Legends have to begin somewhere. Wyatt Earp had his O.K. Corral, Wild Bill Hickok his Rock Creek Station, Billy the Kid his Lincoln. For each it was a defining moment that established beyond doubt (for the legend at least) that the hero was brave, resourceful, skilled and in the right. Legends require villains as well–Clantons for the Earps, the McCanles gang for Wild Bill, the Murphy-Dolan faction for the Kid. Most often, the foils of heroes are shadowy figures, remembered only for their villainy, black-hearted men whose purpose is to serve as symbols of the brutish essence of the crude and tawdry side of frontier life.
For Bat Masterson, the road to legendary status began at a backwater hamlet called Sweetwater, near Cantonment Sweetwater in the Texas Panhandle. For him, the moment of truth involved a gunfight with an obstreperous soldier of the 4th Cavalry known in the legend simply as ‘Sergeant King.’ On the night of January 24, 1876, King and a woman named Mollie Brennan were killed, Masterson was seriously wounded and the essential components of the legend were in place, lacking only the embroideries of time to grow from a senseless shooting into Bat Masterson’s rite of passage to fame, replete with overtones of true love and the triumph of good over evil.
The legend would eventually insist that the Sweetwater shootout was the source of Mr. Masterson’s nickname ‘Bat.’ Legend makers, pointing to the severity of his wound, concocted the idea that when the young Masterson pinned on a badge in Dodge City later that year, he was still relying on a cane, which he also used to ‘bat’ lawbreakers over the head. That he was called ‘Bat’ before he ever met Sergeant King did not limit a fiction too good to pass up. Bat apparently disliked the name his parents gave him, Bertholomiew, and he would eventually change it to William Barclay Masterson. The Anglicized version of his birth name, ‘Bartholomew,’ may have been the source of his ubiquitous sobriquet, although Masterson himself would testify that he was not called Bat until he was a young man. Writer Alfred Henry Lewis attributed the nickname to Masterson’s compatriots on the buffalo range who compared Bat’s skills as a hunter to those of an old-time mountain man, Baptiste ‘Bat’ Brown.
Despite his youth, Bat Masterson was already a seasoned frontiersman by the time he killed King. He was born on November 26, 1853, in St. George Parish, Quebec, Canada. Masterson’s parents, Tom and Catherine, shared the wanderlust of many of that era and moved from Canada to New York to Illinois before settling in Sedgwick County, Kan., near Wichita. In 1871 Bat and his older brother Ed left home for the buffalo range. The next spring they took jobs as graders on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, even then stretching west toward a little camp called Buffalo City, later named Dodge City. Dodge, when they reached it, was the center of the buffalo trade and a genuine hellhole. The combination of a rough class of men, whiskey, whores, gambling and the absence of any real law enforcement made Dodge a particularly dangerous place in those days. More than a dozen men died violently there that first year, but the amiable Ed and the fun-loving Bat managed to stay clear of trouble. And they earned a measure of respect from the hard men of Dodge when they collected at gunpoint wages owed them from a contractor who tried to cheat them.
The Masterson brothers soon returned to the buffalo grounds to be a part of the great slaughter of the American bison. It was a profitable, if dirty, enterprise, and the U.S. Army actively encouraged the hunters as a means of destroying native independence. Of course, the Plains Indians reacted violently to the destruction of the herds until, finally, the buffalo slaughter, combined with raids on the horse herds of the southern tribes by thieves like Hurricane Bill Martin, precipitated the Red River War in 1874.
That June, Bat was one of the small party of hunters who stood off 500 Comanches at the Adobe Walls fight in the Texas Panhandle. After surviving the siege, he signed on with the Army as a civilian scout and served in some of the sharpest fighting of the war. Later he divided his time working as a teamster for the Army out of Camp Supply, in the northwest part of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), and hunting buffalo in the Texas Panhandle. It was there, in Texas, that he had his fateful encounter with the soldier King.
Sweetwater began as a buffalo hunter’s camp called Hidetown on Sweetwater Creek deep in the Texas Panhandle. In 1874, Charles Rath, a Dodge City merchant, established a supply store there in partnership with Albert Reynolds, of the firm of Lee and Reynolds at Camp Supply. At first, Hidetown was little more than a rendezvous for hide hunters. Rath, Reynolds & Co. dominated the buffalo hide trade from the little hamlet.
