In the long summer of 1884, Dodge City, Kansas, was a city suffering an identity crisis. For a decade-plus Dodge had been the acknowledged Gomorrah of the Plains, and for more than a half-dozen years she had 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 danger of losing her tarnished crown and having the candle she had burned at both ends for so long snuffed out.

Local factions were divided over whether this was a good thing. More progress-minded (for the most part, newer) residents longed to see the town’s wild old days fade into history and myth. In mid-June, the prohibitionist Dodge City Times noted glumly that “Dodge City is only partly civilized.” Others accepted—even reveled in—Dodge’s rambunctious image, and had no wish to see it changed. The forthcoming Independence Day celebration highlighted the town’s internal struggle, with the recently adopted and more austere Memorial Day holiday fast gaining national favor over the raucous, flashy Fourth of July as the designated patriotic observance. A kinder, gentler Dodge seemed destined, but the current city fathers, longtime residents all, weren’t quite ready to give up their town’s bloodthirsty reputation, nor the dollars that stampeded in each summer with the Texas longhorns.

Being politicians, however, the city dads cast about for a way to celebrate the Fourth that would please the family crowd and the wild-and-woollies alike, something acceptable to all (or most, anyway) that was still properly – well, Dodge. In early May, saloonkeeper and former mayor Alonzo B. Webster conceived an idea that seemed likely to suit all needs. The town would stage a real, live, Mexican bullfight—the first such sanctioned event ever held on U. S. soil. If she couldn’t stay wicked forever, Dodge could at least have a bang-up last hurrah before she donned the robes of respectability. In the words of one chronicler, “The Cowboy Capitol was determined to ‘get to the joint’ one more time.”

Webster later told a St. Louis newspaper reporter that after checking local and state laws and satisfying himself that such a spectacle was legal, he “pushed the matter for all it was worth.”   When he pitched the idea to the town council, they gave their immediate and enthusiastic approval. Within hours local businesses had ponied up a $3,000 stake toward establishing the “Dodge City Fair and Driving Park Association.” Twenty-four hours later, the fledgling group had amassed the entire $10,000 bankroll needed to build an arena and fund the event.

With scarcely six weeks before the holiday, the Association scrambled to put the pieces into place.  The “what” and “when” already settled, they got busy on the “where.” Dodge had no suitable venue. With apparent unconcern over conflicts of interest, the Association bought what it considered the ideal piece of land for the enterprise from its own treasurer, a merchant/stockman Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Anthony—a founding citizen of Dodge. Anthony sold the association a 40-acre parcel southwest of town, just on the Dodge side of the Arkansas River.

Webster hired five genuine Mexican bullfighters from Paso Del Norte, where he’d apparently witnessed their capitán’s prowess several years earlier. W.K. Moore, a Scottish lawyer and professor at a Mexican university, acted as the matadors’ de facto manager; he struck the deal with Webster to bring them by train to Kansas. The human side of the equation solved, attention now turned to finding suitable opponents. Since the bullfighters would be imported, as it were, Webster’s group decided the bulls should be local talent. For this, they turned to Dodge’s original cattle driver, a Texas rancher by the unlikely name of Doctor Wellborn Barton.

“Doc” Barton’s trade was meat, not medicine. Honored as the first cattleman to drive a herd from Texas to Dodge City, back in the summer of 1872 (to be precise, he’d driven his herd through Dodge, having arrived a tad ahead of the AT&SF railroad’s track-laying crews), Barton was now tasked with bringing in a dozen bulls fit to face Moore’s matadors. He curry-combed the cow camps south of town, searching the inbound herds for the fiercest, fightingest bovines the Texas drovers could muster. Texas bulls were available, and they’d appeal equally to the cowboy element and to pleasure-seeking dudes fascinated with the Cowboy Capital’s image. By one account, Barton’s decision was clinched by a cowboy’s remark that by nature a Texas bull is “all the time as mad as he can get.” After scouting out 12 of the roughest customers, Barton returned with his dirty dozen in late June. His arrival was met with much ballyhoo from the Dodge press. The Ford County Globe even 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 paper also detailed their “pedigrees,” lest anyone doubt their fitness for the appointed task.

