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The Knuckleheads: The amazing story of how the adventurous Kolb brothers helped inspire the creation of Grand Canyon National Park.

emery and ellsworth kolb with their boats defiance and edith true west magazine
Ellsworth and Emery are shown with Defiance and Edith, the boats that saw them through their months on the Green and Colorado rivers from September 8, 1911 to January 18, 1912. Emery christened his boat Edith, after his daughter, and Ellsworth named his Defiance, because “nobody loves me.”
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

Long before Grand Canyon was a national park, it attracted some colorful characters. Men dug for ore and built trails and camps. Later they guided tourists and were noted for their storytelling prowess.

And then there were the knuckleheads.

a leap in the interest of art emery kolb true west magazine
A Leap in the Interest of Art typifies the adventurous spirit and drama that the Kolb brothers always liked in their photos. The person in the image remains unidentified, but several scholars think it is Emery, based on the hat and his known fearlessness in pursuit of the most dramatic photograph.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

That’s the word I used to describe groundbreaking photographers, Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, in my book The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon. I thought it best summed up their full-tilt, damn the torpedoes, you-think-that-was-crazy-here-hold-my-beer lifestyle. But my publisher thought it could be misconstrued by their family and asked me to remove it. No problem. I still call them knuckleheads at talks and book signings, and in my blog posts. Emery’s great-grandson gets a big kick out if it.

The point is the Kolbs went way beyond colorful. They were the real deal, genuine explorers who probed every corner of Grand Canyon, on foot, in the saddle, by boat and even from the air. In 1922, when aviation experts declared it impossible to land a plane in the abyss because of treacherous updrafts, Ellsworth hired a stunt pilot, climbed aboard as cameraman, and proved them wrong when they set down in the inner canyon at Plateau Point.

Yet it was the Kolbs’ astonishing journey down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1911-’12 that made them famous. John Wesley Powell first rafted those unknown waters in 1869. In the ensuing four decades only a handful of men had succeeded, and plenty had perished in the attempt. With virtually no boating experience, the Kolb brothers spent nearly four months in deep river canyons, traveling 1,100 miles, navigating 365 large rapids and numerous smaller ones. They became just the 26th and 27th men to accomplish the feat. Ellsworth would go on the next year to complete the journey, following the Colorado River all the way to the sea, just the fourth expedition to do so.

The Kolbs not only survived their river trip but shot a moving picture of it. That little film would become the longest running movie of all time, playing at their studio from 1915 until 1976. When the Kolbs weren’t filming history, they were making it.

The biggest beneficiary of the Kolbs’ work was the Grand Canyon itself. President Theodore Roosevelt, a Kolb friend and occasional houseguest, had used the Antiquities Act to designate Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. Even that level of protection was fought tooth and nail by some Arizona politicians (primarily Ralph Cameron) who wanted to continue to profit off the Big Ditch. The Kolb photos, motion picture and lectures sparked a more widespread interest in the canyon. The August 1914 issue of National Geographic was commandeered by the Kolbs. The entire issue is filled with their words and photos detailing their life at Grand Canyon and river trip. Increased attention and growing tourism numbers shifted the political landscape. Grand Canyon National Park was finally established by an act of Congress and signed into law by Woodrow Wilson on February 26, 1919.

Young Men Going West

r v thomas and ellsworth kolb with a plane by the grand canyon true west magazine
On August 8, 1922, World War I veteran pilot and barnstormer R.V. Thomas and passenger and cameraman Ellsworth (left, standing with camera) did what many thought impossible by landing the first airplane in the Grand Canyon at Plateau Point near Indian Garden. They took off from the small Williams airstrip and landed on a makeshift strip scraped out by the park rangers near the canyon oasis.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

It all began with Ellsworth Kolb’s restless feet.

Ellsworth, who never saw a horizon that didn’t seduce him, left his Pittsburgh home in 1900, with $2 in his pocket. He rambled westward, working as he went. He manned a snowplow at Pikes Peak, swung a pick and shovel on the roads of Yellowstone and Yosemite and served as a carpenter’s helper in San Francisco. He signed on with a freighter bound for China but before shipping out decided to take a peek at a savage hole in the ground somewhere in the Arizona Territory.

Ellsworth hired on with the Santa Fe Railroad so he could travel east to Williams, a town that lay 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon amid a forest of ponderosa pines. From there, nearly broke, he walked the tracks of the spur line to the canyon for 50 miles then finally flagged down a train. He paid the reduced fare and rode the cushions the rest of the way.

The Santa Fe ran the first train to the South Rim on September 19, 1901. Ellsworth Kolb got there just a few weeks later. Both arrivals would significantly impact Grand Canyon history.

kolb brothers grand canyon south rim tanner trail true west magazine
During the Kolb brothers’ first years at the South Rim, they explored numerous new and old trails. In 1909, they decided to treat themselves to a vacation, so they traveled to the far eastern edge of the canyon where they located the abandoned Tanner Trail, a steep, long-neglected sketchy route that leads northeast towards the river.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

Ellsworth fell in love and forgot all about China. He quickly landed a job chopping wood at the Bright Angel Hotel. When he wrote home, he regaled his younger brother with tales of the spectacular canyon. It intrigued Emery, who had begun pursuing photography as a hobby.

Five years separated the two Kolb boys as well as a difference in personalities. Emery was more practical, more cautious and he tended to be more intense than the easygoing Ellsworth. Still, they were inseparable as kids, wading into a fair share of adventure and mischief.

Now with Ellsworth living on the edge of one of the world’s greatest photo ops, it seemed only natural to pursue this artistic calling. In 1902, Emery traveled west to join his brother.

Running with the Mules

theodore roosevelt john hance on horseback in the grand canyon kolb brothers true west magazine
The Kolb brothers’ primary source of income was from taking photographs of mule riders, including Theodore Roosevelt (front) and famed Grand Canyon pioneer, explorer and storyteller John Hance (on white horse), near the top of the Bright Angel Trail.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

The bulk of the Kolb brothers’ business was photographing mule riders as they clip-clopped into the canyon. The Kolbs would go on to photograph more than 50,000 mule strings descending the trail. They built a darkroom at Indian Garden, halfway down the canyon where there was fresh water, and created a business plan that would make hardened athletes weep.

