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Dodge City, Kansas, sprang out of a barrel of whiskey. For 10 years it thrived on whiskey, and city politics revolved around whiskey. The ‘Wickedest Little City in America’ became its nickname. The so-called Dodge City War of 1883 came toward the end of Dodge’s whiskey era.
After Colonel Richard I. Dodge assumed command of Fort Dodge in the spring of 1872, he stopped the sale of alcohol at the fort. This order affected not only the soldiers but also the buffalo hunters and traders in western Kansas. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was laying track toward Fort Dodge, bringing hundreds of workers. George M. Hoover, a 24-year-old Canadian, jumped on this golden opportunity. He went to eastern Kansas and brought a wagonload of whiskey back to Fort Dodge. On June 17, 1872, Hoover, destined to become the richest man in Dodge City, measured off five miles to the west and opened for business, charging 25 cents a drink.
Hoover’s competition moved in quickly. By the time the tracks arrived in September 1872, several businesses had been established, some still in tents. Dodge City wasn’t incorporated until November 1875, and Ford County wasn’t organized until 1873, so for its first year there was no law or official government in Dodge. Boot Hill, though, was firmly established.
Dodge immediately became a major shipping point for buffalo hunters. By 1873 some 2,000 hunters roamed western Kansas. In a three-year period, 850,000 hides were shipped east out of Dodge, 754,529 of those in 1873. That same year, millions of pounds of buffalo meat and 50 carloads of buffalo tongues were also shipped out.
By 1875 the buffalo was virtually gone from the area, but there was another animal waiting to take its place, the Texas Longhorn. The buffalo hunter was replaced by the cowboy in Dodge City. Some of the hunters stayed around, though, and went into the saloon business as owners, part-owners, bartenders or gamblers. Others became lawmen. Several did both. In 1877, with a population of less than 1,000, Dodge had 16 saloons, plus dance halls and brothels. The saloons changed ownership partners and locations so often one almost needed a scorecard to keep track of all the players.
The early city government and law enforcement were controlled by the Dodge City Gang (or just the Gang), a group of merchants, saloonkeepers and gamblers in favor of a wide-open town to accommodate the Texas cowboy. The Gang’s leader was James H. Kelley, an ex-Confederate soldier and an ex-scout for George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Fort Hays, Kan. Kelley loved to hunt and race the greyhounds he brought with him to Dodge. Nicknamed ‘Dog,’ Kelley served as mayor of Dodge City from 1877 until 1881. For 26 years he had a saloon, restaurant and opera house on the corner of Front Street and First Avenue.
Some of the Old West’s most famous lawmen worked under the first elected mayor of Dodge, George Hoover, and then under Mayor Dog Kelley. The Canadian-born Masterson brothers–Ed, Bat and Jim–worked for the railroad and then became buffalo hunters. From buffalo hunting they went to working the saloons of Dodge and serving as lawmen. Bat served as undersheriff to Ford County Sheriff Charles E. Bassett in 1877 and then was elected sheriff that November. Older brother Ed served as a policeman and assistant marshal in 1877 before being appointed marshal that December. Bat’s younger brother Jim became a policeman in June 1878 and was deputy sheriff under Bat. On November 4, 1879, he became marshal. Wyatt Earp, also a onetime buffalo hunter who took to gambling, joined the Dodge City police force in May 1876. Two years later he was appointed assistant marshal. These men didn’t tame Dodge, nor was that their aim, but they did keep a lid on it, at least north of the railroad tracks.
In 1878 the city council passed a law against gambling and prostitution in the Dodge City limits. Individuals involved in those popular activities were fined and released. No one minded too much, and the money generated by fines and by taxes on saloons paid the salaries of law officials. In the meantime, cowboys kept spending their money, and that was what the Dodge City Gang wanted.
By 1879 an anti-Gang reform group was building. These people wanted a safe, moral environment in which to live and raise families. The Reformers, as they were called, were tired of newspapers across the country printing such things as: ‘The town [Dodge City] is full of prostitutes and every house is a brothel’ (Hays Sentinel); or ‘Dodge City. A Den of Thieves and Cut Throats–The Whole Town in League to Rob the Unwary Stranger’ (Yates Center News). Prohibition laws were passed in Kansas in 1880, but in Dodge, as the New York Herald reported,’saloons, gambling rooms and dance halls run with perfect freedom and their proprietors are the leading men in town.’ The Reformers were determined to change the situation.