Press coverage by the locals was somewhat divided. The Globe treated the bull fight as the grand spectacle Webster and his cohorts intended, though with tongue unquestionably in cheek. Likewise the Kansas Cowboy, a relatively new weekly which, as the name implied, was the voice of the cattle interests. By contrast, the Dodge City Times, published by reform booster “Deacon” Nicholas Klaine, looked upon the bullfight as an embarrassment at best, an abomination at worst.

Out-of-town papers were a mixed bag; some expressed outrage, some elation, but nearly all (particularly in rival Kansas towns) gloried in Dodge’s reckless image. The neighboring Jetmore Reveille decried the spectacle as “brutal and degrading sport.” The Medicine Lodge Index asked, “Are we retrograding or advancing in morals?” In Kansas’ capitol city, the TopekaCommonwealth expressed sorrow to see that “such a brutal proceeding” was to take place in the home state and hope that “the sober second thought” of Dodge’s citizens would convince them to abandon the scheme.

But Webster and company had no time for second thoughts, sober or otherwise. Such fretting mattered little. Any publicity suited their purpose, and they gleefully stoked both sides of the debate. Some accounts of the forthcoming fight promised a rough and bloody affair, befitting an untamed cow town; others downplayed the event as merely an “athletic exhibition.” Moore played to both camps. In a single interview he promised the bulls “are not tortured, the only weapons of offense used by the men being small darts,” then went on to admit that one animal would be put to the sword. It was a canny tactic; such equivocating only provided more red meat for the ravenous public and press. One paper in Gunnison, Colorado declared, “ ‘The contest will be to the death’ says the advertisement.” This left to the reader’s imagination just whose death was guaranteed.  The New York Herald went one better, predicting fatalities to at least some of the matadors. Overall, press coverage and word-of-mouth led spectators to expect a bloodbath, and whether the blood was the bulls’ or the matadors’ was probably irrelevant. One opinion the Herald probably had pros and cons alike nodding in agreement: “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 the local clergy, whose members deplored this “stench in the nostrils of civilization,” and urged citizens to boycott the bullfight as proof of “a better state of morals.” Their pleas likewise only served to feed the publicity monster. All this hucksterism had one unanticipated effect, though, which at least briefly seemed to put Webster’s plan in peril. Advance word of the bullfight gained the attention, and aroused the considerable ire, of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Founded in 1866, the New York City-based ASPCA had branches in several other states— Kansas not yet among them. Henry Bergh, the society’s founder and president, aimed a crisp volley of letters and telegrams at Kansas Governor George Washington Glick, beseeching him in typically overwrought Victorian prose to put the kibosh on Dodge’s bit of fun. “Let not American soil,” he begged, “be polluted by such atrocities.” Bergh’s pleas were for nothing; Glick’s sympathies stood with the Dodge crowd. He’s reported as having told a friend that had the bullfight been held a day or two later he’d have surely attended (to which report the Dodge City Times tartly responded: “The Governor is to be congratulated. His tardiness saved a disgrace to the State.”). Glick’s nonchalant attitude led crusader Bergh to take his cause up with higher authorities, a strategy that proved equally ineffectual. When Webster (some sources say mayor Bob Wright) reportedly received a telegram from the U.S. Attorney, informing him that the bullfight was in violation of federal laws, he’s said to have replied, “Hell, Dodge City ain’t in the United States!” Whether Webster, or anyone, received such a message, or this was in fact the answer, it certainly seemed to be Dodge’s stance. When the appointed day came, the fight took place exactly as planned.

Early the week of the Fourth, the town had begun filling up with cowboys, tourists, and journalists—both locals and correspondents from areas as far flung as Chicago, New York City and St. Louis. The celebration officially began on Wednesday with a 300-yard horse race and a roping match in the new arena. On Thursday the fun continued with a 500-yard horse race and a shooting competition. Both days’ events drew respectable crowds, but though exciting these “novelties,” as the Dodge City Times referred to them, were not the big draw and everyone involved knew it. For most spectators, the real festivities wouldn’t start until Friday the Fourth.