The mule trains would pause for a photo to be taken at the rim and then start down the trail, only to quickly be passed by the photographer himself. After snapping the photos, Emery or Ellsworth loaded the glass plates into their pack and sprinted into the abyss.

They hurtled down the switchbacks, 4.6 miles to the clear spring at Indian Garden, where each plate had to be hand-washed once, twice, three times. Repacking the plates, they turned and charged back toward the rim. This time every step pointed uphill, always up, often in a snarling heat, passing the mules again, glass plates clattering as they ran, sweat stinging their eyes, regaining over 3,200 vertical feet—9.2 miles round trip. They would reach the studio in time to sell prints to the returning riders. This mini-marathon was often repeated twice, and occasionally, three times a day.

There are mules and then there are simply the mule-headed.

The View Stalkers

view hunters grand canyon ellsworth and emery kolb true west magazine
Ellsworth and Emery Kolb made themselves and the Grand Canyon famous through daredevil photography of the natural wonder in northern Arizona, including their famous series of images they named View Hunters.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

That was part of the Kolbs’ enduring legacy. They captured not just a landscape but a spirit. At the dawn of the 20th century, when technological advancements seemed to be shrinking the country, the Kolbs showed America that the frontier still existed— and they were living right on its raggedy edge. Wild places could be reached but it took daring and nerve, and they were just the camera-slingers to pull it off. Their mule photos were mementos, but their canyon portraits were lusty dreamscapes.

The Kolbs invented the selfie. They inserted themselves into many of their photographs as markers to the scope and perils of the Grand Canyon. Sometimes they are there to provide a measure of scale, a human speck perched atop a towering ledge, a living comma pausing the viewer’s eye, at the base of precipitous cliffs. But often they emerged as characters in a larger drama. They appeared in photos clinging to cliff faces, climbing hand over hand on ropes stretched from treetops and leaping across gaping chasms.

Their signature photograph is one titled View Hunters (featured on the cover of our May 2019 issue). It perfectly captured that reckless audacity that would become their trademark. Ellsworth straddles a high crevasse with a slender tree trunk stretched across the gap. Far below him Emery dangles in mid-air clutching a rope with one hand and a camera in the other. He’s angling for the impossible shot as Ellsworth holds the rope taut.

They turned the image of View Hunters into postcards and it graced the cover of the souvenir photo album they sold at the studio and through the mail. It came to define their artistic style. Hard to imagine Ansel Adams hanging from a rope in a crevasse. Or Grand Canyon painter Thomas Moran inching across a cliff face with a brush in his teeth. The Kolbs were adventurers who just happened to carry cameras.

The Last Pioneer

emery kolb ellsworth kolb hummingbird trail grand canyon true west magazine
Emery’s photo of Ellsworth clinging to the legendary Hummingbird Trail—using ropes, ladders and chiseled toeholds and plunges down a sheer cliff face to reach an abandoned mine shaft—was just the type of image that created the Kolbs’ enduring legacy of adventure.
— Courtesy NAU Cline Library, Kolb Collection —

When Emery was born, the Apache Wars still raged across the Arizona Territory. The Earps and Doc Holiday had not yet shot it out with the Clantons and McLaurys in a vacant lot near the OK Corral in Tombstone. He lived long enough to witness every Apollo moon landing. Emery Kolb died December 11, 1976. He was 95.

Kolb Studio

kolb brothers photography studio grand canyon south rim bright angel trail true west magazine
The Kolb Brothers’ 1911–’12 Colorado River trip brought them a measure of fame, which they promoted at their studio on the South Rim near Bright Angel Trail. They became the 26th and 27th men to row the Grand Canyon and they were the first to record it in a motion picture.
— Courtesy GCNP Museum Collection —

The Kolb Studio remains. The wood frame building originally constructed by the two young novices in 1904 on an eyebrow ledge, affixed to the world’s greatest erosional masterpiece, still hangs on at the head of Bright Angel Trail. There’s a lesson in tenacity there somewhere.

The original little two-story structure grew and sprawled and now cascades down the cliff face. This wooden aerie has teetered and tottered and swayed with every breath the canyon took for over a hundred years.

Now beautifully restored by the Grand Canyon Conservancy and operated as a retail outlet and exhibition space, the Kolb Studio perches on the edge of a wilderness of towers and temples, pinnacles and promontories—a cathedral of light and stone and sky. It sits on the shore of an ocean of shadows and shapes. Clouds sweep the porch and ravens swoop past the basement door. Clusters of stars peek in the windows each night and the moon uses the roof for a footrest. And the simple rotation of the earth, the rising and setting of the sun, floods the studio with a crescendo of shimmering color, both eloquent and scandalous. Every day. The Kolb Studio is the only house still standing that has the entire Grand Canyon for a front yard.

Ellsworth and Emery may have been knuckleheads but, holy mackerel, they knew how to live!

Editor’s Note

“Knuckleheads” is an excerpt from Roger Naylor’s The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon, published by the Grand Canyon Conservancy, the nonprofit partner of Grand Canyon National Park. Thanks to Roger Naylor, Grand Canyon Conservancy, Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection and Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library, Kolb Collection for sharing the images and excerpts with True West.

Roger Naylor is a travel writer who hates to travel—at least anywhere beyond the Southwest. He spends his days rambling around Arizona and writing about what he finds. In 2018, he was inducted into the Arizona Tourism Hall of Fame. He is the author of several books, including Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers, Arizona Kicks on Route 66 and Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth.

Doc Holliday

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Was Doc Holliday Really a Deadly Dentist?

Was Doc Holliday Really a Deadly Dentist?

doc holliday age 20 true west magazine
Doc Holliday, age 20.

