Editor’s Introduction to Four Years in Europe with Buffalo Bill

Four Years in EuropeIntroduction

The author

By any standard he was a remarkable man. Author, comedian, conjurer, contortionist, dancer, fire-eater, hypnotist, illusionist, lecturer, magician, newspaper owner, publisher, sword swallower and yogi: Charles Eldridge Griffin, also known by the stage names of Monsieur F. Le Costro, Professor Griffin and the Yankee Yogi.

Charles E. Griffin, as he preferred to style himself, was born June 16, 1859 in St. Joseph, Missouri, and, although his mother Fanny was a musician, there was nothing in his family background to suggest the appeal that the circus would have for him and his two brothers, Frank and Fred. All three would make their living in and around a variety of big tents in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries when the circus and sideshow industries were becoming big business in America and beyond. By 1862 the family had moved to Albia, Iowa, and his father, John Griffin, was Monroe County superintendent of schools and would later be county clerk of courts. It was the “Hawkeye state” with which Griffin always identified and that he always called home.

The earliest record we have of Griffin as a performer is at the age of 16 in 1875 when he was touring mid-west county fairs, school houses and town halls with his “one man valise troupe.” A challenging apprenticeship for one so young, but one which gave him the opportunity to hone the talents which he would later display to larger audiences across the United States and internationally with various companies including most notably the Bob Hunting Circus, the Ringling Brothers Circus Sideshow and, of course, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. 

His first known engagement with a circus company dates from 1881 and was fairly short-lived. Griffin joined the struggling Hilliard and DeMott’s Circus as a magician and side-show lecturer and remained with them until they folded the following year. He had clearly made a big impression though, as he was invited at the tender age of 22 to travel to France and become general manager of the Paris Pavilion Shows. This was his first notable venture overseas. Little is known about his time in France, but he resurfaces in the United States two years later with Pullman and Mack’s Circus, appearing as “The Comic Yankee Conjurer” throughout its short lived existence in the 1884-1885 season. The company’s demise was not a setback for Griffin, however, as the following year his career went from strength to strength when he joined the famous Sells Brothers Circus as both a fire-eater and a side show lecturer.

1886 marked a crucial turning point for Griffin, as he left Sells Brothers to join the newly formed Hurlburt and Hunting Circus in New York City, which would later be known as Bob Hunting’s New York Circus. During the twelve years that he spent with Hunting, he set up his own New York Conjuring College and added writing and publishing to his growing list of accomplishments. The first of many instruction manuals that he was to produce for aspiring circus performers was his self-published (1887) Griffin’s Book of Wonders. A year later, the first of his two memoires (1888) Traveling with a Circus: A History of Hunting’s N.Y. Cirque Curriculum for Season 1888, came off the Van Fleet presses in New York. These were followed by booklets on snake charming (1890a), using dumb bells (1890b), conjuring (1896a & 1897a), how to be a contortionist (1896b), fire eating (1896c) and his (1897b) The Showman’s Book of Wonders, a compendium on “magic, ventriloquism, fire eating, sword swallowing and hypnotism”. The multi-talented Griffin was publisher for all but one of these (1896c) which were sold on site at the circus for ten cents a copy.

These were fruitful years both professionally and personally. He was variously billed in Hunting’s programmes as “Professor Griffin, the Yankee Yogi, Magician and Sword Swallower”, as “Illusionist and Ventriloquist”, and as “Manager All Privileges”. By 1898, he owned and managed the entire side-show operation. The previous year, he had become part-owner of the Maquoketa (Iowa) Weekly Excelsior. It was also during this time that he met and married his wife, Olivia, a snake charmer who worked with him on the show.

The Frank A Robbin’s Circus recruited him in 1898 to run its sideshows and he remained with them for one season only. Griffin spent the four years from 1899 to 1902 with the Ringling Brothers Circus Side Show based in Baraboo, Wisconsin as both stage manager and performer in his own right, doing a magic, ventriloquism and sword swallowing as well as lecturing. 

