Moving to a city and embarking on a second career is typical these days, but it’s usually young people who do that, not fifty-year-olds. Robert DeArment’s Gunfighter in Gotham is essentially a book about a middle-aged lawman from the Old West, moving to New York, and becoming a writer. That’s one heck of a career change, and not typical of the early 1900’s. Come to think of it, you won’t even see it now.
For those of you who never heard of Bat Masterson, he was one of those colorful gunfighters you see in classic westerns (Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Searchers, True Grit), whipping out their huge revolvers and blasting away the outlaws in trench coats. Okay, maybe his exploits are not entirely true (the author suspects that Eastern newspapers hyped Masterson’s career) but they were certainly entertaining and inspiring. When he moved to New York, he left all that behind. But he didn’t abandon the combativeness at all.
Robert DeArment writes heavily on how Masterson got into boxing promotion, mostly as a gambler and bookie. But the gist of the book is that boxing matches in the Old West were a proxy-war; instead of two gunfighters having it out in the street, they’d send their best fighters to slug it out in the ring. We also have to remember that as the territories became states, towns incorporated, and law enforcement became professional. There was no longer any need for Bat Masterson, Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, etc. But Masterson still had a reputation, and he shamelessly used it to promote bars, restaurants, and eventually boxing matches. With all the wild, drunken, testosterone-fueled aggression in the west, these boxing matches were a great substitute for brawls. Sports fans have been taking sides and fighting for years, from the Nika riots in Constantinople in 532 A.D, to the soccer hooligan gangs of today.
Perhaps Masterson was drawn to NY because the brawling was more refined? After all, he was in his late 40’s, too old to use his fists, and there wasn’t much business anymore in Kansas. But in NY, his reputation was greater and there were more people. So here in the city, his name brought more customers. Teddy Roosevelt (then the police commissioner) was a huge fan of western “stuff” and hyped Bat’s entry into the city. That’s not to say that everything was perfect; on his first day in New York he got into a fight with two corrupt cops over his concealed pistol.
If Masterson had a sharp wit (no small asset for a Dodge City lawman) then his next greatest asset was that he could write, and write he did. He became a columnist, and wrote his opinions about everything from boxing to criminal cases. Contrary to the tough “law and order” image, he was not a fan of NY’s corrupt judicial process, and criticized a judge’s ruling as “lynch law.” The Judge then had Masterson arrested, which he found ironic. “I survived Dodge City,” he wrote in his column, “only to be arrested here for something I wrote.” Masterson’s readers weren’t about to lose their favorite columnist, and he was quickly bailed out. He then took flak for supporting Jack Johnson, believing that black fighters deserved their chance to prove themselves. He found Johnson likeable, but arrogant, and coming from the Old West, he could tell that Johnson’s gold-toothed arrogance (something like a “mack daddy with bling-bling” in today’s lingo) would be his undoing. He even criticized racist southern whites as “abusing the women who raised them from birth.”
I’ll give Gunfighter in Gotham high marks, because the author makes it an entertaining read and a great lesson. I knew that Masterson became a sports writer, but I never really understood why he was so popular. I bet quite a few of the Old West characters might have made decent writers, if they were able to write, which they might not have been. Take Will Rogers, for instance; he didn’t go to a four-year college, yet his writing sold on the base of its quality. Back in those days, employers weren’t looking for education, they just wanted someone who could do the job. Nowadays, the average ex-cop has no chance of becoming a columnist. But then again, the great gun enthusiast Ted Nugent is a top draw on TV. His blunt, far-out opinions draw big ratings.
I guess the outspoken gun-nut will always be the media’s favorite.