More than one writer has called Doc a “deadly dentist” who killed several men during his turbulent life. Most likely Doc encouraged these stories about his deadly reputation, it was a good way to make a man think before calling him out, but how many men did Doc
Holliday actually kill?

The only one confirmed is his shotgun killing of Tom McLaury in the street fight near the O.K. Corral. During the heat of battle his shots probably hit both Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. Some historians claim he also shot and killed Mike Gordon in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1879. At least one writer believes he killed Old Man Clanton at Guadalupe Canyon on August 13, 1881.

In other altercations he shot Charley White, Milt Joyce, Florentino Cruz and Billy Allen but none of these died by his bullets. There were a number of other deadly altercations including Ed Bailey, Budd Ryan, Kid Colton and Mike Gordon but there are no newspaper
accounts or court records to validate them.

Gary Roberts, author of Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, says, “Tom McLaury is Doc’s certain kill. I believe the evidence is strong that he killed Mike Gordon.  So, we agree there. Other incidents are more controversial.  I happen to believe that he killed at
least one person at the waterhole incident in Georgia before he went west, but the evidence is still circumstantial. Bat Masterson said that he killed a black soldier in Texas, and a AWOL black soldier named Jake Smith was killed by an ‘unknown person’ at Fort Griffin about the time that Doc took off for Denver and other points north and west
in 1876.  It is possible that Doc fired some of the shots that killed Frank Stilwell.  I can find no references beyond recollections about Ed Bailey and Kid Colton, so I don't give those stories credence (at least, until I find something more substantial). Bud Ryan was a gambler in Denver, and the earliest information on that incident indicates that Doc cut him up but did not kill him.  His other shooting encounters — Charles Austin, Charlie White (actually Charles Wright), Johnny Tyler/Milt Joyce, and Billy Allen — were all non-lethal.”

Frances Hamer – Texas Ranger

A Texas Ranger Earns His SpursThree decades before he became renowned for tracking down Bonnie and Clyde, the legendary Texas Ranger earned his badge under fire along the Rio Grande.

frank hamer texas ranger bonnie and clyde true west magazine
Francis “Frank” Augustus Hamer was a Hill Country Texan, born in Fairview, Texas, on March 17, 1884. When he was just 22, he passed his interview with Capt. John H. Rogers and took his oath as a Texas Ranger.
— Courtesy John Boessenecker —

Frank Hamer rested his muscular frame against the trunk of a hackberry tree.  He levered a round into the chamber of his Winchester Model 1894 saddle ring carbine, then squinted down the rear sight. Drawing a long breath, he slowly squeezed the trigger and the hammer dropped. The next instant would mark the beginning of his career as the deadliest Texas Ranger of the 20th century.

Llano-Fredericksburg Road Oxford Texas true west magazine
Llano-Fredericksburg Road in Oxford, Texas.
— Family Home photo courtesy Texas Ranger Hall of Fame, Waco, TX —

Hamer (pronounced “Haymer”) was born in the Texas Hill Country in 1884. The son of a blacksmith, Frank spent long hours toiling with sledgehammer and anvil in his father’s shop. He grew into a powerful six-foot-two-inch youth, all muscle and gristle. Hamer had no formal schooling after the sixth grade. As he once said, “The only education I got was on the hurricane end of a Mexican pony.” He lived much of his early life outdoors and became an expert rider, rifleman, hunter and tracker. Hamer drifted to the Pecos River country in west Texas and rode the ranges as a cowpuncher. In 1905, as a volunteer posseman, he tracked down and captured several horse thieves. The sheriff of Pecos County was so impressed that he recommended young Hamer as a Texas Ranger.

frank hamer family photo texas ranger true west magazine
Franklin Hamer (lower left) raised Frank, the second oldest, and his seven brothers and sisters in their home, adjacent to his blacksmith shop, on the Llano-Fredericksburg Road in Oxford, Texas. Sitting beside the Hamer patriarch is his brother Harrison, while standing is the youngest, Flavious, and sister, Pat. — Family Photo courtesy Harrison Hamer —

In April 1906 Frank enlisted in Company C of the State Ranger Force. Then, Rangers were rarely called “Texas Rangers,” for everyone connected with them was in Texas, and adding the state’s name was redundant.  They were merely “Rangers” or “State Rangers.” Hamer’s commander was Capt. John H. Rogers, famed as one of the “four great captains” of that era. Rogers did not look like a Western lawman. Portly, bespectacled, gentlemanly and deeply religious, he was a crack detective and a deadly opponent in a gunfight. He had been a Ranger since the age of eighteen and had killed several desperadoes in hair-raising gun battles. Rogers had twice been wounded in the line of duty, leaving one arm permanently injured. He carried a special rifle with a curved stock to compensate for his crippled limb. Frank Hamer idolized his captain, and ever after sought to emulate him. Captain Rogers became the most important influence in Hamer’s professional life.

frank hamer ranch texas ranger true west magazine
After being posted to Ranger Company C in Alpine, Frank Hamer investigated many crimes on local ranches, including working undercover as a greenhorn on a ranch being rustled in Ysleta.
— True West Archives —

The Rangers served not only as a border protection force, riding the Rio Grande in search of outlaws, smugglers and cattle thieves, but they also assisted local officers.  Because lawmen were few, and levels of crime and violence were high, the Rangers rode from one hot spot to another, augmenting local police and sheriffs. During Hamer’s first year as a Ranger, he acquired more experience than many modern law officers get in a decade. He rode several thousand miles throughout the border region and the Big Bend, obtaining intimate knowledge of the country and its people. He learned to conduct surveillance, to work undercover and to investigate myriad crimes. He arrested seven men for murder. And he took part in an exploit in Del Rio that folks would talk about for more than a hundred years.

ed putnam outlaw murderer frank hamer true west magazine
Murderer Ed Putnam was the first criminal Frank Hamer killed in the line of duty.
— Photo Courtesy John Boessenecker —

Del Rio, then a dusty border town of 2,000 residents, is situated on the Rio Grande, midway between Laredo and the Big Bend. On November 30, 1906, Captain Rogers received word that a wealthy sheepman, Blake Cauthorn, had disappeared. He began an investigation, and quickly found that Cauthorn had been at the bank in Del Rio, where he paid a stranger, Ed Putnam, $4,500 for a flock of sheep. Putnam had last been seen headed out of town in a livery rig, which was found abandoned 12 miles north of Del Rio. Rogers, with Rangers Hamer and Robert M. “Duke” Hudson and County Sheriff John Robinson, spent the night in a vain manhunt for Putnam. In the morning they got word that Cauthorn had been found in his buggy, shot to death. At about the same time, the Rangers learned that another stockman, John Ralston, who had also engaged in a sheep deal with Ed Putnam, had vanished.

