Bat Masterson, Writer

by James Scott Bell

Bat Masterson, c. 1880

Back when the West was very young
There lived a man named Masterson.
He wore a cane and derby hat,
They called him Bat, Bat Masterson!

During the “golden age of television,” the 1950s and early 60s, the Western was the dominant genre. You had The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Roy Rogers, Maverick, Rawhide, Bonanza, Sugarfoot, Have Gun Will Travel, Wyatt Earp, Tombstone Territory, Death Valley Days, Cheyenne…and on and on. Among them was a series starring Gene Barry as Bat Masterson. The lyrics at the top of this post are from the song that accompanied the series.

Interesting historical item: Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson should be better known to us as a writer!

It is true he was an Old West lawman and friend of Wyatt Earp. But his legend as a gunslinger was the result of a practical joke played upon a naïve young newspaperman.

In the 1880s readers in the East were enamored of tales of derring-do out West. Savvy writers were quick to exploit that fascination. Ned Buntline, for example, created the legend of Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody himself would ride that publicity into a nice income from his Wild West Show.

In 1881 a reporter named Young, who wrote for the New York Sun, came out to the Colorado mining town of Gunnison, looking for a “shoot-’em-up” story for the paper. He asked one of the locals, a man named Cockrell, where he might start looking for such a story. Cockrell decided to have some fun with the dude. He spun a tale of a lawman he knew from Dodge City, a twenty-seven-year old named Bat Masterson. Why, he’d already killed twenty-six men! And seven of those were to avenge the murder of his brother! Another time he hunted down two Mexican outlaws and brought their heads back to prove it and collect the bounty! And so on. Young lapped it all up and filed the story. The Masterson legend took off, never to be ameliorated. (In fact, Masterson the lawman killed only two men. One of them was, indeed, the murderer of his brother.)

Times changed. The era of the gunslinger came to an end. Bat Masterson, who was more a gambler and “sport” than anything else, ended up in Denver as a promoter of the sport of boxing. This was in the bare-knuckles era, and Masterson would be intimately involved with every heavyweight championship fight until his death in 1921.

His time in Denver did not prove profitable, so in 1902 he and his wife headed for the more promising venue of New York City.

His arrival was not propitious. The second day he was there he was getting his shoes shined at a stand when the cops, led by an officer named Gargan, arrested him. Why? Because he was nicely dressed and happened to be near a West Coast gambler by the name of Sullivan. It was Sullivan and some others who were part of a bunco scheme to fleece a Mormon elder named Snow out of $16,000. Masterson did not take his arrest well. His loud protestations at the station were muted somewhat when police removed a concealed revolver from their famous arrestee. Snow failed to identify Masterson, and the bunco charge was dropped. Masterson, however, had to pay a fine of $10 for the concealed weapon.

Never one to take it on the chin, Masterson filed suit against Snow for injury to his good name, to the tune of $10,000. Snow settled with him out of court. Masterson never forgot Gargan, either. Eleven years later he would seek a charge against Gargan for perjury in his testimony about the 1902 arrest.

Masterson in NYC, c. 1920

Did I mention that Masterson was pugnacious? That was one of the qualities that made his column in the New York Morning Telegraph so popular. From 1903 to 1921 the former lawman wrote three columns a week and gained a huge following all over America. He didn’t cheat on the verbiage, either. His pieces averaged 1700 words. Mostly he wrote about boxing, but he was not averse to sharing his opinions on other matters of the day.

Masterson was frontier educated and never went to college. So how did he master the art of writing? Three ways. First, he was a voracious reader. Second, he made it a goal to expand his style by adding to his vocabulary on a regular basis. And last, but not least, he let his passion for his subject bleed onto the page. For example, in 1911 he covered a fight between a boxer named Burke and an Irishman named Maher. Burke, he wrote, found Maher “a fine bit of cheese” who threw wild punches. But after a Maher haymaker “put a crack in the air,” Burke “planted a left into the Irishman’s potato pit … and it was curtains for Erin’s representative.”

