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Apr 4, 2017 5:57 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Book Review: Clavin's 'Dodge City' Proves The Real Wild West Was More Interesting Than TV Depictions

Apr 9, 2017 11:09 AM

Dodge City, Kansas, will, for me, always be the place immortalized in the TV series “Gunsmoke.” It is where Marshal Matt Dillon subdued the disruptive and the evil, the drunks and the killers, and where Miss Kitty presided over the Long Branch Saloon.

Dillon, of course, was fictional, as was Miss Kitty. But two other lawmen of Dodge celebrated on TV were not fictional, nor was The Long Branch Saloon. In his new book, “Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West” (St. Martin’s Press, 384 pp., $29.99), Tom Clavin has brought the town and the era to vivid life. Earp and Masterson have been celebrated on the silver screen and in popular TV shows of the ’60s. But these portrayals were embellished and romanticized. Mr. Clavin shows them warts and all, and they are far more interesting than their screen counterparts.

Mr. Clavin, who lives in Sag Harbor, has a biweekly column in The Press, “Farther East.” He is the author of several bestsellers, including “Lucky 666,” “The Heart of Everything That Is,” “Halsey’s Typhoon,” and “The DiMaggios.” He has twice been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His frequent co-author is Bob Drury. “Dodge City,” however, is a solo effort.

Earp often worked as a bouncer in the bordellos of Dodge and was himself a frequent customer. His “marriages” were long-term, often tumultuous relationships with women of easy virtue. Earp was a lawman, both sheriff and marshal, but he was just as often on the wrong side of the law as he was on the right side. Masterson was a gambler and fast gun, but he was often deputized and he became a close friend of Earp while working with him.

Under normal circumstances Dodge City might have suffered the fate of many of the Western towns and become a ghost town, except for three things that made it prosperous: the buffalo, the railroad and longhorn cattle.

The population of the American bison seemed limitless. Says Mr. Clavin, “There were estimates contending that as many as seventy million buffalo blanketed the Plains by the mid-1800s …. Men reported riding through a herd for more than one hundred miles. Others claimed that when they arrived at the top of a promontory and looked down, there were grazing at buffalo as far as they could see.”

Hunters were offered $2.50 for each buffalo killed. Often, buffalo were killed just for their tongues, which were prized as a delicacy, and the rest of the carcass was left for the vultures. Buffalo hides were shipped to the East by train and often sat in the sun at the station until the next train came by. The stench must have been horrendous. Those who killed and skinned them must have smelled pretty bad, too. Nevertheless, there was money to be made and profit seems to win out over conservation all the time. Both Earp and Masterson worked as buffalo hunters as well, leaving jobs in the bordellos and saloons for the much more lucrative work on the plains. “In the winter of 1873-1874 alone,” Mr. Clavin notes, “more than 1.5 million buffalo hides were carried by train from the western hunting grounds to eastern buyers.”

Like the buffalo hides, cattle were driven through the stockyards of Dodge to the railroad and shipped east.

The cast of characters in Mr. Clavin’s history is large and often seems almost Dickensian. We encounter the Hoodoo Kid, Shoot ’Em Up Mike, Prairie Dog Dave, Dirty-Face Charlie, Bull Whack Joe, Hurricane Bill, Light-Fingered Jack and the Stuttering Kid. Missing was the Artful Dodger.

Women are not exempt from having strange monikers. Doc Holliday’s inamorata was Big Nose Kate. There was another apparent beauty named Squirrel-tooth Alice.

Mr. Clavin was so taken with this line-up of characters—as was I—that he lists them twice. The usual characters make their way through Mr. Clavin’s pages: Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, Billy the Kid, the James brothers. The book contains some delightful photos, which show that there seemed to be a universal contest to grow the most luxuriant handlebar mustache. Earp, surprisingly, lived to the age of 80, a friend of, and model for, Western movie actors like Tom Mix. Masterson ended his days as a newspaperman in New York and was a friend of Teddy Roosevelt.

Wyatt and Bat were loath to kill anyone. They were often paid by the body, but the body had to be alive for them to receive payment. They subdued their prisoners with the butt end of their pistols. This was called “buffaloing.”

Nevertheless, six-shooters “blaze,” and guns are “jerked from their holsters.” Mr. Clavin is clearly in love with the place, the actors, and the period. The book is thoroughly researched. Occasionally he says something classically corny and awkward, as when he describes buffalo hunters with this alliterative phrase, as “perusing the prairie and plains for herds to harvest.” But generally his prose is infectiously readable, colorful, and straightforward, with a narrative force that carries us right along to the last page. “Dodge City” is simply great fun to read.

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