The Mysterious Major Burke
On March 17, 1911, Major “Arizona” John M. Burke, General Manager and Chief Press Agent for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, bedecked in the green regalia fitting to the occasion walked in a place of honor in the New York Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Next day, the New York Morning Telegraph reporting the event quoted his claim to be a “descendent of the Irish kings.” Such an exaggerated claim was by no means untypical of the man. Neither was it untypical that he should make misleading comments about his background.
He was not a major in any meaningful military sense of the word. He had no obvious connection to Arizona. There was no middle initial ‘M’ in any of the earliest official records. His claim to Irish descent was, however, unquestionable although he was not necessarily of a royal line.
John Burke’s paternal grandfather was Irish merchant Thomas Burke who immigrated to the United States in 1833 with his wife, Ellen. Both were already in their forties. Within a year they had been joined by three sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren and by 1840 they were settled in the Brandywine Hundred, New Castle, Delaware. In 1838, their twenty-seven year old middle son, Peter, married Swiss immigrant Mary Frances Raymond and about 1842 their son John was born.
United States Federal Census records for 1850 and 1860 show eight year old John Burke “attending school” and eighteen year old John Burke – whose occupation is unfortunately an illegible scrawl in the record book – residing in the First Ward of Wilmington, Delaware with his Irish born father and Swiss born mother. The 1870 Federal Census record for the same ward shows twenty-eight year old Deleware born John M. Burk – for the first time with the middle initial and without the final ‘e’ – and gives his occupation as “theatre manager”. He is listed as a United States citizen over twenty-one years of age, both of whose parents were of foreign birth, and he was residing with his eighty-seven year old Irish born grandfather, Thomas Burk.
Three years later, in early September 1873, John M. Burke first met William F. Cody. Burke was at the time the manager of Italian born actress and dancer, Giuseppina Morlacchi. She had married “Texas Jack” Omohundro, co-star with Cody in his Buffalo Bill Combination stage production Scouts of the Plains, in Saint Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Rochester, New York, on August 31, 1873. Burke traveled with the newly weds to join the company at Chicago one week later. It was a meeting that began an association between Cody and Burke that would last for the remainder of both men’s lives. The relationship that developed between the two had as its defining characteristic Buffalo Bill’s Wild West for John M. Burke was, together with Cody himself and Johnnie Baker, one of only three people involved with the Wild West during the entire period that it operated, from 1883 to 1916.
Burke who was most often termed “general manager” in the Wild West’s own literature served as advance agent, location scout, talent scout, press agent and publicity manager. He was the Wild West’s “major wordsmith” having, together with his staff which sometimes numbered as many as nine, collective responsibility for preparing programs, handbills and advertising booklets. He organized and staged publicity events and photo opportunities, supplied interviews and copy to local newspapers and oversaw advertising campaigns that produced as many as half a million posters in a season.
This work was instrumental in bringing about the transformation of William F. Cody into the iconic persona of Buffalo Bill within a carefully constructed master-narrative of the western expansion of the United States that purported to represent authentically the savage life of the frontier as it retreated in the face of the advance of civilization. It is a story which, almost one hundred years later, continues to resonate in the popular imagination across the United States and the wider world. Its legacy is still the focus of scholarly research and debate.
Given that he invested so much of his professional endeavors in the creation and dissemination of Cody’s biography it is perhaps not surprising that we know so little about John M. Burke’s own life. From the writings of his contemporaries, however, we can garner enough sense of his character to identify him with the archetypal, affable Irishman, although whether or not this represented a sustained, public pose is more difficult to determine.
Burke’s protégé, Dexter Fellows, who recognized him as the “tutor in the humanities” who gave him a “zestful appetite for life” describes him as a man who:
“… always appeared to be the picture of sartorial perfection but to my knowledge he never wore a shirt. Fastened around his neck was a false white bosom of standard linen, and attached to the sleeves of his undershirt were white cuffs.”
He writes of a lavish entertainer whose “expense accounts kept him in hot water with Jule Keen, the show’s treasurer”; a man who always smoked the best cigars and he states, “Though he had an astonishing capacity for alcoholic beverages, I never saw him intoxicated.” Fellows also lays particular emphasis on Burke’s generosity:
“The Major was the delight of cadgers and panhandlers. Wherever he went there was a coterie of impecunious characters around him for whom he always had a drink or a meal or a dollar. In fact his hand was habitually in his pocket.”
Former Wild West manager, Lew Parker, tells a number of anecdotes that give testimony to Burke’s ready wit. For example, he relates how on an 1891 train journey which stopped briefly at Monte Carlo, the great gambling capital in the south of France, without affording them time to visit the town:
“He turned round to me just as the train was starting and said: “Have you got any change in your pocket?” I said: “Yes, what do you want?” He said: “Give me a franc.” I gave him a franc, and he took one out of his own pocket; opened the window of the compartment and threw the two francs out of the window into the bushes, exclaiming: “Now we can go back to America and tell them that we dropped our good money at Monte Carlo.”
Burke was in London through the winter of 1886-1887 to lay the groundwork for the Wild West’s first visit to the English capital and in writing of this Parker tells of Burke’s preference for communicating by telegraph rather than letter:
“… nothing was known as to what he had done and the general condition of affairs over there, nothing but a few telegrams that did not tell enough detail to let people know what was going on; consequently Cody and Salsbury got pretty sore about it, and on Burke’s return to New York, both of these gentlemen jumped on him, first Cody and then Salsbury, as they wanted to know what he had been doing, and why he had not written. “Why you received cables from me didn’t you?” said Burke, “Yes,” said they, but no letters. “Why, what’s the use of writing letters,” said Burke. “The news is a week old before you get it, whereas on the other hand, if I telegraph you to-day from London, you get it yesterday in New York, don’t you?”