In 1875, the Army established a camp nearby known as Cantonment Sweetwater (designated Fort Elliott the following year). The Dodge City-Camp Supply trail was extended to the cantonment, and when the military began to construct a permanent post there, Hidetown was found to be on the military reserve. As a result, the settlement was moved two miles closer to the cantonment, and its name was changed to Sweetwater. Local tradition says that Bat Masterson surveyed the new town site of 40 acres. After Rath and Reynolds relocated their store, Henry Fleming built a stone building across the creek, and Sweetwater grew into a town of about 150 persons.
Tom O’Loughlin opened a restaurant and boardinghouse. W.H. Weed built the first saloon, but Henry Fleming’s place, the Lady Gay, was considered the best. Kate Elder, later Doc Holliday’s consort, said that Colonel Charlie Norton, a Dodge City businessman, built a dance hall there as well and brought in a bevy of girls from Dodge. Other sources credit Billy Thompson (the brother of well-known gunman Ben Thompson and a fugitive from Kansas justice at the time for the murder of Chauncey B. Whitney, the sheriff of Ellsworth County, two years earlier) with establishing the dance hall. Most likely, Thompson and Norton were partners. A Chinese laundry opened, and several cabins were thrown up to complete the camp. The nearest town was Dodge City, 200 miles away in another state. There was no law enforcement. It was the perfect milieu for trouble.
The ‘Sergeant King’ of the Western legend was a man with a formidable reputation as a gunfighter. ‘He was dark of brow, with cruel mouth and furtive secret eye,’ Alfred Henry Lewis wrote of King in The Sunset Trail, his fictional biography of Masterson published in 1905. Lewis was the first writer to actually give King a history, declaring that he had been driven out of Abilene as the result of ‘an enterprise wherein he combined a six-shooter with a deck of cards–the latter most improperly marked–which resulted in the demise of a gentleman then and there playing draw poker against him.’ But worse than being a cheat and a murderer, King was that ‘most detested and soonest to die’ of Western wretches, ‘a blusterer and a bully.’ His braggadocio was so despicable that ‘no one wanted his company and but few his gold.’
Stuart N. Lake added to King’s reputation as a frontier badman in 1931 with the publication of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Lake dubbed King ‘the United States Army’s most noteworthy contribution to the ranks of Western gunmen’ and averred that he was ‘a finished artist with the six-shooter and a cold-blooded killer’ who terrorized the Kansas cattle towns in ‘a number of authenticated instances.’ In fact, Wyatt Earp claimed to have arrested him in Wichita, Kan., only months before King’s death at the hands of Bat Masterson, but the ‘authenticated’ record of his exploits is thin indeed.
Yet, if King was not the terror of the cow towns that the legend made him, he was a man with a checkered past. He was born Anthony Cook, not Melvin A. King, in 1845–apparently, like Masterson, in Quebec, Canada, though some records indicate he was born in Ireland. Like the Mastersons, Cook’s parents emigrated to upstate New York from Canada. Cook grew up on a farm near Canton, N.Y., the eldest of three sons and two daughters. In October 1863, the month he turned 18, Anthony Cook enlisted in Company E of the 14th New York Heavy Artillery. He served continuously with his regiment until he was captured before Petersburg, Va., on March 25, 1865. He was paroled on March 31 and reported to Camp Parole, Md., where he was furloughed on April 7, 1865. A month later he briefly returned to active duty before being discharged in August.
Young Cook did not adjust well to his return to farm life. On July 21, 1866, he enlisted in the 16th Infantry and soon headed south for Reconstruction duty in Georgia. He was apparently a good soldier, but he developed a penchant for getting into trouble. On August 30, 1867, near Macon, Ga., Corporal Cook fired his musket at a dog ‘without orders to do so’ and wounded another soldier in the foot. He was charged with ‘conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.’ He was acquitted at his court-martial, which found him ‘guilty of the facts as stated’ but attached no criminality to his act.
Cook was promoted to sergeant, but over the next two years his rowdy behavior kept him in trouble. He was involved in a riot at Albany, Ga. Confined to the post, he walked away from arrest, and when reprimanded by his commanding officer, Cook attacked him. Cook was reduced in rank and sentenced to hard labor for one year with forfeiture of pay, but the sentence was reduced in view of ‘his previous gallant services.’ He was transferred to the 2nd Infantry, but he was soon in trouble again on charges related to drunkenness, brawling, gross insubordination and absence without leave. Apparently, he was a reliable soldier when sober, but he had developed a serious drinking problem. Eventually, on August 24, 1869, after assaulting a fellow jailed soldier during a dispute over some jailhouse game, he was dishonorably discharged at Mobile, Ala.
