Historian Eduardo Obregón Pagán’s book Valley of the Guns: The Pleasant Valley War and the Trauma of Violence emphasizes the post-traumatic stress among survivors of old west gunfights, hostile Indian attacks, and lawmen who were quick on the trigger. I do not doubt that what he says is true; I only quibble about the frequency of such violence, which is a key part of his argument. He is right to say that people were traumatized by Indian war parties and confrontations between outlaws and lawmen —for how could murder, rape, kidnappings, scalping, and heinous post-mortem mutilation not have an impact on the survivors of such events? But at the same time, Pagán’s suggestion that these occurrences were prevalent in old west society is misleading. Violence wasn’t a common occurrence; it did happen, of course, but not often.
One of the greatest gunfights in US history, in terms of its scope and the number of men killed or wounded, occurred in Newton, Kansas on 20 August 1871. We remember it as the Hyde Park Gunfight. For those who never heard of Newton, Kansas, the town began when Newton became the new terminus of the Chisholm Trail. As with the other cow towns of the era, it wasn’t long before cowmen, gunslingers, gamblers, snake oil salesmen, and prostitutes filled the halls of saloons, gambling halls, and “dancing establishments.”
No surprise, the brouhaha began a few days earlier when Bill Bailey and Mike McCluskie started arguing about politics while imbibing in the Red Front Saloon. Drinking rot-gut whiskey while arguing politics produces a nasty cocktail. McCluskie was a rough-cut Irishman employed by the Santa Fe Railroad as a night watchman. Shortly after arriving in Newton, McCluskie made friends with 18-year old James Riley, who was dying of consumption (tuberculosis). Bill Bailey was a Texas cowman recently arrived in Kansas with a trail drive. At the end of a cattle drive, it was common for trail hands to look for employment at the terminus cow town. Both Bailey and McCluskie were hired as special police officers to help keep order in the city during August elections, which were emotionally charged. The good folk of Newton were trying to form a new county and there was no shortage of opinions, sober or otherwise.
As it happens, Bailey and McCluskie were constantly bickering at one another; a casual observer might have guessed that they were brothers. On 11 August, while tossing down a few too many, the Bailey-McCluskie argument turned into a fistfight, and Bailey was knocked on his keester and found himself in the middle of the street. McCluskie followed him outside, drew his pistol, and fired two shots, hitting Bailey in the chest. It was a tight group, too, but Bailey was able to hang on to life until the next day.
When Bailey died, McCluskie reasonably concluded that the shooting would not look good on his professional resumé and fled town. A few days later, after McCluskie learned that the shooting would likely be ruled “in self-defense,” he returned to town. McCluskie then claimed that he shot Bailey on account that he feared for his life —a stretch of the imagination given that on 11 August, Bill Baily wasn’t heeled. It sounded good, though, because Bailey was known as a minor gunslinger who allegedly participated in three gunfights, two of which ended up with the other guy being suddenly dead.
Meanwhile, Bailey’s cowboy friends from Texas heard about the shooting and vowed to “even the score” with the “Mick” shooter. Late on 19 August, Mike McCluskie and a Texas friend named Jim Martin sashayed into Tuttle’s dance hall saloon in a section of town called Hyde Park. McCluskie and Martin seated themselves as a card table; young Jim Riley was already in the saloon.
Shortly after midnight, Billy Garrett, Henry Kearnes, and Jim Wilkerson, friends of Bailey, strolled into the dance hall. Since all three men were Texans, they were all armed. Garrett was a known gunman. The three men watched the card game in progress. Some time later, another cowman entered Tuttle’s … a fellow named Hugh Anderson, the son of a wealthy Bell County, Texas cattleman. Anderson wasn’t one for mincing words, so he walked straight up to McCluskie and said, “You are a cowardly son-of-a-bitch and I intend to blow the top of your head off.” At this point, McCluskie probably had little doubt about Anderson’s intentions.
Jim Martin jumped up from the table and tried to reason with Hugh, but the intently focused Anderson ignored Martin, drew his revolver, and shot McCluskie in the neck. McCluskie had already drawn his pistol, but the damn thing misfired, and Mike fell to the floor. Anderson finished him off by shooting him several more times.
Garrett, Kearnes, and Wilkerson drew their weapons, too, and fired off a few shots —perhaps as a warning to bystanders to keep back. Jim Riley, McCluskie’s young friend drew out two Colt revolvers and opened fire on the three gunslingers. There was so much gun smoke inside Tuttle’s at this time that it is doubtful that Riley could have seen across the room, but that didn’t stop him from emptying his guns and, remarkably, he hit seven men —one of whom was McCluskie’s other friend, Jim Martin. Martin made it out of the saloon before he fell dead in the street. Garrett too was hit and died a few hours later. Kearnes was also mortally wounded, but he clung to life for a week.
Innocent bystanders were also hit. Patrick Lee, a railroad brakeman, was shot in the stomach and died within a few days. Another railroad man named Hickey was wounded, but slightly. Wilkerson and Anderson received wounds; Wilkerson lost the end of his nose and Anderson received two wounds in his legs. The shooter, James Riley, calmly walked out of the saloon as was never heard from again.
Later that day, Sunday, a coroner’s inquest was convened to consider charges. The panel met at 8:00 a.m., and before noon issued an arrest warrant for Hugh Anderson on account it was he that fired the first shot. Two things happened almost immediately. First, Texas cowboys informed members of the inquest that if they did not leave town immediately, their bodies would be discovered on Monday morning decorating the tops of telegraph poles. Second, Hugh Anderson’s father smuggled him out of town on a train bound for Topeka. Ultimately, Hugh made his way back to Texas. He was never hauled into court for McCluskie’s murder.
By Sunday night, the Texans had taken over the town and openly discussed the possibility of burning Newton to the ground. They warned the prostitutes and gamblers to leave town while they still could —which had the effect of creating a mad exodus from Newton, Kansas. Before 8:00 a.m. on Monday, Newton, Kansas was empty of gamblers, prostitutes, and other criminals —including the entire city council, town marshals, judges, and all members of the coroner’s panel.
But the Hyde Park affair was not quite over because Mike McCluskie had a brother named Arthur. Arthur, also being a rough-cut Irishman, wanted an eye-for-an-eye. For more than two years, Arthur and his friends were on the lookout for Hugh Anderson, who until 1873, kept a low profile in Bell County, Texas. In that year, however, Hugh made the rather poor decision to return to Kansas, where Arthur tracked him down at Medicine Lodge. Hugh was working as a barkeep at Harding’s Trading Post. Arthur sent him a challenge to a duel —guns or knives, Hugh’s choice. Hugh selected pistols and soon after emerged from the trading post well heeled. Both men were highly agitated. After they emptied their guns into one another, they pulled their knives and went back to work. In the end, both men lay dead in a pool of blood.
As far as old west gunfights go, the Hyde Park fight was far more significant than the gunfight at O.K. Corral, yet hardly anyone today knows about it. Well, the truth is that most people never knew of the O.K. Corral until the 1920s, and Wyatt Earp was unknown to history until his publicist made him into a legend. In contrast, no one involved in the Hyde Park fight ever achieved legendary status —this is probably because most of the men involved in the fight died, and apparently, the traumatized Jim Wilkerson had very little interest in posing for the cover of a dime novel.