In the fall of 1879, Bat Masterson, a member of the Dodge City Gang, was defeated in a hotly contested race for sheriff of Ford County. Bat left town, but he would be drawn back to Dodge before long. The new sheriff, George T. Hinkle, was also a saloonkeeper and bartender, but he owned property and was generally considered an anti-Gang merchant. Hinkle’s election was heralded by the Reformers. Mayor Kelley and the city council held on until the April 1881 election, when they were all defeated.
The new mayor, Alonzo B. Webster, a New Yorker who had served in the Union cavalry during the Civil War and as a dispatch scout at Fort Hays after the war, opened a dry-goods store in Dodge in 1872. By the time of his election nine years later, Webster also owned two saloons. Nevertheless, he was one of the Reformers, and he aimed to stymie the Gang’s so-called rackets. On April 17, 1881, Mayor Webster posted this warning to the Dodge City Gang about one of the ‘moral’ ordinances supported by the new anti-liquor city councilmen: ‘To all whom it may concern: All thieves, thugs, confidence men, and persons without visible means of support, will take notice that the ordinance enacted for their special benefit will be rigorously enforced on and after tomorrow.’ He then fired Jim Masterson as city marshal, giving the job to Fred Singer, a bartender in one of his saloons.
Several months before the election, Jim Masterson had become a partner of A.J. Peacock in the Lady Gay Dance Hall and Saloon. Peacock hired his brother-in-law Al Updegraff as bartender. Masterson and Updegraff never got along. Masterson wanted to fire Updegraff, but Peacock sided with his brother-in-law, who supposedly filed a complaint for Masterson’s arrest. At this point someone sent an unsigned telegram to Bat in Tombstone asking him to help Jim. Bat immediately set out for Dodge City. He had already lost one brother there and didn’t intend to lose another. City Marshal Ed Masterson had been killed in April 1878 while trying to disarm a drunken cowboy.
Bat arrived by train on April 16, 1881, and immediately confronted Peacock and Updegraff, who were both armed. No one knows who fired the first bullet, but soon all three were firing. Masterson was along the railroad tracks firing south. Peacock and Updegraff took cover around the corner of the city jail just south of the railroad tracks. They were firing north directly toward the businesses on Front Street. Others joined in the gunplay–probably including Jim Masterson from the saloon–and for a few minutes it sounded like war had broken out. When the firing ceased, Mayor Webster and Marshal Singer ran up with shotguns and arrested Bat Masterson. Updegraff was the only one wounded, having been shot through the lung, perhaps by Bat. Businesses along Front Street lost their windows, but they, as well as Updegraff, recovered. Bat paid an $8 fine plus $2 court costs. He then got out of Dodge again, this time taking Jim, after Jim and Peacock had reached a financial settlement concerning the Lady Gay establishment.
The Lady Gay was purchased by Assistant Marshal Tom Nixon and a former buffalo hunter, Brick Bond. It was the only dance hall left in town. With the marshal running one of the two saloons owned by the mayor, these Reformer officials were essentially doing the same thing the Gang had done. Money collected from other saloons, gamblers and prostitutes was used to pay for Mayor Webster’s lawmen. Webster wasn’t so much after reform as he was out to control the action and profits.
In 1882 Luke Short arrived in Dodge City. He was a professional gambler who had gained a reputation as a gunfighter after killing Charlie Storms inside Tombstone’s Oriental Saloon. He looked the part of a professional gambler–impeccably dressed, complete with top hat, diamond tie pin and gold-headed walking stick. He had wandered in and out of frontier towns and became friends with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Masterson later wrote that Short was a small man, 5 feet 6 inches tall, and weighing under 140 pounds. ‘It was a small package, but one of great dynamic force,’ Bat wrote. Short was not a man to be pushed around. (Emphasis is mine — MRW).
In February 1883, Short bought out half of the Long Branch Saloon. His partner was William H. Harris, a saloon owner and gambler in Dodge City since 1876. Harris was in the cattle business, too, and had founded Dodge’s first bank. In April 1883 he was picked as the Gang’s mayoral candidate against Lawrence E. Deger, who was outgoing Mayor Webster’s man. Deger had no love for any of the Mastersons, their friends or their friends’ partners. He had been defeated by Bat Masterson for sheriff in November 1877 and then replaced as city marshal by Ed Masterson the following month. He was out to strike back. The stage was now set for the Dodge City War.
