William Barclay “Bat” Masterson (1853–1921) was a US marshal whose life and work in the American west during the mid-to-late 1800s granted him legendary status in the region’s folklore. In Colorado, where he spent several years during the 1880s, Masterson’s run-ins with the law and other important figures in the state enjoyed regular mention in the press. Remembered as a romantic figure of the “Wild West,” an oft-mythologized period in American history, Masterson’s life story nonetheless illustrates the real and rapid changes unfolding in American society near the end of the nineteenth century.
Arrival in Colorado
If few people today are aware that Bat Masterson was a prominent resident of Colorado during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, even fewer know that he spent his last twenty years in the Times Square District of New York City, where he achieved new renown as a boxing authority, newspaper columnist, and Broadway celebrity. It was during his time in Colorado that Masterson made the transition from Wild West lawman to big-city journalist and sports expert.
Masterson probably saw Colorado for the first time when he passed through in 1876 on his way from Dodge City, Kansas, to the new gold fields in the Black Hills of the South Dakota Territory. He was back again in 1879 at the head of a large force of mercenaries that included the celebrated gunmen Ben Thompson and Doc Holliday to do battle in the “Royal Gorge War.” That struggle, which pitted the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad against the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad for the right-of-way through the gorge to the booming silver camp at Leadville, proved to be a farcical affair, with most of the battles fought in the courts and very little bloodshed. The transition from gunfights to court dates was just one sign that the “Wild West” Masterson now symbolizes was already becoming more subdued.
At that time, Masterson was the duly-elected sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, and held a deputy US Marshal’s commission, but he lost both badges later that year when he failed to be reelected as sheriff. He was therefore stripped of all legal authority when he participated in a shootout in Dodge City in April 1881. City officials fined him and drummed him out of town. Following a stint as a professional gambler, Masterson roamed the west for a year before accepting appointment as city marshal at Trinidad, Colorado. For the next twenty years Masterson made his home in the Centennial State.
Shootings and street crime declined significantly while Masterson was Trinidad city marshal. In enforcing the law, he often used physical force, as reported in the pages of the Trinidad Daily Democrat: “Marshal Bat Masterson received a severe bat on the head from a cane in the hands of a drunken man yesterday whom he was in the act of arresting,” and “Bat Masterson, our city marshal, in a scuffle to arrest a man on Sunday evening, lost a valuable diamond ring for which he will reward the finder if returned to him.” Masterson never once resorted to gunplay, however. During his tenure as marshal, there was only one fatal shooting in Trinidad, and that was in a battle between two other lawmen.
In May 1882, the mythic west again rode into Masterson’s life when his close friend Wyatt Earp visited him in Trinidad. He came with a group of gunmen fresh from their famous vendetta ride in Cochise County, Arizona. There, they had hunted down and killed several of those they believed responsible for the murder of Wyatt’s brothers, Morgan and Virgil. One of Earp’s gunmen, the gambler and occasional dentist Doc Holliday, went on to Denver, where he was jailed for involvement in one of the Arizona murders.
Masterson did not care for the hard-drinking and irascible Holliday, but Holliday was Wyatt Earp’s friend, so Masterson went to Denver to do what he could to extricate him from the law. Masterson argued Holliday’s case in the Denver papers, claiming that if returned unarmed and defenseless to Arizona, Holliday would certainly be murdered by his enemies. Enlisting the aid of Pueblo City marshal Henry Jamieson, Masterson filed a trumped-up charge of running a bunco game in Pueblo against Holliday in an effort to thwart the extradition case. Together with E. D. Cowen, capitol reporter of the Denver Tribune, Masterson persuaded Colorado governor Frederick W. Pitkin to refuse extradition. Jamieson took Holliday to Pueblo, where he was released on bond. Thereafter, whenever the threat of extradition loomed, Holliday obtained repeated bunco-related charges. This went on until Holliday’s death in Glenwood Springs five years later.
