James Butler Hickok, better known as “Wild Bill,” was a well-known scout, gunslinger, gambler, lawman, and umpire. There are at least two accounts of times when Hickok was prevailed upon to umpire baseball games—once in Fort Hays, Kansas, and the other here in Kansas City.
Hickok was quite a fan of baseball, which was just establishing itself as the national pastime.
On August 12, 1866, the Kansas City Antelopes hosted the Atchison Pomeroys in a deciding game between the two clubs. There were intimations that there may have been favoritism in the officiating of the other games, since both teams had trounced the other when having home field advantage. (In the game in Kansas City the umpire had actually run for his life.)
For the third game, Hickok was asked to officiate by both sides, since both thought Hickok had a better chance of not being swayed by the home crowd. When asked if he could be fair, Hickok said, “I’m a U.S. deputy marshal, not one of the local men. I got friends in Atchison, like I got friends here. You got no call to wonder.”
When game day arrived, Hickok, having studied a borrowed rulebook the day before, quietly took his place behind home plate. He was wearing both of his six-shooters.
The encounter has been described as perhaps the most decorous game in the annals of baseball history. After the Antelope victory (48-28), Hickok is said to have been taken back to Market Square in an open carriage pulled by a matched pair of white horses secured by deeply pleased Antelope fans.
Wild Bill at the Exposition
On September 27, 1872, over 30,000 people attended the second day of the Kansas City Exposition. Young Debbie Converse and Mrs. Kate Skinner both received blue ribbons for the excellence of their horses. Debbie’s award included a cash prize of $100.
One of those who attended the Exposition that day was Wild Bill Hickok, who took in a band performance. It’s possible that this was part of a competition, as was held the previous year.
Also at the concert were a number of Texans. Some secondhand accounts of this event say that the Texans were cowboys, and some say that these cowboys were drunk. This may well be true, since it in no way disagrees with the one newspaper account that we have.
The Commonwealth edition of the next day tells us that the “Texans prevailed upon the band to play Dixie, and then the Texans made demonstrations with the flourishing of pistols.”
This didn’t sit well with Hickok, who had grown up in an anti-slavery family, and had served in the Civil War as both a scout and a Union spy. He walked down to the band and told the conductor to stop playing the song that had been a rallying point for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The music stopped.
And, almost immediately, “more than fifty pistols were presented at William’s head.”
It appears that Hickok simply stared the Texans down. The Commonwealth reported that “he came away unscathed.”
The Commonwealth reported the story. The Kansas City Times didn’t. I’ve carefully read through the edition that appeared the day after the Dixie incident at least four times, and I’m usually pretty good at finding things like this.
As we examined yesterday, in its coverage of the Exposition’s first day, the Times sought to romanticize and make heroes out of three desperados who robbed an unarmed man at gunpoint, and wounded a child in the process. The very next day a solitary man faces down 50 (possibly drunk, certainly disorderly) men who are pointing pistols at him, and the Times doesn’t even mention it.
Years later, though, on August 10, 1919, the Kansas City Post ran another story that did compare Hickok to Ivanhoe.
So we come to John Newman Edwards.
The Chivalry of Crime
Edwards was the co-founder and editor of the Times, and he wrote both the account of the robbery and the opinion piece that followed in Sunday’s edition. He took pains to explain to his readers that, yes, the robbery was a crime and it was wrong, and yes, a little girl had been wounded by a bullet meant to kill Ben Wallace, the ticket seller, but, you know, Frank and Jesse James and co. did the whole thing with such style that we really have to admire their panache.
Edwards had been a Confederate officer, who had served under General Shelby—writing the latter’s reports and gaining the general a reputation as a gifted prose stylist. (One source has it that Edwards had actually been Jesse’s and Frank’s commander during the war.) He remained a vigorous proponent of the ideals of the Confederacy, and detested everything that Reconstruction was seeking to bring about. Edwards continually railed against the mixing of the races, insisting that, if allowed, it would bring about the fall of America.
After the war, Edwards wrote Shelby and His Men and Shelby’s Expedition to Mexico (the latter of which was published in 1872), as well Noted Guerrillas, in which the James Brothers were prominently featured. Based on the passages I’ve quoted from the two Times 1872 pieces, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that among Edwards’ favorite authors were Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott, and Alexandre Dumas pere—the fact that Dumas was of racially mixed parentage was an irony of which Edwards was probably not aware.
With the James Brothers, Jesse in particular, Edwards brought such a romanticized reworking of their motives, goals, and actions that he turned them into heroes. Confederate heroes. To a large extent this reworking can be traced back to the strange goings on at the Kansas City Exposition Fair of 1872.
Edwards knew the brothers from the War, and may well have met with them since. It’s possible that he had an inkling that they were behind the robbery at the gatehouse. For some time already he had been printing letters sent by Jesse in the Times.
About a year and a half later, in the February 18, 1874, edition of the Little Rock Daily Republican in Arkansas, a few weeks after the Iron Mountain Road robbery in eastern Missouri, thought by many to have been the work of the James-Younger gang, an article appeared with the familiar title of “The Chivalry of Crime.”
It was said to have been written by the Times’ former associate editor. It tells the story of a night visit to the paper in early October 1872, when he and Edwards were sitting around discussing newspaper related matters. A man, “muffled up to the eyes,” entered the room, glanced quickly around, and said, “There are some gentlemen outside who wish to see you. They are on horseback and do not want to dismount.”
It was a week or two after the Sunday appearance of the piece in which Edwards compared the Exposition robbers to Ivanhoe and knights of the round table, and Jesse and Frank James, with their accomplice Cole Younger, wanted to pay their respects and to thank the Times for its “appreciation of their pluck and daring.”
Jesse sought to present a gold watch to Edwards, but the latter declined, assuming it had been stolen. This seemed to rile Jesse a bit, and he announced that he had bought the watch legally, and “had come honestly by the money” used to make the purchase.
Frank then asked Edwards if there was anyone he’d like them to kill for him. Edwards “politely declined.”
Wild Bill Hickok had Ned Buntline. Jesse James had John Newman Edwards. Both of them were killed by someone who shot when they weren’t looking.
T.M. James, uncle to Frank and Jesse, died in his bed on Christmas day, 1901. He was eulogized on the front pages of both the Kansas City Times and the Kansas City Journal. From the Journal—
It had been his practice, on every Christmas morning for many years, to call all of [his employees] before him at the wholesale store, and give them a short talk. He praised them for their faithful services, urged them to continue to lead honest and industrious lives, telling them this was the only way to make one’s life well rounded and truly successful. He would then tell them to march around before him, and to each one he would hand a sealed envelope containing check, at the same time wishing him or her a merry Christmas. Last Christmas day the good old man was dying, and there was sadness in the hearts of all those who served him.
About the Author
Dr. John Arthur Horner of the Missouri Valley Room has a Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from UC-Santa Barbara, as well as a deep love of history. He is an award-winning playwright and member of the Dramatists Guild of America. He lives in Independence with his wife, two pianos, and their multitude of books.