents, siblings, wife, and infant son all died. Not long afterward, Iron Tail joined Buffalo Bill's show. He traveled with the show for 15 years, all the while advocating for Native American rights. Iron Tail was one of three men who modeled for the Indian Head nickel released in 1913. The showman adopted the name Dewey Beard when he converted to Catholicism. Beard appeared in several western movies, mostly uncredited. When Dewey Beard/Iron Tail died in 1955, he was memorialized as the last survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

These are just a few of the many stars who entertained crowds in the traveling western exhibitions. Just like traditional circuses, the wild west show suffered from the rise of movie theaters. Some of the performers retired, some went into ranching, and others opened stationary shows and museums (a few combined all those activities). The younger performers took their skills to the movies, spawning an entire genre of film we still enjoy. Yes, without Buffalo Bill, we most likely wouldn't have the western today.

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Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
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History
10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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