Although Emma Masterson largely kept to the background while married to the famous former frontier lawman, she had led a sporting life with her fleet-footed first husband.
William Barclay Masterson, best known simply as “Bat,” was a frontier legend when he left the West behind in the early 20th century. He was working in Manhattan as a sportswriter for The Morning Telegraph when U.S. Marshal William Henkel announced on February 6, 1905, Bat’s appointment as a deputy U.S. marshal for the Southern District of New York. It was a largely honorary post, widely attributed to the influence of President Theodore Roosevelt, but newspapers of the day took the opportunity to run sensational stories about Masterson’s career as a lawman and reputed man-killer.
Bat was sworn in that March 28. One reporter, looking for a new angle on the Masterson story, interviewed Bat’s wife, Emma. “If anyone expects to see in her a typical Westerner,” he wrote, “he will be much mistaken. Of medium height, Mrs. Masterson is a woman of retiring disposition.” Noting Emma’s love for housekeeping and reading, the reporter declared she was much the “lady from Philadelphia” rather than “the type of new woman.” Appearances were deceptive, however. The reporter would have been surprised to learn just what an adventurous and unconventional life Emma had led before settling down with Bat.
Born on July 10, 1857, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Emma was the second of John and Catherine Walter’s three daughters. John Walter was a teamster who became an early casualty in the Civil War, dying of typhoid fever. His death left the family in dire straits and forced to live with relatives, at first with Catherine’s brother in Montgomery County and then with her mother in West Philadelphia.
At some point the young Emma became acquainted with Ed “The Gopher Boy” Moulton, a professional foot racer from Minnesota. Moulton was born in 1847 or 1848 and had served with the 1st Minnesota Heavy Artillery Regiment toward the end of the Civil War. He claimed to have traveled to the Montana goldfields but could not have stayed long, as he competed at the Minnesota State Fair in 1867 and the following year challenged anyone in the state to run against him. He was soon looking farther afield in search of competition, including to Philadelphia, where he met Emma. The relationship blossomed, and the pair married on January 13, 1873.
Records suggest the couple settled in the Philadelphia area, but Ed continued to travel widely in pursuit of prizes. In February 1874 he was named one of the top three sprinters in the country over 100 yards. But monetary recognition lagged behind, and Ed soon devised schemes to boost the family income. In September Baltimore’s Sun reported Ed would race Emma at a series of scheduled fairs, giving her a 25-yard head start over 125 yards. At the same time the New York Clipper, a weekly entertainment journal, ran the following ad:
LOOK HERE. LARGE-SIZED PICTURE, FINELY FINISHED, OF ED. W. MOULTON AND WIFE IN RUNNING COSTUME. SENT, POSTPAID FOR $1. ADDRESS ED. W. MOULTON, MINERVILLE, PA.
A large crowd flocked to see the first race between the couple at the Berks County (Pa.) Fair, but it was reported, “The Grangers crowded around so to see the woman in tights that there was no chance to run.” The pair did race the following month at the Northampton (Mass.) Fair, and Emma beat Ed by two feet. He then reapproached the papers, offering to back Emma in a footrace against any other woman in the country, but there is no known record of her ever competing again.
Ed Moulton continued to roam in search of races to enter. Apart from the prizes, he could usually count on plenty of wagering and side bets. Fellow wagerers harbored well-justified suspicions of race fixing, and in later years Ed confessed to sometimes running under a false identity and also to throwing one race under threats from a gang.
It is unclear to what extent Emma traveled with Ed. But she kept in shape and soon became involved in the then-popular activity of Indian club swinging. Participants juggled and swung bowling-pin shaped clubs, and skilled practitioners developed choreographed routines of considerable artistic merit. By 1877 Emma was sufficiently proficient to get theatrical bookings, appearing in Chicago, Boston and Providence, R.I. She was billed as “Queen of Clubs, in her artistic Indian Club exercises, introducing new and difficult wrist motions, showing wonderful science and endurance.”
Emma joined Tony Denier’s Humpty Dumpty Troupe for its 1878–79 season, appearing as “The Champion of All Lady Club-Swingers.” These club performances garnered highly favorable reviews. One New Orleans critic gushed, “Emma Moulton was wonderful…very graceful in her movements and a model for all young ladies who may seek to develop their strength by calisthenic exercises.”
Over the course of the long tour Emma grew close to fellow performer Frank Clifton, a 37-yearold veteran of circuses and music halls on both sides of the Atlantic. The final engagement of the season was in Chicago, and when the company dispersed, it seems that Emma was slow returning to her husband’s side. The August 17, 1879, Chicago Daily Tribune reported the scandal:
The champion club-swinger Emma Moulton is charged with running away from her husband, E.W. Moulton, at Minneapolis to join Frank Clifton, a horizontal-bar athlete traveling with the show. Clifton was last evening arrested upon a warrant charging him with adultery, but Mrs. Moulton could not be found. The injured husband is willing not to prosecute if Emma will return to her mother’s home at Philadelphia and quit forever the variety business, which he always objected to her entering. Clifton pleads not guilty, of course, but Moulton says he can prove that they roomed together for a week at No. 409 W. Madison St.
