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Doc Carver: Jealousy and the Wild West

If you don’t know a few things about William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West by now, you almost certainly have not been reading this magazine. But even fans of Wild West and that exciting era might not know much about William Frank “Doc” Carver’s Wild West. This editor hadn’t. Carver was an early business partner of Cody until things soured and Doc went off to start his own Wild West (in the same manner as Buffalo Bill, Carver left the word “show” off the proper name). The ex-partners had a bloodless showdown—in court—and remained rivals for life.

“Carver was severely jealous of Cody’s fame,” says William Secrest, who writes about the showmen in our cover story. “When you read what Carver wrote, it jumps out at you the way he was always trying to build himself up and to denigrate Cody. But there was a big difference. Carver hungered for celebrity. Cody was the real thing.” Carver was a trained dentist, thus the nickname “Doc” (well, it worked for John Henry Holliday). He was truly a good marksman, though he was more of a plain liar than a plainsman. Buffalo Bill stretched the truth now and then (for example, his unsupported claim to have ridden with the Pony Express), but Doc’s 1878 autobiography, Life of Dr. Wm. F. Carver of California: Champion Rifle-Shot of the World, is loaded with whoppers about his boyhood and beyond.

Even though Carver’s Wild West soon fell apart, he didn’t stay down long and hit the road with an original act that never was part of Cody’s extravaganza—diving horse exhibitions. Whether or not Doc really got the idea in 1881 when a bridge partially collapsed and his horse took a graceful leap into Nebraska’s Platte River is open to debate. But it’s a fact people paid good money to see a horse and rider plunge from a platform some 40 feet high into a tank of water.

Doc’s daughter Lorena became one of the horseback divers, as did Sonora Webster Carver, who married Doc’s son in 1929, two years after the showman died. Sonora (1904–2003) was blinded in a diving accident in 1931 but kept performing the act until 1942. Her 1961 memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, was the inspiration for the 1991 Disney movie Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, starring Gabrielle Anwar. Yes, it was highly fictionalized. After watching a screening of the film, Sonora Carver reportedly said, “The only thing true in it was that I rode diving horses, I went blind, and I continued to ride for another 11 years without the crowd knowing.” But, surely, that would have been plenty good enough for Doc Carver.

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His article about baseball in the frontier West won a 2015 Stirrup Award for best article in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America.