John M. Burke - Pioneer of Promotion
On April 12, 1917, John M. Burke passed away in relative obscurity in Washington D.C. and was buried in an unmarked grave. The unmarked grave part is significant and ironic, because Burke was the man who fought for replacing the wooden marker that had previously adorned the grave of Texas Jack Omohundro, and made certain that the legacy of Buffalo Bill Cody would be remembered in such a way as to necessitate his own oft-visited resting place.
Burke was an actor, and it was in that capacity that he first met Giuseppina Morlacchi. She was the most famous ballerina in the world, and he became her manager. The census of 1870 lists a "John M. Burk" living on Morlacchi's Billerica, Massachusetts farm, working as a "domestic servant." In December of that year, he traveled with Morlacchi to San Fransisco, where she was booked for a residency at the California Theatre that would last until the following April. On April 11, 1871, Burke boarded an eastbound train with the rest of Morlacchi's entourage and headed for an engagement in Omaha, Nebraska.
That spring, Texas Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody were scouting out of Fort McPherson, nearly three hundred miles west of Omaha, but as the pair occasionally travelled to the city to escort rich eastern big game hunters to the buffalo hunting grounds of their scouting haunts, it seems likely that this was the scene of Burke's first encounter with the pair of scouts that would dominate the rest of his professional life. Fate would bring him together with them again in December of 1872, when the cowboy they called Texas Jack and the hunter the called Buffalo Bill arrived in Chicago with Ned Buntline to stage their new play—The Scouts of the Prairie—at Nixon's Amphitheater just as Morlacchi's ballet troupe was ending their run there. In need of both a show opener, a female actress for the role of the Indian Maiden Pale Eye, and a guaranteed box office draw in case the scouts proved less than capable as actors, Buntline and Burke combined their efforts, and the ballerina who had wowed the refined artistic capitals of Europe was cast as an Indian maiden with a decided romantic weakness for scouts.
Life was to imitate art, of course, and Morlacchi and Texas Jack fell in love and married. While the common understanding has been that Burke was a romantic suitor spurned by the ballerina when she fell for the rugged and handsome cowboy, the truth is that Burke and Texas Jack became close friends. When Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack decided part ways as business associates, John Burke followed Jack, assuming the role of "Arizona John," a role he had occasionally portrayed with Cody and Omohundro for the last few seasons. It was a role that would come to define him, and gradually Major "Arizona" John Burke supplanted the actor John M. Burke, and people became convinced that Burke was every bit the rugged scout that Omohundro, Cody, and Wild Bill Hickok had been.
The scouts seem to have enjoyed presenting their rotund actor friend as a genuine plainsman, and Burke played the role well. After Texas Jack's death, Burke and Cody reunited, and Burke became the press agent and marketing mastermind behind Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, inventing and perfecting marketing and promotional techniques that remain relevant today, as detailed in Joe Dobrow's fascinating book, "Pioneers of Promotion."
In 1886, Burke was in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the funeral of Giuseppina Morlacchi, ensuring that her grave was properly memorialized. In 1908, Burke arrived in Leadville, Colorado in advance of the Wild West Show, and travelled to the grave of his old friend Texas Jack. Upset at the sorry state of the wooden board that marked Jack's grave, Burke conferred with Cody, who travelled to the cemetery soon after to announce a permanent granite marker would soon mark the final resting place of his dear friend. It was mere months after Buffalo Bill's death in January of 1917 that the man who had stood by his side, defended him, and ensured his legacy quietly passed on and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. The man who had ensured that his friends would be remembered was quietly forgotten. It wasn't until 100 years later, on April 12, 2017, that Burke would finally receive a marker of his own, and one worthy of his legacy. On that day, author Joe Dobrow, relatives of John Burke, and several western historians who knew the monumental role this man had played in shaping our understanding of the west spoke about the legacy of Major Burke, Arizona John, John M. Burke.
Thanks to their efforts the man who erected memorials for his friends, ensuring that they would never be forgotten, has a memorial of his own, and we remember.