The town was gripped in a fever of excitement, with citizens convinced that Cauthorn and Ralston had been robbed and murdered by Mexican bandits. The Rangers paid no attention to the rumors, and kept up their hunt for Putnam. Rogers inspected Cauthorn’s body, then concluded that Putnam might have circled back to Del Rio to board a train for escape. As the lawmen watched all the outbound trains, Sheriff Robinson got a tip that Putnam was holed up in a bordello operated by Glass Sharp, situated near the railroad tracks on the outskirts of town. The sheriff and his deputies, along with Rogers, Hamer and Hudson, climbed into a pair of hacks and rushed to the Sharp house.  It was six p.m., December 1, 1906.

texas ranger frank hamer ed putnam del rio true west magazine
During the manhunt for Ed Putnam, Capt. Rogers and his Rangers staked out the Southern Pacific train station, and at one point hopped a freight from the Del Rio station to Comstock in search of the killer.
— True West Archives —

Sheriff Robinson placed seven men in the front of the Sharp bordello, while Rogers, Hamer, Hudson and another posseman covered the rear. The sheriff called for the women inside the brothel to come out, and they did so. Then he yelled to Putnam that he knew he was inside. As Rogers later explained, “At first one of the women denied that he was there. Afterwards, they admitted that he was inside and they carried him word from Sheriff Robinson to come out and surrender.” The lawmen allowed Sharp’s daughter, Georgia, to reenter the house and talk with Putnam.

“He won’t come out,” she told the officers. “He’s got a funny look in his eyes and says he won’t give up.”

Half an hour passed and Sheriff Robinson lost patience. By this time a crowd of more than a hundred citizens had gathered, some of them armed, and he feared mob violence. Robinson ordered his possemen to open fire on the house. Hamer, crouched behind a hackberry tree at the rear of the house, held his fire. The other officers unleashed a barrage of 30 or 40 shots through the wood walls. In a display of the steady diligence and calm that would mark his later career, Frank continued to hold his fire, while carefully watching the rear windows. Several times he saw a curtain rustle. Then he spotted a pistol barrel poking through the curtain. Hamer took dead aim at the six-gun barrel and squeezed his trigger. The Winchester carbine roared and the heavy bullet tore through the curtain and ripped into the stooping Putnam. It slammed into the killer’s face, just under his left eye, ranged downward and shattered his jaw, then entered his neck, cutting the jugular vein, passed out of the neck, plowed into his left shoulder and exited through his left arm. Putnam crumpled to the floor, dead.

texas ranger frank hamer ed putnam del rio true west magazine
Frank Hamer’s Company C headquarters was on Alpine’s Main Street in Brewster County. In 1906, the rowdy cattle town of a 1,000 or so was a gateway to the Big Bend and the Mexican border.
— Courtesy True West Archives —

The possemen heard a loud thud as Putnam fell, but they could not see inside the house. Captain Rogers said later, “However, not knowing whether he was dead, wounded or feigning to be dead, the house was not entered for a time and our party reloaded and fired many times after this until, perhaps, something like two hundred rounds had been fired, when the house was entered and Putnam found to be dead having received one fatal shot.” Putnam clutched a six-gun in his dead hand. Captain Rogers took three guns from his body: a .32 caliber Colt Single Action Army revolver, a .32 caliber Winchester rifle and a newfangled German Luger automatic pistol. The killer’s pockets held 300 cartridges and $3,500 in cash. The walls of the house had been shredded by 500 bullets. As an eyewitness said, “The furniture in the Sharp home was completely wrecked, even the stove legs being shot off.”

The next day John Ralston’s dead body was found north of town where Putnam had dumped it. Putnam had robbed and killed both victims. The noted Noah H. Rose, then a Del Rio photographer, had been a witness to the deadly shootout. He took a photo of the dead Putnam and invited Captain Rogers and his men come to his studio and to sit for commemorative pictures. Rose shot four images of the Rangers. Two were group images, with Rogers seated, holding Ed Putnam’s Luger pistol. Next to him were Hamer, Duke Hudson and an unidentified friend, with their rifles displayed prominently. Then Rose had Hamer and Hudson take off their coats, so their six-shooters and cartridge belts showed, and photographed them both standing and kneeling with their rifles in hand. Those photographs have become iconic in Texas Ranger history and lore.

texas ranger frank hamer ed putnam del rio true west magazine
When working the Rio Grande border counties of southwest Texas, Hamer frequented the historic 1887 Val Verde County Courthouse in Del Rio, to testify in criminal cases.
— Courtesy The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress —

Captain Rogers presented Frank Hamer with Putnam’s Colt revolver, saying that since this was his “first gunfight as a Ranger he thought he should have a memento of the occasion.” Hamer’s commanding officer was greatly impressed with Frank’s coolness and deadly marksmanship. In the years to follow, Frank Hamer would eventually become the most famous lawman in the Southwest, noted for his skill in investigating murders and protecting prisoners from lynch mobs. He engaged in 52 gun battles, and killed, or participated in killing, at least 21 desperadoes in the line of duty. And that all took place long before he got on the trail of Bonnie and Clyde.

Western historian John Boessnecker adapted this story from Texas Ranger: The Epic Life of Frank Hamer, the Man Who Killed Bonnie and Clyde.

