Frank Fiore – Novelist & Screenwriter

March 4, 2016

The Whispering Sands of the Old West: Five Myths You May Never Know The Truth About.

Filed under: Westerns — Frank Fiore @ 1:45 PM

In the western world there are many myths, and legends. To name all of the biggest myths would take a long, long time—but here are a snapshot selection of a few you may, or may not have heard of.

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Elmer McCurdy’s Corpse Myth

In 1911, Elmer McCurdy mistakenly robbed a passenger train he thought contained thousands of dollars. The disappointed outlaw made off with just $46 and was shot by lawmen shortly thereafter. McCurdy’s unclaimed corpse was then embalmed with an arsenic preparation, sold by the undertaker to a traveling carnival and exhibited as a sideshow curiosity. For about 60 years, McCurdy’s body was bought and sold by various haunted houses and wax museums for use as a prop or attraction. His corpse finally wound up in a Long Beach, California, amusement park fun house. During filming there in 1976 for the television show “The Six Million Dollar Man,” the prop’s finger broke off, revealing human tissue. Subsequent testing by the Los Angeles coroner’s office revealed the prop was actually McCurdy. He was buried at the famous Boot Hill cemetery in Dodge City, Kansas, 66 years after his death.

Left-handed Billy The Kid Myth

A famous tintype photograph of Billy the Kid shows him with a gun belt on his left side. For years, the portrait fueled assumptions that the outlaw, born William Bonney, was left-handed. However, most tintype cameras produced a negative image that appeared positive once it was developed, meaning the end result was the reverse of reality. There’s another reason we know the picture was a mirror image and that Billy the Kid was thus a righty: he poses with his Winchester Model 1873 lever-action rifle. The weapon appears to feature a loading gate on the left side, but Winchester only made 1873s that load on the right.

The California Gold Rush of 1849 Myth

When young Conrad Reed found a large yellow rock in his father’s field in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, in 1799, he had no idea what it was. Neither did his father, John Reed. The family reportedly used it as a doorstop for several years, until a visiting jeweler recognized it as a 17-pound gold nugget. The rush was on. Eventually, Congress built the Charlotte Mint to cope with the sheer volume of gold dug up in North Carolina. In 1828 gold was discovered in Georgia, leading to the nation’s second gold rush. Finally, in 1848, James Marshall struck it rich at Sutter’s Mill in California, and thousands of Forty-Niners moved west to seek their fortunes.

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The Long Branch Saloon of “Gunsmoke” Fame Myth

Anyone who watched the television show “Gunsmoke” growing up is well acquainted with Miss Kitty’s Long Branch Saloon of Dodge City, Kansas. What viewers may not have realized is that the Long Branch really did exist. No one knows exactly what year it was established, but the original saloon burned down in the great Front Street fire of 1885. The saloon was later resurrected and now serves as a tourist attraction featuring a reproduction bar with live entertainment. According to the Boot Hill Museum, the original Long Branch Saloon served milk, tea, lemonade, sarsaparilla, alcohol and beer. Marshal Matt Dillon and Festus sporting milk mustaches? Now there’s a story line.

Jesse James Required Two Graves Myth

Few outlaws were as notorious during their own lifetimes as Jesse James. Though he lived a quiet existence in Kearney, Missouri, after his bank robbing days were over, old friends—and enemies—never forgot him. After Jesse was murdered, he was buried in the front yard of his farm to thwart grave robbers. As the years passed and his enemies died off, he was reinterred in a Kearney cemetery by his family. So who’s that lying in the Jesse James grave in Granbury, Texas? A man named J. Frank Dalton who came forward around 1948, at age 101, claiming he was the “real” Jesse James. A court even allowed him to legally adopt the bandit’s name. No one knows why Dalton made this claim or if he ever had any link to Jesse James, although there is a very small chance he was the youngest member of the Dalton gang James rode with in the bank raid of Northfield, Minnesota. Regardless, mitochondrial DNA showed decades later that James is indeed buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kearney—but his legend also lives on in Granbury.

Five myths—all could be true, or false. Nobody really knows what truly happened in these cases. It is known, however, that the west is still a place of mystery, and that you, and I will never know what life was truly like in the Old West.

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