By Dennis Adler
“Back when the West was very young,
Their lived a man named Masterson;
He wore a cane and derby hat,
They called him Bat, Bat Masterson.”
Back in the days of black and white television, our heroes were larger than life, confined as it were to a small screen in a large hardwood cabinet. In our house it was a Packard Bell in a mahogany cabinet.
The channel selector knob was at one corner under the screen, and the on-off volume control at the other. In the middle was a panel with a flip down cover that held the adjustments; fine tuning, brightness and contrast, the essential refinements for black and white TV. The entire lower half of the cabinet was a speaker behind a cloth mesh that blended with the color of the wood. It was a handsome looking time machine that could, on a given night, travel back to Dodge City and follow the exploits of a man who represented law and order in a lawless town, Bat Masterson.
The real Bartholomew “William Barclay Bat” Masterson was a gentleman honed from frontier life as a roughneck, buckskin clad buffalo hunter, skinner, and Cavalry scout, a life Masterson lived long before his days as sheriff in the Queen of Cowtowns.
The Bat Masterson of TV fame was a song and dance man named Gene Barry, who had the look, demeanor and style that the real life Bat Masterson had publicized in his photographs and writings. Bat became a journalist after he hung up his six guns and a lot of what was portrayed on the television series was based on his real life. The same was true of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O’Brian as Earp.
The stories were based on his real life, or his life as written by Stuart Lake. Both shows depicted the Old West much as it could be within the limits of television censorship and guidelines, meaning rarely did anyone bleed when shot, no one ever swore, and the seeder side of life was portrayed by characters making bad decisions, having a lack of manners, and planning unscrupulous crimes to rob banks, hold up stage coaches, rustle cattle, steal land, water rights, and of course, embezzle and cheat at cards. The bad guys were thwarted each week by Bat’s cane, pistol, fists, or wits. Buffalo Bill Cody would have called it good theater of the west.
The real life Bat Masterson had proven himself with both the Sharps rifle as a hunter and the Colt revolver as a U.S. Cavalry Scout being hired in 1874 by Col. Nelson A. Miles. Masterson scouted for the cavalry until the spring of 1875, when he returned briefly to buffalo hunting. A year later he was involved in his first shootout in Sweetwater, Texas, with a cavalry sergeant named Melvin A. King. The fight was over a woman named Mollie Brennan and as Wyatt Earp wrote of the event, King walked into the Lady Gay saloon and opened fire on Masterson and Brennan, killing her and hitting Bat in the hip.
Masterson managed to get his gun into action and cut King down with a clean shot to the heart. There are several versions of how the shootout unfolded, some with King ambushing Masterson and Brennan, other as a standup gun fight in the Lady Gay, but they all end the same, with Mollie Brennan killed, Bat severely wounded and King dead. The injury left Masterson with a permanent limp and thus the need for what would become his trademark cane.
When Bat returned to Dodge City in the late spring of 1876 he found an unruly town with little law enforcement, a town that the Hays City Sentinel had christened “the Deadwood of Kansas….Her corporate limits are the rendezvous of all the unemployed scally-wagism in seven states. Her principal is polygamy, her code of honor is the morals of thieves, and decency she knows not…” The Kinsley Graphic newspaper was somewhat less kind, naming Dodge the “…the Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the frontier.” And it was in Dodge City where Bat Masterson along with Wyatt Earp, Charlie Bassett, and Bat’s younger brother Ed, would earn their early reputations as lawmen by settling this untamed berg.