Texas Jack

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The Tragedy of Texas JackTexas Jack Omohundro and Giuseppina Morlacchi’s doomed romance

texas jack omohundro giuseppina morlacchi combination acting troupe on set true west magazine
Texas Jack Omohundro poses with his wife and business partner, Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi, in this colorized publicity photo. It was probably taken shortly after the couple began their Texas Jack Combination acting troupe in 1876.

Texas Jack could have been the person about whom the phrase “tall, dark and handsome” was coined. And Giuseppina Morlacchi was a heartbreaker. She was a ballet dancer from Italy and he was a cowboy from Virginia. Born John Burwell Omohundro, he later decided that “Texas Jack” was a lot easier for people to remember, and pronounce. She moved to the United States at age 21 to perform and never left. Theirs became a fairy tale romance, forged in the imaginary West of the stage but eventually broken in the real West.

texas jack omohundro headshot black and white sepia true west magazine
Former Confederate cavalryman Texas Jack Omohundro’s stage career and story book marriage to Italian ballerina Giuseppina Morlacchi were cut short by pneumonia in Leadville, Colorado, where he died in 1880 at the age of 33.
— All Images Courtesy True West Archives Unless Otherwise Noted —

After fighting on the side of the Confederacy under Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, John Omohundro moved to Texas at the end of the war. There he got involved with cattle herding, driving cattle north along the Chisholm Trail to railheads in Kansas several times. It may have been on one of those drives that he made the decision to relocate once again, moving first to Fort Hays, Kansas, and then to the North Platte, Nebraska, area. Drawing on his past experience, including time spent as a scout during the Civil War, Omohundro picked up odd jobs scouting, hunting and guiding. He also became “Texas Jack.”

texas jack omohundro headshot western true west magazine
Texas Jack.

In 1869, Texas Jack met William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who was also scratching out a living scouting, hunting and guiding. They became fast friends, scouting together for the Army and engaging in hunts with the likes of the Earl of Dunraven and Grand Duke Alexis of Russia. They also caught the attention of dime novelist Ned Buntline. In late 1872, their fortunes changed when he invited them to become stars of Scouts of the Prairie, a play he was creating. The cast was strengthened by the presence of the noted ballerina and actress Mademoiselle Giuseppina Morlacchi.

texas jack buffalo bill acting troupe giuseppina morlacchi true west magazine
This 1873 cast photo shows the stars of Scouts of the Prairie in their stage costumes. Buntline, Cody and Omohundro wear typical frontier scouting attire. Giuseppina Morlacchi has abandoned her ballerina outfit and wears the costume for her role as Dove Eye, an heroic Indian princess.
— Courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado —

Born in Italy, Morlacchi was the same age as Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill. She became a classically trained dancer, traveling throughout Europe until her American ballet debut in 1867. She introduced the can-can to the country the following year. A fine actress as well, she was soon appearing in the major cities of the American Northeast. Just weeks before his buffalo hunting expedition with Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, the Grand Duke Alexis saw Morlacchi on stage. Buntline also saw her and recruited her to join his new play.

texas jack omohundro globe theater poster play western true west magazine
The Texas Jack Combination was successful for Giuseppina Morlacchi and Texas Jack, but they continued to perform separately as well. In 1878, Texas Jack appeared with Dr. W. F. “Doc” Carver, a dentist turned exhibition shooter who he met several years earlier in North Platte, Nebraska. Five years later Carver joined forces with Buffalo Bill to create Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

Giuseppina did not come alone to the United States. She was accompanied by her manager of five years, John Burke, who was smitten by her. He had presented her with rings and was planning on settling down with her in a house in Lowell, Massachusetts. Those dreams ended when she met Texas Jack. For the Virginian and the Italian, it was love at first sight. She returned the rings to John Burke and pledged herself to John Omohundro. Heartbroken, Burke wore the rings and never married. Instead of devoting his life to her or to any another woman, he spent it instead promoting his new friend Buffalo Bill. It was a task he pursued until Cody’s death.

texas jack buffalo bill buntline scouts of the prairie play actors true west magazine
Scouts of the Prairie, a play written by dime novelist Ned Buntline in four hours, debuted
in Chicago in December of 1872. In this publicity photo, Texas Jack points at his friend William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who reclines in front of Buntline. The play was the first appearance onstage for all three.

With Scouts of the Prairie’s combination of the two well-known scouts with the lovely and talented Morlacchi, the 1872-73 season of the road show was a resounding success. The relationship between Morlacchi and Omohundro was also a success; they were wed on August 31, 1873. The following year Texas Jack, Morlacchi and Buffalo Bill struck out on their own with a new play, Scouts of the Plains, and a new co-star, their friend Wild Bill Hickok.

texas jack buffalo bill wild bill hickok scouts of the plains true west magazine
Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill pose with their friend “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hickok joined them onstage in the play Scouts of the Plains in 1873-74. He preferred gambling to acting and left the show mid-season.

Hickok, who was never very excited about acting, was the first to leave the combination after several months. The Omohundros parted amicably with Buffalo Bill in 1876 to create their own troupe, re-enacting scenes from the West on stage. They happily toured together for the next several years, with periods of relaxation at the Massachusetts home once desired by John Burke. Finally their show business career took them to Leadville, Colorado, for a series of performances. They decided to stay in the Rocky Mountain West rather than return to Massachusetts.

texas jack costume acting troupe combination true west magazine
Texas Jack.

Three months into their stay, Texas Jack succumbed to pneumonia in Leadville, dying on June 28, 1880. The fairy tale romance had lasted just seven years. Grief stricken, Giuseppina Morlacchi departed for their Massachusetts home, never to return to the stage, and died of cancer six years later.

Author’s Note: Texas Jack Omohundro is buried in Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery. In 1908, Buffalo Bill commissioned a permanent granite marker in his friend’s honor. In 1994, Omohundro was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers.

