Back in 1927 Dick Clarke, known by some as Deadwood Dick, flew to Washington D.C. and shook hands with President Coolidge. Later, in the early 1940s, when Dick went to that big roundup in the sky, most of the newspapers across the country wrote sorrowful stories about him. Those two occurrences, in them selves, don’t sound exactly like big doings. At least they don’t, not until you stop and consider that Deadwood Dick never existed.
And believe it or not, the whole thing got started by an eastern dude back in New York City in 1876. Now this fellow with the big talent for tales was a hack writer by the name of Edward L. Wheeler who dug up his own nugget when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the town of Deadwood rose from the dust.
Wheeler, though not being inclined to go prospecting after the shinny metal that was attracting the nation’s attention, wanted to create his own strike without trekking any farther westward than the West End Bar and Grill on the outskirts of Manhattan, New York. It may have been in that exact establishment, over frothy glass, that Wheeler got to thinking about this booming town out west that had been aptly named Deadwood after a fire charred all the trees on one side of the place. Wheeler, being a writer and all, may have been in a poetic mood of a sorts that day when he came up with the idea for a western character who was associated with that booming burg in the Black Hills. It just seems, somewhat, natural that the character that entered Wheeler’s brain would be know as Deadwood Dick.
Well, Wheeler drew a royal flush that day and the cards continued to fall in order for the next 15 years and 64 books later. Ole Deadwood Dick became the man’s man of the west as he chased outlaws, was an outlaw, a hunter, Indian fighter, cowboy and gambler, just to name a few of Dick’s in-print occupations. He could out-shoot Buffalo Bill, out-outlaw Jesse James, fight Indians better than Davy Crockett, and not a lovely lady in the west need fear for her life. The damsel in distress could always count on Deadwood Dick coming to her rescue, just in the nick of time. Why, I bet if Dick had hung around just a bit longer he could have out-sung Gene Autry and tuned his get-fiddle, saddled his horse, and fought off a whole band of Sioux all at the same time while riding off into the sunset–where, of course, he would then kiss his horse.
About the same time that Wheeler was thinking up Deadwood Dick, out west came a young fellow, of about 20 years, who had one grand ambition. It wasn’t to discover gold, or become a famous lawman, or any of those things. This fellow, Dick Clarke, just wanted to fulfill his life’s ambition, and that was to be a stable hand someplace.
Dick fulfilled his desires out west when he hired on, at $15 a month, to swamp stalls at Crook City, which wasn’t all that far from the town of Deadwood. But then the troubles started. First off, outlaw Sam Bass and his gang robbed the Deadwood stage. Then, as it was reported to Dick by his friend Hank, some Indians, thought to be Sioux, went on the rampage after a prospector killed an Indian and cut his head off. It seems that both fellows thought it best to stay close in town, just to be on the safe side. Hank owned a gun, of sorts, but Dick was gunless. Dick tried to get Hank to let him carry the gun when his friend wasn’t in need of it, but it was nothin’ doin’. Hank did relent and let Dick carry the gun when he had to make it in the dark for the outhouse, allowing that it was well known that the outhouse was a favorite ambush spot for savages looking to life a white scalp.
Matters were edgy enough, what with outlaws and Indians, on the prod. Then Wild Bill Hickok got himself shot in the back of the head in Deadwood while he was playing cards.
Things progressed from there pretty calm. Then one day Dick and Hank had to make a trip into Deadwood to purchase some things for their boss. They were paused out in front of the Green Front Saloon, attempting to read the list the boss had given them. They then figured they’d have better luck sorting it out after they’d had a drink. They were just about to turn in to the saloon when a filthy lump dressed in greasy buckskins and swearing to blue blazes was tossed outside and into the street. If the boys were hoping to see the grand sites of Deadwood they could not claim to have encountered none other than Calamity Jane.
Over the years, as Dick Clarke was trying his hand at ranching, then tending bar for a time, but mostly being a stable hand, Ed Wheeler was cranking out the Deadwood Dick adventures. And by now, folks all over the country were reading them and were certain in their belief that Deadwood Dick was a real, flesh-and-blood, person. Finally, the years rolled by to 1927 and that year the only Indian massacre occurred when a drunken Sioux, driving a Model A Ford, ran over a white fellow.
Dick was pushing 70 years by then, but was still spry, when a Bert Bell approached him. Pointing out to Dick that since his name was already Dick, and that he’d lived in Deadwood most of his life, Bert wanted to know if Dick Clarke would like to be Deadwood Dick. As it happened, the town of Deadwood was fixing to inaugurate Deadwood’s “Days of 76.” Naturally it was to be a historical celebration and what would make it complete would be if they could present the real live genuine Deadwood Dick. The scheme was to dress Dick up in a fancy outfit of buckskins and send him back east to Washington to invite President Coolidge to Deadwood for the event. Well, heck, they even offered to pay Dick for his lost wages while he was gone and to square the whole setup with his boss. What else could Dick say but that he’d do it.
Dick Clarke, as Deadwood Dick, was the toast of Washington when he got there. Everybody wanted their picture taken with him and the newspapers started printing all the well-known “true” stories about his wild and wooly life in the west. The whole country was convince that here was the real spirit of the west. Funny things was, the one that was the most convinced was Dick, himself.
Back home in Deadwood, Dick began telling tales about himself and his numerous cronies of years gone by, such as Hickok, Calamity Jane–and even General Custer. Dick would tear-up real good at the mere mention of the demise of the mighty buffalo. But best of all, he was making money at it as folks started billing him as an attraction at shows and various celebrations.
When Dick passed on, in the early 1940s, it was no paupers grave for this stable hand. No, Deadwood Dick Clarke was laid to rest in grand style. When someone took it upon him self to count the bowed heads at Dick’s funeral, there were more mourning folks in attendance than there had been at Wild Bill Hickok’s and Calamity Jane’s funerals put together.
By the time of Dick’s death, had Ed Wheeler been still alive, which he wasn’t, he would have surely “died laughing.”