In June 1902, when the Ringling Circus was appearing in Canton, Ohio, the renowned, James A. Bailey, of Barnum and Bailey fame, who was by that time a partner in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, made what Griffin (1908: 17) himself described as an unprecedented visit to a rival circus with the objective of recruiting performers for the Wild West’s forthcoming tour of Europe. Griffin was one of those he approached and on March 28, 1903, accompanied by his wife and son, he set sail for Liverpool aboard the Cunard steamer Etruria.

He joined the Wild West in Manchester and performed his “Yankee Magic” in the sideshow throughout the remainder of that season. His managerial talents and experience did not go unrecognised however, and when Lew Parker decided not to rejoin the show for the 1904 British tour Griffin was a ready made replacement to act as manager for the Wild West. He stayed with the show in that role through 1905 and 1906, wintering in Europe when many of the other leading figures returned to the United States during the off seasons. He travelled with the Wild West across France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and to various parts of central and eastern Europe which at that time came under the single banner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, encompassing present day Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and the Ukraine.

Upon his return to the States, in October 1906, Griffin settled in his old home town of Albia, Iowa, and began writing his second (1908) memoire, the work for which he is best known among Cody scholars at least, Four Years in Europe With Buffalo Bill. The book took him two years to complete due in part to ill health, as he suffered a mild stroke in late 1906, and in part to his professional commitments, as he rejoined the Wild West for the 1907 season as manager and side-show artist. This was his final curtain call as a performer, if we discount occasionally entertaining his neighbours with performances at Albia’s Opera House in the closing years of his life. The print run of the first – and so far only – edition, which he published under the imprint of his own Stage Publishing Company, which he had acquired around the turn of the century, was a mere 500 copies.

Although eclectic in nature, as memoires often are, Griffin’s direct and at times almost conversational style is engaging throughout. As he tells us early in the work (1908: 18) it is not his intention “to tire the reader with useless verbiage or dry statistics […] but to give a straightforward narrative of the many interesting places visited, and the contretemps met with in such a stupendous undertaking.” It is an intention that he meets admirably.

Writing and publishing were the main focus of Griffin’s activities for the rest of his life. He continued to produce guides for aspiring performers on Black Face Monologue, contortionism, fire eating, juggling and balancing, magic cauldron and magic kettle acts, rope and wire walking, stage dancing and ventriloquism – each available by mail order at $1.00 postage paid from his Albia base. He even produced his own (almost certainly bootleg) edition of Helen Whetmore Cody’s (1899) Last of the Great Scouts, “expressly printed to commemorate the return from Europe of Colonel Cody and his Rough Riders of the World.” (Griffin, 1908: 19, 95-96)

Death came to Charles Eldridge Griffin on January 3, 1914 at his home in Albia in the aftermath of a serious stroke which had left him completely debilitated. He had crammed so much into his relatively short life that it is difficult to believe that he was only 54 years old.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Europe

Between 1887 and 1892, and again from 1902 to 1906, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West delighted audiences in England, Scotland, Wales and fifteen other countries in continental Europe with its unbeatable combination of the authentic and the exotic (Blair, 1996: 8). It was a sensation, igniting “Wild West Fever” by offering what purported to be a genuine experience of the American frontier that people in Europe had previously only ever read about or dreamed about (Rydell & Kroes, 2005: 116).

The initial foray to London, representing Nebraska at the great American Exhibition of 1887, came at a time when relations between the United States and Britain were not at their best. The strain of the War of 1812 and concerns that Britain would recognize the Confederacy during the more recent Civil War had not entirely passed from the consciousness of either nation and yet, by the end of the run, Cody was being lauded by the London Times for doing his part in bringing “England and America” together (November 1, 1887). The most striking occurrence of the run was the May 11, 1887 visit to the show of Queen Victoria, her first public appearance since the death of her consort, Prince Albert, from typhoid fever on December 14, 1861. This and the subsequent command performance given at Windsor on June 20, 1887 are evidence of the extent to which Cody was, in addition to being a man of his own times, very much a “Renaissance man” out of his time – multi-talented and with the thirst for the patronage of the great and good that was, quite literally, food and drink to the great talents of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe.