Love and Business
After a year as Trinidad’s city marshal, Masterson lost his reelection bid. He went back on the gamblers’ circuit, traveling in and out of Colorado during the next few years. By 1886 he had more or less settled in Denver, where he became involved in a dispute over Nellie McMahon, a talented (and married) singer. After Masterson publicly pistol-whipped her husband, Lou Spencer, he eloped with McMahon to Dodge City. Back in Denver a few days later, Masterson learned that Spencer, distraught by the loss of his wife, had been arrested in an opium den and bailed out of jail by a friend named Bagsby. Masterson promptly confronted Bagsby in the rough-and-tumble Murphy’s Exchange Saloon at 1617 Larimer Street, an establishment known as “the Slaughterhouse.” After a heated exchange, Masterson pistol-whipped Bagsby, and a pistol shot rang out as bar patrons rushed for the exits. Police arrived minutes later to find Bagsby wiping blood from his head while a doctor attended to Masterson, who had been struck in the leg by a bullet. The story went that the wound was accidental, caused by a pistol dropped by one of the crowd during the panicked scramble. No charges were filed.
Masterson was drawn to the theatrical world, and a couple of years later, he managed Denver’s Palace Variety Theater and Gambling Parlor, a large brick building at the corner of Blake and Fifteenth streets. Opened twenty-three years earlier by gambling kingpin Ed Chase, the palace was the scene of many shootings. Henry Martyn Hart, dean of the St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, called the place a “death-trap to young men, a foul den of vice and corruption.” Even though they had eloped and possibly entered into a common-law union, Masterson and McMahon were never officially married; at the Palace, Masterson met Emma Matilda Walter, a blonde singer and dancer from Philadelphia with whom he would spend the rest of his life.
Reformers led by Dean Hart succeeded in closing the palace’s doors in 1889, indicative of the temperance movement that was gaining momentum across the country. For a time, Masterson managed the Arcade Saloon at 1613 Larimer Street, an establishment from which he reportedly led the mayor by the nose. Joining the 1892 rush to the booming mining camp at Creede, he oversaw a combination saloon and gambling house called the Denver Exchange. Although he did not hold a lawman’s post in Creede, a correspondent for the St. Louis Globe Democrat reported that he was “generally recognized in the camp as the nerviest man of all the fighters here … all the toughs and thugs fear him as they do no other dozen men in camp. Let an incipient riot start and all that is necessary to quell it is the whisper, ‘There comes Masterson.’”
When Creede busted, Masterson returned to Denver, where he engaged in his final act of gunplay, inadvertently shooting and wounding a precinct clerk during an altercation at an Arapahoe Street polling place in April 1897. The issue was settled out of court, and charges were never filed.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Masterson became increasingly involved in boxing. Prizefighting developed as a sport in the nineteenth century, and was initially controlled by gamblers. Although Masterson never fought professionally, as a gambler he had forged close ties with those involved and became closely identified with the evolving sport.
For forty years Masterson attended almost every important fight held in the United States, and was personally involved as a manager, handler, ring official, promoter, and newspaper commentator. In Denver he managed several prominent fighters, including John P. Clow, for whom he claimed the Rocky Mountain Heavyweight championship, as well as Billy Woods, “Denver Ed” Smith, and Patrick J. “Reddy” Gallagher. He was a close friend and trainer of Charlie Mitchell, an English middleweight who once fought American heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan to a draw lasting three hours and thirty-nine rounds. In 1893 the National Police Gazette, America’s barbershop bible, proclaimed Masterson “the king of Western sporting men [who] back pugilists, can play any game on the green with a full deck, and handles a Bowie or revolver with the determination of a Napoleon.”
Bare-knuckle prizefights had long been banned in Denver, but with the introduction of padded gloves and limited numbers of three-minute rounds, boxing matches were permitted. In May 1895, Masterson took a job in New York working as a bodyguard for George Gould, son of Jay Gould, the financier and railroad tycoon. In New York, Masterson wrote a Denver friend that he had gone fishing with the Goulds on their yacht and attended the races with George, who gave him $5,000 in cash to amuse himself with the horses. Masterson won another $5,000 betting on the races, but the next day gave it all back to the bookies. He liked New York so well, he said, that he doubted he would ever return to Colorado. Masterson’s comfortable New York gig ended abruptly when the police apprehended Gould’s stalker. Masterson returned to Denver and his gambling and boxing enterprises.
Following nearly a decade of intermittent feuding with Denver newspapers; several boxing promoters; and a string of bosses, editors, and colleagues, Bat Masterson left Denver for the final time in May 1902. He went to New York, the city that had enthralled him seven years earlier. There, in the metropolis of the east, the man of the west found new fame as a newspaper columnist and Broadway celebrity until his death on October 25, 1921.
Adapted from Robert K. DeArment, “Bat Masterson and the Boxing Club War of Denver,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 20, no. 4.