Cook headed straight for New Orleans, where, on October 28, 1869, he enlisted again, this time in the 4th Cavalry under the name ‘Melvin A. King.’ In 1871, the 4th Cavalry replaced the 6th Cavalry on the Texas frontier as the primary striking force against the Comanches and Kiowas. King apparently had cleaned up his act and limited his rowdy behavior to leaves because there were no further courts-martial. Far from the hulking brute the legend would later make of him, King was a blue-eyed, brown-haired man of only 5 feet, 5 1/2 inches in height. He was regarded as a good soldier by his officers and the enlisted men who served with him. He also acquired new skills. King’s company herded remounts for the regiment, and he became an accomplished wrangler.
When the Red River War broke out in 1874, King’s company was initially stuck with escort duty between Fort McKavett and San Antonio, but in August, Company H joined Colonel Ranald Mackenzie (who had been a Civil War general) in the field. That September, King was in the Palo Duro Canyon fight, which broke the power of the Comanches on the southern Plains.
At the end of October, Private King was discharged. The next six months remain a mystery. So far, those ‘authenticated’ raids on the cow towns have eluded researchers, but if they did occur, they most likely happened during this brief hiatus from service. On April 29, 1875, at Fort Richardson, he re-enlisted and rejoined his old company. He was promoted to corporal almost at once and assigned as ‘herder in charge of Indian ponies.’ In June 1875, he was relieved of that duty and assigned as Colonel Mackenzie’s orderly until October, when he went on detached service to Cantonment Sweetwater and his date with destiny.
Bat Masterson arrived in Sweetwater that December, hauling goods for the Army, as he would later testify. He found the place filled with buffalo hunters in from the range to warm their backsides and their insides in the hamlet’s saloons. More than 400 of them wintered there along with the storekeepers, government employees, teamsters, gamblers and dance hall girls. Frequently, soldiers from nearby Cantonment Sweetwater swelled the numbers in the saloons and dance hall even more. As Bat would point out later, ‘Everything was quiet…for two or three months and then [shortly after he arrived] things went lickety-bang.’
On the night of January 24, 1876, Bat joined the festivities at the Lady Gay Saloon. According to Kate Elder, he was soon absorbed in a poker game with Harry Fleming, Jim Duffy and Corporal King. Eyewitnesses said that King lost and left the Lady Gay disgruntled. After the game, Bat fell into conversation with a soiled dove named Mollie Brennan. Brennan was well known in her profession. At some point she had worked as a prostitute in Denison, Texas. In 1872 she showed up in Ellsworth, Kan., where she married Joe Brennan, a saloonkeeper. In 1873, Mollie became involved with Billy Thompson. When he left town on the run after the death of Sheriff Whitney, she apparently followed him to Texas, but she was back in Ellsworth in 1875 in time for the state census. After that, she rejoined Thompson in Texas and probably arrived in Sweetwater with him. She was now apparently a dance hall girl at Charlie Norton’s place, along with ‘the seven Jolly sisters,’ and probably Kate Elder, who had come down to Sweetwater from Tom Sherman’s dance hall in Dodge. Mollie was in the Lady Gay that night because Norton’s place was closed. The girls had decided to take a night off.
Near midnight, Bat left the Lady Gay in company with Mollie Brennan and Charlie Norton and walked over to the dance hall. While Norton lit a lantern behind the bar, Bat and Mollie sat down near the front door and began talking. Apparently Corporal King, by now well-oiled and still angry over the night’s events, saw Bat and Mollie go into Norton’s and watched them through the window before he approached the locked door of the dance hall. He knocked on the door, and Bat got up to answer it. When he opened the door, King burst into the room with a drawn revolver and a flurry of profanity. Apparently, Mollie threw herself between the two men at the first shot, although whether she was trying to protect Bat or simply trying to get out of the way is unclear. The first shot narrowly missed her and struck Masterson in the abdomen, tearing through his body and shattering his hip. King’s second shot hit Mollie squarely, and she crumpled to the floor in a heap, even as Bat raised himself up and fired the shot that mortally wounded King.
The burst of gunfire aroused the town, and within a matter of minutes a crowd converged on the dance hall. When Harry Fleming arrived, he quickly realized that he had a dangerous situation on his hands. Billy Thompson was holding a group of angry soldiers at bay, and the buffalo hunters were organizing to protect Bat. Someone, probably at Fleming’s instigation, roused young George Curry from his sleep at Rath’s store and sent him off to Cantonment Sweetwater to report what was happening to the camp commander. Soon a detachment of soldiers was en route to the town. According to Curry’s later recollections, the soldiers stopped at the edge of town, and he and the officer in charge proceeded to the scene of excitement alone, ‘fearing that if the troops entered as a body the buffalo hunters might open fire on them and a battle ensue.’ The officer conferred with Fleming and they quieted the crowd. Attention shifted to caring for the participants in the fight.
