199 years ago, on March 20th, 1821, Edward Zane Carroll Judson was born. Under the pen name Ned Buntline, he wrote the stories that brought Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill into the proverbial spotlight and then convinced them to stand before the actual spotlight as The Scouts of the Prairie, the play he wrote for them in four hours in December of 1872.
Before meeting the pair of western scouts at Fort McPherson, Nebraska, Buntline lead a life just a full of adventure as the men he would someday make famous. Ed Judson ran away from home when he was 13 years old after his father hit him during an argument and joined the crew of a merchant vessel as a cabin boy. He may have curried some favor and earned a commission from President Martin Van Buren when he rescued the crew of a boat that had been damaged in a mishap with a ferry on New York’s East River, though along with much of Ned's self-reported adventures, this is tough to prove. He served in the second Seminole War in Florida but saw little action. Frustrated and bored, he resigned his Navy commission. The lasting legacy of his time as a sailor was the use of the pseudonym “Buntline,” buntlines being the ropes used to lift the middle portion of a ship’s sail. The Civil War roused him to action again and he rose to the rank of sergeant with the 1st New York Mounted Rifles before receiving a dishonorable discharge from Grant’s army for drunkenness. Later in life, he would take to calling himself “Colonel,” a rank to which he never rose.
The loss of his naval job forced Buntline to rely on his proficiency with the pen with which he had supplemented his income most of his adult life. He saw his first story published in The Knickerbocker in 1838 when he was 17 years old. Buntline took this as a sign that he was made for journalism and traveled around the East coast starting multiple newspapers that inevitably failed. In each city and with each failure, he chose to move on rather than face bankruptcy and angry debtors. After one such failure in Cincinnati, he fled to Kentucky where he was awarded a $600 bounty for single-handedly capturing two wanted murderers. He took his money to “The Athens of the South,” Nashville, Tennessee to start another paper, this time called Ned Buntline’s Own.
Soon after arriving in Nashville, Buntline romanced and wooed the teenaged wife of a man named Robert Porterfield. The slighted Mr. Porterfield challenged the philandering Buntline to a duel. Buntline accepted this challenge, shooting and killing Porterfield. At the subsequent trial, Porterfield’s brother rose in court, produced a gun, and fired at Buntline. Finding his initial injury non-fatal, and unwilling to wait around for a more lethal wound, Buntline used the ensuing chaos in the courtroom to escape police custody. An angry lynch mob of the late Mr. Porterfield’s friends tracked and captured Buntline and hung him from a nearby awning, but a second mob of Ned’s own friends came along just in time to cut him down and save his life.
Deciding that angry lynch mobs, the vengeful brothers of adulterous mistresses’ husbands, and warm southern summers disagreed with him, Buntline relocated back to the northeast, where he had recently earned $100 writing a violent pirate adventure novel called The Black Avenger of the Spanish Main: or, The Fiend of Blood. In New York, Buntline jumped straight into the growing unrest between recent immigrants, angry nativists, and the rich upper class that owned the city police. These two sides chose as unlikely champions two actors, Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready.
Forest was the first real American acting star. Macready was the most successful actor in England. When Forest had portrayed Macbeth in London, the British crowd hissed him off the stage, unhappy to see an American portraying the title character in Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Forest believed that his unfavorable reception was instigated by Macready’s professional jealousy. Returning the favor a few weeks later, Forest stood up in his private booth while attending Macready’s portrayal of Hamlet and hissed loudly. The British press, as well as theater fans on the island, were understandably upset.
When Macready appeared as Macbeth at the Astor Opera House in New York on May 10, 1849, Ned Buntline, in his capacity as assistant to Tammany Hall political boss Captain Isaiah Rynders, set up a line of people equipped with heavy stones to throw at the theater. The unruly crowd eventually attempted to start a fire inside of the Opera House. This lead to direct conflict with the police, which quickly erupted into a full-scale riot. The police were not as well armed as Buntline and the rioters and called for backup from the state militia. The militia arrived, issued several warnings which were unheard over the din of rioters and theater-goers, and began to shoot into the crowd from point-blank range, leaving 25 dead and over 120 people, mostly working-class civilians, injured. This was the first time in America that the state militia had shot into a crowd of civilians, and the incident lead directly to the creation of an armed and organized police force.
For his part in instigating the deadly riot, Buntline was fined $250 and sentenced to a year in prison. When he was released in September of 1850, he began writing sensationalized stories for New York’s weekly newspapers, earning as much as $20,000 a year for the next few years. This didn’t stop him from inciting another nativist riot in St. Louis after he joined the Native American Party, which he nicknamed the Know Nothings.
Skipping bail in St. Louis, Buntline embarked on a series of paid lectures on the benefits of temperance, drinking heavily the entire way. Often he would stop in a town, hit the local saloon, and then set up outside of the same saloon to warn patrons against the excesses brought upon by the evil drink. It was on one of these temperance lecture trips that Buntline sought Wild Bill Hickok, and found Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro.
For more information about Ned Buntline, preorder your copy of The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline: A Tale of Murder, Betrayal, and the Creation of Buffalo Bill by Julia Bricklin, coming out June 1 from TwoDot Press. You can check out our review of her wonderful biography of the legendary dime novelist here.