A lively reconstruction of what really happened in William Cody’s life.
Cody was the most famous American of his day, and people around the world knew his story: He was a noble savage of the frontier, left to fend for himself at an early age, became the youngest Pony Express rider in history, fought Indians with wild abandon and, as he put it, “stood between savagery and civilization most all of my early days.” He also created the renowned Wild West Show, which spent three decades thrilling audiences with sketches of frontier derring-do that were as elaborately staged as any movie spectacular; his cast included many vanquished Indians whose names are celebrated today. As Warren (History/Univ. of California, Davis) painstakingly points out, there were many Buffalo Bills on the 19th-century frontier, and Cody seems to have borrowed from all of them; he may well have ridden for the Pony Express, for instance, but the adventures Cody reported in his unreliable memoir were unlikely in the extreme, such as convincing the famed Sioux warrior Rain-in-the-Face not to kill him. (The alleged encounter, Warren notes, took place in howling winter far from Sioux territory; the Sioux, sensibly, did not like to travel in such inclement weather, and a renowned leader would likely not have participated in such a mission had it ever existed.) Warren recalls Cody’s career as a young partisan in the Civil War to the details of his scandalous divorce from his long-suffering wife and his many failures as a businessman—but also many virtues as a human being, despite his habit of stretching the truth; the wonder of the entertainment empire he created; and even his role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The truth about American history’s most accomplished mythmaker turns out to be stranger than his many fictions.