A comment attributed to Cody, when the Kings of Denmark, Belgium, Greece and Saxony and the Prince of Wales all rode in the Deadwood Stagecoach, “I’ve held four kings, but four kings and the Prince of Wales makes a Royal Flush such as no man ever held before” (Russell, 1960: 331) inscribes new meanings to such patronage, however, in an intercultural nexus that juxtaposes the contemporary and quintessentially American game of poker with the presence of personages from ancient royal houses of Europe. Cody, the nineteenth-century entrepreneur, was not slow to cash in on this winning hand – with lithographs quickly being produced which depicted his head encircled by those of his royal patrons. The lithographs were soon reproduced as prints which subsequently became the basis for publicity posters. It was publicity that was food and drink to the “mobile dream factory […] producing narratives of heroic conquest for mass audiences” (Rydell & Kroes, 2005: 31) that was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.

At the close of the American Exhibition, the show moved on to Birmingham and Manchester for shorter although similarly successful runs, so much so that the following year they remained in the north of England, appearing in Manchester again and also in Hull.

When the show opened in Paris on May 14, 1889 as part of the Universal Exhibition, ten thousand spectators gave it an enthusiastic reception, the Marseillaise was played after the Star Spangled Banner and, in the absence of royalty, Monsieur Carnot, president of the French Republic was the leading patron and, although the exiled Queen Isabel II of Spain did attended a performance, the difference of emphasis in the French show reflects the understanding of Cody and his troupe that Europe was never just one homogeneous setting for the reception of the accomplished product of American mass culture that the Wild West had become (Rydell & Kroes, 2005: 112).

Audiences in Paris were themselves culturally and linguistically diverse, reflecting not only the cosmopolitan nature of the city but also the fact that trains from various parts of the continent were bringing eager spectators from all over Europe to see the recently inaugurated Eiffel Tower, the industrial advances on show at the Exhibition, the Pavilions of the participating nations, the anthropological exhibition on human evolution and, of course, Buffalo Bill and company. The clamour for tickets excited interest in the prospect of a more wide-ranging European tour, which the troupe undertook later that year and into 1890, travelling first to Lyons and Marseille in the south of France and then on to Spain, where they made a single five week stop in Barcelona, before proceeding through Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany.

Wherever they stopped, contemporary newspaper accounts speak not only of the success of the show, but also provide evidence of the intercultural dialogue and exchange that was going on, with elements of the show being appropriated for various local purposes and to reflect local concerns. The show was parodied in London, Paris and Barcelona, the French press used the figure of Cody to ridicule General Georges Boulanger (Warren, 2005: 349-350) and the Catalan satirical magazine Esquella de la Torraxa lampooned Francesc Rius i Taulet, the recently deposed mayor of Barcelona, by caricaturing him in blanket and feathers begging for a job with the Wild West (Marill Escudé, 1998: 105). Warren (2005: 302) has rightly observed that “Europeans did not admire his [Cody’s] show simply because they liked Americans. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West drew huge crowds in the United Kingdom and on the Continent because of the ways that it spoke to European desires and anxieties.”

The 1891 season began in Germany and Belgium before the troupe returned to the British Isles where they were joined in April by 23 Lakota “prisoners of war” who had been released into Cody’s custody less than three months after the so-called Ghost Dance uprising of the previous December. Although they provided a boost to the show’s publicity, by emphasising the authentic savagery of the frontier as an imminent phenomenon, the closest any of the prisoners were ever to come to actual rebellion was when they performed in Cody’s interpretation of Indian white relations in Scotland, England and Wales (Maddra, 2006: 190).

Spring 1892 saw a series of theatre appearances by an ad hoc concert party, comprising the Cowboy Band, the Tyrolean Singers and a group of 12 Indians who performed music, songs and Indian dances in a number of small venues around Glasgow (Cunningham, 2007: 149-150). The season culminated in another successful six month stand in London, after which Buffalo Bill’s Wild West would not be seen in Europe for almost a decade and the show which returned would be substantially different from that which had been there before.

