By William F. Hanna
One critic called it the worst show ever written, and in January 1874 it was on its way to Taunton for a one-night stand. It was Scouts of the Plains, a Wild West show starring Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok and Texas Jack Omohundro. A few months earlier, after a performance in New York, a gobsmacked reviewer for the New York Herald had written that “everything was so wonderfully bad it was almost good.” That was pretty much the consensus among big city dailies as the show launched its winter tour.
Most newspaper readers, however, couldn’t have disagreed more. Shopkeepers, factory hands and their families flocked to theaters throughout the northeastern states because they were fascinated by stories of authentic Wild Western characters, and Scouts featured the best of them. Its star was William Frederick Cody, 28-years old and already one of the most recognized personalities in America. Renowned as a plainsman, frontier scout and Indian fighter, Cody had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1872 for his actions as a scout fighting Plains Indians.* Likewise, claiming to have single-handedly killed more than 7,000 buffalo, he was in great demand as a guide for wealthy and famous clients on western hunting expeditions.
Cody’s longtime friend, James B. Hickok, was a star of equal magnitude. Prairie scout and Indian fighter, “Wild Bill” was a lawman, inveterate gambler, gunslinger and renowned as the man whose pistols had tamed Abilene, Kansas. Like Cody, Hickok was a legend in his own time, and the exploits of both men had been embellished beyond recognition by the dime novels that regularly featured them.
The third headliner, Texas Jack Omohundro, may have been a cut below his co-stars but he was also widely known among frontier heroes as a reliable guide, trusty scout and trail blazer. Like Cody and Hickok, he too had worked for the U.S. army out on the Great Plains.
Prominent among the troupe was Giuseppina Morlacchi, who at 26-years old was the most seasoned performer of the cast. A native of Milan, Italy, she had received formal training at the prestigious La Scala dance school and afterward gained a solid reputation in theaters across Europe. She had come to the United States in 1867 and established herself as a gifted entertainer. To anyone wondering why a classically trained European ballerina would agree to join a Wild West show, it was explained that, smitten by the rustic charm of Texas Jack, she had recently become Mrs. Omohundro. Onstage she assumed the role of Pale Dove, a beautiful Italian-accented Indian maiden habitually in need of rescue.
Scouts of the Plains was written by Ned Buntline, a bibulous pulp novelist and sometime theatrical promoter. He had written himself into an earlier version of the show but had withdrawn after his character received blistering reviews. Buntline, said one critic, personified “maundering imbecility,” and upon his chastened departure Hickok was hired as a replacement.
Audiences loved it, but the show had no real plot and the actors repeatedly strayed from Buntline’s atrocious dialog. Onstage, Cody, Hickok and Texas Jack were seen seated around a campfire, swigging whiskey from a bottle (actually tea, but more on that in a minute) as they traded stories from their days on the frontier. Most of their memories were either fabricated on the spot or so exaggerated as to slip ridiculously into farce, but audiences didn’t care. (Hickok, on the other hand, grew infuriated if the crowd laughed.) When the heroes ran out of stories, they would be “attacked” by a brigade of make-believe “Indians.” With six-guns blazing (usually firing blank cartridges, but more on that, too, in a minute) all hell would break loose. A seemingly endless battle would be fought, the attackers finally killed or driven off, and the innocent Pale Dove liberated.
Audiences seldom knew it, but the weak spot in all this was Hickok. Wild Bill hated the theater and never would have taken the job if he hadn’t needed the money so badly. Recent years had not been kind to him and until Cody’s offer the future looked no brighter. Hounded by gambling debts and yet demanding to live the high life that his fame suggested, Cody’s promise of $100 per week did the trick.
Even so, Wild Bill was bored and deeply unhappy, and this sometimes made life difficult for his fellow performers. During one show in New York, Hickok loaded his six-guns with real bullets and shot out a spotlight that was illuminating the stage. (The crowd loved it.) Another time, firing blanks, he made the show’s terrified fake Indians “dance” by discharging his pistol into the floorboards around them. And who could forget the night when he interrupted the onstage dialog to loudly demand that from that point forward his prop whiskey bottle must contain real whiskey!! and not the usual tea. The audience screamed in raucous agreement, but more whiskey caused problems because, thus unlimbered, Hickok occasionally cast covetous eyes upon Madame Morlacchi-Omohundro, to the great consternation of Texas Jack. Indeed, a combination of frustration, weariness and strong drink had rendered Wild Bill grossly indifferent to the rules of polite society — or any society.
