Long before the Earps and Mastersons patrolled the streets of the ‘Cowboy Capital,’ the lawless town was a dangerous hangout for carousing soldiers, buffalo hunters and local herders.
Dodge City, Kansas, had a well-deserved reputation for violence, but its notoriety was not earned during its cow town years, as is generally believed. The town’s unsavory reputation as a place of wanton bloodletting stems from its first year of existence, when it was often called “Buffalo City,” years before it became a terminus of the Western Cattle Trail. According to legend, Dodge City became the wickedest town in America in the late 1870s and early 1880s when it reigned as “Queen of the Cow Towns,” “Cowboy Capital” and “The Beautiful Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier.” Wild Texas herders, fresh from the Longhorn trail, hurrahed the town, tough lawmen attempted to hold them in check and gunfights became common occurrences. Walking the streets of Dodge in those cattle-happy days were many of the most celebrated gunfighters of the West—Wyatt Earp, the Masterson brothers, Doc Holliday, Ben Thompson, Luke Short, Bill Tilghman, Mysterious Dave Mather and Clay Allison.
Dodge was said to have one saloon for every 50 residents, and no doubt those saloons were often rip-roaring. But when it came to man killing his fellow man, Dodge was not so gory during its glory years. In his study of Kansas’ cow town violence, The Cattle Towns, Robert Dykstra said that from 1876 through 1885, Dodge produced a total of 15 documented homicides, an average of only 11⁄2 per year.
The first two recorded killings in Dodge, however, had occurred back in September 1872, and the months that followed produced more carnage. Dykstra estimated that nine men were killed in the first year, with “another three as possibilities.” Dodge City historian Frederic R. Young put the figure at 17, while historian Gary Roberts suggested there were “between 25 and 35.” Although determining the exact number of men who died violently in those early months in Dodge is impossible, because the town had no legal system or newspaper to record events, scattered reports in other papers and the often faulty recollections of men who were there suggest much mayhem. George M. Hoover, who had a liquor store and saloon in Dodge from its inception, remembered there were “no less than fifteen men killed in Dodge City during the winter of 1872 and spring of 1873.” Robert M. Wright, another town founder, wrote that “these shooting scrapes, the first year, ended in the death of twenty-five, and perhaps more than double that number wounded.”
When it is considered that the permanent population of Dodge that first year was only about 300 and the total population, including transients camped on the outskirts, probably never exceeded 500, these homicide figures are astounding. If as many as 25 men died violently in Dodge City that year, it means that one in every 20 residents or visitors to the town ended up in boot hill.
Initially a construction site for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, which was building westward across the prairies of Kansas, Dodge in 1872 became an outfitting and marketing center for the hide hunters who descended on Kansas to participate in the great buffalo slaughter. It also became a vice center, where whiskey, wagering and whores were provided for the buffalo hunters, the soldiers from nearby Fort Dodge and the local cowboys.
In September 1872, the first train rolled into a point some five miles from Fort Dodge where pioneering cattle rancher Henry L. Sitler had built a sod house for his headquarters. In anticipation of the railroad’s arrival, several enterprising entrepreneurs had thrown up hastily constructed saloons and were open for business. An early visitor described the new town in a letter to a Leavenworth newspaper:
Saturday evening [September 7] we reached Dodge, or Buffalo City, as it is called….The “city” consists of about a dozen frame houses and about two dozen tents, beside a few adobe houses. The town contains several stores, a gunsmith’s establishment, and a barber shop. Nearly every building has out a sign in large letters: “Saloon.”
Dodge’s first killing had occurred just two days earlier. On Thursday, September 5, according to the Kansas Daily Commonwealth of Topeka, “a notoriously mean and contemptible desperado named Jack Reynolds…got into a quarrel at Dodge City with one of the tracklayers who, without any ‘ifs or ands,’ put six balls in rapid succession into Jack’s body.” The newspaper added, “The desperado fell and expired instantly, and thus the law-abiding people of the southwest were rid of a terror.”
Later that month, a gambler named Denver shot and killed a black man identified as “Black Jack” or “Texas.” The shooting was not reported in the Kansas papers, probably because at the time it was believed to be an accident, but Dodge merchant Wright later recalled the event, which occurred on a crowded street:
Some shots were fired over the heads of the crowds, when this gambler fired at Texas and he fell dead. No one knew who fired the shot and they all thought it was an accident, but years afterwards the gambler bragged about it. Some say it was one of the most unprovoked murders ever committed, and that Denver had not the slightest cause to kill, but did it out of pure cussedness, when no one was looking. Others say the men had an altercation of some kind, and Denver shot him for fear Tex would get the drop on him. Anyhow, no one knew who killed him until Denver bragged about it a long time afterwards, and a long way from Dodge City, and said he shot him in the top of the head just to see him kick.
On November 14, Dodge saw a violent outbreak involving some local cowboys. “There was a man shot at a dance house in Dodge City a few nights ago,” was all that the Newton Kansan said about the affair. The Leavenworth Daily Commercial increased the casualty list and gave the story two sentences: “Dodge City is winning the laurels from Newton. Three men were shot at a dance house there the other night and thrown into the street, while the dance went merrily on.”
