On this Day: Wild West goes to London

pic: Wikimedia Commons

A WELL-KNOWN scout for the army and a buffalo hunter for the railroads (which earned him his nickname), William Cody had gained national prominence 15 years earlier, thanks to a fanciful novel written by Edward Zane Carroll Judson. Writing under the pen name Ned Buntline, Judson made Cody the hero of his highly sensationalised dime novel ‘The Scouts of the Plains; or, Red Deviltry As It Is.’ In 1872, Judson also convinced Cody to travel to Chicago to star in a stage version of the book. Cody broke with Judson after a year, but he enjoyed the life of a performer and stayed on the stage for 11 seasons.

In 1883, Cody staged an outdoor extravaganza called the ‘Wild West, Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition’ for a Fourth of July celebration in North Platte, Nebraska. When the show was a success, Cody realised he could evoke the mythical West more effectively if he abandoned cramped theatre stages for large outdoor exhibitions. The result was ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’, a circus-like pageant celebrating life in the West. During the next four years, Cody performed his show all around the nation to appreciative crowds often numbering 20 000 people.

Audiences loved Cody’s reenactments of frontier events: an attack on a Deadwood stage, a Pony Express relay race and, most exciting of all, the spectacle of Custer’s Last Stand at Little Big Horn. Even more popular were the displays of western outdoor skills like rope tricks, bulldogging and amazing feats of marksmanship. Cody made a star of Annie Oakley, an attractive young Ohio woman who earned her nickname ‘Little Sure Shot’ by shooting a cigar out of an assistant’s mouth.

Many Americans were convinced that Cody’s spectacle was an authentic depiction of the Wild West. Cody encouraged the impression by bringing audiences ‘genuine characters’ – real Native American performers Cody had recruited from several tribes. Even the famous Sitting Bull toured with the show for one season. Enthralled by the sight of ‘genuine’, Indians, few audience members questioned whether these men wearing immense feathered headdresses and riding artfully painted horses accurately represented tribal life on the Great Plains.

Having effectively defined the popular image of the West for many Americans, Cody took his show across the Atlantic to show Europeans. He staged his first international performance at the Earls Court showground in London on May 9, 1887, to a wildly appreciative audience. Queen Victoria herself attended two command showings. After London, Cody and his performers amazed audiences throughout Europe and became a truly international success. One bronco rider, who stayed with the show until 1907, travelled around the world more than three times and recalled giving a performance in Outer Mongolia.

Though his Wild West show waned in popularity in the 20th century – in part because of competition from thousands of local rodeos that borrowed his idea – Cody remained on the road with the show for 30 years. When the show finally collapsed from financial pressures in 1913, Cody continued to perform in other similar shows until two months before his death in 1917.

More than 18 000 attended the great showman’s funeral and the romantic power of his vision still draws thousands of visitors a year to his gravesite on Lookout Mountain above Denver.

Susan Cooke
Features Editor

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