The intervening ten years were not kind to William F. Cody, the man who grew up with Manifest Destiny (Reddin, 1999: 54), and whose life in many ways reflects the aspirations and disappointments of many Americans during the century which was drawing to a close. Cody undoubtedly lived a version of the American dream, with his rise from relative poverty to wealth, from obscurity to celebrity, but he was also beset by the same boom-and-bust cycles that were known to homesteaders, factory workers and other circus owners and performers.

The circus industry was changing with many small concerns folding under pressure from their larger rivals and others being bought out by the emerging super companies such as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey (Assael, 2005). The injection of cash that James A. Bailey’s investment provided in the midst of one of Cody’s many financial crises was effectively a buy out in which he took a controlling interest at the request of Cody’s partner Nate Salesbury. It also had the positive side-effect of allowing the show to grow considerably and was to provide some measure of financial stability. It was only after Bailey’s death in 1906, and in the wake of the financial controversies surrounding his will, that Cody’s Wild West had to merge with Pawnee Bill’s show in 1908.

In the second phase of its European activities the Wild West was bigger and it incorporated a much more expansive sideshow operation. There would be few of the longer runs which had characterized the nineteenth-century version of the show. The standard operating procedure would now be a series of one night stands with only the occasional more extended run in major cities where it was felt that the market would be sustainable. The progress of civilization which Cody had fictionalized and symbolized in the transformation of the West was being worked out in a very real sense in the transformation of the show itself. Improved infrastructure facilitated faster travel; technological advances made it possible to set up and dismantle more quickly and the economic pressures that had put so many of the smaller troupes out of business had dictated the necessity to become part of a larger conglomerate. The globalizing influences which would come to the fore throughout the twentieth-century were clearly already at work.

The turn of the century was also a difficult period in Cody’s personal life, with the loss of his acrimonious divorce case seeing him roundly criticized in his North Platte, Nebraska, hometown and lampooned in the national press. It was this negative publicity which appears to have been actually damaging to him personally – to say nothing of the potential damage to his business interests – and Warren (2005: 524) has described the years in Europe which followed as a “figurative exile that largely kept him from the public gaze in the United States.”

Exile or not, Cody was very much in the public gaze during the long and successful run in London through the second half of 1902 and the first three months of 1903. The remainder of that year and the next were spent travelling to numerous smaller venues across England, Scotland and Wales. Press coverage of the show was almost universally positive, as audiences continued to be captivated by the narrative of the progress of civilization banishing savagery from the globe (Warren, 2005: 348). It was a discourse that clearly resonated with the late Victorian public of a British Empire on which the sun literally never set and which was just emerging from the Second Boer War, the latest of its own many colonial conflicts on its far-flung frontiers.

Griffin joined the show in Manchester in April 1903 and was to remain with it through the end of the 1906 season. He missed only the initial London run and the first few Manchester engagements of the four years in Europe to which his memoire refers. His work provides the reader with an insider’s view of the remaining dates in the British Isles, the year long tour of France in 1905, complete with its iconography on the emerging “entente cordiale” with the United States, and the peripatetic 1906 season when the show ranged far and wide through Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium, welcoming distinguished visitors from many royals houses along the way. Contemporary commentators, in Germany and Italy in particular, show an increasing fascination with the Indians as romantic symbols of a preindustrial age (Warren, 2005: 354; Fiorentino, 1999). Griffin’s idiosyncratic commentaries, while often reflecting prevalent American views of different European nations, stand in stark contrast to these German and Italian romantic ideals, both in the frankness of their tone and the down-to-earth realism of their content.

He is generally positive about the English who, “respect and admire Americans more than the people of the States generally imagine” (1908: 41) and the Germans who “take every advantage of their natural resources” (1908: 81) but his views on the French are more mixed. He comments favourably on their energy but condemns them for their “extreme excitability and social immorality” (1908: 58). Among his most poignant views are those on the ethnic diversity and linguistic mix of the cities the Wild West visited in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a tinder box only eight years before the spark that would ignite Europe in four years of bloody war. He writes, “Some towns would be about equally divided between four or five nationalities, and, although they all understood German, the official language, each would insist on being addressed in his native language. We think we have a race problem in America, but it is more complicated and acute in Eastern Europe, and it is not a matter of color, either.” (1908: 79)

