by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show wasn’t Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s “last and only appearance” in Winnipeg as proclaimed in the 1910 advance billboards. Cody may have wanted to retire from show business, but circumstances dictated otherwise.
By 1911, attendance for the show was slipping, which, in part, was due to the growing popularity of westerns in movie theatres. The show was further financially crippled by a May 24 train wreck at Lowell, Massachusetts. Cody wrote that the railway wreck would cost the show $10,000 in damages.
In an October 5, 1911, telegram from St. Louis, Buffalo Bill wrote to “dear pard.” that he was sick and the doctors had warned him to look after himself. “But although we are doing no business I should miss a performance and the newspapers would take it up and no one would come. Heaven knows we are losing enough as it is. I’ve never been so discouraged.”
Just a year earlier, the combined show was remarkably profitable, earning $400,000. At that point, Cody could have retired as he promised in his “farewell” tour, but he continued to spend money at an incredible rate.
Buffalo Bill lost $200,000 in a 1912 mining scheme, which forced him to seek a loan of $20,000 from Harry H. Tammen, the co-owner of the Denver Post, in order to commence the touring season. For collateral, Tammen demanded Cody, in the event of a default, give him exclusive rights to the use of the name “Buffalo Bill,” as well as the assets of the Wild West and Far East Show.
Although Buffalo Bill considered Tammen to be a long-time friend, the ex-bartender turned newspaper owner was quite unscrupulous and manipulated the situation in his favour. In this direction, Tammen managed to encourage others to initiate a series of foreclosures on the show.
When Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill brought their show to Denver, a sheriff was waiting to seize all their assets, which were “under an attachment (by the United States Printing and Lithograph Company of Chicago) for $66,000 (the bill for posters promoting the show across North America) and the failure of the owners to agree upon a settlement,” according to the July 24, 1913, New York Times.
The newspaper reported that Buffalo Bill could have kept his show if he came up with a payment of $25,000, “but William Cody would not accept the proposal.”
Actually, it was Major “Pawnee Bill” Lillie who made it impossible for Cody to meet the proposal. Lillie was a better manager of his money and held a mortgage on the Cody ranch in North Platte worth $100,000, and another $75,000 mortgage on the Irma Hotel owned by Buffalo Bill in Cody, Wyoming, the community he established and that was incorporated in 1901. Cody was willing to transfer the assets of the two properties to the printing company as security, but Lillie refused.
The refusal was rooted in an earlier Post article that claimed a stipulation in the $20,000 loan was that Cody would abandon Pawnee Bill the following season and join the Sells-Floto Circus owned by the Denver newspaper. Buffalo Bill strongly denied the allegation (it’s quite possible the article was another of Tammen’s manipulations used to create a rift in the partnership), but the damage was done. Lillie was infuriated and the partnership became tenuous at best.
In a July 25, 1913, letter, Cody wrote to Boston attorney, Clarence W. Rowley, saying the show could have been saved, “if Lillie had not been like a dog in the manger.”
In another legal action, the show was forced into bankruptcy by three creditors in Trenton, New Jersey. Two of the amounts involved were just $342 and $38.
“The nominal amount of two of the claims gives color to the report that the proceedings were brought with the assent of Pawnee Bill, who has been an intimate friend of (bankruptcy) receiver (C.Clinton) Cook” (Middleton Daily-Times Press, July 29,1913).
“The 114 Indians now with the show will be sent back to the Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, S.D., while the other employees will remain with the organization,” reported the New York Times.
The show’s assets were seized by a local sheriff used by Tammen — allegedly in order to recover the Denver Post’s $20,000 loan, leaving the other creditors unable to obtain any of the money owed to them — and auctioned off on September 15, 1913. Among the items sold was Buffalo Bill’s beloved white horse, Isham. Fortunately, a friend bought the horse for $150 and presented it back to Cody.
The auction brought about a melancholy end to the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show.
Cody later referred to Tammen as “the man who had my show sold at Sheriff’s sale, which broke my heart.”
Since Cody no longer had personal use of the name Buffalo Bill, and was a debtor to Tammen, he became the newspaperman’s pawn, although Cody did receive a salary of $100 a day, as well as 40 per cent of each show’s earnings after Tammen’s take of $3,000.
Most historians agree that it was likely that Tammen intended all along to foreclose on Cody’s show and add the nickname to his circus in order to make it a more recognized enterprise.
On tour in 1914, the show was advertised as the Sells-Floto & Buffalo Bill Circus. Appearing in much smaller print after Buffalo Bill was the simple word “himself.” The former “superstar” of show business had been relegated to second billing in what had years earlier been a dog-and-pony show.
On July 11, 1914, the Free Press reported that “Buffalo Bill himself,” who “takes an important part in the Sells-Floto circus now,” would be performing over two days, Monday, July 13, and Tuesday, July 14, at St. Boniface’s Tache Place. A free circus street parade was slated for Monday at 10:30 a.m. Cody appeared in the parade riding in a carriage, but during the twice-daily circus performances, saluted the crowd from the saddle. And with the circus, he didn’t perform his famous shooting act.
On July 15, the Sells-Floto & Buffalo Bill Circus played in Brandon. The Brandon Sun reported that Cody sat “in the shade of his private tent” at the rear of the “big top,” waiting to make his entrance. It was noted by a fellow circus performer that: “He kept pretty much to himself in his private dressing tent. He had a certain amount of dignity about him that I admired. He was a handsome man for his age and he still looked good on a horse.”
During the Brandon parade, he followed four lady buglers and rode “on a carriage drawn by two thoroughbred Arabian ‘Spots.’ Next came a large section of mounted men and women followed by numerous cages of wild animals with attendants in each cage ...”
Cody spent two years with the circus before he was finally able to reacquire the rights to the name “Buffalo Bill.” While with the Sells-Floto Circus, he fulfilled his obligations and never missed a performance.
But when Frank Butler and his wife, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, ran into him at this time in his show business career, Butler commented that Buffalo Bill appeared “quite feeble and seems to be living his last days.”
The one and only “Buffalo Bill,” Cody joined the Miller & Arlington Wild West Show Co., Inc., as the star attraction. But Cody’s health had deteriorated to the point that it was extremely difficult for him to ride a horse and he often had to be driven in a carriage or in an automobile around the arena during shows.
His last performances in 1916 were at the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch. In a testament to how frail Buffalo Bill had become, John M. Burke, who had been the publicity manager for the Wild West Show, wrote: “Behind the drawn curtains of the runway, (Johnny) Baker would help him mount his horse. Then, awaiting his cue, he would sit in the saddle with his head sagging against his chest, as though gathering every last ounce of strength.”
When the act was over, Cody would groan and “slide from the saddle into Johnny Baker’s arms and be helped to his tent.”
After the show’s season ended on November 4, 1916, Cody went to live in his sister’s home in Denver to rest and recover. But just after the New Year, Buffalo Bill again became ill.
The man who was the most recognized person in the world during the peak of his Wild West Show, who performed before presidents, European royalty and in front of millions of people in numerous cities from Australia to Germany, died at age 70 on January 10, 1917.
As it turned out, his 1914 circus performance — not the 1910 Wild West and Far East Show — was the “last appearance” of Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody in Winnipeg.