Mollie Brennan was already dead. Dr. Finley, the assistant surgeon from the post, examined King and prepared him for transport back to the post hospital, then turned his attention to Masterson. Frank Warren, a gambler, later recalled that he watched ‘the doctor run a silk handkerchief through Bat’s intestines….The doctor said if Bat had been eating anything he would have never recovered from the wound….’ Whatever the truth about that, and Warren was not always reliable, there is no evidence that Bat was taken to the hospital. Instead he was made as comfortable as possible at the dance hall. King reached the post, but died early on the morning of January 25, 1876.
The military handled the whole episode discreetly. Curry said that the commander held a ‘brief hearing…after which officers and civilians agreed that the killing of King was justified,’ but if there was an investigation, it was simple and unofficial. King’s company commander, Captain Sebastian Gunther, noted simply in the ‘Final Statement’ he was required to file on deceased soldiers that the ‘wound was not received in the line of duty.’ The most detailed contemporary account appeared in the ‘Medical History’ of Fort Sill for 1876, under the heading of ‘Deaths’: ‘Corpl. King, belonging to the escort which accompanied Col. Mackenzie to the Cantonment on the Sweet Water Texas received a gunshot wound through the body the evening of the 24th of January; he died on the 25th and was buried at the Cantonment on the 26th. Corpl. King was shot, it is said, by a citizen with whom he had a quarrel in a public house near the Cantonment.’
So far, no contemporary accounts of the Sweetwater gunfight have come to light beyond these terse statements and the mere reporting of the deaths of King and Brennan in several Texas papers, like the note in the Denison News of February 10, 1876: ‘It is reported that a shooting scrape occurred on Contonment [sic], on the Sweet Water, last Sunday, in which a citizen, name unknown, Corporal King, Co. ‘H’ 4th cavalry and Molly Brennan, formerly a Denison demimonde, were killed.’ So far, no contemporary reference to Bat Masterson as King’s killer has been found, although there is no doubt that he was the ‘citizen’ (wounded, not killed, of course) involved. Everything else known about the affair is in the form of reminiscences and the romantic tales of popular Western writers. And that poses some tricky problems.
The point most in doubt was King’s motive. He was drunk, and when he was drunk, he was mean, as his whole history confirmed. He was angry with Bat Masterson. But was he angry over the card game at the Lady Gay or over Bat’s attentions to Mollie Brennan? Of course, the practical consequences were the same whatever King’s motive, but such questions provide the seedbed for the embroideries of legend. And the possibility of a romantic involvement was just too good an angle to pass up. Almost all third-party accounts by contemporaries imply an affair between Bat and Mollie, including those of Wyatt Earp (who heard the story secondhand), Kate Elder, Frank Warren and Miles O’Loughlin. Chroniclers from E.G. Little, writing for Everybody’s in 1902, to Stuart Lake in 1931, to a bevy of latter-day ‘authorities’ could not resist having poor Mollie die for her man.
But the root cause of the fight appears to have been the poker game at the Lady Gay. Lewis, in the The Sunset Trail, went so far as to have Masterson publicly humiliate King in an armed confrontation, from which King slunk away only to return for his revenge. Although Lewis certainly got much of his story from Bat himself, this appears to have been one of Lewis’ embellishments. What is clear is that King was disgruntled and left the saloon after losing money to Bat. On that score, Lewis, Tom Masterson, Kate Elder and Frank Warren all agreed. Other variations, involving King’s rage at seeing Mollie and Bat dancing together or, in a variation, King drawing when Bat walked in to find the corporal and the girl dancing, seem less credible.
Curiously, Bat Masterson was always very close-mouthed about the Sweetwater affair. When asked about it in 1881 by the Kansas City Journal, Bat replied simply, ‘I had a little difficulty with some soldiers down there, but never mind, I dislike to talk about it.’ In The Sunset Trail and again in ‘The King of the Gunplayers,’ an article about Bat he wrote for Human Life in 1907, Lewis played down the relationship between Bat and Mollie, suggesting that Mollie had a crush on Bat and that King was obsessed with Mollie. Lewis portrayed Mollie as a bystander whom King persuaded to knock on the door for him. Accounts that came from Tom Masterson, Bat’s brother, also played down the romantic connection, but the strangest account of all was the one Bat Masterson gave under oath in May 1913. Bat filed a lawsuit against the Commercial Advertiser Association, a New York newspaper organization that had published an article critical of him. According to the unpublished trial record, when questioned about the King episode by his attorney, Bat said:
Well, there was a little bit of a camp, like, right off the Reservation [Cantonment Sweetwater], where they sold whiskey and general merchandise–a kind of one of those general merchandise stores. And this soldier had come down there, and I had taken down a load of grain and stuff to this store with my team; and he had had some trouble with some other soldiers, apparently that night, and he was pretty full–
The Court: You mean intoxicated?
