The Unknown History miniseries continues as Tom Clavin talks about how Ed Masterson, the mild-mannered brother of sheriff Bat Masterson, met his fate facing down five lawless cowboys in Dodge City.
This story is one of the least known about the American West, but one of the most important ones to this day because of what it meant for Dodge City and the American West. It’s about Ed Masterson. The eldest of the Masterson brothers, Ed was the type of person who would try to resolve conflict through peaceful means. He wasn’t as flamboyant, direct, or decisive as his younger brother Bat, so Bat always felt like he had to look after Ed. Ed and Bat were buffalo hunters together and split their time between being part time lawmen in Dodge City and working on the Masterson family farm, which is about twelve miles north of Wichita.
The time came when Bat was elected sheriff of Ford County—he was only 23 or 24 at the time—and Bat’s role as the marshal of Dodge City had to be filled. The town council decided they would appoint Ed as the marshal. Ed was an effective choice for marshal because people liked and respected him and he wasn’t likely to disrespect anybody else. But Dodge City was still a tough town even though Bat and Wyatt had been working to tame it. Early on during a confrontation, Ed was shot—not mortally, however, and he was able to recover, though his recovery kept him away from his marshal duties for six months, during which time Bat had to work both sides of the fence, the county and the city
When Ed was back on the job an incident occurred where he heard shooting going on at one of the saloons on the other side of town. Ed, as the marshal, was the one who ran to the saloon and found there five cowboys, two of which had guns. At that time the ordinance in Dodge City was that you could not wear or carry guns in the city. You could come into the city with a gun, but you had to surrender it to either the bartender or to the marshal’s office and pick them back up on your way out of town. The two cowboys carrying their guns had been hurrahing in the saloon and shooting into the ceiling.
Ed went up to them, stating they couldn’t wear their guns and certainly weren’t to be shooting their guns within the city. He told the men to give their guns to the bartender and have their fun and when they were ready to leave and ride back to your their outside of town they could have their guns back. It was a bit of a standoff, but the cowboys gave in and gave their guns over to the bartender, who put them behind the bar. Ed thought his job was done there and returned to his patrol. He had only gone a little way when he heard footsteps behind him. He turned around and found the five cowboys again, the two who had relinquished their guns back in possession of their weapons.
Ed, a fairly mild-mannered guy, was pretty irritated by this and he went up to the two cowboys saying that they now had to give over their guns to him and he would bring them back to the marshal’s office where they could be retrieved on their way out of town or the next day. This order didn’t sit well with the cowboys—in fact, they got so angry that one of them took his gun, put it up against Ed’s torso and pulled the trigger. The bullet went through Ed and, the gun being right up against Ed’s clothing, his vest caught on fire. Ed turned away from the group and started meandering down the street, a bullet still inside of him and partly on fire.
This excerpt from Dodge City describes best what happened next:
As Ed staggered down the street, people ran past him—some away from the gun battle, others to see what all the commotion was about. The Ford County Globe would report in a special edition published the next day that Ed’s gunshot wound was “large enough for the introduction of the whole pistol.” As he continued to will himself down the street, smoke was wafting off his burning clothes. Hoover’s Saloon, owned by the former mayor, was two hundred yards to the north, across the Dead Line, and on sheer determination Ed got that far. With slow, pain-filled steps he approached the bar and told George Hinkle, “I’m shot,” then slid down to the dirt-covered floor.
That is where Bat found his brother. Ed lived in a room above the saloon, and Bat and a couple of men brought him there, blood leaving a trail up the boot-worn steps. Soon after a doctor arrived, he informed Bat that there was nothing to be done for Ed. In an anguished whisper, Bat said, “This will just about kill Mother,” recalling all the times he had been told to watch out for his mild-mannered brother. "She’ll never forgive me for letting him get killed in this town.” Bat was already certain he would never forgive himself.
What about those five cowboys? They were still there, watching Ed go down the street. Bat went to look for them, finding all five cowboys in no time. The two with their guns raised them at Bat, who in turn took out both of his pistols and blazed away, shooting them both. One died very quickly, the other lingered for a while, dying later. This is where the story gets significant, not only for Dodge City, but for the future of the American frontier. Bat had the other three cowboys in his sights and no one would have blamed him if he had fired and killed them all, because they had just watched the cowboys gun down Bat’s beloved brother. But this is where Bat restrained himself. He was the sheriff of Ford County and he realized that what shouldn’t—couldn’t—happen was him killing the other cowboys who weren’t armed.
He could have killed these guys in cold blood, maybe even gotten away with it, but that wasn’t the way Bat was. Bat saw that that kind of lawlessness was what he and Wyatt had been working against for several years in Dodge City and he could undo everything that they had done to try and turn Dodge City into a place for people to raise their families if he just kept shooting his guns. That’s when Bat made the decision to instead arrest the cowboys, locking them up in the jail before returning to the hotel where his brother was. Bat sat beside his brother, holding Ed’s hand. During the next thirty minutes, what was left of the young marshal’s life ebbed away. Then, without regaining consciousness and thus unaware of his brother’s tears, Ed Masterson died.
Dodge City had the biggest funeral it had ever seen for Ed Masterson—there was a special edition of the Ford County Globe and a large procession followed Ed’s casket in a horse-drawn wagon to where he was buried. Bat and a friend rode out to the family farm in Wichita where Bat had to inform his parents and the younger siblings who still stayed on the farm that their oldest brother Ed had died, but he did so in the service of Dodge City. This was a great example that Bat was able to leave the people of Dodge City, that violence does not solve problems. Violence is not what a peace officer does if he can avoid it and that day, Bat avoided it.
A little bit of a postscript to this story—again Dodge City was without a marshal and Bat sent several telegrams to where he though Wyatt Earp was, eventually finding Earp in Texas where he was pursuing some bad guys. He told Wyatt what happened to Ed in the telegram and asked if Wyatt could come back. Wyatt did return, partly because Dodge City needed a lawman but also for Bat. Wyatt thought about how he would feel if he had a brother who died. Of course, not having a crystal ball, Wyatt had no idea what would happen at Tombstone a few years later, but he knew how terrible it was for his best friend so he turned around and rode back north to Kansas and to Dodge City where he resumed his duty as a lawman there. For the next couple years, Bat and Wyatt patrolled the streets together again until it was time for them to move on and find some of those other adventures.
Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West is now available in paperback! Pick up your copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Books-a-Million, or iBooks—or if you prefer to listen, check out the audiobook on Audible.