Bronco Charlie Miller
I enjoyed your article on the Pony Express in the Spring issue. As a 10-year-old boy in 1950, I lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My friend and I would play in the Tompkins Square Park, where we often saw an old man called “Bronco Charlie Miller,” who dressed in a western outfit, hat, and boots.
He told us that he was 105 years old and the last of the Pony Express riders. He had served as an Army scout during the Indian wars, knew Buffalo Bill, and appeared in his Wild West show. I remember several medals pinned to his leather skin jacket. He even showed us his creased and scarred hand, which he claimed had been injured by an arrow. We thought him senile!
Later I read a New York Daily Mirror story about him—and learned that he was who he claimed. His real name was Julius Mortimer; he lived in a home run by the Lutheran Church across from the park until his death in 1955. I look back and realize that my friend and I had spoken to a living, breathing part of history!
Nothing to Do but Wait
Nathaniel Philbrick’s recounting of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in the Spring issue of American Heritage was just wonderful. I was struck by Standing Bear’s curious recollection that many Seventh Cavalry troopers seemed to wait helplessly to be killed. It may be that they had little else to do: it is well known among military historians that the Springfield carbines Custer’s men were armed with carried a fatal flaw—as did their ammunition.
A key component in any breech-loader is the extractor, the part that forces an expended cartridge case from the chamber, making way for the next round to be loaded. The “trapdoor” Springfield extractor was small by today’s standards and had little purchase on the cartridge case’s rim. Moreover, the ammunition of the day was made by folding sheet brass into shape. This made for a very weak cartridge rim.
After firing just a few shots, black powder’s combustion residue would gradually build up in the carbine’s chamber to the point that eventually, upon opening the breech block, the tiny extractor tore through the weak case rim, leaving the fired case stuck fast. With no other means to clear the chamber, the carbine was now useless, leaving the dismounted and sabre-less trooper disarmed.
The White Josh Gibson
Thank you for the wonderful article about Satchel Paige in your Spring issue. All of us, baseball fans and not, owe a great debt to the pioneering players who made up the rosters of Negro League teams. I’ve heard it told that when Yankee first-baseman Lou Gehrig was told that Josh Gibson was called “the Black Lou Gehrig,” he replied that he’d be honored to be known as “the White Josh Gibson.” Whether major league fans knew it or not, they were missing out on the best baseball of the first half of the 20th century.