So the writing lesson for today we’ll call the Masterson Triad:

  1. Read widely
  2. Expand your style
  3. Make sure your passion is evident on the page

One last bit of trivia. Have you seen the musical Guys and Dolls? Most probably you have. It was a big Broadway hit, and then a hit movie. Based on characters created by Damon Runyon, it is the fanciful story of Broadway touts and gamblers with names like Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Society Max, and Benny Southstreet. The leading figures are Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra in the movie version) and Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando). The plot is based on a bet between Nathan and Sky. The two are sitting in a restaurant on Broadway when Nathan bets Sky that he will not be able to take a “doll” of Nathan’s choosing out to dinner in Havana, Cuba, the following night. Sky, who believes all dolls are the same, takes the bet.

At which point Nathan points outside to Sergeant Sarah Brown of the Salvation Army!

Here is the interesting backstory. Damon Runyon was a young reporter whom Bat Masterson took under his wing. The two remained close until Masterson’s death in 1921. One day they were sitting in a bar, and Masterson was spinning tales about gambling and guns, when they heard a loud thumping out in the street. It was the bass drum of a Salvation Army band, summoning sinners to a meeting. The band was led by a fetching young woman. And Runyon immediately got a story spark: what if a pristine Salvation Army sergeant fell in love with a sport like Bat Masterson?

The idea stuck, and years later Runyon wrote “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.” The sport he named Sky Masterson, in honor of his old friend. The story became the basis for Guys and Dolls.

Let’s ask the Bat Masterson questions today.

  1. Do you read widely?
  2. Are you purposeful in expanding your style? 
  3. How do you get passion onto your pages?

Note: Most of the research for this post is taken from Robert K. DeArment, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masterson’s New York City Years, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

Nostalgia Time – What TV Show from your Childhood Influenced You?

Jordan Dane

ABC Television


What show from your childhood or younger years would you bring back and why? Who would you have star in it?

Something that always influenced me–and ultimately teased me into becoming a writer–was my love for Westerns and HORSES. I read every Louis L’Amour I could get my hands on. When I was a young girl and in elementary school, I loved horses and read every book they had in my school library. Literally every book, no lie. As I became a teenager, I got a job and my parents allowed me to save toward buying a horse of my own. We ended up with five horses and it became a big thing for my family.

I shoveled a lot of horse poo and mucked stalls, but it was a great experience. As I grew older, I became enthralled with the men who rode those horses in the 1800s. They were mysterious loners, good guys who lived life on the edge of civilizations and made their own version of the law and justice. The ultimate anti-heroes for me. My first perceptions of manhood came from these TV shows and the many books I read. It definitely influenced how I write men in my books. The brooding loner type.


I watched anything Western as I grew up and continued to read every book I could get my hands on. TV shows on Wild Bill Hickok, Alias Smith & Jones, Lancer, Big Valley, Bonanza, Branded, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, High Chaparral, Laramie, Laredo, the Lone Ranger, Lonesome Dove, The Magnificent Seven, My Friend Flicka, Ponderosa, Rawhide, Rifleman, Shane, The Virginian, Wild Wild West, and even Zorro.

My sisters and I would sneak out of our bedrooms to watch TV in our pajamas if the shows came on after our bedtime. Mom told us that she caught us many times, but didn’t say anything. She knew how much it meant to us and appreciated the making of childhood memories. Girl first crushes.

Louis L’Amour hooked me into reading, but thriller authors like Robert Ludlum kept me going (Bourne Identity series). I got into crime fiction and espionage thrillers. Ludlum made me pay attention to how to pace a book and the structure of cliffhangers. He opened my eyes to writing and my desire to write never left me.

BONUS QUESTION – So help me cast a great Western. Who would star in the TV show or movie?

For Discussion:
1.) What show from your childhood or younger years would you bring back and why?
2.) Who would you have star in it?

The Code

By John Gilstrap

I turned the Big Six-Oh this week, which triggered some of the reflection that big birthdays bring.  Nothing morose, mind you–in fact, quite the opposite.  I wouldn’t go back and live my thirties again for anything.  I enjoy the stability and sense of ease that is my life of the moment.  I’m aware that things can change on a dime, but for now, the view out the windshield is at least as bright and sunny as the one in the rearview mirror.

