Thursday, April 09, 2009


I suppose the way these three men crossed paths could be called fate, or kismet. To label it a mere chance encounter could be seen as denigrating the life of one who died and the one who killed him. And, yes, there were great invisible social forces guiding events that hot summer night, and cold blooded economic factors as well. But there was also poetry, and the wild card of alcohol. But in 1878 when a “rather intelligent looking young man” named George Hoyt, a young vaudevillian named Eddie Foy, and a young assistant sheriff named Wyatt Earp collided in Dodge City, Kansas, they made history.
Dodge City owes its fame to a tiny tick, Boophilus microplus, which carries anthrax. The tick and the disease were endemic amongst the herds of Texas Longhorns, which had developed a resistance to the fever. But in 1868 anthrax on imported Longhorns killed 15,000 cattle across Indiana and Illinois. So as the sod busters plowed across Kansas they insisted the state restrict the rail heads for Texas cattle drives further and further from their farms. In 1876 the demarcation line was moved to the 100th meridian, which made the town on the north bank of the Are-Kansas River, the new “Queen of the cattle towns”, the ‘Wickedest Little City in America’, "The Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier": Dodge City, Kansas.Like the other ten to fifteen cowboys in his crew, George Hoyt had just ended two months of hard, dusty, dangerous and monotonous work and had $80 cash money burning a hole in his pocket. And it was the business of the merchants of Dodge City to separate George from as much of that cash as possible before he left town. In essence Dodge City was a tourist trap, dependent for its yearly livelihood on the May through August ‘Texas trade’.The little town of less than 1,000 year round citizens could boast 16 saloons, and south of the “deadline” (Front Street that bordered the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad) there were assorted brothels and dance halls where “anything goes”.
All the bars served the latest mixed drinks and ice cold beer and enticed customers with a piano player or, in the case of the Long Branch saloon, a five-piece orchestra. The cavernous Ben Springer’s Theatre “The Lady Gray Comique” (com-ee-cue), at the corner of Front and Bridge Street (modern day 2nd Avenue), was divided between a bar and gambling parlor in front and a variety theatre in the back. In July of 1878 the Comique featured an entire vaudeville show headlined by “…that unequalled and splendidly matched team of Eddie Foy and Jimmie Thompson.”Eddie Foy had been dancing and clowning in Chicago bars to feed his family since he was six. He was now 22, and this was his second swing through the western circuit, telling such local jokes as “What's the difference between a cow boy and a tumble bug (a dung beetle)? One rounds up to cut and the other cuts to round up”. Eddie had an appealing V-shaped grin, and a comic lisp, which he offered each night in a solo rendition of the plaintive homesick poem, “Kalamazoo in Michigan”At about 3 A.M. on Friday, July 26th, while Eddie was just beginning his reading, George Hoyt and several of friends left the Comique and saddled their horses at a nearby stable. Then the cowboys buckled on their gun belts and mounted up. As they rode up Bridge Street past the Comique on their way back to camp, George suddenly wheeled his horse and returned to the side of the Comique. George pulled his six shooter and banged out three quick shots into the side of the building.According to Eddie Foy, inside the hall “Everyone dropped to the floor at once, according to custom.” Amongst the crowd of 150 gamblers and poetry aficionados in attendance was lawman Bat Masterson and gambler Doc Holiday, both of whom, according to Eddie, beat him to the floor. “I thought I was pretty agile myself, but these fellows had me beaten by seconds at that trick.” The Dodge City Globe agreed. “A general scamper was made by the crowd, some getting under the stage others running out the front door and behind the bar; in the language of the bard, “such a gittin up the stairs was never seed”. Observed Bat Masterson, “Foy evidently thought the cowboy was after him, for he did not tarry long in the line of fire”.In George Hoyt’s impulsive decision to blast away at the Comique he had failed to notice two men lounging in the shadows on the sidewalk. One was Jim Masterson, younger brother to Bat and a fellow city deputy. The other shadow was legendary lawman Wyatt Earp.Wyatt (above,on the right) was 30 years old and stood about six feet tall, weighed about 160 pounds and had light blue eyes. But what friends and opponents remember most about Wyatt was his manner. The editor of the Tombstone Epitaph would later note his calm demeanor, saying he was “…unperturbed whether...meeting with a friend or a foe.” Bat Masterson (on the left) described him as possessing a “… daring and apparent recklessness in time of danger.” But beyond that the man did not seem legendary at all.After serving in an Illinois regiment during the Civil War Wyatt became a teamster between the port of Wilmington, outside of Los Angeles, and the desert mining town of Prescott, Arizona. He had managed houses of prostitution in Peoria, Illinois for several years before becoming a lawman in Wichita, Kansas. He lost that job in 1874 for embezzling county funds, which he probably used to finance his education in gambling.