The sad fact was that Hickok was nearing the end of his rope — and his life. At 36-years old he had aged out of his gunfighting prime. Additionally, one biographer, Tom Clavin, suggests that Wild Bill was already suffering the ill effects of the glaucoma that would continue to diminish his eyesight. As he and the troupe headed toward Taunton, Hickok was just over two and a half years away from the fateful day in August 1876, when, back on the Dakota flatlands, he’d be shot to death in Deadwood’s Saloon №10.
But all of that was in the future as Scouts of the Plains prepared for its New England tour. Scheduled to play in Taunton on January 20, 1874, we can track the show’s progress as it made its way northward. After spending two weeks in Baltimore over Christmas 1873, Scouts opened the new year by playing two nights in Philadelphia, on January 2 and 3, 1874. The cast and crew then headed to New Haven, Connecticut for a show on the eighth, followed by two performances in Hartford.
There was an added bit of drama, perhaps the work of a crafty press agent, that generated a great deal of publicity for the tour as it advanced. In the first week of January, a phony but widely distributed newspaper story reported that Cody had killed Omohundro in a gunfight. The spurious account, and the retraction which followed two days later, helped excite even more interest in the show.
The troupe arrived in Taunton during the day on Tuesday, January 20, having played in Newport, R.I. the night before. They were to perform at White’s Music Hall, the largest theater in the city. Located on Cohannet Street, near the present-day site of the YMCA, this venue had opened just six years earlier, and it was both spacious and fashionable. Its stage was big by the standards of the day, measuring 55' x 23', and the auditorium accommodated 1,100 seats, including 450 in a raised gallery. The hall was illuminated by gas-lit chandeliers and alongside the stage footlights were housed in reflectors that could be raised or dimmed according to the needs of the scene.
Scouts of the Plains had been well advertised in the days leading to the performance. The Taunton Daily Gazette reminded its readers that during an earlier visit to the city Cody had provided “first class entertainment,” and there was every reason to expect that this edition of his show would be just as good. “Their plainsmen are genuine specimens,” promised the newspaper, and the drama was just the kind that “every schoolboy hankers for.”
It looks like the Taunton show went off without any problems. The next day the Gazette reported that the Music Hall was crowded with fans, and much to their delight Cody and crew had “massacred a few thousand imaginary Indians.” Apparently Wild Bill behaved himself; no live ammunition was fired, no terrified “Indians” were set to dancing and the whiskey in his bottle was peacefully accommodated.
The next stop on the tour was Boston, and because there was no late train it’s likely that the cast and crew spent the night of January 20, 1874 in Taunton. There were five inns within easy walking distance of downtown and the railroad station, but the stars of the show would certainly have stayed at the City Hotel, located at the corner of Taunton Green and Broadway. It was well-known, expensive and relatively luxurious, but easily within the means of highly paid theater people. It also featured a well-stocked bar but whether, as was sometimes their custom, Cody, Hickok and Omohundro stopped in for late night libation we’ll never know.
The next day they left Taunton, and the tour continued. By March, however, it was clear that Hickok’s theatrical career needed to end. Despite pleas from Cody and Omohundro that he stay, Wild Bill quit the show and announced his intention to return to the West. Aware that he had spent most of his tour money on whiskey and gambling, Cody and Omohundro gave Hickok $1,000 to tide him over until he reached his destination. Shortly thereafter, the former thespian did indeed set out for Kansas City, but only after stopping in Binghamton, New York where he mounted the stage and delivered a thrashing to a Wild Bill Hickok impersonator playing in a rival western show.
Cody and company finished that tour and then planned a new one. Hickok’s place was taken by Kit Carson, Jr., the son of yet another famous plainsman. The Omohundros performed together and separately according to a lighter travel schedule. Cody’s new show played in Taunton only eleven months after the January appearance. This edition, labeled a “farcial monotony” by the Boston Transcript, played to another packed and roaring house at the Music Hall. Tauntonians, dreaming of adventure, courage and frontier romance, loved every minute of it.
*Editor’s Note In 1917, after a policy review, Cody’s Medal of Honor was rescinded based on the fact that he was a civilian scout when he earned it. In 1989, upon the request of Wyoming senators Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop, the case was reopened, resulting in the Medal being restored to Cody.