Friday, October 14, 2016

James Masterson -- Best In A Family Of Lawmen

Dear Friends,

I really appreciate your email. As for you folks who take the time out of your day just to write to tell me that I'm full of it, I'm very surprised that you would feel that way.

Yes, I am surprised at that. Especially since I don't understand how anyone can be offended by my reporting factual history, or by my questioning if some event really took place like Hollywood says it did, or if indeed a legend should be a legend when in reality he was really just a bum.

And frankly, that's really what I do here. I present you with my research, with the findings of my investigation, with what is factual. And yes, I've also presented questions regarding fact versus myth. As I have noted, maybe way too many times, I really find facts a lot more interesting than some of what we think we know about our past. Whether it's facts about the Old West, the Indian Wars, or the Great Depression, what really took place in Hawaii history, or during the California Gold Rush, I think real stories beat out fiction every time.

Take for example the story of James Masterson. Not Bat Masterson, but his younger brother James. He was born on September 18th, 1855 in Canada. He was, in my opinion, the best lawman in the Masterson family -- which of course was a family of Old West lawmen.

I believe James Masterson was the best lawman in his family, the same way that Virgil Earp was the best lawmen in the Earp family. And yes, in the case of both men, their deeds back up my claim. And while we'll leave a look at Virgil Earp for another day, let's talk about James Masterson. Let's talk about that unsung hero of the Old West who really was a great lawmen

It is said that with the help of actor Gene Berry who played Bat Masterson in the 1950s television Western series Bat Masterson, most Americans brought up during that time actually grew up knowing who Bat Masterson was. Well maybe not the real Bat Masterson, but certainly what that television show portrayed him as, "a legend in his own time."

And friends, as for the real Bat Masterson, for all intense and purposes he was indeed a legend in his own time. But sadly, while Bat achieved fame, his brother James did not when he certainly should have.

Why do I say "sadly"? Well, sadly because James Masterson was probably involved in more shootouts and actually was a lawman much longer than his older brother Bat ever was.

And yes, sadly because James receives hardly a mention today even though he was well known in Kansas and the Oklahoma territory as a formidable lawman. Friends, he was actually part of the posse who took on the likes of the Bill Doolin's Wild Bunch.

Let's start with those facts that I like so much. For example, some have this misconception that Bat and his brother Ed Masterson were the only two Mastersons who worked the Western frontier as a buffalo hunters and skinners or worked as lawmen in Dodge City.

That's only partially true. For some reason, whether it's out of convenience or simple mistake, many either don't know or simply forget to mention that brother James was right there with them. Yes, James "Jim" Masterson life on the plains started out as a buffalo hunter. It was an occupation that he pursued off and on until 1878.

Most Old West enthusiasts know that Bat and Ed served as lawmen in Dodge City, but have no idea that James served as a lawman in Dodge City as well. In fact, at one point, James Masterson was Assistant City Marshal in Dodge City under Charlie Basset.

At that time Charlie Bassett was the Marshal, having replaced Jim's brother Ed Masterson, who was killed in the line of duty just two months earlier. And yes, for you Old West history buffs who keep track of who was where and doing what at about when, Wyatt Earp and James Earp were deputy city marshals under Charlie Bassett at that same time.

On April 9th, 1878, Ed Masterson was murdered by drunken cowboys after only eleven days as city marshal in Dodge City. It wasn't until months later on December 15th, that Mayor Kelley appointed Charlie Bassett to replace Ed Masterson.

Charlie Bassett was already serving as the Sheriff of Ford County. So with his being appointed by Mayor Kelley, Bassett had the simultaneous title of county sheriff and Dodge City city marshal. After Bat Masterson became Sheriff of Ford County, he named Bassett as his undersheriff.

Later when Charlie Bassett became Marshal of Dodge City, having replaced Ed Masterson who was killed in the line of duty two months earlier, he appointed James Masterson as the Assistant Marshal in Dodge City in June 1878. James was years younger than both James Earp and his younger brother Wyatt who also worked under Charlie Bassett as deputy city marshals at that time.

