Gravesite legend survives century since icon’s death
CODY, Wyo. — A headstone-free, non-descript plot of land atop 7,890-foot Cedar Mountain may be the peaceful, mostly ignored resting place fulfilling the wishes of the honorable William F. Cody.
Or it may be the focal point of one of the Old West’s greatest myths.
Master showman, Congressional Medal of Honor winner, scout, Indian fighter, founder of the City of Cody, and full-time legend, Buffalo Bill Cody was a man of many roles, hats, beards and white horses.
No one disputes he died at 12:05 p.m. 100 years ago today in his sister’s home in Denver, reported the Cody Enterprise. The story instantly flashed by telegraph – the social media of the time – around the world.
Word spread so quickly this newspaper, then-called the Park County Enterprise, announced Cody’s death in that day’s edition, Jan. 10, 1917.
The story ran under a headline reading, “Death Summons Col. W.F. Cody.” It was on the front page, just beneath the phrase reminding readers Buffalo Bill actually founded the newspaper in 1899, three years after lending his name to the community.
The first line of the story included the comment, “better known perhaps than any other man in private life.”
There was no perhaps about it. Cody was the most famous and most photographed man in the world during his lifetime, from1846 to 1917. He hobnobbed with presidents and royalty, yet still related to everyday citizens, especially children, who called him Old Scout.
Still, the question of where beloved Buffalo Bill, the most iconic figure of the American frontier, has been since his passing, lingers. It’s a question that has fascinated generations, intrigued many, and even angered some with a stake in the mystery.
He is either buried in Golden, Colo., at a specially constructed gravesite, lying under 20 tons of concrete to protect against body snatching, or he really is on Cedar Mountain after a group of Cody residents secretly absconded with the body and buried him here.
Oh yes, as in all capers of such nature, there is more than one will. There is the 1906 version, and there is a second.
Although the tale occasionally bursts its seams when a writer is tipped to a good yarn, basically this is a Cody, Wyo., thing.
For most of the world it is a done-deal fact that Buffalo Bill is buried on Lookout Mountain in Golden, in a place approximating the kind of view he sought on Cedar Mountain.
There is a museum and gift shop on the grounds, much smaller than the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The Colorado museum was jump-started by Johnny Baker, Cody’s foster son.
Steve Friesen, director of the gravesite museum, is a fierce defender of the view that Buffalo Bill is on the premises. In Friesen’s view there’s wiggle room, no chance, Cody was buried anywhere else. Any suggestion otherwise is flat-out falsehood.
He has been known to dismiss anyone from Cody who says differently as someone with too much time on his hands.
The No. 1 general target of Friesen’s temper is often Cody’s Bob Richard.
Richard, 79, a Cody photographer, former tour guide and National Park ranger, is the living conduit to the past. To Friesen, Richard is the equivalent of dining at a fancy restaurant and finding an insect in the mashed potatoes.
That’s because Richard is both true believer and proselytizer in chief of the Cody-is-on-Cedar-Mountain version of the story. And he will tell you how the Old Scout got there.
When he was 14 years old, Richard explains, his grandfather Fred told him how he, Ned Frost, and John Vogel turned into stealth body snatchers in Denver, then quietly buried Buffalo Bill where he’d always intended.
“The grave site sits on Cedar Mountain looking up to the North Fork and looking out over Cody,” Richard said. “Fred took me up there and showed me where they buried him.”
It is a steep drive on a dirt road. There are communication towers up there. Some of the land is privately owned. Some falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management.
There is also a bison statue, looking out at the scenery. While decorative, it has nothing to do with Buffalo Bill’s grave, Richard and others say.
Also on the mountain is the grave of Cody booster Breck Moran, and a site containing the ashes of Ebb Tarr, a renowned Buffalo Bill impersonator.
And Buffalo Bill too. Maybe. Firm supporters of the idea are difficult to come by.
Cody historian Paul Fees spent 20 years in an executive role at the Buffalo Bill Center. During that time he was told the story of the body snatching by Dick Frost, a Ned descendent, and Fred Garlow, Buffalo Bill’s grandson.
In 1997, Fees participated in a mock trial playing an attorney, taking the position Buffalo Bill never wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain. Friesen played the attorney of the other part, insisting yes he did.
That’s a separate issue from whether or not Cody is on Cedar Mountain. Fees believes he is not.
“Buffalo Bill is on Lookout Mountain,” Fees said.
As to what Cody wanted, however, Fees doesn’t believe Buffalo Bill intended Lookout Mountain to be his final resting place.
“He never said he wanted to be there,” Fees said.
On Christmas in 1916, Buffalo Bill Cody was in his namesake city. He visited his 8,000-acre TE Ranch where 1,000 head of cattle resided.
The year had been a rough one financially. Alliances with his Wild West tour were fraying. Business was down.
