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The "Buntline Special" Reconsidered:
The Case of Wilson H. Strickler, Ned Buntline’s Friend in Dodge City, Kansas

by Dr. Robert D. Pepper, San Jose State University Professor Emeritus

Did Edward Zane Carroll Judson, alias “Ned Buntline,” King of the Dime Novelists, give long-barreled pistols (“Buntline Specials”) to Wyatt Earp and other Dodge City lawmen circa 1876? Stuart Lake, first published biographer of Wyatt S. Earp, said that Buntline did. But despite the best efforts of my friend, Old West historian Lee J. Silva, to verify that story, most chroniclers of the Old West remain unconvinced.
[Photo: Edward Zane Carroll Judson, known as Ned Buntline.]

Edward Zane Carroll Judson, known as Ned Buntline.

The evidence—and lack of evidence —seems overwhelmingly to indicate a hoax perpetrated by Stuart Lake. Writing when Judson (Buntline) was long dead and Wyatt Earp had recently died, Lake is thought to have made up the “Buntline Special” story. It was, certainly, the kind of thing Ned might have done. But, say the judicious, it never happened. Lake’s fantasy (if that’s what it was) took dramatic form in a popular 1950s TV series, “The Life and Adventures of Wyatt Earp.” There the character representing Earp is shown receiving his Buntline Special from Ned’s own hands. The popularity of that series and of its cousin, “Gunsmoke,” led the Colt Firearms Company to turn out hundreds of replicas of that alleged pistol. But replicas of what? If such pistols had ever existed, not a single one has survived. Alas! Just another myth of the theatrical, unhistorical Wild West! Or so it seemed.

Having investigated many dark corners in the life of the devious Judson/Buntline, I agreed. For me, the clinching argument against the authenticity of this colorful yarn was Ned’s strange silence. If, I reasoned, he had actually journeyed to Dodge City as alleged, with a brace of Buntline Specials in his valise, he would have been the first to brag about it. Had he not, after Christmas 1869, given his new friend William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody much valuable publicity in the pages of the New York Weekly? Would he not have done the same thing, a few years later, for Earp, W. B. “Bat” Masterson, & Co.?

That reasoning, though sound, ignores one salient point. Ned was just as effective at covering up those aspects of his life he preferred to forget as he was at publicizing those he gloried in. I’ve learned about the three marriages of Ned’s father; about the hidden years of Ned’s boyhood in Lewistown, Pennsylvania; about Ned’s first wife and her Navy brother; and other recondite matters—all concealed by Judson and unknown to previous biographers. What if there actually was a Buntline Special plan that miscarried? Ned would have remained silent, as Buffalo Bill Cody did about his abortive Wild West show at Niagara Falls, NY. (Another of my discoveries.)

It now seems possible, if not likely, that something of the sort really did occur and that it gave Stuart Lake a foundation for his Buntline Special story. Ned had, it seems a contact in Dodge City during the 1870s —a young man he had befriended during the Civil War. This was Wilson Houston Strickler (1843-1917), later a Kansas cattleman and (apparently) post-Civil War correspondent of Ned’s. The evidence of their contact has lain buried in a very large collection of Buntline documents, part of the voluminous Washington, D.C., files of the National Archives (NARA).

When Ned died in July 1886, three of his many wives, or ex-wives, tried hard but unsuccessfully to get a government pension as the “official” widow of a war veteran. Ned had, in fact, served long and honorably in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) —and more creditably than most observers have thought in the Civil War – a service, incidentally, he could (in his forties) have easily avoided, as many much younger men did.

The confused history of that pension battle, which stretched from 1886 all the way to 1908, is enshrined in a mass of legal-size papers. In 2005, I applied for what I thought would be a relatively small pension file. In March, 2006, I was astonished to get three large packets—total weight six or seven pounds—identified only as “No. 906598; Can No. 3154; Bundle No. 48.” Those numbers represent the application of Kate M. Judson, the widow who waited until 1908. (Despite that limitation, the file contains, as noted, documents pertaining to every woman who applied.) I’ve spent many hours trying to bring order out of chaos.

I discovered that at least two of Ned’s mid-20th century biographers had seen this file—probably the originals in the National Archives, at a time when the term “Xerox” was still unknown. Both Jay Monaghan and Albert Johannsen refer to “Pension File 906598” and Monaghan even quotes from several of the original letters it contains. But neither man had the time or inclination, circa 1950; to read over those hundreds of pages of legal forms and handwritten depositions, in search of facts not already know. The file is, therefore, essentially an unmined treasure.

And now, finally, to Wilson H. Strickler. During the Civil War he rose, perhaps from private and certainly from orderly sergeant, to captain of Company C, 21st Regiment of Pennsylvania Cavalry. In the fall of 1863, while still a sergeant, Strickler made contact with Edward Judson, also an orderly sergeant, but in his case of the 74th Company, Veterans Reserve Corps, the so-called Invalids. The two companies were then stationed near each other in the vicinity of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Judson and Strickler were given, coincidentally, the same assignment: “serving notices of draft and arresting deserters,” as Strickler himself puts it. (In Ned’s case, this was ironic, since earlier that year he had been court-martialed for desertion!)

Strickler later revealed he had been accustomed to go “frequently” (by what means he doesn’t say) from his encampment to Ned’s: picking Ned up and bringing him back to the headquarters of the 21st Cavalry, where the two men would socialize. On one such excursion, Strickler learned that Ned had been sent to the Army Hospital in Scranton. Some of the men he was hunting had ganged up on him and beaten him almost to death. This remarkable occurrence, verified by an Army surgeon, has been, up to now, one of the many hidden aspects of Ned’s life.

As I conjecturally reconstruct events after the war: Strickler spent a dozen years or so back in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Then in early 1878, he went to Dodge City, Kansas, where he became a reasonably prominent citizen, known as “Capt. Strickler.” I assume he corresponded occasionally with Ned, especially (no doubt) after the great success of Ned’s melodrama, The Scouts of the Prairie, during the 1872-73 theatrical season. This, of course, was the play that introduced Buffalo Bill Cody to show business.

As for Ned: in the mid-1870s, he settled down in his birthplace, the Catskill Mountain town of Stamford, New York. And when he died there, his last wife, nee Anna Fuller, hired a local attorney, Francis Newell Gilbert, to handle her claim for a widow’s pension. Gilbert needed to find comrades of Ned’s from the war; and Anna Fuller (I conjecture) came up with Strickler’s name, among others. She must have been the custodian of hundreds of letters sent to Ned at Stamford in the late 1870s and early 1880s, though all have since disappeared. Lawyer Gilbert then wrote to Strickler at Dodge City, and Strickler obliged with two affidavits: one in 1887; the other in 1889. The letter from Gilbert to Strickler is a reasonable assumption, but the affidavits are solid fact.

Buntline: A rope tied to the foot of a square sail that keeps it from opening or bellying when it is being hauled up for furling to the yard.

Author: Dr. R. D. Bob Pepper, Used by permission; George Laughead, manager, WWW-VL: United States History network. Thanks to Lynn H. Nelson.

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Site previously maintained at the University of Kansas. Posted: 06 December 2006