Webster and Deger supporters, including the Dodge City Times, made good use of smear tactics in their campaign against Harris. Deger easily won the election. Talk was that railroad men had cast many illegal votes. Dodge was an important town to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, and the railroad company wanted the town tamed. Ordinances Nos. 70 and 71 were passed on April 26, 1883. Number 70, ‘An Ordinance For The Suppressing Of Vice And Immorality Within The City Of Dodge City,’ levied fines from $5 to $100 on prostitutes and brothel keepers. Number 71, ‘An Ordinance To Define And Punish Vagrancy,’ placed fines from $10 to $100 on anyone convicted of ‘loitering, loafing or wandering’ within the city limits without a job or visible means of support. The vagrancy ordinance was designed to be quite sweeping and affected keepers of brothels or gambling houses and those ‘engaged in any unlawful calling whatever.’
Two days later, April 28, extra police were hired, and the lawmen arrested three ’singers’ at the Long Branch Saloon. After Harris and Short discovered that same day that none of the girls from other saloons had been arrested, Short put on his revolvers and headed for the jail. Deger and his administration clearly had it in for him. As Short approached the jail in the darkness, Louis C. Hartman, city clerk and one of the new policeman, was standing on the walk. According to some accounts, Short opened fire first, but Hartman dove to the ground unhurt. Other accounts say Hartman shot first, but missed Short. As Short returned the fire, Hartman, running in full retreat, tripped and fell off the walk. Thinking he had killed the policeman, Short went back to the Long Branch and barricaded the door. The next morning, Marshal Jack Bridges sent someone to tell Short that he had not hit Hartman and if he would surrender, he would be released after paying a small fine for disturbing the peace. When Short came out unarmed, he was arrested and charged with assault. He was released on $2,000 bond.
Webster and Deger wanted to be rid of Luke Short for several reasons. For one thing, they were afraid of him and his friends. Webster was losing money because it was hard to compete with Harris, Short and the Long Branch ’singers.’ Although Deger had won the recent election, he still resented Harris and disliked Short for being a friend of Bat Masterson. Hartman, of course, was also anti-Short, as were such other so-called Reformers as lawyer Mike Sutton and Assistant Marshal Clark Chipman.
A couple of days after being released on bond, Short was arrested, along with five other gamblers. They were told that they were going to jail for being undesirables. The six gamblers were not allowed to see lawyers. After a while, the prisoners were escorted to the depot by a large group of armed men. Short and the others were given a choice–either an eastbound train or a westbound train out of Dodge. Short chose to go east to Kansas City.
Short wired Bat Masterson in Denver to come to Kansas City, and Masterson answered his friend’s call. Masterson suggested that Short go to Topeka and see Governor George Washington Glick, an anti-prohibitionist. The Kansas City Evening Star got wind of what was happening and on May 9, 1883, reported: ‘The fact, that for the past ten days a very remarkable and startling state of affairs has existed at as well known a point as Dodge City, Kas., and that all mention of them has been kept out of the press, the matter, in short, entirely suppressed from the outside world, is an excellent illustration of what western lawlessness can do and the state of society in some of the border towns. That trouble of a serious nature has existed there can be surmised from the fact that prominent Kansas City attorneys left to-day for Topeka to petition Gov. Glick in the interest of Dodge City property owners that the town be placed under martial law.
‘The difficulty, which began only a little over a week ago, is but the culmination of a long standing feud between two elements of the peace. Dodge City has long enjoyed the reputation of being a hard place. It was one of the few points in Kansas where saloons run openly and gambling is legitimized. The headquarters of the cowboys and cattle men of that vicinity, the majority of the institutions are designed for their especial selectation. Just before the last city election the mayor was a man named Webster, the proprietor of a dive, half saloon and the other half gambling house and variety hall. He was a representative of the tougher element of the sporting fraternity. The head of the other faction was W.H. Harris, of Harris and Short, proprietors of the Long Branch saloon. Harris represented the quieter and more respectable element and there was bitter feeling between the two. At the last election Harris was beaten in the race for mayor by one Deger, Webster’s candidate, and since then it has been conceded that it was only a matter of time when all of Harris’s sympathizers would be driven out of the town. Thus Dodge has been hovering on the brink of trouble for a long time. About ten days ago it came. Mr. Short, who is Harris’s partner, and a police officer had a shooting affray. Neither were hurt and the evidence showed that Short was fired on first. He was nevertheless placed under bonds, and next day thrown in jail. The marshal of Dodge, who made the arrest, is Jack Bridges, a well-known character, who formerly lived here and traveled principally upon having ‘killed his man.’ A short time later five gamblers were arrested, and also jailed. That night a vigilance committee was formed with Tom Nixon, the proprietor of one of the hardest dance halls that ever existed in the west, at the head. This crowd repaired to the jail and notified the prisoners that they must leave town next morning and that they would be given their choice of trains going east or west. Meantime the vigilantes took possession of the town.
