But Cody’s English benefactor is largely forgotten today.
In October 1884, during the halcyon days of America’s Gilded Age, wealthy young Englishman Evelyn Booth ventured to the United States to sample all that burgeoning country had to offer. As the avid sportsman traveled from New York to Chicago to Arkansas and finally to New Orleans, he tumbled into his greatest adventure—a shooting match against William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody before a crowd of 3,000 spectators. Although he failed to bag a trophy, his encounter with the king of American showmen presented Booth an opportunity to partner in one of the era’s most profitable and renowned Western enterprises.
Born on April 26, 1860, to landed English parents in Dublin, Ireland, Evelyn Thomas Barton Booth attended Trinity College in Cambridge, England. Soon after college he and two companions set sail for America on the steamship RMS Oregon, which docked in Sandy Hook, N.J., on November 2, 1884. Once in the United States, Booth caroused in infamous brothels, frequented gambling houses and obtained front row seats at a John L. Sullivan heavyweight boxing title fight. It was the lure of big game hunting, however, that drew Buffalo Bill’s and Evelyn Booth’s worlds together.
In late November 1884 Booth and his companions joined a hunting expedition in northeast Arkansas, remaining there through December 8. Cody was also in the area, having just completed an exhibition in Memphis, Tenn. He and his Wild West performers were going to open in New Orleans on December 23.
On his way south in early December, Bill stopped in Arkansas to throw in with the hunting expedition Booth and companions had joined. According to Booth, Cody’s fortunes on the hunt went poorly. “Bill has announced his intention of killing every bird he fires at, but we are not surprised to hear that out of seven shots he failed to hit anything and departed cursing awfully,” the Englishman recalled. But Booth proved his prowess with a pistol, recording a number of kills. Word of his marksmanship got back to Cody, and the two set a date to meet in New Orleans after Bill finished scheduled exhibitions in Arkansas and Mississippi.
Following a performance in Vicksburg, Miss., on December 6, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West troupe boarded a boat and headed down the Mississippi River toward New Orleans. Cody himself traveled ahead by rail to the “Crescent City” to view the World’s Fair exposition grounds and make accommodations for his performers before they arrived.
On arriving in New Orleans on December 8, Cody received a telegram of disastrous proportions. On the preceding day, while steaming down the river toward New Orleans, the boat carrying the Wild West troupe, performing animals and paraphernalia collided with another vessel and sank. “We lost all our personal effects, including wagons, camp equipage, arms, ammunition, donkeys, buffaloes and one elk,” recorded Cody, who estimated losses of around $20,000.
After learning of the accident, he immediately telegraphed Wild West manager Nate Salsbury. Salsbury, also a well-traveled theatrical performer, was preparing to go onstage in Denver, Colo., when he received Cody’s terse telegram: Outfit at bottom of river. What do you advise? Initially shaken by the news, Salsbury had the orchestra leader replay his overture while he considered what to do. After a few moments he scrawled down a reply telegram to Cody: Go to New Orleans, reorganize and open on your date. With funds sent to him by Salsbury, Cody replaced much of the lost equipment and stock and opened in New Orleans on time.
On March 13, 1885, Booth and companions arrived. After Cody and Booth took time to become better acquainted, on March 28 they held the first of two shooting matches. “It was terribly windy, which prevented accurate shooting,” Booth said of the first match. “I won [by] three birds, killing 40 to 37. Bill immediately challenged me again to shoot on the following Wednesday, the day appointed for his benefit, and another match was arranged.” A separate source records that Booth shot 40 clay pigeons to Cody’s 39 in that first match. The second contest took place on April 1, 1885, before 3,000 spectators at the exposition grounds. Cody narrowly won the rematch, causing Booth to fume, “The return match was shot off with the following result, Bill 47, Self 46, though three were counted to him which he never touched.”
