Several years go, I wrote a play for my children’s theater about the old west. It was called, WILD WEST WOMEN & A FEW GOD MEN. The play spun a story of many of the women of the west, which required me to do a lot of interesting research. Characters like Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, Belle Starr and performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show were included.
As I walked through several articles, books and films about these women, I happened upon an interesting man named Ned Buntline. He wasn’t the average westerner. This fellow got his start by traveling to the new frontier, to write stories about the people that lived there. In his travels he heard retold stories, which had become twisted fact. He checked things out himself and became one of the hottest dime novel writers of the time.
His often romanticized stories turned into a career in publishing and made him a millionaire. The stories didn’t give a clear picture of the west. He even made the outlaws look good and turned them into heroes. His goal was always to make the most money he could off of his sensational stories. He was in it for the dough.
Born on this day in 1823, Edward Zane Carroll Judson used several pseudonyms throughout his life, but became well known with his name, Ned Buntline. His father was a lawyer who hoped his son would someday become a minister. Ned had other plans. At the age of 11 he ran away from home and became a cabin boy and the following year on a navy vessel. During the Civil War he enlisted in the Union Army and rose to the rank of Sergeant, but was dishonorably discharged for drunkenness.
In 1843 the prodigal returned home to his father’s home in Pittsburgh under the guise of studying law. In fact, his intention was to start a literary magazine. After only two issues of his magazine appeared in print, his business failed.
Buntline was a known womanizer. He was married 7 times and had numerous affairs. One of his first encounters was with the married, teenaged wife of Robert Porterfield in Nashville in 1846. On 14 March 1846, Porterfield challenged Judson to a duel, and Judson killed him. At his trial for murder, Judson was shot and wounded by Porterfield’s brother and, during the chaos, escaped from custody. He was apprehended by a lynch mob and hanged. Fortunately for Ned, he was rescued before he died.
He was also a heavy drinker, but went around the country giving lectures on temperance. This fellow talked out of both sides of his mouth, but who am I to judge?
It was at one of those lectures, that Buntline met William Cody. That friendship led to Buntline’s writing many stories about the fascinating man whom he renamed Buffalo Bill. He was responsible in part for making Cody a media sensation out east.
He could’ve been considered the fake news of the day, as he embellished his stories to make money. His dime novels were selling like hot cakes and creating a buzz about the new frontier. Like our modern day tabloids, he was feeding their inquiring minds with overdone fodder. Though he never wrote the great American novel, he made more money during his lifetime than Walt Whitman or Mark Twain. It goes to show you, people often prefer gossip more than quality literature.
Buntline died at his home in Stamford, NY at the age of 63. He rubbed shoulders with the men and women of the old west and made them famous with his short stories. He became part of high society with his wealth. He created a legend out Buffalo Bill, leading him to great success. I wonder what would’ve happened if he had followed his father’s choice of careers for him. We’ll never know.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NED BUNTLINE!