The Shooting of Buffalo Bill

6:22 PM

I’m just now writing a play about Buffalo Bill for The Rose theater in Omaha. You see, William Cody, better known to the world as Buffalo Bill, started his Wild West show in Omaha in 1883, and he had a long relationship with Omaha, including sending his daughter Irma to the Brownell-Talbot school here. He was also almost shot while in town, and I will get to that in a moment.

There was about a decade of Buffalo Bill’s life when he transitioned from being a frontiersman into a showman, starting about 1872, when he appeared in a stage play called “The Scouts of The Prairie” by Ned Buntline, a wild west author who had done much to forward Buffalo Bill’s reputation. This was followed up by a play called “Scouts of the Plains,” which included Wild Bill Hickok in the cast, and it toured for a decade.

The show’s content will give you a sense of what entertainment was like on the frontier, and it set the template for Cody’s Wild West shows: Dozens of men dressed as Indians battled the heroes on the stage, and reportedly included a scene in which Cody scalped a Native American. This scene was supposedly based on a real story from Cody’s life, when Cody scalped a Cheyenne warrior named Yellow Hair at Warbonnet Creek in Northwestern Nebraska. The event occurred shortly after the Battle of Little Big Horn, and was often referred to as “The First Scalp for Custer.”

Cody would include this grisly incident in his Wild West show, and, while on tour, displayed the fallen warrior’s scalp, feather war bonnet, knife, and saddle. Popular images of Buffalo Bill Cody often showed him standing over Yellow Hair, holding his scalp or feather bonnet triumphantly in the air.

In 1881, Buffalo Bill had moved on to another show, called “Prairie Waif.” The play was scripted by John A. Stephens, an actor producer who had created a “Great Western Star Circuit” to display the talents of cowboy performers. According to the St. Paul Globe from 1901, Buffalo Bill commissioned the play from Stevens, who demanded $5,000 to write the play, which caused Cody to let out a marvelous holler:  “Great Omaha!” Cody agreed to $4,000.

The play was, according to Stephens, basically “The Lady of Lyons” in buckskin. It came to Omaha in October, to the Academy of Music on Douglas between 13th and 14th, and an Omaha Bee ad from October 4, 1881, describes the cast:

Dr. F. Powell . . . White Beaver
He-Nu-Ka . . . The First Born

The Most beautiful Indian Girl in the World.
A noted troupe of
SIOUX INDIAN CHIEFS

Supported by a
POWERFUL DRAMATIC COMPANY

And the evening included:

FANCY RIFLE SHOOTING by Buffalo Bill.

The Omaha Daily Herald was thrilled, saying that “it has been a long time since Buffalo Bill trod the boards on ‘his native heath,’” and quoting rave notices from a recent production in Minneapolis that called the play “the best of its class ever presented here.”

Two days later, “Prairie Waif” was no longer the news about Buffalo Bill, and what news there was went national. For instance, the Arkansas Gazette published this notice:

“A dispatch of Tuesday night says that while Buffalo Bill and his wife and daughter were walking to his hotel in Council Bluffs from the operahouse Monday evening, an unknown man rode up and fired three shots at him from his revolver. J.T. Benedict, a demented saloon-keeper, was discovered to be the assailant, and has been held in $1000 to answer.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer offered more detail: Cody and his family, along with castmember Dr. Powell and his wife, were crossing Broadway to the Ogden House. An excited man on horseback passed, turned, drew a large revolver, and fired three shots at Cody, one nearly hitting the showman in the face. The man then galloped away.

In “Prairie Waif,” Cody played himself as a frontier detective, and suddenly it seemed like he was perfectly cast, as he immediately set out to investigate the shooting. Cody sent out messages to livery stables in the area to see if any horses had been taken that afternoon, and almost immediately got a response: A man named Benedict had demanded a horse from a stable on Broadway, and drew a pistol on the stableman. Benedict was quickly located and identified, and he was discovered to be carrying a revolver with three empty chambers.

The New Haven Register viewed the event with some amusement. “A Council Bluffs ‘crank’ fired three shots at Buffalo Bill the other day,” they wrote. “Bill was so scared that he will base a new play on the incident.”

J.T. Benedict, now nicknamed “cranky,” gave an interview with the Daily Herald on October 6 protesting his innocence. He was then in the basement jail of the Pottawatomie County Courthouse, and the reporter described him as follows: “Benedict is a smart-looking, restless fellow, about thirty years of age, with a black moustache and imperial and dark complexion.” Benedict claimed that Cody had seen him and denied he was the man who had shot at him, and only later was he arrested.

The article also mentions a rumor going around that the shooting was a publicity scheme, although Benedict doesn’t agree.

The reporter concludes by saying that “[t]here remains little doubt but that Benedict was the shootist, and no motive beyond a morbid lust for notoriety appears. He was not intoxicated.”

The Plain Dealer article mentioned earlier summed up Buffalo Bill Cody’s feeling about the shooting: “Bill thinks that ‘cranks’ were worse than Pawnees on the war path, and hereafter declares war on the whole fraternity, and warns them to look out for their scalps.”

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.