The Kansas City Times, under the headline “A Shooting Affair of a Desperate Character,” gave more details. When a herder lost a large wager at the Kelley and Hunt Dance Hall, he accused gambler Matt Sullivan of cheating and grabbed all the money on the table. Sullivan, the paper said, “drew a six-shooter and struck him above the left temple, fracturing the skull and penetrating the temporal lobe of the brain with the hammer of the revolver, inflicting a mortal wound.” Another cowboy leveled a revolver at Sullivan’s back, but the gambler’s assistant “shot him dead, the ball entering the cheekbone and coming out the base of the brain.” Sullivan then shot another cowboy through the neck, but, though seriously wounded, this third victim was expected to live.
Later, an alleged eyewitness to the shootings questioned the earlier newspaper accounts. He said that while the three cowboys “got no more than they deserved,” they were not thrown out into the cold. They were all still alive, and a doctor dressed their wounds before the pistol-whipped man was taken to his room in the town’s only hotel, the Essington House (later the Dodge House), and the other two were given over to the care of the post surgeon at Fort Dodge.
In an unrelated event a few days later, the cook at the Essington House shot and killed the owner, J.M. Essington. Then, on December 3, 1872, a fracas at Tom Sherman’s dance hall resulted in the death of a soldier named Hennessey from Fort Dodge and the mortal wounding of a town citizen, Charles D. Morehouse. Wright recalled that a dispute between soldiers and professional gamblers led to the fight and that “three or four were killed and several wounded.” Indeed the Newton Kansan reported that four men were killed, adding, “Dodge City is making herself notorious as a fast frontier town.” Dodge old-timer J.B. Edwards said that the shooting of Morehouse had nothing to do with the soldier-gambler dust-up. Morehead, he said, “got drunk and tried to fool with Billy Playford’s gal,” and Playford, taking advantage of the general ruckus, “just plugged him.”
Sullivan, who had played a central role in the November 14 shootout, was shot to death through the window of a Dodge dance hall on December 28. “It is supposed that the unknown assassin was a character in those parts called Bully Brooks,” the Topeka Daily Commonwealth reported, “but nothing definite is known concerning the affair, or what led to it.” Thanks to the research of historian Gary Roberts and others, it is known that Brooks was involved in other shooting episodes as well.
Born in Ohio in 1849, William L. Brooks had found his way to Kansas, where he took a job as a stage driver and earned the nickname “Bully Bill” because of his penchant for violence. Before coming to Dodge in 1872, he had been wounded in a running gun battle with some cowboy troublemakers near Newton and had served as a policeman in Ellsworth. Dodge had no law (or government for that matter) at any level, but Brooks may have been hired by local businessmen to protect their property and interests.
Emanuel Dubbs, a buffalo hunter working out of Dodge, said that it took Brooks only a few weeks in town to establish himself as a killer and that “in less than a month he had killed or wounded fifteen men.” No doubt that was an exaggeration, but Merritt Beeson, son of Dodge City pioneer Chalkley Beeson, documented the shooting of five men by Brooks in Dodge.
On December 23, 1872, Brooks shot it out with a railroad man named Brown over the affections of a girl called “Captain Drew.” Press reports said that three shots were fired by each party, with Brown dying and Brooks suffering a wound. When Wright wrote his history of Dodge City 40 years later, he recalled that Brooks shot Brown through the back of the head, which does not suggest it had been a standup gunfight. Wright added that, thanks to the nursing of Captain Drew and the attention of an army doctor, Brown “soon got well and was back at his old job in a few months.”
Early in 1873, the Wichita Beacon reported that Brooks had “died with his boots on at Dodge City” but soon published a retraction: “We have written in a brief run of four months two obituary notices of Bill Brooks; he invariably lives to make us a liar. We quit now for fear he will ride down our way and make an obituary notice of us….Twice we have been misinformed by his friends here; the next time, they want an obituary for him they must show why.”
There was, however, a shooting affair in Dodge on January 17, 1873, that resulted in the death of at least two men. Contemporary newspaper accounts were sparse. One Wichita paper said that Ed Hurley and Barney Cullen were killed instantly and a man named Southern was so severely wounded that he was not expected to recover. A little over a week later, a Topeka paper reported that one of Hurley’s friends had killed a man named McDermott, a survivor of the earlier shooting. In his 1915 book Hard Knocks, Harry (“Sam”) Young said that Hurley had killed a buffalo hunter for merely howling in the street and then had gone to a dance hall. Upon seeing a man named McClelland talking to dance hall girl Nellie River, Hurley became jealous and started shooting, only to be killed by McClelland’s return fire. Just a week later, according to Young, a desperado named “Scotty” killed McClelland in Peacock’s Billiard Saloon, which prompted Nellie, still grieving over her Eddie, to come to the saloon and slap the dead man silly.
Bully Bill Brooks himself was back in action that winter. Buffalo hunter Dubbs later described how four brothers went to a Dodge dance hall to get Brooks, who had previously slain another brother in Hays City. Brooks, according to Dubbs, demonstrated unusual dexterity with his two six-shooters, killing two of the brothers outright and mortally wounding the other two.