‘The correspondent of the Chicago Times and other leading papers were notified that they must not be permitted to send any telegrams in reference to the situation and a body of armed men watched the arrival of each train to see that there was no interference. A lawyer from Larned, sent for by one of the prisoners, was met by a vigilante who leveled a shot-gun at his head and told him not to stop. He passed on. Next morning the five gamblers were put on a westward bound train and Short left for Kansas City where he is at present. The trouble has by no means yet abated. The place is practically in the hands of the ‘vigilantes’ and the situation is more serious from the fact that the mayor is acting with them and it was he who notified the prisoners that they must go. The trains are still watched and armed men guard the town while a list of others who will be ordered out has been prepared. Every source of reliable information indicates that Dodge is now in the hands of desperadoes, and that incident to the objection of Short and the others, the lives and property of the citizens are by no means safe. For this reason martial law is being asked. That there will be trouble of a very serious character there, is anticipated.’
In Topeka, Short filed the appropriate petition to the governor stating that a ‘band of armed men’ had forced him out of Dodge City because of ‘political differences and business rivalry.’ He added that if he had remained he would have been murdered. W.F. Petillon, county clerk of Ford County, was summoned by the governor. He backed up Short’s story.
Governor Glick wired Sheriff Hinkle about conditions in Dodge City. Hinkle answered on May 11 that the men were expelled to avoid trouble and that he could keep the peace in Dodge. Glick apparently didn’t like Hinkle’s answer because he wired back: ‘The accounts of the way things have been going on there are simply monstrous, and it requires that the disgrace that is being brought upon Dodge City, and the State of Kansas, by the conduct that is represented to have occurred there, should be wiped out. Your dispatch to me presents an extraordinary state of affairs, one that is outrageous on its face. You tell me that the mayor has compelled several parties to leave the town for refusing to comply with the ordinances. Such a statement as that if true, simply shows that the mayor is unfit for his place, that he does not do his duty, and instead of occupying the position of peace maker, the man whose duty it is to see that the ordinances are enforced by legal processes in the courts, starts out to head a mob to drive people away from their homes and their business.’
Short and friends, including Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Shotgun Collins and Rowdy Joe Lowe, were assembling in Kansas City. Bat Masterson and Charlie Bassett were already there. Newspapers across the country were now carrying the story of what they called the ‘Dodge City War.’ On May 15, the Kansas City Evening Star, obviously in sympathy with Luke Short, published a list of the men (along with their reputations) who were preparing to descend on Dodge City. The paper concluded: ‘Such is the party who are going to Dodge City to see to it that Short is permitted to reenter his place of business and protect him from molestation. It is probable that they will be joined by others before they arrive at Dodge City, and those who are acquainted with the party and their disposition are at no hesitancy in predicting that there is going to be trouble of a bloody nature if resistance is offered to Short’s return.’ When Sheriff Hinkle learned of this threat from Kansas City, he gathered a posse to meet all incoming trains.
Short and friends went to Caldwell, Kan. Some of them, including Earp and Holliday, apparently moved on to Colorado to round up more troops. ‘Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and all the sports in the country, held a meeting at Silverton and decided to take Dodge City by storm,’ according to a letter dated June 2, 1883, and published anonymously in the Topeka Daily Commonwealth three days later. ‘Short is at Caldwell but will meet the party at Cimarron, 18 miles west of Dodge, perhaps Sunday night [June 3] or soon after. Horses will be taken at Cimarron and the whole party will rendezvous at Mr. Oliver’s, two miles west of Dodge. Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp [who had taken care of business with the Clantons and other ‘cowboys’ in Tombstone two years earlier] are now secretly in Dodge City, watching matters. When the time for action comes a telegram will reach them worded as follows: ‘Your tools will be there at _____,’ giving the time agreed upon. The plan is to drive all of Short’s enemies out of Dodge at the mouth of the revolvers.’
Wyatt Earp later told his biographer, Stuart Lake, his version of what happened when he arrived in Dodge City on May 31. There was nothing secret about Earp’s arrival, and Holliday was not with him at that time. The four men with Earp were Dan Tipton, Johnny Green, Texas Jack Vermillion and Johnny Millsap. As he stepped off the train, Earp was met by ‘Prairie Dog’ Dave Morrow, an ex-buffalo hunter, part-time lawman and friend of Bat Masterson. Morrow was wearing a special policeman’s badge. After Earp explained his presence, Morrow agreed that Luke Short got ‘a dirty deal.’ Earp stated that if he and his four companions were deputized, they could legally wear their guns in town. Morrow looked into the eyes of the gunmen and appointed all five of them city policemen. Earp sent his men to lookout points, while additional support arrived–Charlie Bassett, Frank McLain, Shotgun Collins and others.