The Comanche and his Horse

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The Comanche and his HorseThe acquisition of the horse in the 1600s brought immediate and sweeping changes to the Plains Indians.

Comanche indians horses true west magazine
Comanche tribe members with their horses.

The acquisition of the horse in the 1600s brought immediate and sweeping changes to the Plains Indians. For the first time it gave them a wide range and mobility for hunting and military might. It brought about the most glorious period in their history. The Comanche were the first to acquire the horse referred to them as their “God Dogs.” They built an entire culture around them.

The Comanche became expert ropers and popular way to capture and break a young horse was to rope him, choke him to exhaustion and while the horse was down on the ground the captor would then blow his breath into the nostrils of the animal and remove the “wild hairs” around its eyes. A headstall or hackamore, a loop was placed around the jaw and tied at the neck. The horse would then be attached to a gentle mare. The warrior would then handle him enough to get him used to being around humans. After a few days he would be turned loose to be free but would remain with the mare, following her everywhere she went. When it came time to ride the handler would take the horse into deep water or a sand-bottomed creek to mount. This served to take some of the starch out of his bucking and make the landing softer if the horse succeeded in unloading its rider.

Capturing and breaking a wild horse was good but the Comanche was also an excellent horse thief and stealing them was developed into an art. Getting horses by plunder and especially under dangerous conditions gave the warrior an opportunity for valor and prestige. The Comanche raided for other plunder and scalps but more often than not he preferred to go on horse-stealing forays.

There were a lot of ways to break a horse and over time the Indians adopted some of the methods of the white man and vice versa. Kindness rather than cruelty was always the most effective way to break a horse.

They also practiced selective breeding, gelding the inferior males and breeding the best stallions with their mares.

Rival Plains Indians tribes noted the Comanche affinity for his mounts in their campfire stories noted that in time of danger a Comanche would bring his favorite horses into the tee pee and make his wives sleep outside. They also claimed that when a Comanche copulated with his wife he would mount her from behind and whinny like a stallion.

Artist George Catlin, who was one of the first to write about them wrote: “A Comanche is out of his element and comparatively almost as awkward as a monkey on the ground without a limb or a branch to cling to; but the moment he lays his hands upon his horse his face even becomes handsome and he gracefully flies away like a different being.”

William Blakemore, an Englishman spent eight years with the tribe left this description: “On foot slow and awkward, but on horseback graceful, they are the most expert and daring riders in the world. In battle they sweep down upon their enemies with terrific yells, and concealing the whole body with the exception of one foot behind their horses, discharge bullets or arrows over and under the animal’s neck and accurately. Each has his favorite war-horse which he regards with great affection and only mounts when he goes into battle. Even the women are daring riders and hunters, lassoing antelope and shooting buffalo.”

Ellsworth Showdown

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Erroneous Ellsworth ShowdownLetters help prove that the Wyatt Earp-Ben Thompson showdown is a tall tale.

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
The Ellsworth Showdown has been popularly portrayed and discussed in books about Wyatt Earp. This illustration of the 1873 gunfight, by Lorence F. Bjorklund, was seen by only a few. Published in Enid Johnson’s 1956 book, Wyatt Earp, Gunfighting Marshal, the printing plate was destroyed and the book withdrawn from the market after Stuart Lake threatened a lawsuit against the publisher. Yet some copies had already been sold to the public, so the book still got out!
— All illustrations courtesy State Library of New South Wales, Australia unless otherwise noted; Wyatt Earp photo True West Archives —

Among the many questionable incidents people often repeat about Wyatt Earp’s life story, few reveal the duplicity of his biographer as much as the tale of Wyatt’s 1873 showdown with Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, Kansas.

Letters between Stuart N. Lake and a Hollywood producer show the legend makers of print and film collaborating to create a fictional character who both men insisted matched the real man. 

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
Wyatt Earp.

The Ellsworth Incident

Stuart N. Lake first told the story of the Ellsworth incident in a 1930 Saturday Evening Post article. A wandering buffalo hunter searching for opportunities in the cattle business, Wyatt landed in Ellsworth on August 18, 1873, where he responded to a dangerous standoff after the killing of Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney. Bill Thompson had shot Whitney and was allowed to ride out of town, while his brother Ben held off any pursuers with a shotgun. The remaining Ellsworth peace officers were too cowed to challenge Ben until Wyatt volunteered to arrest him, with the aid of two borrowed six-shooters and a sheriff’s badge.  Striding fearlessly across the street, Wyatt ignored the “hundred or more half drunken cowboys” who backed Ben and intimidated Ben into surrendering. When offered a permanent position on the police force by the mayor, Wyatt contemptuously refused due to the court’s release of Ben on a $25 fine.

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
Wyatt Earp biographer Stuart Lake (above left) speaks with Merritt Beeson of Dodge City, Kansas, circa 1930. His face is more clearly shown in the photo below, among the few known photographs of Lake.
— Courtesy Boot Hill Museum of Dodge City, Kansas —

The problem with this story is that it has not been proven.  The only contemporary description of the incident appears in the August 21, 1873, issue of the Ellsworth Reporter,and Wyatt’s name is conspicuously absent. The newspaper story describes the shooting of Whitney and Mayor James Miller’s impatient discharge of the town’s cowardly police force, but it identifies Deputy Sheriff Ed Hogue as the only officer remaining to make arrests and the person who “received the arms of Ben Thompson.” 

Lake’s source for his contradictory version of the event apparently came either from his own imagination or Wyatt.   Evidence Wyatt may have told the story is contained in a 1928 letter he sent to Lake. Referring to a Texas gambler named George Peshaur, Wyatt wrote, “I had some little trouble with him in Ellsworth, at the time that I arrested Ben Thompson.”

Wyatt could have come up with his tall tale by reading the Ellsworth Reporter article. Wyatt enclosed a batch of unidentified newspaper clippings to Lake that year, and the Ellsworth story might have been among them.

Stuart Lake Stretches the Truth

Regardless if Lake made up the story or repeated what Wyatt told him, the biographer left clues that suggest he realized he had stretched the truth.