One can imagine the knockout of this argument, so the two chiefs decided to let it go at that.”
Few of Burke’s many telegrams have survived the test of time. The last he ever sent to William F. Cody, and arguably the most poignant, dated January 9, 1917 has done so. It had been widely reported that Buffalo Bill was then on his deathbed and the cable reads:
“Dear friend Bill am appealing to the Celestial court to revise the medical jurys [sic] decision hoping nerve will and constitution may steer you off the trail over Great Divide and let you camp for years yet on the banks of the rippling Shoshone. Stay with them. How Koolah old pal.
John M. Burke”
On April 12, 1917, a little more than three months after this telegram was dispatched, John M. Burke followed his “old pal” over the “Great Divide” between life and death. He had been admitted to Providence Hospital, Washington D.C. the previous day suffering from pneumonia.
An unmarked grave in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in that city is the final resting place of, in the words of Dexter Fellows, “the mortal remains of as fine and kindly a man as ever lived.”
Buffalo Bill from Prairie to Palace
That Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill Cody, in the words of Richard White, both “played” Chicago in 1893 is a great historical irony. Both presented narratives of America’s frontier experience and, “as different as the two narratives were, they lead to remarkably similar conclusions. Both declared the frontier over.” Turner argued in academic discourse that the Western frontier no longer existed; Buffalo Bill demonstrated in popular entertainment that civilization had triumphed over savagery.
In another telling comment on the ironic counterpoint of the two men appearing at the same time and in the same place as the Great Colombian Exhibition White observes:
“Both Turner and Buffalo Bill were storytellers, but neither was content to be a mere storyteller. Each claimed to be an educator, a historian – to represent in his story an actual past. The stories they told were not so much invented (although there was some of that) as selected from the past, with the authors erasing images that did not fit. Such selectivity was necessary, for the past itself is not a story; it is the raw material from which we make coherent stories, not all of them factual.”
Telling the story of Buffalo Bill was an endeavor whose proportions extended well beyond the Wild West. Cody’s autobiography had been published almost five years before the Wild West came into being and a “literature wagon” selling the autobiography, various dime novels and other related publications was a regular feature of the accompanying side show. It was entirely fitting that a new biography of its star should be published to coincide with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West’s appearance at an event whose overarching theme was the celebration of the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492. Burke was the obvious candidate to author the work. He was the man who had always “insisted on authenticity of detail in the Wild West which was never called show or circus in advertising, but rather an exhibition with many of John M. Burke’s adjectives added to indicate that it was a highly educational exhibition.”
For the new biography, Burke was able to draw on the autobiography as a key source, recasting much of its material to fit even more directly the myth of the American hero conquering the western frontier. These revisions, together with copy that he had previously penned for various programs, and new material that he wrote relating to more recent events such as those at Wounded Knee in 1890, were brought together with testimonials that he had garnered from prominent military figures. It was all done in Burke’s own inimitable flowery and at times hyperbolic style, making for a biography that is a fascinatingly eclectic work that Kasson has rightly recognized as helping its readers “to appreciate Cody’s own overt struggle for self-definition.”
Since its first publication in 1893, Buffalo Bill from Prairie to Palace has only officially appeared in one subsequent edition, although some of the material was reused by Burke for later Wild West programs. Connor and Berger’s very welcome 2005 edition, brought the work to a wider audience for the first time. Connor modernized much of the archaic spelling of the first edition and Berger contextualized the biography with an introductory essay that stressed Burke’s role as an innovative public relations professional who was responsible for the creation of “a seamless Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) advertising and public relations machine.” The edition did not, however, include all of the photographs and line drawings which had illustrated the princeps.
This new University of Nebraska Press edition of Buffalo Bill from Prairie to Palace, will, therefore, make the full text and original illustrations of this crucial primary source more readily available whilst providing in the notes background information on both the literary sources on which Burke has drawn, and the historical events and characters mentioned in the work. These annotations serve to contextualize the narrative within the scope of the scholarly discussions of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his work mentioned above. They also indicate where further published material is available. All such further material referenced is listed in the bibliography. Corrections to aberrant spellings of proper names have been made. Obvious typographical errors within the original text have likewise been amended. The text is otherwise as it appears in the Rand and McNally edition of 1893.
The Introduction incorporates the results of original research on John M. Burke’s early life and family background which are published here for the first time.
The edition has been produced as part of the print edition of The Papers of William F. Cody under the aegis of the project of the same name, located at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming.
One of the major objectives of the project is to collect materials that document the personal and professional life of a man who had thousands of employees, friends, and customers who wrote to him and about him. In addition to the print edition of the Papers, a key output of the project will be a digital version of this entire corpus of material, complete with authoritative transcriptions, which will be made available through the project website and continually updated as new materials are located.
The creation of this digital collection that brings together the entire body of research materials related to William F. Cody’s personal and professional life will both enable a variety of audiences to consider not only the impact of William F. Cody the cultural entrepreneur on American life and provide contextualizing documents from other sources and audio-visual media that exist for the final years of Cody’s life.
It will allow more scholars to study the man within his times, will provide new resources to contextualize studies of other regional and national events and persons, and will entice the casual visitor to the digital edition to explore and learn more about these vital decades of American expansion and development. The digital edition of the Papers will differ significantly from the print edition by including manuscript materials, photographs, and film and sound recordings, and it will offer searching and navigational options not possible in the print edition. Both editions will include aids that gloss names, events, places, and archaic terms and will provide overview introductory essays, graphic images, and timelines.
Chris Dixon, University of Strathclyde
John M. Burke, Buffalo Bill from Prairie to Palace. Edited and with an introduction by Chris Dixon (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).