In mid-1884, Dodge City, Kansas, was suffering an identity crisis. For more than a decade she’d been the acknowledged Gomorrah of the Plains; for a half-dozen years she’d reigned supreme as Queen of the Cow Towns. But with farming edging out the cattle trade, and civilized folk crowding the gamblers, whores and assorted rowdies, the sinful queen was in grave danger of losing her tarnished crown. Progressive, usually newer, residents were glad it was not business as usual, but city fathers, longtime residents all, weren’t ready to forsake their town’s bloodthirsty reputation, nor the dollars that stampeded in each summer with the Texas Longhorns.
The forthcoming Independence Day celebration highlighted this struggle. The newly adopted, austere Memorial Day was gaining national favor over the raucous Fourth of July as the designated patriotic observance. Dodge officials wanted a Fourth celebration that could please the family crowd as well as the wild-and-woolly element.
In early May, saloonkeeper and former mayor Alonzo B. Webster conceived an idea likely to suit all needs: a real, live, Mexican bullfight, the first ever staged on U.S. soil. The town council gave its approval, businesses quickly ponied up $3,000 to establish the “Dodge City Fair and Driving Park Association,” and within 24 hours the newborn group had amassed the entire $10,000 bankroll needed to fund the event. Conflict of interest be damned, the association bought 40 acres southwest of town from its own treasurer, founding Dodgeite Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Anthony, and laid plans to build a 3,500-seat arena. Webster contracted five genuine Mexican bullfighters under the management of W.K. Moore, a Scottish lawyer teaching college in Paso Del Norte, Mexico. A Texas Panhandle rancher with the unusual name of Doctor Wellborn Barton acquired the opposition.
“Doc” Barton’s trade was meat, not medicine. Considered the first cowman to drive cattle from Texas to Dodge City, in 1872 (actually, he’d driven through Dodge, having arrived ahead of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe’s tracklaying crews), Barton went to the cow camps south of town in search of a dozen Texas bulls fit to face Moore’s matadors.
By late June, Doc had his dirty dozen. The Ford County Globe christened the critters with suitably colorful names: Ringtailed Snorter, Cowboy Killer, Iron Gall, Lone Star, Long Branch, Opera, Ku Klux, Sheriff, Doc, Rustler, Loco Jim and Eat-Em-Up Richard.
The Globe and the fledgling Kansas Cowboy touted the festival. By contrast, the Dodge City Times, published by reform booster “Deacon” Nicholas Klaine, viewed the bullfight as an embarrassment at best, an abomination at worst. Out-of-town papers were a mixed bag. Some expressed outrage, some elation. Webster and company enjoyed the publicity and stoked both sides of the debate, one time promising a rough, bloody affair befitting an untamed cow town, other times downplaying the event as an “athletic exhibition.” In a single interview, Moore promised the bulls “are not tortured,” that the matadors’ only weapons were “small darts,” then admitted that one animal would be put to the sword. The New York Herald asked, “Where is there another town in the country that would have the nerve to get up a genuine Spanish bull fight on American soil?”
Heavy opposition came from local clergymen decrying this “stench in the nostrils of civilization” and urging citizens to prove their “better state of morals” by boycotting. Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866, beseeched Kansas Governor George Washington Glick to put the kibosh on Dodge’s bit of fun. “Let not American soil,” he begged, “be polluted by such atrocities.”
But Glick stood with the excited Dodge crowd. When Webster (some sources say Mayor Bob Wright) received a telegram from the U.S. attorney informing him that the bullfight violated federal laws, he supposedly replied, “Hell, Dodge City ain’t in the United States!” Preparations for the fight bulldozed ahead.
Early the week of the Fourth, the town began filling with cowboys, tourists and journalists. Wednesday and Thursday saw horse races and other competitions, but the real festivities didn’t start until Friday the Fourth. Some 500-700 cowboys were in town to see the fun. Webster led a jubilant parade down Front Street, followed by Dodge City’s own Cowboy Band. The bullfighters — four matadors and a picador (mounted bullfighter) — strutted behind in red, white and blue. The group’s chief, “Capitán” Gregorio Gallardo, was billed as a fourth-generation matador descended from one of Spain’s finest. Armed with a Toledo sword said to be 150 years old, Gallardo cut such a swashbuckling figure that few would have suspected he made his living as a tailor in Chihuahua. His “fierce lot” of fellow toreros comprised two musicians, an artist and Chihuahua’s supervisor of public works.
this article first appeared in wild west magazine
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The grandstands filled up fast that afternoon, the crowd swelling to around 4,000, three times Dodge’s resident population. Catcalling and hoorawing ensued, mostly from cowboys intent, wrote the St. Louis reporter, on getting “a big fat girl and a high seat at the same time.” Generally, though, the crowd was well behaved despite stifling triple-digit heat; the presence of several armed marshals and deputy sheriffs no doubt helped keep it so.
At 3:40 p.m., the matadors entered the arena to a thunderous ovation. The Cowboy Band blew a fanfare, official track horseman Stephen Chappell ushered in the first bull and the fight began. Maddened by the swishing red cape and the colorfully festooned banderillas (harpoonlike “darts” about 2 feet long) soon protruding from his neck and shoulders, the massive red bull made the matadors hunt their holes time after time, all to the crowd’s wild delight. After a half hour the bull tired, and Chappell rode in to rope and remove him. He couldn’t resist showing off, and tried to throw the animal. The big brute proved too much for him, kept his feet, and later charged Chappell.
The next five bulls proved less game, each more docile than the one before. The hot, tired assembly’s interest flagged until the crowd favorite, the red bull, was brought back to the ring. The bull and Gallardo put on a show, featuring furious charges and narrow misses. Finally, the enraged animal pinned Gallardo against a gate, giving the crowd (and the little tailor, no doubt) one truly breathless moment. The plucky matador recovered and soon downed his gallant opponent with the Toledo blade. The New York Times scribe gleefully reported that Gallardo, “was severely injured about the ribs” and “may not recover,” but the Dodge City Times reported a few days later that Gallardo was nursing only a couple of broken ribs and would live to stitch a few more britches in Chihuahua.
By most accounts, the following day’s fighting was livelier, if less bloody — a near miss or two kept onlookers’ adrenaline high — but fell short of the massacre the press frenzy had predicted. No bulls were killed, and at day’s end, probably to the crowd’s disappointment, all five bullfighters walked away. Nevertheless, the event was a financial success. Dodge had welcomed a record number of visitors, and nearly everyone had found ways to cash in; one ad-hoc enterprise had been the hawking of bullfight souvenirs, particularly photos of Gallardo’s troupe.
The fallout was nearly as lively as the bullfights. In a gale-force rebuke to Governor Glick, Henry Bergh wrote, “Humanity and public decorum have been trampled under foot and the blood-red flag of barbarism elevated above them.” He lamented that on our nation’s anniversary, “Dodge City alone unblushingly announces that the tastes and habits of the heathen and the savage are to be inaugurated upon its soil.”
Glick tried to placate him, assuring Bergh that for all the hoopla, the bullfight had been a “rather tame and insignificant affair.” The Kansas Cowboy exulted, “Take it all in all, Dodge City considers its…[celebration of] worth of keeping the Fourth a great success.” The Globe thumbed its nose at a rival town, pointing out: “Caldwell is way behind the times as a cattle town.”
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Wild West.