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Published on Thursday, November 6, 2014

New York City, Wild West, USA

By John A. Vikara


"Go west, young man," was the advice of John Souce but made famous by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune in 1851. From then until the twentieth century there was a constant shifting of people, first westward and then back, a weaving of events or personal circumstances that, like opposite poles of an invisible magnet, attracted personalities between New York City and the Wild West.

One of the earliest to travel west was Henry McCarty, born in 1859 in New York City. He changed his name to William Bonney and became one of the most dangerous teenagers in history as Billy the Kid. He was killed in 1881 by Sheriff Pat Garrett near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Sheriff Garrett would eventually make political friends and be appointed Collector of Customs at El Paso by a more famous New Yorker, President Theodore Roosevelt.

President Roosevelt spent much of his spare time at his Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota and was an avid admirer of both the environmental beauty and the western lawman. He, in turn, became admired by many westerners, which included outlaws, and was endorsed for reelection by an aging Frank James. The real everlasting fame, though, that helped President Roosevelt's elections was secured with his Rough Riders during the Spanish American war. His volunteer group was the amalgamation of east-west, containing a blend of western soldiers, lawmen, cowboys and New York City policemen, socialites and Ivy League grads.

Henry McCarty alias Billy the Kid

Much of the Wild West mystique was generated by dime novels, most famous being the sometime exaggerated writings of Edward Zane Carroll Judson, born in Dutchess County, just north of New York City. He would gain fame as Ned Buntline. While on a lecture tour at Fort McPherson, Nebraska, Buntline met Buffalo Bill Cody and convinced him to allow Buntline to write a series of dime novels about the frontiersman. "Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen," one of the issues in the series, was turned into a play, and attended by Cody at the Bowery Theater in New York. He became hooked on being in the spotlight and began playing himself in another Buntline play, "Scouts of the Prairie." Cody later formed his Wild West Show and played many a performance in New York.

William Barclay "Bat" Masterson

When Wyatt Earp was on trial for charges stemming from the O.K. Corral shootout, he was defended by Thomas Finch, "the silver tongued orator of the Pacific slope." Finch was born in New York. And as though his departure from New York prompted a replacement, William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, friend of Wyatt Earp, would eventually end his various enterprising pursuits in the western boomtowns and move to New York. There, President Roosevelt would again intercede into the plot and, in 1902, appoint Masterson as deputy marshal of an area that included New York City. "New York is the biggest boomtown there is," Bat had said. "They will buy any damned thing here." When Roosevelt left office in 1909, Bat was fired by the new administration and became a sports columnist. He continued at the New York Morning Telegram until his death October 25, 1921.

Jennie "Little Britches" Stevens was a teenager when she became an associate of Oklahoma's Bill Doolan gang. Her career was short, arrested along with fellow teen, "Cattle Annie" McDougal, and sent to the reformatory at Framingham, Massachusetts in 1895. After her release two years later, Stevens worked in Boston as a domestic before moving to New York to do settlement work. She eventually died at Bellevue Hospital of consumption.

With the turn of the century and the quieting of the once Wild West, others followed Masterson and Stevens to New York. A former Wyoming cowboy turned train robber, Oliver Curtis Perry, found too much competition out west and decided to try his hand on the New York Central Railroad. He looted three trains before being captured. On one of those capers, he slid down a rope to a fast moving baggage car during a raging snowstorm, prompting a Pinkerton detective to call him "the nerviest outlaw I ever heard of." He escaped prison once but wound up dying there in September, 1930 at the age of sixty-four.

Probably the most famous train robbers to sightsee Manhattan were Butch Cassidy and Harry Longbaugh, the Sundance Kid, with their companion, Etta Place. Arriving on February 1, 1902, they took residence at Mrs. Taylor's boarding house on W. 12th Street, shopped at Tiffany's, had their photographs taken at De Young's Studio on Broadway and enjoyed dining at the finest restaurants and seeing the best shows. They departed for Buenos Aires on the S.S. Soldier Prince on February 20th for their destiny at San Vicente, Bolivia a few years later.

John Martin, born Giovanni Martini in Italy, immigrated to the United States, joined the army and became a member of the Seventh Cavalry. On June 25, 1876, as Lt.Col. George A. Custer's aide and trumpeter, he was ordered to take the famous last message from Custer Hill above the Little Big Horn to Capt. Benteen and the reserve units. Martin was the last surviving soldier to see Custer alive. John Martin retired as a sergeant and died in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1922.

Finally, a tribute to New York City from the Wild West came from Emmett Dalton, last surviving member of the Dalton gang. In 1910, a New York reporter asked him how he would keep the city crime free. "Guard the entrances to the town," Dalton replied. The population of "the town" at that time was 4,766,883 spread over an area of 359 square miles.

Emmett Dalton in 1907

There were surely other characters and their stories that walked both the sidewalks of New York and the dirt streets of the Wild West. To paraphrase The Naked City, this has been a few of them.



John Vikara was born in New York City and is now retired and living in Pennsylvania. He has self-published a trilogy of novels - The Vandals, Adjuster, and National Defense - and a novella - Auld Lang Syne - as a supplement to complete the series. He has placed third in two short story contests and has had short stories appear in New Realm, eFiction, Romance, The Western Online & Heater magazines.


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