Sunday, October 01, 2017

When It Comes to Wild Bill, Joseph G. Rosa Is The Gold Standard

October 1, 2017
   One of the biggest challenges of doing any book on a real life Old West character, is separating fact from legend. (In essence, legend is a series of facts exaggerated.) I have to admit that in the case of Wild Bill, the legend is piled on so high and so deep, it's sometimes hard to even determine whether an event even happened!

Daily Whip Out: "Wild Bill In Progress"

   A good example is a supposed invitation from a U.S. senator, Harry Wilson, for Hickok to be a guide on an excursion to the Wild West. In a letter, dated May 17, 1869, Senator Wilson invited the famous frontiersman to "accompany our party as guide some time during the following month, please write me at once at Willard's Hotel . . ." Sounds authentic, citing specific locations and written in the style of prose so popular at the time. According to the early Wild Bill authors, Frank Wilstach, J.W. Buel, and William Connelley, Wild Bill took the job and was supposedly paid $500 to be the guide, meeting the Washington D.C. plutocrats in Hays City, Kansas. They had a grand time and at a banquet they presented Bill with a pair of pistols.

   Joseph Rosa lays out the event in his masterful "They Called Him Wild Bill," but he is ultimately suspicious of the trip. He concludes, "The only proof of this trip is this letter—and its whereabouts (if it exists) is unknown." This is always a cause for alarm because Rosa is the Gold Standard on Hickok. If he says it happened, you can take it to the bank, or, in my case, include it in the book.The problem with the excursion is that beyond the letter there is no supporting evidence. So thanks to a heads up from Rosa, this incident will not be in the book.

Joseph G. Rosa

   There are more than a dozen "events" I had to kill. Here's another good example of the legend smothering the facts. There is a shooting by Hickok in Hays City, Kansas. Here are the bare bones of the gunfight:

August 24, 1869
   In office for only a few days, Hays City Marshal James Hickok is accosted by Billy Mulrey (also Mulvey). With two pistols leveled at the lawman, Wild Bill shoots him dead. (Tradition says Wild Bill calmly waved his hand past Mulrey and yelled, "Don't shoot him in the back; he's drunk." Mulvey turned and Hickok shot him in the head.)

   This clever, diversion has been repeated countless times in books and movies, even appearing in the classic Western comic strip, Rick O'Shay:

Rick O'Shay, 1969, the syndicated comic strip by the late, great Stan Lynde

  The only problem is the diversion tactic is not in the primary sources, and more importantly, Rosa doesn't include it. So, you'll notice in the account of the gunfight, I couched the diversion element with, ("Tradition says. . .") which is a tip of the hat to the legend, but I am not endorsing it.

    But back to Mr. Rosa. No one has done more for rescuing Hickok from being a glorified Roadrunner cartoon than Joseph G. Rosa. So, it's no accident my Wild Bill book is dedicated to Joe Rosa.

Here's an interview with the Hickok Master in True West magazine back in 2003:

Rosa Interview

"I first encountered Hickok in a movie when I was about seven years old. At that time, many youngsters, both sides of the Atlantic, regarded Western movies as a way of life, and we all had our favorite Western star. Mine was Buck Jones whose tragic death in 1942 came as a great shock. As for Hickok, I first saw him portrayed by Bruce Cabot in Wild Bill Hickok Rides; but it was Gary Cooper as Hickok in The Plainsman that really impressed me. I began reading and collecting anything I could find on Wild Bill, and by the early 1950s, I had discarded the Hollywood version and concentrated upon the real Hickok. In my youthful arrogance, I then decided I should write a book—little realizing how difficult that would be!"
—Joe Rosa


  1. You're right as always Bob. I'm a big fan of Rosa's--and yours too! Rosa's journalistic thoroughness is undoubted.

  2. "the Plainsman", "Hollywood" aside, has many overriding attributes,(costumes by Joe deYong, CM Russell protege'- & the old props so much closer to the actual times -thanks often to W.Parker Lyon & his astounding original pony express dispersed between Harrah's & lord knows where...)


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