April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
On the whole,” wrote the drama critic of the Chicago Times of the show that opened on December 16, 1872, “it is not probable that Chicago will ever look upon the like again. Such a combination of incongruous drama, execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audience, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city for a second time,—even Chicago.” The play, The Scouts of the Plains , had as its principals “Buffalo Bill” Cody and “Texas Jack” Omohundro (a former scout with Jeb Stuart’s cavalry), both playing themselves; Mile. Morlacchi, acting the part of Dove Eye (she was described by the Tribune ’s, critic as “a beautiful Indian maiden with an Italian accent and a weakness for scouts”); numerous supers as Indian warriors; and the man known as Ned Buntline, in whose wildly fertile imagination the spectacle had originated, playing the hero, Cale Durg. (He is posing, opposite, in costume for that role.) In city after city in which the troupe performed, critics carped. The New York Herald said that Buntline played the part of Cale Durg “as badly as is possible for any human being to represent it,” and took particular exception to the scene in which Durg, momentarily subdued by redskins, was tied to a tree with a torture fire ignited at his feet, from which position he delivered a long temperance lecture. But with the public, Ned Buntline had scored again.
Born in 1823 as Edward Zane Carroll Judson (on a night, he later wrote, “when thunder loudly booming/Shook the roof above my head—/When red lightning lit the glooming—/Which o’er land and sea was spread”), he ran away to sea when he was eleven, embarking upon a career in which fact and fiction became so thoroughly entangled as to defy separation. By the time he was twenty he had fought in the Seminole War, taken his first wife, and published his first story—under the pseudonym Ned Buntline (a buntline being a rope at the bottom of a square sail). Before long he had, by his own account, travelled to the Far West and killed buffaloes and grizzlies; started a periodical called Ned Buntline’s Own ; and been lynched in Nashville, Tennessee. There, shortly after his wife died, Ned had made no secret of his admiration for young Mrs. Robert Porterfield, and one day her husband came looking for him. Porterfield fired at Buntline, who took aim and shot his pursuer through the head. Ned was in court pleading selfdefense when Porterfield’s brother and some friends poured in and started shooting. After a wild chase, during which Ned was hit in the chest by one bullet, he fell forty-seven feet from a window (the injury left him with a limp for life) and was captured by the sheriff’s men. That night a mob stormed the jail, dragged him from his cell, and strung him up by the neck from a post on Public Square. But Ned had one of those miraculous escapes so familiar to readers of the stories he would write: three weeks later a letter from his cell reported that he would be leaving soon; after complaining of the gross injustice done him, he noted that the “rope didn’t break, it was cut by a friend.”
Back in the East, he resumed publication of Ned Buntline’s Own , began cranking out paperback books that sold for ten cents (dime novels, people called them), and embarked upon a social reform series entitled The Mysteries and Miseries of New York . It was “drawn from life ,” he wrote, “heart-sickening, too-real life”—a life full of clerks who had embezzled money to pay their debts, only to find themselves in the toils of gamblers; of proud but poor sewing girls, fighting off tuberculosis and libertines (“By Jove, I’ll have a kiss if I die for it!” “Wretch! Fiend! dog ! Back, sir! stand back, if you value your life!”). And so on, from one insoluble dilemma to another, with hero and heroine on the brink of destruction or ruin or both at the end of each installment. The Mysteries and Miseries sold over 100,000 copies, and reprints and translations made Ned Buntline a sub-literary figure of world renown. Married again now, he explained to his latest bride that he kept a sword, pistols, and a dagger in his study because his life was in constant danger from the villains he was exposing.
Between stories and issues of Ned Buntline’s Own , he found time to get into an unending variety of scrapes and scandals. Once, while out of jail on bond pending trial in a riot case, he was served with summonses in a slander suit and a divorce, and was arrested for debt. He became involved in spiritualism, labored mightily for the Know-Nothing party, organized a concert troupe, was arrested in St. Louis for leading a riot, gave temperance lectures (many of them while drunk), shot at least one man, and married several women (at least two concurrently), was jailed for bigamy, served in the Civil War (he later claimed that he was a “chief of scouts with the rank of colonel”), and produced an endless number of books— The Boot-Maker of Fifth Avenue, or, A Fortune from Petroleum; Merciless Ben, the Hair Lifter; Quaker Saul, the Idiot Spy, or, Luliona, the Seminole: A Tale of Love, Strife & Chivalry; Thayendanegea, the Scourge, or, the War-Eagle of the Mohawks: A Tale of Mystery, Ruth, and Wrong ; and so on and on.
In 1869, while on a trip to the West, Ned Buntline met the tall, good-looking plainsman named William Cody, and it was only a matter of months before Cody had become “Buffalo Bill, The King of Border Men,” hero of a new Buntline series. Then Ned persuaded Cody to join him in Chicago to perform in The Scouts of the Plains . Ned took just four hours to write the play, rehearsed it twice, and it ran for more than two years—two years during which Buffalo Bill became a national hero, symbol of all that was bravest and best on the frontier. Ned Buntline lived on until 1886, turning out stories until the last, but of all his characters, only the greatest—Buffalo Bill—survived him for long.