The affair was short-lived. Two days later Clifton, a married man himself, was released and soon hit the road again.
There is no evidence Emma returned to her mother. Archives record her theatrical appearances in Philadelphia in May 1880 and in Chicago in January 1881, but her bookings dwindled over the next few years, which may or may not indicate she was staying close to her husband.
Ed Moulton was by then training other promising athletes. He had also latched on to the increasingly popular firemen’s tournaments, at which trained hose teams competed against each other, transporting their apparatus over a fixed distance and getting it into operation as quickly as possible. Ed was in demand both as a trainer and participant.
In 1883–84 Ed trained the successful J.B. Orman hose team of Pueblo, Colo., in between other sporting engagements. On April 21, 1884, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News noted that both Moultons were in town and that “Mrs. Moulton has an engagement for three weeks at Belmont & Hanson’s rink to give exhibitions with the Indian clubs, in which the lady is decidedly expert.” Emma performed in Denver again in May 1885, but most of her known appearances over the next few years were within reasonable traveling distance of the Twin Cities, suggesting the Moultons were living in Minnesota.
Emma was now getting more bookings and had extended her act. The St. Paul Daily Globe praised her “wonder ful club swinging” and reported that she “sang cleverly.” In 1888 she went on the road to perform in Kansas City and the mining town of Leadville, Colo. That April she began a lengthy stay at Denver’s Palace Theatre, an elegant establishment comprising a 750-seat performance hall and a palatial gambling room. Emma proved a popular performer, and the Palace kept her on the bill week after week.
But all was not well with the Moulton marriage, as was revealed in the March 15, 1889, Rocky Mountain News:
Ed Moulton was arrested by Detective Hawley last night at the corner of 18th and Larimer streets after a hard fight. Moulton is a foot racer by profession, and under that guise he has duped many men out of hundreds of dollars….Last fall Moulton’s wife, who is engaged in one of the variety theaters, ran away with a negro minstrel named Shehan to Los Angeles. Moulton obtained a letter of introduction to the chief of police in that place, went there and, after locating his better half, fleeced the head of the police department out of $50 and departed for home. He has been in Denver for some time, and when times are dull and “suckers” few, he spends his time gambling. He takes the proceeds of his wife’s disreputable earnings and makes her life miserable generally.
If Emma did indeed take off with a blackface minstrel named Shehan, it was another short-lived affair. Records show that Emma had appeared in Leadville with a comedian named Ed Sheehan, but further details are lacking.
On November 14, 1888, a Palace bartender shot and killed a blacksmith outside the front door, and on December 2 someone else was gunned down in the upstairs barroom. The Palace had long been a target for Denver’s reform-minded citizens, and these latest killings caused authorities to revoke its license. It soon reopened under a new name, the Mascot, but Emma had meanwhile switched to the Central Theater.
In March 1889 the Mascot’s manager disappeared, leaving behind a pile of debts. But on April 15 the remodeled theater reopened once again as the Palace. The new manager was longtime patron Bat Masterson, the celebrated former lawman who now made his way by gambling and following the sport of pugilism. Bat was well aware of Emma’s talents and put her on his first bill.
Bat soon got bored with theater management. On October 26, 1889, the Clipper [ Palace and has concluded to engage in sic] Masterson, got tired of running the reported, “The late manager, B.W. New York some business where there are more profits.” The same issue reported that Emma was to open at Denver’s New Central Theatre. Meanwhile, Ed took a sprinting protégé named Collins to England to compete in a handicap race, which the latter duly won.
Emma appeared that December in Ogden, Utah, and the following June was back in Denver at the new Elitch’s Gardens, but no further theatrical engagements have come to light. She was likely suffering increasingly from asthmatic attacks and was now prone to occasional epileptic fits. It is also possible that by then she had formed a liaison with Masterson, who saw no need for her to appear onstage.
Bat was now immersed in boxing and attending fights nationwide, sometimes as a referee, sometimes as the manager or backer of a fighter. On January 14, 1891, he was in New Orleans for a middleweight title fight that saw Bob Fitzsimmons beat Jack Dempsey (not to be confused with 20th-century heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey). Post-fight news accounts reported that a woman in disguise had tried to slip into the all-male audience. “The woman was of a brunette type,” noted one account, “and wore a black derby hat, a black coat and light trousers. Her hair had been cut short, and her sex was not discovered…at the door. She sauntered around the building for some time with male friends.”
Someone saw through her disguise as she neared ringside. “The woman,” the report continued, “was greatly embarrassed, but she stood the ordeal wonderfully well. She was placed in a streetcar and taken to the 5th Precinct Station, where she gave her name as Emma Walters [sic] and her age as 30 years. She said she was a variety performer and came here from Denver.”
Emma was locked up for violating city ordinances, and it was reported that her husband, “a prominent resident of Denver,” was at a local hotel. Bat’s friend Jake Kilrain stood bail for her, but many years later she still recalled the day she had spent in jail.