Lake embellished his Saturday Evening Post version of the Ellsworth incident by claiming “no more than a handful of the narrators of Earp history seem to have been aware” of the showdown, implying other accounts existed.

In 1931, when Lake published his book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, he doubled down on his claim of available historical evidence by quoting the Ellsworth Reporter text verbatim, but he intentionally left off the concluding sentence that identified Hogue as the man who received Thompson’s guns. Lake couldn’t resist bragging that no other historians had been aware of the Thompson showdown, as opposed to the “handful” he had admitted previously.   

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
Stuart Lake.

Both of his claims, however, set a trap to catch Lake in his lie by declaring the story’s roots could be independently verified.

In the decades following his publication of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, Lake grew to consider his Wyatt character as his personal intellectual property.  He often sought  payment from any print or film depictions of Wyatt that he claimed may have used material from his book, but he found that difficult for works that retold his version of the Ellsworth incident.

The only Western film based on a Wyatt Earp character to feature the heroic staredown with a Ben Thompson character was The Arizonian, filmed in 1935 from a script written by Dudley Nichols.  The movie was released just a year after Frontier Marshal by Fox Studios, which had purchased the exclusive rights to Lake’s book.

Historian Paul Andrew Hutton has speculated that Lake passed on an opportunity to sue Nichols because the Earp biographer had claimed the Ellsworth incident to be part of the historical record.  His conclusion is supported by Lake’s reluctance to litigate two decades later when the Thompson showdown came up again.

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
Stuart Lake was super irritated at not being chosen to introduce the episodes for the ABC series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring Hugh O’Brian (above). Perhaps the biographer believed he could be just as good as the “Old Ranger,” who used to introduce every episode of Death Valley Days.
— Hugh O’Brian photo Courtesy ABC; postcard courtesy NBC —

ABC Defends Lake

In 1953, Hollywood producer Robert F. Sisk wrote to Lake asking about the television rights for Frontier Marshal.  Recognizing an opportunity to boost book sales, Lake agreed to a contract, although Sisk rebuffed his additional demands for final script approval and recurring on-camera introductions to each episode.

Sisk allied with Louis F. Edelman as the executive producer for The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and the pair began to line up the sponsors, talent and network contracts necessary to make the show a reality.  Sisk secured the talents of  Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, a scriptwriter with many screenplays to his credit, but he also wanted Lake to provide stand-alone narratives for each half hour episode.

“I wait with real interest your rough on the first Earp story,” Sisk wrote to Lake in May 1954, “and the reason or  rationale of his being a peace officer.”

In true Hollywood fashion, the producer added,  “and work a dame in, if but slightly.”   

Once filming got underway, a magazine article appeared that threatened to scuttle the entire project.

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
This Ellsworth Showdown illustration, from the only biography Stuart Lake authorized in 1956, was drawn by Robert Doremus for Philip Ketchum’s Wyatt Earp. It treads dangerously close to Hugh O’Brian’s look as the frontier lawman in the ABC series.

In the summer of 1955, Argosy magazine came out with an expose written by Edwin V. Burkholder titled, “The Truth about Wyatt Earp.” Filled with the usual anti-Earp screed of previous debunkers, Burkholder also gave a fascinating spin on the Ellsworth incident, which must have hit close to home for ABC, as the pilot was going to feature the Ellsworth showdown.

Burkholder reported Wyatt had actually participated in  a con job by agreeing to publicly arrest Ben Thompson before the showdown. Wyatt was able to stare down the Texas gunman because he knew in advance Ben would not shoot.

Burkholder finished up his spurious retelling by mocking Lake’s version and definitively stating, “The court records name Earp as the arresting officer.”   

Intentionally or not, Burkholder had touched on the one “fact” that Lake could never deny without admitting the bankruptcy of his own version.

One of the sponsors of the show, General Mills, expressed alarm about Burkholder’s story. Sisk demanded a detailed rebuttal from Lake. Instead of complying, the writer complained about his status for the show’s credits and urged the producers to just ignore the “silly” charges.  Reminding Sisk, “if it were not for your Uncle Stuart, there would not be much of a series,” Lake insisted he be given story credit for the first episode in addition to the title of consultant. 

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
As a historical figure, Wyatt Earp could not be copyrighted, but Charlton Comics avoided an issue by depicting Earp with a mustache and a buckskin shirt in this Ellsworth Showdown from Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal published in January 1956.

“Certainly, no one can dispute the fact that the Ellsworth business, barring a couple of twists, is right out of the book,” he argued, a sideways admission that the Thompson showdown came from his imagination alone.

Curiously, in his urging of the producers to leave the Argosy story unanswered,  Lake acknowledged that an 1884 account of the affair by Ben Thompson failed to mention Wyatt Earp, as if that omission somehow added to the proof of his own version.

Sisk was far from reassured by his petulant consultant. The problem with General Mills was serious enough that he was forced to answer the Burkholder story in the columns of Variety, assuring the entertainment industry that the record of Wyatt’s personal life was “impeccable.”

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
The first issue of Wyatt Earp, Frontier Fighter, published by Atlas Comics in November 1955, avoided a potential legal challenge by having Earp face down Bill Thompson, rather than his brother Ben.

Lake’s Bold Bluff

Still seeking a credible statement from his consultant to back up his rebuttal, Sisk again pressed Lake for a response.

Lake wrote back about his ideas for manufacturing T-shirts and publishing a juvenile version of Frontier Marshal and a serialized Sunday newspaper comic strip.  He again laughed off the Burkholder story.

Sisk began to lose patience by the end of July. He reminded Lake that he needed a specific denunciation of the Argosy article.  Lake again stalled, angry about his reduced role in the production of the Ellsworth episode, which he thought he would be introducing himself.