Dodge had grown so chaotic that citizens formed a vigilance committee in February 1873 to rid the town of some of the rougher element. Vigilantes shot and killed Charles (“Texas”) Hill and Ed Williams, reportedly the ringleaders of a local gang, and sent five other gang members packing to avoid a similar fate. Wright recalled that the Dodge City Vigilance Committee included the town’s very best citizens and “only had to resort to extreme measures a few times.” Harry Young made it sound a lot bloodier in his 1915 book, contending that the vigilantes “swooped down on all three dance halls” and slaughtered 14 men—no doubt a gross exaggeration.
Even if the vigilantes didn’t commit that particular slaughter, the committee was fast becoming what Wright called “a farce as well as an outrage on common decency.” Hard cases became involved in the organization and began using vigilante power for selfish purposes, such as to avenge their own grievances.
Killings continued in Dodge, some committed by vigilante members. On March 11, a hard character named McGill shot up a dance hall and was pursued by two vigilantes—James Hanrahan of the Occidental Saloon and John (“Scotty”) Scott of Peacock’s Saloon—who brought him back riddled with bullets. Scott apparently was one of the vigilante leaders, along with the Hicks brothers, Bill and Pete. According to Young, when the vigilantes sentenced a drunken buffalo hunter to hang for shooting up Dog Kelley’s saloon, he made a run for it and was shot down by Pete Hicks. Both Hicks brothers, according to Young, were later killed.
The very next night after the killing of McGill, saloonkeeper Tom Sherman shot and killed a man named Burns. Buffalo hunter Henry Raymond ran to the scene upon hearing several shots and found Sherman standing over Burns. The saloonkeeper, according to Raymond’s account, “had a large caliber revolver in his hand, which he was emptying into the boy that was down.” Not satisfied, Sherman suggested to the gathering crowd that he had better shoot once more. Indeed he did. The next shot struck Burns high on the forehead and “scattered his brains in his hair.” Apparently Burns was guilty of having killed a friend of Sherman’s. The Wichita Beacon reported that the body “was left lying where it fell an entire day.”
On June 3, 1873, a murderous bunch killed a black man named William Taylor. As Raymond told the story, a drunken group of men wanted to go to a dance at Fort Dodge, so they hired Taylor to transport them and some dance hall girls by wagon. After several trips, Taylor said his mules were too tired to go again. One of the toughs responded by shooting a mule, and when Taylor protested, others “turned their guns on him and riddled him with bullets while he begged for his life.” Another account says that vigilantes John Scott and Bill Hicks were the leaders of the drunken romp that night and that Taylor had not died from the first bullet. Bystanders had brought Taylor into Herman J. Fringer’s drugstore to have his wounds dressed, but Scott, Hicks and their followers had dragged him back out to the street and finished him off with a fusillade of shots.
Major Richard I. Dodge was outraged at the killing of Taylor, who had been his private cook. He wired the Kansas governor, requesting permission to arrest the killers. Since this was five years before passage of the Posse Comitatus Act prohibiting federal military intervention in domestic criminal problems, permission was granted. On the morning of June 4, soldiers came to town and arrested Hicks, who had bragged about his part in the atrocity. Scott reportedly hid in the icebox in Peacock’s Saloon and managed to escape that night.
At a special election held on June 5, 1873, nine months after the arrival of the railroad and the birth of Dodge City, the first officers of Ford County were chosen for office. George B. Cox, proprietor of the Dodge House, was elected probate judge, M.V. Cutler became county attorney and Charles E. Bassett assumed the responsibility of county sheriff. These men, especially Bassett, who would be reelected twice and serve as sheriff for 41⁄2 years, would help end the uncontrolled mayhem that had raged in early Dodge.
Not that violence could ever be wiped off the books of Dodge or any other frontier town. In fact, Dodge saw a double homicide the very next month. Details are sketchy. A bartender at the Dodge House refused to allow a cowboy to bring a prostitute into the building, so the cowboy shot him, only to be shot down himself by another party. In a very small item, the Wichita Beacon noted that W.R. Ellis, presumably the cowboy, had been shot and killed in Dodge on July 20. The paper added that Ellis was “about twenty-one years of age, well liked by those who knew him” and that his “sudden taking off” would be a blow to his parents. But fewer such blows would hit the town in the coming years.
Dodge Township Constables Mick Walch, Jerome L. Jackett, “Prairie Dog Dave” Morrow and James Wilson would soon assist Bassett in enforcing the law in town. Like Bassett, none of those names are well-recognized today, but these lawmen were the real town-tamers, arriving well before the more celebrated Mastersons and Earps pinned on their badges in Dodge.
R.K. DeArment is a highly regarded outlaw-and-lawman historian and a frequent contributor to Wild West Magazine. For further reading: The Cattle Towns, by Robert R. Dykstra; Dodge City: The Cowboy Capital, by Robert M. Wright; and Dodge City: Queen of Cowtowns, by Stanley Vestal.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.