A 1930s sketch of Bat Masterson in the Dictionary of American Biography stated that he and Emma were married in Denver on November 21, 1891. The sources given included Emma herself and Bat’s surviving brother, Tom, who gave that same date to another writer. The 1900 U.S. census records them as having been married 10 years, which could indicate an earlier date, while the 1910 census records a 17-year marriage, suggesting a later date. No one has yet turned up a record of the marriage, and in any case Emma remained legally married to Ed Moulton.
She filed for divorce on June 29, 1893, claiming desertion and failure to make provision for her support. Ed was summoned to defend himself, with notices to that effect appearing in the Rocky Mountain Sentinel in August and September. By then he was coaching the University of Michigan football team. If he did know about the case, he failed to respond, and a court dissolved the marriage on November 9.
Whether legally wed or not, Emma now settled into a quieter and more settled existence as Mrs. Masterson. Denver directories re- cord Bat renting 1937 Arapahoe St. from 1892–94, and 1825 Curtis St. from 1895–1901. Neither address was far from the heart of the sporting action, and although Bat was frequently away, sometimes very far away, in pursuit of his sporting interests, Emma was already well used to being left on her own. She later said she loved housekeeping and, having compiled a fine library, would rather read than play euchre or bridge. An 1895 newspaper sketch of Bat noted, “Masterson is very happily married and has an interesting family, his wife being a cultivated lady.”
Emma’s health remained a worry. On January 23, 1899, she was home alone preparing a meal when stricken by an epileptic fit. As she dropped, she inadvertently grabbed a kettle of scalding water and pulled it over herself. Regaining consciousness, she screamed with pain until neighbors rushed in and called a doctor, who recorded that “the boiling water had struck Mrs. Masterson on the breast and ran down between her corset and the body, blistering the front of her body.”
About the same time Bat was embroiled in a bitter feud with boxing promoter Otto Floto and grew disillusioned with Denver. He spent more time on the road and later claimed he had only stayed so long because Denver suited Emma’s health.
Hotel living became the norm again for Emma, mostly in Chicago and Hot Springs, Ark., and it would appear she did not initially follow Bat to New York in 1903 when he took a job as a sports columnist for The Morning Telegraph. When Bat learned of his appointment as a deputy marshal, the Mastersons were both in Hot Springs, where Emma had been living for several months.
Bat warned Emma that a move to New York would not be good for her health, but she insisted on joining him, saying she might as well die than continue to be separated. Once asked if she was surprised at her husband’s appointment, Emma replied: “Yes and no. Nothing surprises me that happens to him.” A reporter noted that “pride in her husband’s prowess and strength is Mrs. Bat Masterson’s strong trait.”
Bat and Emma spent four years at the Delavan Hotel before taking the first in a string of apartments. Bat’s friends left little record of the couple’s relationship, but they seemed to get along well. Masterson biographer Robert K. DeArment wrote: “Emma accompanied Bat on his annual sojourns to Hot Springs, Saratoga and Alexandria Bay, stayed with him at the finest hotels and dined at the best restaurants. She attended motion pictures, stage plays and vaudeville shows with him in New York, but she could never be a part of much of his life, necessarily spent in sweaty gymnasiums, smoke-filled boxing clubs, and bars and cafés.”
On October 25, 1921, Emma was waiting for Bat to return home for lunch when a messenger from the Telegraph brought news that her husband had collapsed at his desk and died from a massive heart attack. Emma was devastated and a month later wrote, “I hope I will die soon to be with him.”
There was no life insurance, as, according to Emma, Bat hadn’t believed in it. However, he left everything to her, and there was enough put away for her to continue to live reasonably comfortably. She may have noticed headlines on July 19, 1922, reporting the death of Stanford University’s respected longtime track coach, Edward W. “Dad” Moulton.
In 1928 Stuart Lake wrote Emma, seeking information for his biography of Wyatt Earp. In her reply Emma said she had been very sick and “come near being with my dear Bat.” She explained to Lake that she “didn’t know Mr. Masterson in those days,” that there were no notches on either of Bat’s guns (which she had since given away) and that to her knowledge the only person Bat had ever killed was the man who had shot down his brother Ed in Dodge City, Kan., in 1878. Lake later claimed to have secured a batch of Bat’s papers from her, which he’d used to write his Earp book. He also claimed Emma had expressed the hope he would write up Bat when finished with Earp. If so, nothing came of it, and the reported horde of Masterson papers disappeared.
Emma lived in the Martha Washington Hotel in the 1920s and moved to the Hotel Stratford on East 32nd Street around 1929. Staff there later recalled that she lived an active life but was mostly alone. On July 12, 1932, Emma was found on the floor of her room, dead from heart disease, two days after her 75th birthday. She was buried beside Bat in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
Columnists at the time of Bat’s death made scant mention of Emma, and few noted her own passing. One obituary read, “She remained an obscure figure behind the bright flare of her husband’s fame.” No doubt her longstanding health problems had played a part in that, but it is also certain she had had more than her share of excitement as Mrs. Emma Moulton.
Chris Penn wrote a longer study of Emma for the Wild West History Association Journal. For further reading about Bat see Robert K. DeArment’s Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend and the same author’s Broadway Bat: Gunfighter in Gotham.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.