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  • Matthew Kerns

The Shooting Dentist

Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill were THE celebrities of their familiar haunts near North Platte and Fort McPherson, Nebraska. Even before they headed to Chicago to star in Ned Buntline's play The Scouts of the Prairie, the two men had achieved a widespread reputation as scouts, Indian fighters, and hunters. Buffalo Bill was involved in the Summit Springs fight, Texas Jack lead the Pawnee tribe on their big summer buffalo hunt, and both men had accompanied Grand Duke Alexis of Russia when he came to Nebraska to hunt buffalo with General Sheridan and George Armstrong Custer.


Doctor Carver, the 'Evil Spirit' of the Plains; Or, The Champion Shot of the World, by Prentiss Ingraham.

Locals knew that both men could back up their reputations and that even if the dime novels exaggerated their exploits on the plains, there was good reason these two stood apart from the other frontier scouts and hunters on the American frontier. One man, a dentist from Illinois who had recently moved to North Platte to establish his practice, found himself competing with Texas Jack for the affections of another recent arrival, a southern belle from Savanna who took a fancy to the Texas cowboy immediately.

William Frank "Doc" Carver

William Frank Carver, who was born on May 7, 1851, was several years younger than Jack Omohundro and Bill Cody, though when he became famous for his skill with a rifle some years later he lied about his age, making himself a decade older than he actually was and greatly exaggerating his life on the plains. While in truth he was the son of a prominent doctor in Winslow, Illinois, the story he told made him into a child of the frontier, having left home as a young man to travel deep into hostile Sioux territory and reclaim land in Minnesota he said they gave to his grandfather.


Buffalo Bill Cody (left) and Doc Carver (right)

When Texas Jack and Buffalo Bill became actors and convinced Wild Bill Hickok to join them on stage, no man in America could hope to compete with them as models of rugged masculinity. But Doc Carver, having been rebuffed by the southern belle, determined to try. He became one of greatest rifle shots in the world, and by 1878, he had challenged and bested world champion Adam Bogardus in 19 out of 25 matches, establishing himself as the uncontested master of the weapon. Texas Jack, finding himself between touring seasons with the combination he had formed with his wife, joined Carver for a series of shooting exhibitions along the east coast and throughout the deep south. Carver's jealousy again reared its head when newspaper articles about his events repeatedly mentioned Texas Jack's presence, sometimes giving the plainsman top billing, and Carver's young wife reportedly paid a little too much attention to the famous cowboy. Possibly reminded of his earlier failed romance, Carver planned a series of shooting exhibitions in Europe, without inviting Texas Jack.


Advertisement for Doc Carver's shooting exhibition in Montgomery, AL, on December 3, 1878. Carver was often upset that Texas Jack was featured so prominently.

A few years after Jack's death in 1880, Carver and Buffalo Bill Cody joined forces for the Wild West: Hon. W. F. Cody and Dr. W. F. Carver's Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition, with an inaugural performance on May 17, 1883. The relationship between Cody and Carver quickly soured, and at the end of the season, they flipped a coin to determine who got the show's assets. Cody joined forces with Nate Salsbury, and Buffalo Bill's Wild West was born. Over the course of the next year, both Buffalo Bill Cody and Doc Carver toured with their shows, eventually going to court over ownership of naming rights. The men remained bitter enemies for the rest of their lives.

Poster for one of Carver's diving horse shows.

Carver toured with various western shows for the rest of his life, including tours to Europe and Australia. He eventually added diving horses to his show, and this became his signature act for the rest of his life. His daughter-in-law Sonora joined the show in 1924. Three years later, Doc's favorite horse died after a failed dive into the Pacific Ocean. According to Sonora, Doc never really recovered from his grief over the death of his horse. Doc passed away two months later, on August 31, 1927. He had outlived his rival Buffalo Bill by a decade.


Doctor William Frank Carver

Doc's son Al and his wife Sonora kept the show going, establishing themselves as a permanent fixture at Atlantic City's Steel Pier. In 1931, Sonora's horse Red Lips dove into the water at the wrong angle, and Sonora failed to close her eyes in time, resulting in detached retinas and complete blindness in both eyes. Despite her blindness, Sonora continued to dive with her horses for eleven years, retiring with her husband in 1942. She died in 2003, at the age of 99. Her life story was adapted into the Disney movie Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken.

Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken, the Disney movie about Sonora Carver and her diving horses.

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