At midday Friday, horses stood picketed shoulder-to-shoulder up and down Front Street. An estimated 500 to 700 cowboys were in town to see the fun, and the trains off-loaded carloads of the curious from points east and west. Webster led a jubilant procession down the boulevard, followed by Dodge City’s own Cowboy Band. The bullfighters—four matadors and a picador (mounted bullfighter)—strutted behind. All five were gaudily garbed, no doubt in deference to their host country and the occasion, in patriotic red, white and blue. The group was chiefed by “Captain” Gregorio Gallardo, a veterano 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 day-to-day living as a tailor in Chuhuahua. His “fierce lot” of fellow toreros included Evaristo Rivas, Rodrigo Rivas, Marcos Moyor and Juan Herrera. Painted by the local papers as a band of fearless warriors, each resigned to an eventual death in the bull ring, Gallardo’s intrepid crew was composed of two musicians, an artist, and Chihuahua’s supervisor of public works.

As the parade passed through town in full blare, spectators converged on the arena. A St. Louis correspondent wrote that, “all over the space between the Arkansas River on the south and the hill crest…on the north, the current of life was running but one way—namely, due west” toward the fairgrounds. Meanwhile, the bulls were herded into the arena’s holding pens from the nearby corrals under the supervision of Stephen Chappell, the track’s official horseman (and competitor in the previous two days’ roping and racing). One by one the beasts’ horn tips were sawed off and the blunted ends smoothed with a rasp, minimizing risk to the matadors. The first attempt at this was “a decided failure”; the horns were trimmed to the quick and bled so badly the animal was sidelined.

At 2:45 the first spectators were admitted into the freshly-painted grandstands and in short order a beyond-capacity crowd of about 4,000, about three times Dodge’s resident population, jammed the bleachers.  An estimated third of these were women and children. Catcalling and hoorawing ensued as the crowd anxiously awaited the start of the show, most of it from the cowboys whose goals, according to the St. Louis reporter, “seemed to be to get a big fat girl and a high seat at the same time.” Generally, though, the crowd was well-behaved despite stifling 100-degree-plus heat; the presence of several armed marshals and deputy sheriffs no doubt helped keep it so. To one of the latter fell the unenviable task of drawing a demarcation line between the respectable ladies and those “not remarkable for sanctity,” with only his own judgment as to which was which.

At 3:40 the matadors entered to a thunderous ovation. Their working attire was far less American—Gallardo wore his nation’s colors of red, white and green, while Evaristo Rivas wore yellow trimmed in red and a white cap with horns. The other two matadors wore red and blue and the picador was dressed in the simple working duds of a cowboy.

With few preliminaries, the Cowboy Band blew a fanfare, Chappell ushered in the first bull—a huge red monster—and the fight commenced. Maddened by the swishing red cape and the colorfully festooned banderillas—harpoon-like “darts” about 2 feet long —soon protruding from his neck and shoulders, the beast 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 him and haul him away. The cowboy couldn’t resist the crowd’s urging to put on his own show, and tried to throw the the animal. The big brute proved too much for him, though, and kept his feet, and once herded back into the chute decided to show how much too much. He dropped his head and charged, but luckily for Chappell, only grazed his horse.

Despite the lively doings, one of Bergh’s hometown journalists was oddly unimpressed by this first exhibition, his dispatch to The New York Times reporting only “a fair fight” on the bull’s part. Apparently one gent from the sophisticated East had a hankering for bloodshed; by the end of the day, he’d have it.

The next four bulls proved far less game than the first, each more docile than the one before. The second and third were derided as “cowards,” who lost all fight once pincushioned with darts. The next was the one whose horns had been cropped to the quick and, like Samson shorn, was “good for no purpose.” The fifth bull panicked and lodged himself in one of the escape chutes. He was only coaxed out again by a quirting from a cowboy seated in the bottom row.

The interest of the hot, tired assembly began to wane. Some of the onlookers milled toward the exits. Others began shouting for the first bull to return; they’d been promised a fight to the death and were determined to leave satisfied. The astute organizers took action and the big red bull, the clear crowd favorite, was hustled back into the ring. He made a theatrical entrance, dragging Chappell’s lasso behind him, and it took both Chappell and another cowboy to throw the burly brute and recover the rope. Their attention recaptured, the crowd stomped, hooted, and cheered the cowboys on. When they rode out and the bullfighters took over, the spectators were primed for the showdown.

Gallardo gave them the show they’d come for, doing some of his flashiest work yet. The bull held up his end, and the matador’s escapes from the rushing horns became slimmer with each furious charge. After several near-misses, 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 himself, to the crowd’s astonishment, and got down to deadly business. On the Cowboy Band’s musical cue, W.K. Moore leaned from the stands and handed Gallardo the heirloom sword. Excitement crackled through the crowd—all eyes locked on the combatants. After a few minutes’ thrust-and-parry, Gallardo found his mark and his gallant opponent went down under the Toledo blade.