For this week’s TKZ entry, I thought I’d talk about how storytelling has evolved just within my lifetime.  I’ve recently discovered MeTV, a television network for geezers, which runs TV series from days gone by.  I’m particularly taken by “The Rifleman”, starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain and Johnny Crawford as his son, Mark.  Truth be told, I don’t remember any of the episodes from when I watched them as a kid, though I do remember the opening sequence with the rapid-fire Winchester.  Thanks to the wonders of DVR technology, I’ve been able to record all of the shows, and in the evening, when I want to unwind before bed, I’ll watch an episode or two.  While the stories tend to be small, the storytelling itself is really quite good.  Sam Peckinpah wrote and/or directed quite a few of the episodes.

In watching those old episodes, I’ve come to realize how much the Westerns of my youth have influenced my storytelling sensibilities.  In fact, it has been said of my Jonathan Grave series that they are Westerns with different costumes.  I don’t know that I would go that far, but there’s no ignoring the kernel of truth, and I think some of those truths take us to the core of what makes a good hero.

A good man (or woman) lives to a code.  Lucas McCain was loyal to his friends, devoted to his son, and committed to helping others in need.  He neither took nor offered charity, but he was always there to offer a job to a man who’d hit hard times and wanted to regain his self respect through honest work.  He never picked a fight, but he never walked away from one out of fear, because he knew that reputations were fragile and that predators needed only the first whiff of weakness to be encouraged.

A good man is a gentleman.  Hard stop. He stands when a lady enters or leaves, and he would never wear a hat at the table.  And he would never impugn a lady’s honor.

A good man (or woman) defends what is his or hers.  John Wayne put it best as John Bernard Book in The Shootist when he said, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” This goes back to the code I mentioned above. The lesson taught by these shows–and echoed through my father as I was growing up–was that there’s no dishonor in losing a fight so long as you fight as hard as you can. As a kid, I repeatedly proved to myself and others that I was not a good fighter, but that experience led me to become a good de-fuser.

Good triumphs over evil, but only after a brutal effort. My cowboy heroes always got up again–if not after the initial fight, then certainly by the end of the story.  And the bad guys always got their comeuppance.

Then came the seventies.  Good and evil became muddled on television and on the screen and in books.  “Injun savages” evolved to “endangered minorities” and the European settlers became the predators.  Modern military service members evolved from defenders of freedom to killers of innocent children. Cynicism raged, and heroes were hard to find anywhere.  Popeye Doyle? Please. Serpico?  Archie Bunker?  No joke was funny, it seemed, unless it insulted someone else in the process.

As a budding writer in college (1975-79), in the age of Rod McKuen and Richard Bach, my admittedly simple view of right and wrong–of hero and villain–was scoffed at by professors and my lit’ry student colleagues.  The professor of one of only two writing classes I ever took told me, “You have no talent, stop writing.” I was only 20 years old.  And it was not some reverse psychology plan on his part.  He was so enraged by my view of good guys and bad guys on the page that he wanted nothing to do with me, and he wanted to discourage me from any path forward.

So, here we are, a few decades later.  Current political screeching notwithstanding, I think we’ve evolved past the blinding cynicism of the ’70s, but it is still there in my writing.  My good guys recognize that in their world, predators have been allowed to thrive as innocents are discouraged from protecting what is theirs.  Fierce independence is frowned upon, in favor of dependence on others, government agencies in particular.  In Jonathan Grave’s world, the police are almost always good guys, but they value their own careers over the pursuit of real justice. Those cops who do take risks on behalf of the innocent are keenly aware that they are one out-of-context cell phone video away from losing everything they hold dear.

The one chance society has in Jonathan Grave’s world is for the noble gunslinger to take that risk that no one else is willing to take. He does it not for himself, but for the benefit of the innocent.  Because he is on the side of the angels.

Come to think of it, maybe I need to give him a Winchester.