April 16

This Day in History

Old West

Apr 16, 1881:

Bat Masterson's last shootout

On the streets of Dodge City, famous western lawman and gunfighter Bat Masterson fights the last gun battle of his life.

Bartholomew "Bat" Masterson had made a living with his gun from a young age. In his early 20s, Masterson worked as a buffalo hunter, operating out of the wild Kansas cattle town of Dodge City. For several years, he also found employment as an army scout in the Plains Indian Wars. Masterson had his first shootout in 1876 in the town of Sweetwater (later Mobeetie), Texas. When an argument with a soldier over the affections of a dance hall girl named Molly Brennan heated up, Masterson and his opponent resorted to their pistols. When the shooting stopped, both Brennan and the soldier were dead, and Masterson was badly wounded.

Found to have been acting in self-defense, Masterson avoided prison. Once he had recovered from his wounds, he apparently decided to abandon his rough ways and become an officer of the law. For the next five years, Masterson alternated between work as Dodge City sheriff and running saloons and gambling houses, gaining a reputation as a tough and reliable lawman. However, Masterson's critics claimed that he spent too much as sheriff, and he lost a bid for reelection in 1879.

For several years, Masterson drifted around the West. Early in 1881, news that his younger brother, Jim, was in trouble back in Dodge City reached Masterson in Tombstone, Arizona. Jim's dispute with a business partner and an employee, A.J. Peacock and Al Updegraff respectively, had led to an exchange of gunfire. Though no one had yet been hurt, Jim feared for his life. Masterson immediately took a train to Dodge City.

When his train pulled into Dodge City on this morning in 1881, Masterson wasted no time. He quickly spotted Peacock and Updegraff and aggressively shouldered his way through the crowded street to confront them. "I have come over a thousand miles to settle this," Masterson reportedly shouted. "I know you are heeled [armed]-now fight!" All three men immediately drew their guns. Masterson took cover behind the railway bed, while Peacock and Updegraff darted around the corner of the city jail. Several other men joined in the gunplay. One bullet meant for Masterson ricocheted and wounded a bystander. Updegraff took a bullet in his right lung.

The mayor and sheriff arrived with shotguns to stop the battle when a brief lull settled over the scene. Updegraff and the wounded bystander were taken to the doctor and both eventually recovered. In fact, no one was mortally injured in the melee, and since the shootout had been fought fairly by the Dodge City standards of the day, no serious charges were imposed against Masterson. He paid an $8 fine and took the train out of Dodge City that evening.

Masterson never again fought a gun battle in his life, but the story of the Dodge City shootout and his other exploits ensured Masterson's lasting fame as an icon of the Old West. He spent the next four decades of his life working as sheriff, operating saloons, and eventually trying his hand as a newspaperman in New York City. The old gunfighter finally died of a heart attack in October 1921 at his desk in New York City.

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