One incident that should tell us a lot about the nerve and lack of brag regarding James Masterson took place in the summer of 1878. The incident started when a local cowboy named George Hoy opened fire on the Comique Variety Hall, outside of which stood James Masterson and Wyatt Earp.

It was well known that Earp had problems with George Hoy including a previous altercation. When Hoy opened fire, both Wyatt Earp and James Masterson returned fire at the same time. One bullet that severely injured Hoy's arm and Hoy fell from his horse after being hit. Hoy died of an infection and fever about a month later.

Wyatt Earp always claimed to have fired the shot that ultimately killed Hoy. But, since that was never confirmed by anyone there, it is entirely possible that the shot that knocked Hoy off his horse was actually fired by James Masterson. James of course simply didn't comment on Earp's claim.

Then of course before that ever took place, and right after hunting buffalo, James Masterson and Ben Springer became co-owners of the successful Lady Gay Dance Hall and Saloon in Dodge City. They were so successful that they were able to employ the popular singer Dora Hand. As for Dora Hand, she is described as a dance hall singer and actress in Dodge City, Kansas.

On October 4th, 1878, she was supposedly mistaken for someone else and shot to death by a suitor, Texas cowboy James W. "Spike" Kenedy who was 23-year-old and 11 years younger than Dora. And yes, James Masterson was in on tracking down Kenedy.

During his time as a lawman in Dodge City, James Masterson made several hundred arrests. And while some try to down play those arrests because most were drunken cowboys who came through Dodge City on cattle drives, we have to remember that it was during those arrests that many lawmen were shot and killed in the Old West.

Not all lawmen simply beat a cowboy over the head with the butt of a pistol, "buffaloing," when he wasn't looking to make an arrest. Many lawmen approached the cowboys head-on to enforce the law. And yes, a young strong cowboy can be a handful.

Besides, anyone who has been a lawman, yesterday or today, will tell you that arresting a drunk is as unpredictable a situation as one can be in. There's no telling what will happen.

When in a group, if a cowboy feels shamed in front of his friends, he may be more apt to defend what he perceives as an attack on his honor. In those moments, that split second when a cowboy feels his honor is at stake, he can be as deadly as a rattlesnake that someone should have left alone.

When alone in a one on one situation, a smart lawman was able to talk a cowboy into going along peaceably. Yes, believe it or not, unlike what the movies tell us, even drunk they can be maneuvered into going along with the program if a lawman knew what he was doing.

James Masterson must have been a very good lawman because he was promoted to City Marshal after the resignation of Charlie Bassett in November of 1879. As for using a weapon while a lawman in Dodge City, he is said to have shot at least one man during his service with the Dodge City Marshal's Office aside from the Hoy shooting.

On April 6th, 1881, James Masterson lost his job after a change in city government. That was not an unusual occurrence back in the day. In those days, it was very unusual for a new administration to keep people from the former administration in politically appointed positions -- that includes City Marshal,

And frankly, while I read that the long standing hard-lined stance of the Marshal's Office was past its prime and no longer useful. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that James Masterson had a "hard-line" stance or that the methods he employed were seen as part of the past.

Later he would get back into law enforcement, but in the meanwhile it is said that about that same time, he had a falling out with his business partner, A.J. Peacock. It is said to be over the hiring of the latter's brother-in-law, Al Updegraph, as a bartender.

While James was having trouble with his business partner, someone wired Bat who was in Tombstone that his brother's life was in danger. Bat dropped everything and returned to Dodge on April 16th.

As soon as Bat Masterson stepped off the train, he saw Peacock and Updegraph near the station. While it is unknown who started shooting at who, an exchange of gun fire starts up.

Bat Masterson retreats to the railroad track’s three-foot berm and hides behind it. Soon enough, Bat is being shot at from a few south-side saloons. About then James and a few friends returned fire from the north side of the tracks.

Al Updegraff is hit and the bullet rips through his chest. A bystander is also hit. Not long after that, both Bat and Peacock run out of bullets. About that time, during the lull in the action, Mayor A.B. Webster runs up and sticks a shotgun in Bat's face demanding that he surrender. Bat surrenders and hands over his empty six-gun to the Mayor.

