The Wild West of Yester-Year

Bat Masterson
By Rachel Kovaciny

Did you know Bat Masterson, legendary Wild West lawman and gambler, died behind a desk in New York City? It’s true. He did. Sorry if that disillusioned you a little. He didn’t die in a gun battle on a lawless western main street, or even in the West. He had a heart attack and passed away at his desk in a New York newspaper office. Also, he did not get his nickname “Bat” by bashing lawbreakers on the head with his cane. Though a fun story, and popular, that is a myth.

Bat Masterson was born Bartholomew Masterson in 1853 on his family’s farm in Quebec. The family moved to New York state, Illinois, then Kansas, trading one farm for another in search of the right place to call home. The nickname “Bat” was short for Bartholomew. He had the nickname long before the gunshot wound that led to him using a cane. Bat left home in his late teens to hunt buffalo with his older brother Ed. This honed his marksmanship skills, and gambling with the other men in the buffalo camps taught him to read people and live by his wits. Their younger brother Jim joined Bat and Ed later, and the three enjoyed living on the edge of the disappearing frontier. The Masterson brothers called Dodge City, Kansas, home when they weren’t out hunting buffalo or helping to fend off attacking American Indians. During this time, Bat made friends with a guy named Wyatt Earp. More about him later.

In 1876, a year after he quit hunting buffalo in Kansas, Bat got involved in a gunfight that defined the rest of his life. Bat and a soldier named Melvin King both liked the same girl, Mollie Brennan. King thought Mollie preferred Bat to him and decided to dispose of his rival when he found them dancing together in a saloon. Unfortunately, Mollie was caught in the crossfire and died. Bat was wounded in the abdomen and pelvis, but he shot and killed King. By the time he recovered from his wounds enough to travel home, Bat was a celebrity.

Although he was later reported to have killed more than two dozen men, Melvin King is the only person historians are certain Bat Masterson killed. He never claimed to have killed more, just let other people embroider his legend and enjoyed the protection his menacing reputation gave him. By the time he returned to Dodge City, he was well enough to walk with the help of a cane, which became a signature part of his legend. Dodge City was about as lawless as a cow town could get in the late 1870s. Bat’s calm courage in dangerous situations got him elected sheriff of the county. Wyatt Earp was an assistant city marshal for Dodge City by then, and the two became close friends and allies. Although Bat worked as a lawman in and around Dodge City for several years, his favorite vocation was a professional gambler. He travelled what was called the “sporting circuit” in the west, working as a dealer for various gambling establishments and playing for himself. Wyatt and his brothers asked Bat to join them in Tombstone, where they owned and operated a gambling house. He did, but left before anything famous happened in any corrals there. A message that his brother Jim was in deadly trouble called him back to Dodge City.

After Bat rescued his brother, they left Kansas to see if life was any better in Colorado. Bat spent a few years in and around Denver, mostly gambling, but sometimes serving as a lawman if called on for help. He also served as city marshal in Trinidad, Colorado. Wyatt Earp’s friend Doc Holliday got into trouble in Denver and was arrested. Earp sent Bat a message asking him to help Holliday. Bat and Doc Holliday never got along, but Bat would do anything to help a friend, so he rode to Denver and took custody of Holliday as a favor to Wyatt. He released Holliday once they were a safe distance away. When Holliday died of tuberculosis five years later, he was still out on bond from that Denver incident.


Around this time, Masterson became involved in the world of prize fighting, thanks to his love of gambling. Bat had started doing a little newspaper writing now and then, and began writing up accounts of prize fights. For the next forty years, he travelled the country to attend every major prize fight and boxing match held. His involvement with rich people who attended these fights led to Bat being hired by Jay Gould, heir to a railroad fortune, to protect him from a deranged stalker. Bat moved to New York City for that job, but returned to Denver afterward. He remained in Colorado until 1902, when he and his wife Emma moved to New York City permanently.

Bat worked as a sportswriter for the New York Morning Telegraph, moving up to become the sports editor and writing a column called “Masterson’s Views on Timely Topics.” By the time of his death, he was the paper’s vice president. While working there, he became friends with a young writer named Damon Runyon, who later based one of his most famous characters, Colorado gambler Sky Masterson, on his legendary friend. Bat was a frequent visitor at the White House during President Teddy Roosevelt’s years. The two reminisced fondly about their lives out west when the West was still wild. Early western film star William S. Hart got to know Masterson in those last years too, and said his portrayal of western heroes was inspired by the lawman.

Like many famous figures of the Old West, Bat Masterson’s life became eclipsed by his legend, even though his life had been exciting and full enough for three or four people combined.