The Witness: Intoxicated; and about twelve o’clock at night–I know I was just getting ready to go back, when I stepped out of the door he shot me right through the stomach; it went plumb through me, clear through me, with a big pistol.
By the Court:
A. A Colt’s
Q. A Colt’s 45?
A. A Colt’s 45 army pistol. It knocked me down; I fell about five or six feet from him.
By Mr. Patterson [Bat’s attorney]:
Q. Then what did he do?
A. I got mine out and shot him. He tried to shoot me again before I shot him; he shot again and shot a woman, a clerk in the store, and killed her. The second shot he fired struck her, and then I shot him, while I was down with the bullet through my stomach. This was all without any preliminary warning to me whatever….
Obviously, Bat had cleaned up the story somewhat, making the scene a general store and Mollie a ‘clerk,’ but his testimony also made both him and Mollie the victims of a random shooting. It is also the second place–the Kansas City Journal being the other–where Bat mentioned’soldiers’ rather than King alone. On balance, though, Bat was trying in 1913 to defend himself against charges that he had been a frontier badman, and he played down his role as a gambler throughout his testimony. Still it is an intriguing departure from most accounts and the only one that is clearly in Bat’s own words.
Other embellishments came later. The report of Ben Thompson’s leaping atop a faro layout and holding King’s friends at bay also has a curious history. The episode is first mentioned in The Sunset Trail, though Lewis tells it in a chapter on Thompson and has the episode occur in Tascosa, Texas. Fred Sutton, in the 1927 work Hands Up, retells the story, making Ben the defender of a fallen Bat. Stuart N. Lake used this story to complete his melodramatic account of the Sweetwater affair, and after that, it became a staple in accounts of the incident. But there is no real evidence that Ben was even in Sweetwater at the time. Still, Bat obviously felt indebted to Ben and Billy, because in 1880 Bat played a role in rescuing Billy from the clutches of the law in Ogallala, Neb. In Bat’s 1907 account of that episode, he described Billy as ‘a close personal friend of mine.’ That, combined with Billy’s presence in Sweetwater and his relationship with Mollie Brennan, lends credence to the view that it was Billy who stood over Bat and protected him that night.
It remained for 1st Sgt. T.B. Gatewood, top kick of Company H, to provide the final commentary on Corporal King. On February 14, 1876, he penned a letter to Susan B. Cook informing her of ‘the untimely decease of your brother and my much esteemed young friend, Anthony Cook; he was mortally wounded in an affray at Cantonment of Sweetwater, Texas, January 24, and died from the effects the next day.’ Gatewood revealed to Miss Cook that her brother had been serving in the 4th Cavalry under the name of Melvin A. King. He added, ‘He was a general favorite throughout the regiment, both with officers and enlisted men, and especially so with his commanding officer, General Mackenzie, who he was escorting at the time of his death.’ Cook’s mother tried to secure a pension based on her son’s service, but the manner of his death caused her requests to be denied time after time.
In February 1876, Cantonment Sweetwater officially became Fort Elliott. That same year, the Texas Legislature created 26 new counties out of Clay County. The town of Sweetwater became a part of Wheeler County, which was not formally organized until 1879. By then, Sweetwater was the economic center of the Panhandle and the seat of government for the region, although the town had undergone yet another name change. In 1878, the townsfolk had applied for a post office, only to have their request denied because there was already a Sweetwater in Nolan County. After some deliberation, the town was renamed Mobeetie, which was said to mean’sweet water’ in one of the Indian languages of the region. Mobeetie continued to have an unsavory reputation. ‘Taking it all,’ Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight later recalled, ‘I think it was the hardest place I ever saw on the frontier except Cheyenne, Wyoming.’
Bat Masterson, though, did not tarry long in the Panhandle. As soon as he was able to travel, Bat went home to Wichita to recuperate. Within a matter of months, he was patrolling the streets of Dodge City, Kan., as a peace officer alongside another young man destined to become a Western celebrity, Wyatt Earp. On November 6, 1877, Bat was elected sheriff of Ford County, and the Hays Sentinel observed that Masterson was’said to be cool, decisive and a ‘bad man’ with a pistol.’ By then, Bat was well on his way to becoming a legend in his own time.
This article was written by Gary L. Roberts and originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of Wild West.
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