In a previous column (“Buffalo Bill’s Wild West“) I wrote about the life and public career of William Frederick Cody a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, the man most responsible for the modern myth of the American West, and our first true celebrity, a nineteenth century prototype of an Elvis Presley or Muhammad Ali. The article ended with his death in Denver on January 10, 1917.
Buffalo Bill’s immediate post-mortem period is an interesting addendum to a rowdy life, and doesn’t surprise his aficionados. He died deeply in debt, and it seems his surviving family (wife Louisa, daughter Irma, and a small coterie of close relatives; he had outlived three of his four children) sought more of a legacy than his will provided.
The legendary impresario had succumbed at his sister May Decker’s Denver home. After being baptized and received into the Catholic Church by a Father Christopher V. Walsh on January 9th, Buffalo Bill spent the last 24 hours of his life receiving friends, and even playing poker. Maybe he thought God would ante up to be fleeced by the Plainsman with an inside straight. But God was holding all the cards that day, as God does, and Buffalo Bill died of uremic poisoning at 12:05 p.m. He was a month short of his 71st birthday.
His untimely death 500 miles from his beloved TE Ranch on the South Fork of the Shoshone River (not to mention his favorite hangout, the bar of the Irma Hotel in Cody) made international headlines and presented both an inconvenience and an opportunity for Louisa Cody. His friends and business associates in Wyoming urged his immediate retrieval to Cody. After all, he’d helped found the town in 1896. A local burial site would be a great tourist attraction.
Though it is not documented, it is believed Buffalo Bill told his family that when his time came he wanted to be buried on Cedar Mountain, which is five miles west of Cody, and offers a spectacular view of the town and surrounding Big Horn Basin. But some people had other ideas.
Buffalo Bill’s passing in Denver was fortuitous for the city’s Chamber of Commerce class. Those boosters were quick to grasp the potential economic benefits of the most famous man in the world’s remains being permanently interred in Denver or environs. To that end, Denver’s chief booster, Mr. H.H. Tammen, the owner-publisher of the Denver Post, was the point man in offering Louisa Cody $10,000 for the privilege of planting the Plainsman in Colorado. Roughly fifty years of marriage to the hellraising showman had made Mrs. Cody into something of a hardened realist, not to mention a smart businesswoman, so in the end she thought Tammen’s offer was a swell idea. Put simply, Louisa Cody sold Buffalo Bill. Even today, this transaction is recalled with distaste by some of Cody’s first families.
Tammen arranged for Buffalo Bill’s body to lie in state for four days in the Colorado Capitol Rotunda, where it was viewed by 25,000 people. There was then an elaborate funeral march through downtown streets, culminating in the deceased’s return to his temporary domicile at Olingers Mortuary, where he was literally put on ice and under lock and key for six months while an elaborate tomb was prepared on Lookout Mountain, thirty miles west. Tammen and Co. also paid for the tomb site, the work proceeding at a slow pace due to severe winter weather.
During his six months repose at Olingers, Buffalo Bill was reembalmed monthly (a total of six times) to maintain that handsome, rosy-cheeked appearance he had in life. And as in life, he also enjoyed regular shaves, trimming of his small chin beard and mustache, and careful grooming of his long, silvery hair. When it came time for his second funeral and final interment, the Denver boosters wanted the showman to look as if he had just returned from a health spa.
Meanwhile, the town of Cody, Wyoming, was in an uproar. Public meetings were convened, speeches made, and a stalwart posse assembled and charged with the task of riding to Denver and repatriating Buffalo Bill. This cream of Cody’s manhood got no farther than the ranching hamlet of Meeteetse, thirty miles south, where they were waylaid by a roadside saloon, and after a few drinks the expedition disbanded. So much for community pride.
ON JUNE 2, 1917 WILLIAM F. CODY was finally laid to rest in the tomb atop Lookout Mountain. It wasn’t opulently adorned, but — from a security point of view — was worthy of a Pharaoh. A six-feet tall granite mausoleum had been placed in a twelve-feet deep hole, to be sealed with a six-feet deep layer of concrete upon Buffalo Bill’s interment. This last to discourage any potential grave robbing of the Cody posse variety.
The daylong funeral procession wound through Denver and up into the mountains, and is estimated to have been witnessed by some 50,000 people. Three thousand automobiles from all over the United States followed Buffalo Bill’s white hearse, causing the world’s first large scale traffic jam.
On the mountain, Tammen had the casket opened for one last goodbye for those in the immediate proximity. In reality, it was probably to prove that the Plainsman was actually present in the box. Buffalo Bill lay fresh and gleaming in the sun.
Standing next to him, Louisa Cody — in black mourning garb — promptly fainted. The newspapers attributed her swooning to her being overcome by the warm and sultry day.
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