An 'American' Writer

The Overlook

By Tom Clavin

“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it).  Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.Don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!

            A few days ago I mentioned to a friend that this year is the bicentennial of the birth of Red Cloud, the great Sioux leader who was born in Nebraska in May 1821 and whose striking visage graces the cover of The Heart of Everything That Is. Then I realized that 2021 is the bicentennial of the birth of another unique figure of the American West . . . though “great” was not a word often associated with him, unless it was paired with “scoundrel.” Zane Carroll Judson, an unrepentant rogue, was born in 1821 in upstate New York.

            Raised in Pennsylvania, Judson felt confined and restless enough by age 12 that he ran away from home. He hopped aboard a freighter and served as a cabin boy, and at 15 he was a midshipman in the U.S. Navy and saw action in the Seminole War. When he mustered out, still a teenager, he decided to head west to find adventure and write about it. The young man who hit the road had re-named himself Ned Buntline – a buntline is the rope at the bottom of a square sail. He also sought romance and frontier action and found plenty of both. In Tennessee in the 1840s, he seduced a man’s wife, then adding injury to insult, he killed the cuckold in a duel. During his trial, the late husband’s brother opened fire on him, and in the chaos Buntline escaped. A mob found him and hung him, but the rope broke, and the crowd, impressed by this stroke of luck, allowed Buntline to go on his way.

            That way took him farther west, gathering material and more lady friends, including at least one wife. Then he turned around and made his way to New York City where he founded Ned Buntline’s Own, a muckraking publication. (Among his targets were brothels, leaving out of his tirades how often he frequented them himself.) His political zeal went beyond print, and he was convicted of instigating the Astor Place Riot that left 23 dead in May 1849. (Regular readers might recall this was the subject of an “Overlook” three months ago.) He spent a year in prison.

            Shedding his prison garb, Buntline lit out for St. Louis, where he was involved in another riot, but escaped this time to do more traveling and writing and womanizing. He made good money giving sermons on temperance and used the proceeds to go on drunken binges between speeches. Buntline served with the Union Army during the Civil War and was arrested regularly for desertion. Though he never rose above the rank of sergeant, he secretly bought an officer’s uniform and during trips to town would often introduce himself as Col. Buntline. It was a bit of a miracle that he survived the war without another hanging.

In 1869, on another western swing, he went in search of Wild Bill Hickock to write a book about him. However, when he found Wild Bill, the gunslinger was so annoyed by his visitor that he gave Buntline 24 hours to leave town or he would shoot him. Instead, Buntline moved on to Hickok’s good friend Buffalo Bill Cody, who allowed himself to be profiled  -- again and again. The resulting “dime novels” were the tales of Buffalo Bill (some of them true) on the frontier and they quickly became extremely popular.

These books made Buntline rich, as did the play he wrote, Scouts of the Prairie, that starred Buffalo Bill and himself that toured the country. Being interviewed in Chicago, Buntline claimed to have written the play in four hours, and after its premiere a critic wondered, “What took him so long?” When the production came to St. Louis, Buntline was arrested for the riot there 20 years earlier, but he managed to jump bail before the trial. (During its New York run the play also starred Hickok, who needed the money enough that he tolerated Buntline. The frontiersman ended his participation rather dramatically, and readers can find out how in the book by yours truly titled Wild Bill.)

            In subsequent trips into the West, Buntline befriended Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and other well-known lawmen and gunfighters. Some sources claim that Earp used one of the “Buntline Specials,” a long-barreled gun the now-celebrated author bought from Colt to give as gifts, in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The story goes (which you can find in, ahem, Dodge City) that Buntline showed up in Dodge City in 1876 to present six of the special six-shooters to Earp, Masterson, and other lawmen there. However, this is as much a tall tale as anything that appeared in Buntline’s novels.

He was, perhaps, the most popular writer in America. In 1873, flush with cash, Buntline returned to upstate New York to build a large Catskills resort called Eagle’s Nest. He was lord of the manor there with his wife – by this time, she was #6 – and children. When Buntline died at 65, in July 1886, at least three of his wives fought over his estate, and it turned out that he had been married to two and possibly three simultaneously during the second half of his life.

In its obituary, the New York Mercury declared that Buntline was “the most sensational, and in some respects the most thoroughly ‘American’ American of his time.” Not sure what that says about us!

The life and adventures of Ned Buntline would make for an enjoyable limited series. Until one happens, though, you’ll have to content yourself with Burt Lancaster portraying him in the Robert Altman film Buffalo Bill and the Indians and Saul Rubenik as “W.W. Beauchamp” in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including this latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, published by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.