Updated: Jul 16, 2019
Edward Zane Carroll Judson, better known to the American public that devoured his stories as Ned Buntline, died 133 years ago on July the 18th, 1886. Many Western fans now primarily remember Buntline for an undeserved association with Wyatt Earp, wielder of the legendary and mythical Buntline Special. In some ways it is almost poetically fitting that Buntline should be remembered along with a piece of western history that he wasn't involved with, because without Ned Buntline we wouldn't venerate the West and Western men in the way we do now.
In December of 1872, Ned Buntline boarded a train and headed toward Chicago. He had taken an advance as an agent selling fire insurance to the city that had been ravaged by one of the deadliest fires in American history just a year earlier. Buntline would eventually use that advance to pay for a deposit on Nixon's Amphitheatre, where his play The Scouts of the Prairie and Red Deviltry As It Is would open on the Monday, December the 16th.
Buntline had lived a life just as interesting as those of his favorite subjects, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, before either of those men had found their fame out west. He had run away from home as a child, joined the Navy, started several papers and married several wives, some of them at the same time, and earned a $600 bounty by single-handedly apprehending two wanted murderers.
In Nashville, Tennessee, a man named Robert Porterfield was understandably upset when he was told that Buntline had engaged in what one newspaper reporter referred to as "criminal intercourse" with Porterfield's teenaged wife. Adding insult to injury, Buntline bragged about the deed with associates of the injured spouse. Porterfield sought out the writer and drew a pistol on him, but was prevented from killing the man by others present at the altercation. A few days later, Porterfield was enraged when he discovered that, according to newspaper reports about the incident, "Judson and Mrs. Porterfield were known to be alone together for a considerable time at the grave yard in the vicinity of town!"
Porterfield and his brother went for a walk, only to encounter Buntline by chance. Again Robert Porterfield drew his weapon, and this time could not be convinced to spare the writer. He fired three times at Buntline, who then reluctantly pulled his own weapon and fired back, killing Porterfield with a shot just above the right eye. Public sentiment was decidedly against Ned Buntline. One newspaper captures the feeling:, "The public mind, wound to a pitch of deep and maddening excitement, was in a condition to be thrown off balance. Here was a young man in the prime of manhood (he was not thirty years of age) the dutiful and affectionate son of a widowed mother—a tender, confiding and devoted husband—most exemplary and highly esteemed in all the relations of life—first stricken to the heart by his wife's dishonor, as was believed, and then shot through the head by the author of the destroyer of his happiness!"
Buntline was dragged to the courthouse by a large crowd, and preparations were made to confine the writer to jail until a trial could be held. Among the crowd was Mr. Porterfield's brother, who had witnessed Robert's death at the hands of this philanderer, and who decided to take vengeance into his own hands. He produced a revolver and began to fire at Buntline, who ran from the courthouse and towards City Hotel. Along the way he was hit by a rock thrown by a slave who was a spectator to the spectacle, but recovered enough to flee in the hotel. The brother chased him up the hotel's stairs. still firing his pistol, and Buntline attempted to escape by jumping from one of the hotel's third story windows.
Lying in the street, Buntline played dead, which allowed him to be taken into custody rather than being killed by the angry mob. He was returned first to the courthouse and then taken to the jail. At ten o'clock that night, the mob returned and demanded to see the body. It was soon discovered that Buntline had not succumbed to the injuries he had sustained in his fall. The mob stormed the jail and dragged him to the public square. Someone tied a rope around the writer's neck and tossed the opposite end over the nearby awning of Amelius' Clothing Store. But when the rope was pulled tight it broke and Buntline fell to the ground. Some said on of the writer's friends had joined the crowd and cut the rope, or that perhaps some sense of justice was returning to certain members of the lynch mob. Whatever the case, Buntline was returned to the jail to await justice. The Nashville Whig newspaper opined that "In this country, as far as out knowledge goes, public opinion not only excuses, but justifies the summary and unceremonious killing by the husband of the man who dishonors his wife. Before God, we could stand by and see such an offender shot down by the injured husband, with as little regret as we could see a sheep-killing dog shot!"
Three months later, a Nashville grand jury disagreed, refusing to indict Buntline for the murder of Robert Porterfield. According to one newspaper report Buntline, dressed in women's clothing, snuck out of Nashville on a boat bound for Cincinnati. It wasn't until three years latter that Buntline found himself in jail, as a product of his involvement in the nativist "Know-Nothing" party, and an uprising at the Astor Opera house in 1849. After his year in jail, Buntline returned to writing and began lecturing on the benefits of temperance and the dangers of hard drink, often while quite inebriated himself.
One of these lecture tours took him west, and it was here that he sought out either Frank North or Wild Bill Hickok, looking to write a genuine western story. One story goes that when Buntline walked into a bar shouting "You're the man I'm after!" he was soon answered by the business ends of Hickok's paired revolvers. Buntline beat a swift retreat, the story goes, but was later introduced to a pair of Hickok's friends, who he quickly realized were much more obliging in their tale telling than Hickock himself.
He promised those men that if they kept the stories and the whisky coming, he'd make them both stars, and in Chicago in the cold December of 1872, he was waiting for those two, Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack, to do just that.
For more reading on Ned Buntline, check out Julia Bricklin's great article, "The Many Wives of Ned Buntline."