Although the outcome of the match was contentious, the men became fast friends, spending the next several evenings with the Wild West cowboys, getting drunk, smashing glasses and tussling with police. Riotous living, however, could not mask the Wild West’s obvious financial troubles, prompting Booth to remark, “I fear the Honorable Cody is having a bad time of it, as there are hardly any spectators, and his expenses must be very heavy.” Buffalo Bill himself wrote of the fiscal volatility, “The New Orleans exposition did not prove the success that many of its promoters anticipated, and the expectations of Mr. Salsbury and myself were alike disappointed, for at the end of the winter we counted our losses at about $60,000.”
Needing a new business angle, Cody told Booth he wanted to take the Wild West overseas to London. Booth intimated his influence on Cody’s decision, recalling, “He is very anxious to take the whole show over to England next spring, and I have had several talks with him about it and am going to make inquiry on the other side.” The Wild West’s first London exhibition would not open for another two years, but the seed of success in Europe had been firmly planted in Buffalo Bill’s mind. “Though the idea of transplanting our exhibition for a time to England had frequently occurred to us,” Cody wrote, “the importance of such an undertaking was enlarged and brought us to a more favorable consideration of the project by repeated suggestions from prominent persons of America, and particularly by urgent invitations extended by distinguished Englishmen.” Shortly after these discussions, Booth returned home to Britain.
Returning to the States in the new year, Booth gave Buffalo Bill his needed boost. On January 8, 1886, Booth, Cody and Salsbury entered into a lucrative partnership in which Booth paid a sum of $30,000 to his partners. In exchange, Booth became a one-third owner of “all the livestock and other effects.” Under further terms of the contract Booth would receive “25 percent of the profits from all sources connected with the paid enterprise.” Cody and Salsbury would share the remaining 75 percent. Buffalo Bill remained in full control of “all the Cowboys, Mexicans, Indians and Hostlers connected with the enterprise.” Salsbury retained charge of “the advertising, purchasing and camp Department of said enterprise, and the regulation of the affairs of the Box Office.” As a reserve fund each of the three men deposited $5,000 in the Merchant’s Loan and Trust Co. bank of Chicago. The partnership was to run three years.
In June the Wild West traveled north to New York’s Staten Island. There Cody recouped most of his New Orleans losses, playing to large crowds at Erastina, the magnificent resort grounds of Erastus Wiman, former manager of a large mercantile company and president of the Great Northwestern Telegraph Co. of Canada.
In early 1887 those “prominent persons of America” Cody had mentioned floated the idea of holding an exhibition in London that would showcase American paintings and manufactured products and include a diorama of New York City. The organizers sent Salsbury an inquiry in February. After a series of telegrams between the two parties, the organizers made it official and invited the Wild West to participate in the exhibition. With the Wild West slated to appear in London, Cody and Booth’s idea had finally come to fruition.
On March 31 Cody and company made the voyage across the Atlantic, while Booth remained in the States to pursue various business ventures. The Wild West was an instant hit with Britons, playing to large, enthusiastic crowds and earning a salute from Queen Victoria. Buffalo Bill became the most recognized American overseas and the most requested guest of British peerage and royalty. No longer needing Booth’s financial support, he apparently allowed their business relationship, and their friendship, to lapse at the end of the contract. The Wild West remained a major attraction in Europe through 1906.
Though it would experience further financial wobbles, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West would outlive Booth. Through the 1890s the wealthy Englishman continued to live the sporting man’s life. He wagered on boxing title fights, sought travel adventures across America and eventually owned ranchland in Wyoming. After a brief stint in Canada’s Klondike with wife Lola, Booth ventured to Oregon, where, in August 1901, he died from burns received in a fire. He was 41 years old.
Booth’s contributions to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West are worth remembering. This little-known English gent provided a source of income to the enterprise at a time of fiscal uncertainty, and Booth was one of the men who helped Cody hatch the idea of an overseas tour, which transformed the Wild West into an international phenomenon.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.