Poker Alice’s Frontier Colt in collection of 1,600.
Long ago, a Utah rancher named Lamont Johnson wrote these lines in an epic poem about the Wild Bunch, the loose band of Rocky Mountain outlaws that included Butch Cassidy: “England had her Robin Hood,/The Swiss had William Tell;/We had heavy-holstered men/Who rode the San Rafael.” It is well known that the West and Midwest had had many of these “heavy-holstered” men, on both sides of the law, in the 19th century. Not nearly so well known is the fact that today some of those holsters and the revolvers that made them heavy have found a home at the Ralph Foster Museum at College of the Ozarks on Point Lookout, just a couple miles south of Branson, Missouri.
The three-story museum, which includes antiques, dolls and natural history items as well as weapons, has been dubbed the “Smithsonian of the Ozarks.” It can boast of some 1,600 guns, along with handcuffs, leg-irons and badges, some of which have reportedly been worn by such well-known outlaws as Billy the Kid and Grat Dalton. Because of the cost of trying to authenticate the weapons (without any guarantees that authentication is even possible), College of the Ozarks has for the most part not tried to verify the claims of the donors. Firearms in the collection date from the 17th century to today. Visitors will find everything from flintlocks to Thompson submachine guns, .50-caliber rifles to .22-caliber pistols only 2 inches long.
One of the prized items in the weapons collection is a .44-caliber Colt Frontier (serial number 126200) that was carried by Alice Tubbs, aka Poker Alice. In this case, a sworn affidavit declares the authenticity of Alice’s Colt, though some accounts say that she favored a .38 Colt. Born Alice Ivers in England (some accounts say she was actually born in Virginia) in 1853, Poker Alice loved and lost three husbands while dealing faro and playing poker across the American West. But she was a big winner at the poker table, supposedly collecting half a million dollars during her 78 years.
Her Colt has the tightest and smoothest action of any of the old models in the museum. That is probably because she used the Frontier only twice, once to wound a knife-wielding man who was threatening her third husband-to-be, and once to kill a soldier who was breaking into her establishment in Sturgis, S.D. Cigar-chomping Alice cashed in her chips for the last time in South Dakota in 1930.
Guns supposedly used by two of the Earp brothers, Virgil and Morgan, have a place in the museum. Virgil and Morgan, along with brother Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were the winners in the October 26, 1881, shootout with the Clantons and McLaurys near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Two months after that famous fight, assassins wounded Virgil, and on March 18, 1882, Morgan was shot in the back while playing pool. The guns on display, according to their donor, are a .45 Colt Frontier (serial number 808) that belonged to Virgil and a .44-40 Colt Frontier (serial number 59221) that belonged to Morgan. The pearl grips on Morgan’s six-shooter have dark brown stains, possibly from his own blood.
Also on display is another .45 Colt Frontier (serial number 37703) that, along with its holster, belonged to Thomas Coleman “Cole” Younger. An associate of Jesse and Frank James, Cole was captured after the disastrous September 1876 Northfield bank robbery and stayed in prison until 1901. Soon he tried his hand, with Frank James at his side, in a Wild West show that failed. Cole Younger died in Lee’s Summit, Mo., in 1916.
One of the most unusual revolvers in the collection is a .44-caliber cap-and-ball Colt 1860 Army donated by the old Nimrod, Long & Co. Bank (later the Southern Deposit Bank) of Russellville, Ky. A wounded bank robber reportedly dropped this Colt during a $12,000 heist on March 20, 1868, and the bank held onto it before giving it to the museum. The James boys and Cole Younger are all believed to have been involved in the Russellville holdup.
A .44 Colt Frontier (serial number 79578) that supposedly belonged to Henry Starr is another star attraction at the museum. Henry (1873-1921) was a nephew of Sam Starr, who married Myra Belle Shirley (Belle Starr) when Henry was 3. Although he became a proficient bank robber in Oklahoma, Henry Starr also spent 18 years of his life in prison.
A .44-caliber Merwin & Hulbert, ivory-gripped revolver (serial number 6383) was donated to the museum by a collector who claimed that the gun had been used by Grat Dalton. Grat was one of eight men to die during the Dalton Gang’s failed attempt to rob two banks in Coffeyville, Kan., on October 5, 1892. The outlaws reportedly carried 10 brand new .45 Colts that particularly deadly day.
The Ralph Foster Museum, named for a Missourian who made an extensive donation of Western and Indian artifacts in the 1960s, has three of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s firearms from his Wild West show—a .31-caliber Colt, a .32-caliber Springfield rifle and an 1873 Winchester .22. Also on display are two guns carried by old Western Hollywood stars—Tom Mix’s .38-caliber Colt Lightning (serial number 119898) and Slim Pickens’ Colt .45 Peacemaker (serial number 2415).
Among other visual treats are a .45 Colt U.S. Army 1917 revolver (serial number 67142) used by Prohibition gangster Charles A. “Pretty Boy” Floyd, along with handcuffs Floyd wore when captured; an 1894 Winchester, Sheffield dirk and brass field glass, all purportedly belonging to Pancho Villa; a cane, hat and .41-caliber Remington double derringer (serial number 918) that the donator claimed had belonged to Bat Masterson; and a double-action Model 1878 Colt .45 (serial number 2416) that supposedly once belonged to one-time Doolin Gang member George “Red Buck” Waightman.
Charles Zehnder is the dean of campus ministries at College of the Ozarks.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.