On the day of Earp’s arrival, Sheriff Hinkle wired the governor to send troops. Hinkle stated that because Dodge was overrun by gunmen, he could not maintain the peace any longer. Instead of ordering out any troops, Governor Glick said he would send Adjutant General Thomas Moonlight to check conditions in Dodge City. Bat Masterson later wrote: ‘When it became known in Dodge the sort of reply the governor had sent back to the appeal for militia, something of consternation took possession of Webster’s followers. Those who had lately been the loudest in their declarations of hostility to Short were now for peace at any price. Webster, himself no coward, saw that the yellow streak he knew was in the makeup of his followers was giving unmistakable signs of recrudescence. He knew that when the time came he would have to fight the battle alone….It was at this stage of affairs that Webster concluded to send for Wyatt, and if possible bring about a settlement of the difficulty without an appeal to arms.’
Wyatt Earp, according to Masterson, was told by Webster that Short would be allowed to return to Dodge and resume business unmolested. In return, Earp guaranteed there would be no conflict. Bat Masterson wrote: ‘Wyatt immediately notified Short and I by wire of the complete backdown of the enemy, and when we reached the city next day we were cordially received by our friends. The enemy, not being sure that Wyatt could control the situation, kept in the background until he had received assurances from both Luke and I that the peace terms made by Earp would be faithfully lived up to by us.’
Masterson and Short’s appearance on Monday June 4 was described four days later by the Evening Star: ‘The entrance of the Short party in Dodge was peculiar. First Luke Short arrived. Getting off the train some little distance from the camp he slung a 6-shooter on each hip, and with a double barreled shot gun in his hands, walked down the main street to the Long Branch saloon, carefully watching the corners. In a day or two Bat Masterson dropped in, armed in a similar manner, and joined Short. Then came Charley Bassett, who simply dropped a Winchester repeating rifle under his arm and walked up the middle of the street. Since then every train has brought fresh delegations, and there are now upwards of 40 or 50 men ready for call at the Long Branch. The so-called vigilantes have weakened and there is no apprehension of immediate trouble.’
By the time Adjutant General Moonlight got to Dodge, a couple days after Short, everything was essentially settled. A compromise had been reached. Gambling was to continue in areas screened off from bar rooms and dance halls. Women would be allowed in saloons and dance halls, but would have to be more discreet. Short and his friends promised to help get rid of the really crooked gamblers and swindlers, which they did. The bloodless Dodge City War was over.
In a letter to the Daily Kansas State Journal printed on June 9, Bat Masterson first wrote about the backdown of the enemy. ‘I arrived here yesterday and was met at the train by a delegation of friends who escorted me without molestation to the business house of Harris & Short. I think the inflammatory reports about Dodge City and its inhabitants have been greatly exaggerated and if at any time they did ‘don the war paint,’ it was completely washed off before I reached here. I never met a more gracious lot of people in my life. They all seemed favorably disposed, and hailed the return of Short and his friends with exultant joy. I have been unable as yet to find a single individual who participated with the crowd that forced him to leave here at first.’
To assure continued peace in Dodge City, Moonlight set about establishing a group he called Glick’s Guards. It was composed of both pro-Webster and pro-Short men. The Guards were to anticipate and solve any future problems. Before Short’s friends left town, seven of them posed with him for a formal picture that soon became known as the ‘Dodge City Peace Commission.’ Three days after Bat Masterson arrived in Dodge, he and Wyatt Earp left town, headed for New Mexico Territory.
Peace was maintained. On November 19, 1883, Harris and Short sold the Long Branch Saloon. Short went to Fort Worth, Texas, where he bought into another saloon. In 1884, Short reached an out-of-court settlement after threatening to sue the city of Dodge for forcing him to leave town the previous year. Short reportedly became wealthy at the gambling tables and moved into Fort Worth society. A gambling dispute led to a shootout on February 8, 1887, in which Short killed the dangerous gunfighter Jim Courtright. When Short’s health began to fail, he returned to Kansas and sought relief at the mineral spa at Geuda Springs. Luke Short died there of what was described as ‘dropsy’ on September 8, 1893. His wife took his body back to Fort Worth to be buried. He was 39 years old.
This article was written by P.A. Mallory and originally published in the June 1997 issue of Wild West magazine.