Artful deceptions then and now

Did people believe Hickok, Buffalo Bill or Annie Oakley?

By Forrest Whitman

One of the most famous wild west shows of the late 19th century was run by Buffalo Bill. He really did present an amazing spectacle. In Denver he exhibited hundreds of horses, an entire Indian village, and heroes like Wild Bill Hickok. The Indian village allowed Sioux people to keep tribal dances and lore going at a time when all of that was forbidden on their reservations. The stories western heroes like Hickok told kept alive the whole myth of the west. Much of the show wasn’t historically true, but that didn’t matter to the crowds. They just wanted to see Buffalo Bill in his fancy dress and all those wild Indians. They enjoyed what one writer has called his artful deceptions.

Buffalo Bill (really William Cody) created a personal legend, some of it even true. He really did work as an army scout and was present on some buffalo hunts. The dates don’t match up for his alleged career as a pony express rider though. It’s also highly unlikely that he ever scouted for General George Custer. Several other western stars of that era greatly exaggerated their history as well. It’s unbelievable that Annie Oakley rescued a maiden being tied to a railroad track with one shot at her assailant from three hundred yards (just as the red ball express roared down the line). People loved the tale though.

Wild Bill Hickok also told many a hair-raising tale of his years riding for the Pony Express. It seems he was always chased by hostile Indians. All of those stories were sold for a dime and were eagerly bought up. Actually Hickok did work for the Pony Express as a hostler for a few weeks at Rock Creek Station, but he wasn’t a rider. Most in his audience knew all these stories were a well-tailored deception, but it didn’t matter much. The audience obviously enjoyed the artful deception. They liked the western gear, hooting Indians, big hats, white horses and all the rest of the iconography on display. Not only that, Annie Oakley really could shoot and Bill and Hickok really could ride horses well and do many great tricks on stage. Plus, the Indians really were Sioux and performed authentic dances, something absolutely forbidden on their reservations.

Did Buffalo Bill’s show become the west?

  For eastern audiences Buffalo Bill’s show became the west, and gradually the west became something like the show. The original cowboys were mostly pretty practical working men. Few engaged in riding around shooting from their horses. So too, buckskin was once just practical, but now it became a hot retail item. Even the place names in the west became something out of one of Bill’s shows. We have a hundred “dry gulches,” “Indian Hills,” “Elk Hills,” or “Pinto acres.” The list of place names sounding “western” goes on and on. We westerners adopted Bill’s romance of the west including his many artful deceptions. Cowboy boots are another one. They were pretty routine, nothing like the fancy boots of today. It’s always seemed strange in the 21st century to see executives with million dollar a year salaries get out of their chauffeur-driven autos in Denver wearing cowboy boots. They are going up to their high-rise offices to trade stocks and derivatives, not rope cattle. Somewhere along the line we adopted Bill’s deceptions.

In opinion polls people who live in the west always list their favorite “leadership values” as “self-reliance,” “helping the less fortunate,” and “a sense of humor.” In every one of Buffalo Bill’s shows, those values came through. Probably Bill was influenced by P.T. Barnum in his fairly innocent deceptions. One of P. T. Barnum’s big attractions was the 161 year old “Joice Heath.” It was Joice who nursed the young George Washington through his childhood fevers. Self-sacrificing Joice helped George to get well after a bad influenza attack though she was sick herself. We tend to like our heroes in that mold even though very few believed Joice was actually 161.

Consider Abraham Lincoln, “defender of the poor and innocent in courts.” Abe Lincoln was actually a lawyer for railroads. That’s why he couldn’t have had much time to defend the innocent in courts, though he did do that a few times. The legend of Lincoln as a latter day A.C.L.U. crusading lawyer is much exaggerated. Still, Lincoln did fit the values Buffalo Bill exhibited.

A few of today’s artful deceptions

  If I believe any of the advertising claims about raising my testosterone, I should be gulping down pills and rubbing on goo. The next day I’d be climbing at least a 13,000 foot peak and dancing all night. After a healthy breakfast I’d be playing tennis and jogging to work. It’s all an artful deception, but many of us still enjoy watching those advertisements on TV. That’s the trick Buffalo Bill learned early on (whether he learned it from P.T. Barnum or not). We like to back off and not take ourselves so seriously. Sometimes enjoying an artful deception can be fun.

Buffalo Bill on the football field

  In a manner of speaking Bill is still exhibiting today. Professional football resembles his shows. We have interviews with the players. The heroes have foundations to channel money to the poor. They often dress in gaudy team colors and some have haircuts that are pretty amazing. They are truly good at what they do. In fact, they come as close to being heroes today as Bill and Annie and Wild Bill were. Do we believe that all of them came up the hard way and had dads who loved to toss them footballs? We apparently like our artful deceptions when it comes to football stars.

Sword swallowers and other stars

These days headliner acts in Las Vegas are often artful deceptions. We know the sword swallowers aren’t really in danger. We’d like to think the woman hopping out of that box after being sawed in two really was in there. The high wire acts normally are pretty safe. All of those acts are in Buffalo Bill’s tradition. There’s something kind of refreshing about the fact that we still enjoy those artful deceptions.

The biographical deceptions practiced by some in our national spotlight are in this category too. Do many people believe Senator Ted Cruz came up the hard way? In fact he was born in and largely educated in Canada in an upper middle class family. Joe Biden (our U. S. Vice President) really does ride the AMTRAK to work.  Does he really do that to save on expenses? That’s not to even mention Hollywood stars. These are artful deceptions which we tend to pass off as harmless enough.

Artful deceptions are as American as apple pie

Buffalo Bill’s show set a pattern for our land. We like our artful deceptions, but we shouldn’t take them too seriously.

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