skip to content
On an autumn morning in 1921, a stocky, balding man in his late 60s sat at his desk in the newsroom of New York’s The Morning Telegraph.
He was putting the finishing touches on one of his columns, just as he had done three times a week for 18 years. As he typed the last word, he slumped over his desk and died, felled by a heart attack. A copy boy found him.
Although his name and sports column were well-known around the city, particularly among boxing enthusiasts, there was nothing in the man’s appearance to suggest that he had been a living legend, no hint that his colorful life came close to matching the myth of the dime novels written about him decades earlier. Before becoming the proverbial ink-stained wretch—an observer rather than a doer—he had been a scout for the U.S. Army, a buffalo hunter, gambler, Dodge City sheriff, and friend of Wyatt Earp and later of President Theodore Roosevelt.
He was said to have been “the best known man between the Mississippi and the Pacific Coast,” The New York Times noted in the article reporting his death. The Times also called him “the last of the old time gun fighters.”
His name was Bartholemew William Barclay Masterson. Most people called him Bat.
It’s hard to fathom how one man could have packed so many disparate adventures into one life. His was a life that inspired not only those dime novels but also serious biographies and historical accounts, a movie, a TV series, and a classic Broadway musical that features a thinly veiled Bat Masterson.
Several of Masterson’s more memorable adventures took place in Texas. On a June morning in 1874, the 20-year-old Canadian-born Kansas farm boy was holed up with a party of buffalo hunters, 28 men and one woman, inside the ruins of an old trading post near the Canadian River and present-day Stinnett. An estimated 700 warriors led by Comanche chief Quanah Parker had the hunters under siege. At times they “descended on us like a storm,” buffalo hunter Billy Dixon recalled years later, “taunting us in every imaginable way.”
In the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, as it would come to be called, Masterson was the youngest of the hunters. He “was a chunk of steel,” Dixon recalled, “and anything that struck him in those days always drew fire.”
Masterson “should be remembered for the valor that marked his conduct,” Dixon said. A year later, he was living in Mobeetie, a scruffy and lawless Panhandle settlement favored by buffalo hunters and soldiers from nearby Fort Elliott. Temple Lee Houston, a Panhandle attorney and Sam Houston’s youngest son, described Mobeetie as “a baldheaded whiskey town.” Rancher Charles Goodnight once said that Mobeetie may have been “the hardest place I ever saw on the frontier except Cheyenne, Wyoming.”
Masterson was working as a faro dealer in a saloon called the Lady Gay. He hadn’t been there long when he and a tough ex-cavalry sergeant named Melvin King got crossways over the affections of a dance-hall beauty named Mollie Brennan.
Near midnight on January 25, 1876, Brennan and Masterson were sitting at a table inside the dance hall where she worked. King burst in with a drawn revolver. His first shot hit Masterson, shattering his hip; the second tore through Brennan, killing her instantly. Masterson managed to rise off the floor and fire a shot, mortally wounding King.
Masterson left town. The young woman is buried in Old Mobeetie Cemetery.
The 21-year-old Masterson wandered into the Black Hills of South Dakota and then to Cheyenne before settling in Dodge City, Kansas. In that notorious cattle town, he made his living as a gambler and a county sheriff, working alongside Earp and his brothers.
Legend has it that Masterson killed 28 men during his years in the West, although three is more likely, including the man who shot and killed his brother, Ed Masterson, on a Dodge City street. Three is the number he claimed in court during a libel suit he filed against a New York newspaper.
Masterson left Dodge City in the early 1880s and spent most of the next 20 years in Denver, where he gambled, dealt faro and promoted prize fights. He also wrote for a Denver paper. In 1893 he married Emma Moulton, a young woman who ran races for money against her first husband, a world-class sprinter named Ed “the Gopher Boy” Moulton. She also was a juggler of bowling pins.
Masterson returned to Texas in 1896 for a heavyweight championship bout arranged by Judge Roy Bean, the self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos.” Prize fighting had been outlawed in the U.S., so the fight took place in a ring hastily erected on a sandbar on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande. Masterson served as master of ceremonies and head of security. British boxer Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Peter Maher, an Irishman, less than two minutes into the first round.
In 1902, Masterson and his wife moved to New York City, where he caught on with The Morning Telegraph. “The last of the old time gun fighters” loved city life, loved strolling around town wearing a dapper bowler hat and carrying a cane. In Guys and Dolls, the stage play and movie based on short stories by Masterson’s friend Damon Runyon, one character, a Colorado gambler willing to bet on anything—the Marlon Brando character in the movie—is called Sky Masterson.
As a columnist, Masterson had a way with aphorisms, including the one he wrote on deadline, literally. Appearing two days after his death, Masterson’s final column concluded with this observation: “There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that, because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in winter, things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I’ll swear I can’t see it that way.”
Bat Masterson was 67 when he died. His fingers weren’t wrapped around a six-shooter on a dusty Western street; they rested near a typewriter in a New York City newsroom. The “best known man between the Mississippi and the Pacific Coast” lies buried in a Bronx cemetery.
Joe Holley, a former editor of Texas Co-op Power, is the Native Texan columnist for the Houston Chronicle and author of six books. He is currently at work on a history of electric cooperatives in Texas that is scheduled for release in 2022 from Texas A&M University Press.