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
Published shortly after the debut of the television show, Philip Ketchum’s 1956 book Wyatt Earp was careful to present this cover illustration of the Ellsworth showdown with an Earp figure who bore no resemblance to the actor playing him on TV, Hugh O’Brian. This book was the only juvenile biography in 1956 that Lake specifically authorized
— Illustrated by Robert Doremus / Courtesy Whitman Publishing —

“You sen[t] down a script for the pilot just before you started to shoot it,” he fumed, “When I came up a few days later I learned that it had been entirely rewritten, not only as to story but [also] including the introductory narration.”

After a lengthy complaint about being edged out of script approval, Lake grumbled that his response would be forthcoming. Another week passed before he addressed the issue, and in his letter, Lake spent most of his typewriter ribbon questioning the value of Argosymagazine in general and the questionable identity of Burkholder in particular. He suggested Sisk demand Argosy’s editors produce Burkholder in the flesh to document the article under oath.  Lake smugly predicted Argosy would be unable to do so and bluffed, “I can document my biography of Wyatt Earp in every essential paragraph,” a bold claim for a book that failed to include a bibliography or even a single footnote.

As it turned out, the General Mills executives were mollified by Sisk’s response in Variety,and the pilot episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp aired on ABC on September 6, 1955. The pilot opened with an enthusiastic narrator who assured viewers that the “stories they tell about him are doubly fabulous because they’re true!”

Ellsworth Showdown Wyatt Earp Ben Thompson true west magazine
More than half of 1956’s The Picture Story of Wyatt Earp, by Felix Sutton and illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman, deals with a fictionalized version of the Ellsworth showdown.

The Ellsworth story featured Hugh O’Brian’s Wyatt Earp bravely facing down a less-than-threatening Ben Thompson played by Denver Pyle. (Perhaps due to budget considerations, the supposed crowd of 100 backing Thompson was reduced to three.)  The credits named Brennan for both the story and the script, a subtle indication of the growing strain between the producers and Lake.   

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp became a hit and enjoyed six years of particularly high viewer ratings, but Sisk and Edelman eventually refused to renew Lake’s contract. They also left him to challenge alone any histories of Wyatt that did not infringe on the show’s copyright.

In 1956, no less than six new children’s biographies of Wyatt appeared in bookstores, including one written by Lake.  Although he challenged some of his competitors, he could not specifically claim their repetition of the Earp-Thompson showdown as plagiarism. By that time, he had ensured the Ellsworth incident be viewed as an established historical “fact.”

Professor Kim Allen Scott is the university archivist at Montana State University Library in Bozeman. He discovered the letters between Stuart Lake and Robert F. Sisk in a mislabeled file folder that was part of the Frederick Hazlitt Brennan papers at UCLA.

Boom Town Belles

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Boom Town Belles in the Old WestWhat kind of reception did the traveling sideshows or circuses or drama/theater groups receive?

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Lotta Crabtree.

What kind of reception did the traveling sideshows or circuses or drama/theater groups receive?  Were any of these financially successful?

They were very popular in the entertainment-starved West and the good ones made a lot of money. Shakespearean plays were always popular as was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Citizens in the mining towns had money to spend and they loved to show the eastern cities how sophisticated and up to date they were.

Pretty women because were the most popular and many became very rich. Caroline Chapman was one of the first real actresses to head west. Following her first performance in San Francisco the audience carpeted the stage with poke sacks filled with gold.

Maria Eliza Rosanna Gilbert from Limerick, Ireland took the stage as the exotic Lola Montez. She could spin whoppers as good as any prospector. She had the dark, sultry beauty and exquisitely molded features of the women of Spain.  So, she invented a line of Spanish ancestors and a fraudulent girlhood spent in Seville. Another whopper she told was that she was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron.

In California, Lola became quite rich doing her famous “Spider Dance.” She performed the dance in Spanish costume with full, short skirts and flesh-colored tights.  The dance began with Lola wandering on stage then becoming entangled in a spider’s web. Suddenly she discovered a spider, (made of rubber, cork and whalebone) on her petticoat.  Attempting to dislodge the bug, she shook her petticoat furiously. On examining her skirts, she discovered other spiders and she shook her skirts with similar fury, revealing her tights.

During the 1850s this was daring to make the rowdy audiences shout “Higher! Higher!” as Lola searched beneath her skirts for the evasive spiders.  She’d kick a leg high into the air as if to squash a spider on the ceiling, and then she’d kick the other.

Finally she succeeded in shaking off all the spiders and stamped them to death on the floor.  Thunderous applause greeted her as she took her bows. She then stripped a silken garter off a shapely leg and tossed it into the audience.

In the mid-1850s Caroline became so annoyed with the attention given Lola Montez and her Spider Dance, she decided to burlesque the dance.  Her uproarious performances transformed Lola’s act from high sensuality to low comedy.

Lotta Crabtree was a pretty, red-haired Irish lass whose girlish innocence on stage made her rich. Whatever she lacked in talent she made up in image—a lamb among wolves and pure as the driven snow. She had an overprotective stage mother who, fearing they might steal the heart of her meal ticket, kept the wolves away.

As Lotta grew older, she took a fancy to smoking fancy cigarillos.  She also introduced gaminelike bits into her performances—showing off her knees by pulling off her stockings, rolling off divans with a flurry of lifted petticoats and wearing the briefest skirts.  She is believed to be the first actress to smoke on stage and the first to expose her bare legs on stage. She was the Shirley Temple of her time.

For thirty-five years, Lotta was the perennial little pet of the Western theater, and when she retired at the age of forty-four she still wore her red curls.  She lived alone with Mother, who had saved most of Lotta’s enormous earnings. After Mother died, it was too late for romance in her life. When Lotta died in 1924, she left behind a fortune of four million dollars that went to charity.

Adah Isaacs Menkens innocent appearance belied her wild and wicked lifestyle. Mark Twain wrote about her appearance in Virginia City in the play “The Mezappa” where she rode across the stage on a horse in a flesh-colored bodystocking that made her appear nude. Afterwards her adoring audience showered the stage with gold and silver.

These are but a few of the talented women who came west to “mine the miners.”