His health was also declining, with a number of ailments slowing him as he approached his 71st birthday in late February. His trademark beard had turned snow white and his time spent aboard one of his favorite white horses – at this point McKinley – was limited. Once in a while a picture of Cody not wearing one of his many distinctive cowboy hats appeared, showing he was bald.
Cody still worked feverishly to raise money to put a fresh version of the Wild West tour on the road in 1917. Johnny Baker was in the East doing likewise.
At the end of the holidays, Buffalo Bill and his wife Louisa took a train to Denver, but she returned to Cody.
Buffalo Bill was not feeling well in Denver while staying at the home of his sister, May Decker, so he adjourned to Glenwood Springs for a few days of mineral baths.
The waters did not soothe him sufficiently and still ailing, he returned to 2932 Lafayette St. in Denver on Jan. 8.
In a book titled “Memories of Buffalo Bill By His Wife Louisa Frederici Cody,” published in 1919, Louisa, who called Buffalo Bill “Will,” wrote she was informed of his failing health by someone in Cody.
Then she received a telegram from Will reading, “Don’t believe exaggerated reports about my illness. They’re trying to tell me I’m going to die. But I’ve still got my boots on and they can’t kill me, Mamma. They’ve tried it before.”
She must have chuckled at Buffalo Bill laughing off his condition. But a follow-up telegram from a doctor warned her husband was gravely ill.
She met Will in Denver and described him as,”… a frail, white-faced man, the long, white hair clinging about his temples, the lips thin and white and wan – but a man fighting to the end.”
In the closing pages of her book she quoted Buffalo Bill as saying, “I want to be buried on top of Mount Lookout. It’s right over Denver. You can look down into four states there. It’s pretty up there. I want to be buried up there – instead of in Wyoming.”
Few believe Buffalo Bill said that.
Wedded in 1866 in St. Louis, the Cody’s marriage had been long and rocky, with numerous stresses.
For most of 30 years Buffalo Bill had been on the road, traveling throughout Europe and the United States with his frontier-rooted performances and apparently a succession of groupie girlfriends.
Two of their children had died and were buried in a family plot in Rochester, N.Y.
Buffalo Bill more than once accused Louisa of trying to poison him, though that was disproved.
Buffalo Bill sued for divorce in 1904, but the court denied it, telling the couple to reconcile. They did and were still officially together in 1917.
When word spread the most famous of buffalo hunters, a man born so long ago in small-town Iowa, a man who had transformed the West, was dying. A vigil formed outside the home.
A small circle of family, Louisa, sister Julia, daughter Irma (for whom the Cody Irma Hotel is named) and her husband Fred Garlow (the elder), and Buffalo Bill’s grandchildren, Fred (the younger), Bill and Jane, were at the house when Cody died.
Buffalo Bill’s death certificate listed “uremic poisoning,” stemming from kidney failure or kidney disease, as the cause of his passing.
The announcement of the Old Scout’s demise triggered craziness. The first report from the bedroom where he was embalmed stated Buffalo Bill’s body was headed to Rochester for burial with his children.
As Cody residents 500 miles away observed in astonishment – they believed Buffalo Bill was headed their way for internment – the city of Denver wrested control of the body and funeral plans.
Authorization was staked to a fresher 1913 will. In it, Buffalo Bill left death-related issues up to his wife.
Although it was said Buffalo Bill fell into a delirium prior to his death, witnesses claimed he had that dubious death-bed conversion to Lookout Mountain. Discounting comments by one unreliable individual, most historians agree Buffalo Bill had never been to Lookout Mountain, much less considered it to be such a wonderful place he wished to reside there for eternity.
Two sources, a telegraph wire to then-Cody mayor Jakie Schwoob, and the trio of outraged body snatchers, suggest Louisa sold her husband’s body for $10,000 (or more) to Denver Post publisher Henry Tammen and his co-conspirator, Denver Mayor Robert Speer, for the promise they would orchestrate a sensational funeral. Those men were regarded as roguish enough to make such a pitch.
Schwoob said Louisa contacted him saying Denver pledged “a $10,000 funeral. Can Cody match that?”
Richard indicated he heard each man put $10,000 on the table for Louisa over breakfast.
“She opened her big purse, pulled it in and said, ‘It’s yours,’” Richard said.
Fees said he believes those tales to be a slur on Louisa’s name. Instead, what she likely accepted was Denver covering the cost of a glittery, major funeral production.
A very elaborate and public funeral was conducted in Denver Jan. 14, and then William F. Cody’s coffin was placed in cold storage at Olinger’s Crown Hill Mortuary.
There was no existing burial site on 7,379-foot Lookout Mountain. Buffalo Bill’s delayed burial took place June 3, 1917.
Some believe sleight of hand occurred during the intervening months, raising the question of who was buried in Buffalo Bill’s Golden grave?
Information from: The Cody Enterprise, http://www.codyenterprise.com
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