A hearing was held, and formal charges were brought against Bat Masterson. The complaint stated that "W.B. Masterson did unlawfully, feloniously, discharge a pistol upon the streets of said city."

Since no one was mortally injured, and since the shootout had been fought fairly by the Dodge City standards of the day, no serious charges were imposed against Bat Masterson. He was actually fined $8 for discharging a firearm within city limits and then took the train out of Dodge City that evening.

It's true. Bat Masterson pleaded guilty and was fined $8. James Masterson dissolved his partnership with A.J. Peacock, and both brothers leave town on the evening train. An article in the Ford County Globe claimed the Mastersons, "were allowed to leave town, with the understanding that they were not to return."

Later someone tried to say that Bat shot Al Updegraff, but Updegraff insisted that Bat hadn’t shot him. Instead, he believed it came from the direction of where James and his friends were located. They had fired from the north side of the tracks. Later the skirmish became known as the "Battle of the Plaza."

James Masterson moved on to Trinidad, Colorado. And believe it or not, even though he and his brother had worn out their welcome in Dodge City, he and Bat joined the police force in Trinidad. While in Trinidad, he arrested John Allen for the shooting death of Frank Loving in what became known as the Trinidad Gunfight.

In late 1884, James moved Raton, New Mexico Territory. By early 1885, he was appointed under sheriff of Colfax County.

In 1889, he took an active part in the Gray County War in Kansas. He was one of a group of lawmen who made a raid on the courthouse at Cimarron which resulted in a famous gunfight known as the "Battle of Cimarron."

He later moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma, and there became a Deputy Sheriff of Logan County, Oklahoma. Then on, he was deputized as a Special Deputy U. S. Marshall on September 1st, 1893.

That was when he was involved in a gunfight in Ingalls, Oklahoma, against the Doolin-Dalton gang. James Masterson was directly responsible for the capture of gang member "Arkansas Tom" Jones. The gunfight became known as the "Battle of Ingalls."

The gunfight started when James, who was part of a group of thirteen Deputy U.S. Marshals, decided to arrest the Doolin-Dalton Gang. The gang was in George Ransom’s Saloon when the lawmen moved in, and then the things turned sour very quickly. Deputy Tom Huestin was fired at first and he dove for cover. As Deputy Dick Speed went to help his comrade Lafe Shadley, he was shot dead by gang leader Bill Doolin. Shadley himself was cut down by Bill Dalton.

Then, believe it or not, it is said that James Masterson threw a few sticks of dynamite into the saloon. That's how he captured "Arkansas Tom"Jones who was stunned by the blast. After the blast, the remaining gang members fled out of town only to stop on a hill and fire a few "fare thee well" shots at the posse.

It is said, in doing so, the outlaws killed an innocent bystander. But all toll, although only one was captured, in the end three of the Doolin-Dalton Gang were wounded. After the gunfight at Ingalls, James was not heard of much.

And frankly, it was for good reason. He was fighting tuberculosis which was fairly common at the time. He loss that fight less than a year after what took place in Ingalls when he died of consumption.

James "Jim" Masterson died from tuberculosis on March 31st, 1895. His body was returned to home in Wichita, Kansas. He now lies in Wichita’s Highland Cemetery. 

I read where a Dodge City contemporary by the of name of George Bolds wrote, "Jim Masterson could outdraw his brother Bat and Wyatt Earp and could match them in courage." 

His obituary stated, "Jim Masterson was a man who never went back on a friend, and never forgot an obligation." 

He was only 39 years old when he died. He was said to be a good and honorable man. And yes, from what I can see, he was a man who spent most of his adult life enforcing the law in one capacity or another. 

And that, well my friends, that was something that his more famous brother Bat could never make claim to. James "Jim" Masterson was always a lawman.

And yes, that's how I see it.

Tom Correa


  1. I really ejoyed the story on James Masterson,and yes ,i would prefer to be told ,the way it is .........

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.


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