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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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