History provides bad example for Gunsmoke newsies

Ned Buntline, dime-novelist

Ned Buntline served as a bad example for reporters on Gunsmoke

The six-gun adventures reported by 19th century writer Ned Buntline came up in conversation more than once in the 1952-1961 radio drama “Gunsmoke.” As an “adult” Western during the mature days of American radio drama, Gunsmoke distanced itself from the tall tales and romantic stereotypes of cereal-sponsored kids programs, Saturday matinee cowboy movies, and the pulp entertainments by Buntline and his ilk that preceded them.

One of the ways radio challenged those “Wild West” myths was to hold up storytellers like Buntline as a bad example and make snide remarks about his accounts of frontier heroes like Jim Bridger and Wyatt Earp, which audiences once accepted as a form of journalism, then as legend. Gunsmoke’s writers did not put Buntline himself into a story, but settled for stand-ins, fictional newspaper scribes from the East appearing as myth-makers and scandal-mongers. (This will be the first of four blog posts about them.)
In this “Sunday Supplement” episode from June 24, 1956, Sheriff Matt Dillon, played by gravel-voiced radio star William Conrad, faces two “dude” correspondents from an unnamed New York paper. Along with arriving in a fancy surrey — presumably a bit like driving up in a Mercedes today — they make the mistake of mentioning Ned Buntline (E.Z.C. Judson) and his tales of “mountain man” and scout Jim Bridger.

The Dodge City marshal says he actually knew Bridger, and that Buntline’s stories were lies that made Bridger look foolish. (Gunsmoke script writer John Meston did his research. A recent Bridger biography says Judson, “got enough adventures out of Bridger that winter of 1860-61 to keep him writing the rest of his life,”  p. 295, Jim Bridger, J.Cecil Alter, University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

Despite the marshal’s misgivings, his friend Miss Kitty, co-owner of the local saloon, welcomes the reporters in hopes of some free publicity that might bring visitors to Dodge City. Dillon seems happy that he has to leave town for a week anyway, which means he won’t have to deal with the reporters. However, he returns just in time to get seriously bad news: Settlers and cavalry have been attacked by formerly peaceful Indians.

You can hear the whole story at the link above, but if you are in a hurry, here’s a summary: It turns out that the reporters desecrated an Indian grave, setting off a chain of bloody massacres. Whether the newsmen expected that outcome or not, their response to the carnage is a cynical observation that it is “about time” they saw some action. Their insensitivity is in human.

As the plot unfolds, the reporters not only take an artifact from a grave, they lie about it, attempt to implicate a soldier, and finally make racist “now he’s a ‘good Indian'” comments about the chief who sought revenge and was killed by the cavalry as a result.

Marshal Dillon says he regrets that he can’t hang the Easterners for anything they have done — and wishes he could turn them over to the chief whose burying ground they desecrated. But the chief is dead, and all Dillon can do is punch the more offensive of the two reporters — the one who made the “good Indian” remark — and run them out of town.

Group portrait in Western costumes

Gunsmoke’s cast: Howard McNear (Doc), William Conrad (Matt), Georgia Ellis (Kitty) and Parley Baer (Chester)

Footnote: Ironically, John Dehner, who played the hero journalist of the series “Frontier Gentleman,” appears in this episode of  “Gunsmoke,” but he is no hero here. Cast as the quieter of the two reporters, at least he doesn’t say anything that gets him punched by Marshal Dillon.

Finally, if you’re curious about Ned Buntline, the Internet Archive, which I use for my audio samples, also has a scanned copy of an original dime-novel, “Wild Bill’s Last Trail.”

Wild Bill's Last Trail, cover

A Buntline story, 1892

(OK, cheap story publications at the turn of the century were called “dime novels,” but this one was only 5 cents, as the cover clearly shows — and today it’s yours for free at the Internet Archive.)

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1950s, 19th century, adventure and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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