Moving on to Dodge City along with the railroads, Wyatt was hired again as a police officer but took time off to travel Texas and Dakota Territory to continue his schooling in poker and games of chance. As a “cop” in Dodge City Wyatt's fame did not extend beyond stopping spit ballers disrupting an evening’s performance at the Comique, and his recent slapping of a prostitute named Frankie Bell. Frankie spent the night in jail and was fined $20, while Officer Earp was fined $1. But the incident made clear that the nominally bucolic Wyatt Earp would not sit idly while his honor or his life was insulted.So when George Hoyt began blasting away in the dark, Wyatt made the immediate assumption that the cowboy meant to kill him. As George galloped his horse back up Bridge Street, Wyatt drew his own weapon and fired after the fleeing cowboy; once, and then a second shot. The second bullet hit Hoyt in the arm.Bat Masterson claimed years later that George Hoyt fell from his horse, dead on the spot but that seems embellishment. Bat, as we now know, was on the floor of the gambling parlor. His brother Jim was outside standing next to Wyatt but never spoke of the shooting. Other accounts say the two lawmen ran up the street together after Hoyt.
Given the lack of adequate street lighting in a frontier cattle town of 1878 Hoyt would have soon disappeared in the dark. And that makes it seem likely that Bart got that much right; Wyatt fired only twice. And George Hoyt just wasn’t fast enough in escaping.The cowboy fell from his horse, and either from being shot or from the fall, he broke his arm. Wyatt and Jim Masterson ran after Hoyt, and after he was disarmed they sought out Dr. T. L. McCarty to treat him. The Globe commented that George Hoyt “…was in bad company and has learned a lesson “he won’t soon forget”. He didn’t. Gangrene set in and the cowboy died a slow and foul death, passing at last on Wednesday, August 21st, 1878; 26 days after Wyatt shot him. The Legendary Wyatt Earp had killed his first man.
Eddie Foy would later claim that his suit, hanging back stage, was punctured twice by the gunfire, but that too seems an embellishment. The Dodge City Times said the bullets went through the theatre’s ceiling. Eddie Foy went on to a successful career on the vaudeville stage, appearing for several years with his children in an act billed as “Eddie and the Seven Little Foys”. He was the last of the great vaudeville entertainers before the advent of film, and so is almost forgotten today. Eddie Foy died of a heart attack in 1927 at the age of 71.In September of 1878 a cattle broker and gunman named Clay Allison came to Dodge looking for a showdown with Wyatt Earp. One story told is that Allison was a friend of George Hoyt’s. It seems that Wyatt sensibly stayed out of sight until Allison left town, despite Wyatt's strories to the contrary. In 1879 Wyatt and his brothers moved on to Tombstone, Arizona. There, in October of 1881, he took part in the infamous Gunfight at the O.K Corral, which in fact was a gangland brawl which occurred in a vacant lot down the street from the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral. But none of that reality stopped the fight from becoming the most famous twenty seconds in the American West.
Wyatt remained a professional gambler all his life and died in Los Angeles of a chronic bladder infection at the age of 80 years, in January of 1929. He is mostly portrayed today as a hero, mostly it seems to me because he had no aversion to spinning tall tales and because he was that true rarity, a gambler who usually won.After the railroads penetrated south Texas in the mid 1880’s the need to drive cattle a thousand miles to Kansas came to an end. And with it the “Queen of the Cattle Towns” became just another small American town of some 25,000 people. It’s connection to its past is the Dodge City Cargill packing plant, whose 2,500 employees can slaughter up to 6,000 head of cattle a day, turning them into four and a half million pounds of meat shipped all over the world.It was always the unpleasant underside of Dodge City that the town depended for its fame and fortune upon the death of so many.

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