About this Edition

By the end of his life, William F Cody had become the entertainment industry’s first international celebrity, blazing a trail that was to be followed by others with the advent of mass communication media in the decades after his passing. The vehicle that brought him international stardom was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. During the three decades that he operated and appeared in various incarnations of “the western world’s greatest travelling attraction” (Blair, 1996: 3), European and American audiences were offered a carefully crafted narrative of the history of geographic expansion in the trans-Mississippi west of the United States that displayed in itself the products of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century industrial civilization while purporting to represent authentically the savage life of the frontier (Sears, 1993). From its inception in 1883, the show was a reflection of the dominant positivist ideology of progress from savagery to civilization seen through the lens of Cody’s own imagination, with his own constructed persona at the heart of it all.

More than any other individual it was Cody who brought America to the world, crafting out of his own biography, imagination and ambition an international and inter-cultural legacy that is still debated by scholars nearly one hundred years on. The museums dedicated to his memory in Cody, Wyoming, Golden, Colorado and North Platte, Nebraska attract a steady stream of visitors from throughout the United States and abroad each year. Given the unquestionable international importance of his life and works and the enduring interest which they continue to engender, it is scarcely credible that the only contemporary book-length commentary on his Wild West in Europe which has been referenced by every leading Cody scholar from Russell (1960) to Warren (2005) has only ever appeared in one edition with a single print run of 500 copies and that it is now only available to specialists in a small number of libraries and archives. And yet, over a century since it first appeared, that is the case for Four Years in Europe with Buffalo Bill.

Since the turn of the twenty-first-century, a number of writers, such as Rydell & Kroes (2005), have linked the development of mass-market American cultural products in the late nineteenth-century, such as the Wild West, to the origins of American cultural imperialism, arguing that its emergence as a global phenomenon pre-dates the decades between the two World Wars which had previously been generally accepted. Others scholars, such as Warren (2005: 302), have identified the need for further study of “the show’s meaning for its diverse European audiences.” It is in the context of these recent debates that this new edition of Griffin’s (1908) memoire is presented: a first person narrative in straightforward prose which forms part of the documentary record of William F. Cody’s life and career, shedding light on some of the deepest questions about nationalism, imperialism, and an emerging global mass culture that dominate contemporary scholarly and public interest by describing and commenting upon some of the key events of the Wild West’s extensive European tours of 1902-1906.

It is not, however, the intention of this edition to be overly academic, for to do so would be a tremendous disservice to the original. Griffin’s distinctive voice draws his readers in as he addresses them directly in an unselfconscious manner which is at no time dry or scholarly, and in producing this authoritative version of his text, complete with the accompanying line drawings and photographs from the princeps, care has been taken to ensure that the integrity of the original has been maintained throughout. Corrections have been made to some aberrant spellings of place names and a small number of obvious typographical errors have likewise been amended. The text is otherwise as it appears in the Stage Publishing Company edition of 1908. Where place names have subsequently been changed, the text has not been amended and the current place name is given in the notes.

These annotations serve to provide further information on some of the personalities mentioned, to contextualize the narrative within the scope of the scholarly discussions mentioned above, and to indicate those aspects of the 1902-1906 tours on which further published material is available. All such further material is listed in the bibliography.

As an appendix to the volume, a complete listing of the dates and venues for the Wild West’s engagements on the tours in question is included. Based on the original route books, care has been taken to ensure that current place names and modern orthography are used throughout the appendix. Particular care has been taken in relation to the much changed map of central and eastern Europe, in order to ensure that modern states which at the time of the tour formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire have been correctly identified.

This new University of Nebraska Press edition of Four Years in Europe with Buffalo Bill, will, therefore, make a key primary source for scholars engaging in these inter-cultural dialogues more readily available whilst offering Griffin’s own work to the more general audience that it has heretofore lacked. 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
Cody, Wyoming
August 2009


Charles Eldridge Griffin, Four Years in Europe with Buffalo Bill. Edited and with an introduction by Chris Dixon (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010).

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