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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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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
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crime
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]

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