After the hullabaloo leading up to this moment the animal’s death might have seemed anti-climactic, but he’d given the crowd a thrill or two and, like a true Texan, had gone out game. Even the jaded New York Times scribe now gave him his due, gleefully reporting that Gallardo, “was severely injured about the ribs” and “may not recover.” He’d have likely been crushed by the Dodge City Times’ report 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 fighting the following day was livelier, if far less bloody. It was still a thriller, a near miss or two keeping onlookers’ adrenaline high, though it fell far short of the bloody spectacle the press frenzy had predicted. No bulls were killed and at the end of the day, probably a bit to the crowd’s chagrin, all five bullfighters walked away. Despite Nick Klaine’s grumpy post-bullfight reports in the Times, Dodge’s bullapalooza was a financial success. Though record rains and the resultant track washouts had caused at least one train derailment and innumerable delays, Dodge had welcomed a record number of visitors. Saloons, along with the more savory businesses, had done a whopping trade. In the carnival atmosphere, nearly everyone had found a way to cash in; one ad hoc money-maker had been the hawking of bullfight souvenirs, particularly photos of Gallardo and his troupe.

The fallout from the week’s events was nearly as lively as the bullfights. In a gale-force rebuke to Governor Glick days later, Henry Bergh wrote that, “Humanity and public decorum have been trampled under foot and the blood-red flag of barbarism elevated above them,” then worried that on our nation’s founding holiday, “Dodge City alone unblushingly announces that the tastes and habits of the heathen and the savage are to be inaugurated upon its soil.” He boasted of quashing a bull-baiting exhibition in New York City in 1880, clearly peeved that after succeeding in “the greatest city of the Republic,” he’d been unable to do so in a dusty, hell-bent burg in uncouth Kansas. To wrap up his windy communiqué, Bergh quoted verbatim, as though it mattered now, the Kansas statute declaring mistreatment of horses or cattle a misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine. Glick’s politically predictable response assured Bergh that the bullfight, for all its hoopla, had been a “rather tame and insignificant affair,” and made the dubious claim that he hadn’t received Bergh’s telegraphed protest until July 7th.

The Kansas Cowboy exulted, “Take it all in all, Dodge City considers its 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. They didn’t have any bullfight on the Fourth.” Klaine, meanwhile, published a slightly bipolar account that began on a gloating, almost joyous note, “The Bull fight did not attract as many visitors as the managers anticipated,” leveled off with neutral statements about the horse racing being “declared fine,” then dipped into the doldrums with a gloomy conclusion that many Dodge Citians were ashamed of participating in the bullfight, but “there must be a good deal of penitence before the stain is fully wiped out.” Unable to let the matter drop, a sarcastic Klaine elsewhere informed readers, “The boys contemplate drilling a few old steers for a Christmas festivity.”

Several Kansas newspaper reports were equally testy. The Arkansas City Traveler claimed, “The animals showed no spirit,” and the Winfield Courier said the bullfight, “proved a drawing card, but of the fight itself there seems to have been but little disposition on the part of the men or animals to make a respectable showing.” Gallardo and the late red bull might have taken strong exception to such opinions. The Great Bend Tribune opined of bullfighting generally that “at its best it is but poor amusement.” And of Dodge’s exhibition in particular, the paper felt “there was just enough of failure added to vulgar brutality” to urge the state to forbid any more such displays.

No matter—Dodge City had made its point. If its wild era was winding down, the old cowtown had proved she’d go out with a whoop and a holler. While Klaine groused over the “ridicule, burlesque, and odium” heaped upon the bullfight by his fellow newshounds, one Kansas newspaper offered a comment that must have delighted Webster and the town council, and assured them they’d preserved Dodge’s image, if only for a while longer. The Larned Optic informed inquiring minds that, “Quite a number of our boys visited Dodge last week to see the bull fight. Some of them returned looking as though they had a personal encounter with the animals.&rdqo;

A shorter version of this story appears in “Western Enterprise” in the October 2007 issue of Wild West Magazine. California author J.R. Sanders suggest for further reading: Victorian West: Class and Culture in Kansas Cattle Towns, by C. Robert Haywood; and Seeking Pleasure in the West, by David Dary.