Ned Buntline: The Man Behind Buffalo Bill

This piece is excerpted from a new talk about medicine shows I am developing, shared today in honor of the birthday of dime novel author, journalist, promoter and impresario Ned Buntline (1821-1886).

Essentially, as Colonel Tom Parker was to Elvis, as Brian Epstein was to The Beatles, as Malcolm McLaren was to the Sex Pistols, Ned Buntline was to Buffalo BIll Cody, It wasn’t until Buntline starred Cody in a series of dime novels that Cody’s legend began to grow into a legend. Amusingly, Buntline’s real life story is nearly as picaresque as Cody’s was. His real name was Edward Judson. He took Buntline as his nom de plume because he had been a sailor, much as Samuel Clemens had taken “Mark Twain” from the riverboat lexicon. Buntline was a rough character; he was always starting newspapers and magazines, which would then fail, and then he would skip town to avoid his debts. He spent plenty of time in jail and yet he funded one of his magazines by single-handedly catching a pair of wanted men for the bounty. But then he would do things like diddle some guy’s teenage daughter and then kill him in a duel when he got mad about it. Buntline was hung by a lynch mob on that occasion and was only saved when the awning he was hanging from fell down. He liked to stir up trouble. Politically, he was to the right of the cavemen. He was a leader in the Nativist “Know Nothing” Party and was convicted for inciting TWO riots. One of them was the famous 1849 Astor Place Theatre Riot in New York. and there was another one in St Louis 3 years later.

Now you’d think a guy like that wouldn’t need to make up stories. But he did. he wrote ripping yarns to pay his bills, tales with titles like The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main: or, The Fiend of Blood, or The Red Revenger; Or, The Pirate King of the Floridas. It might not surprise you to know that Ned Buntline was a heavy drinker. And if you know anything about the world at all, it won’t surprise you to know that Ned Buntline was also an outspoken temperance crusader. So while he was on this lecture tour in Fort McPherson, Nebraska in 1869, preaching about the evils of drinking, he heard that Wild Bill Hickok was over at the saloon. He went in there to interview him to get material for a book or an article or something but Bill wasn’t having it, and shooed him away at gunpoint. So he went and saw the other long haired Bill, Bill Cody, who had fought alongside Hickok in recent actions against the Sioux and Cheyenne. And that’s how Buffalo Bill: King of the Bordermen was born. This dime novel penned by Ned Buntline was a publishing sensation and made a household name out of Cody, who had never been called “Buffalo Bill” in his life.

In those days, there were no firm lines between a) fiction, b) journalism, c) biography, d) advertising, and/or e) public relations. And so Ned Buntline went from interviewing Cody about his real adventures, to making up fake adventures as though he were a mythical figure, to being his manager, i.e. managing his real life as well as his fictional one. In 1872 Buffalo Bill, King of the Bordermen was adapted into a stage play that was presented at the Bowery Theatre in New York City. Cody liked it so much that Buntline wrote him a new play, Scouts of the Prairie, in which Buffalo Bill played himself, accompanied by Texas Jack Omohundro, who did rope tricks, Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi, and 6 year old Carlos Montezuma, who played “Atseka, the Apache Child of Cochise.” On at least one occasion Wild Bill Hickok relented and appeared in these shows. But Cody was bit by the bug. They toured the whole country with this show which was still essentially a melodrama stage play. A decade later, in 1883 Cody started his famous traveling show Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Buntline passed away three years later. In the next century he would be portrayed in motion pictures by the likes of Thomas Mitchell and Burt Lancaster.

To learn more about show biz history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous