Deadwood Dick: The Man Who Never Was

Deadwood-Dick-aka-Dick-Clark

Kit Carson, Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody were real-life people who were made larger-than-life to dozens of dime novelists who were grinding out a never-ending stream of improbable western thrillers during the last half of the 19th century. These so called dime novels were eagerly devoured mostly by people who lived in the East and lived vicariously, the adventures of their pulp fiction heroes.

Edward Zane Carroll Judson, aka Ned Buntline was considered by many, “the King of the Dime Novels.” His own life, if we can believe him, was as action-packed as the tales he wrote.

One time in Tennessee he captured two men wanted for murder and collected a $600 bounty. He was something of a womanizer too. On March 14th, 1846, he shot and killed a man named Bob Porterfield, husband of one of his teenage admirers at Nashville. At his trial he stated that “No proof has ever been advanced that I ever touched her hand.” He conveniently omitted any other part of her anatomy he might have touched.

The victim’s brother and some cronies pulled their pistols and fired several shots at Ned, who bolted from the courtroom, and dove through an open window. During his escape he was shot in the chest, and hit in the head with a rock. With a lynch mob at his heels he jumped from the roof to an adjacent building but missed and fell 50 feet and returned to jail. That night the mob stormed the jail and strung up the womanizing writer but he was rescued by a friend in the nick of time and returned to court where he was found innocent by self-defense.

A New York novelist named Ed Wheeler decided to seek his fortune in the same business and capitalize on the success of Buntline and the others but was in desperate need of a chief character. He searched long and hard, in vain then finally decided to let his imagination run amok by simply inventing his own hero, the man who never was—Deadwood Dick.

Wheeler cranked out a flood of dime novels featuring his mythical hero, using real Wild West characters, such as Calamity Jane, in supporting roles. His readers became convinced that Deadwood Dick was a real person and soon “the man who never was,” took his place alongside such folk heroes as General Custer, Davy Crockett, and Hickok.

In 1926, when America celebrated its 150th birthday, Deadwood, South Dakota, celebrated “Black Hills Days of ’76,” glorifying Old Yellow Hair, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill and the others. The trouble was, all of them were dead but nobody knew what happened to the legendary Deadwood Dick. Could he possibly still be alive?

A frantic search uncovered an old geezer named Dick Clark. Not the one on American Bandstand. This Dick Clark was found shoveling manure inside a Deadwood stable. Smelling free drinks and the chance to make a few quick bucks, the manure man “confessed” that he was indeed, the long-lost, one-and-only, Deadwood Dick. Well, his name was Dick and he was a native son, and he was willing to let his hair grow long, wear a buckskin jacket, and a pack a six-shooter in his belt.

Deadwood Dick was alive! The news spread like wildfire. The old manure shoveler was about to receive his fifteen minutes of fame, the willing centerpiece of the big celebration.

He was even brought to Washington to shake hands with President Calvin Coolidge. In no time at all he was thoroughly convinced he was indeed who he claimed to be. People lined up to buy him drinks at the old Nuttal and Mann Saloon. He regaled patrons with tales which invariably began: “Waal, one time when I an’ Calamity an’ Buffalo Bill was scouting for General Custer…”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

What do you think?

Marshall Trimble

Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian, board president of the Arizona Historical Society and vice president of the Wild West History Association. His latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen; History Press, 2015. If you have a question, write: Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at marshall.trimble@scottsdalecc.edu