My parents encouraged reading, and I attended schools where there was always a well-stocked library of the things I was interested in — explorers, adventurers, and frontiersmen. They were primarily biographies of such men as William Penn, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, and others.
Of course, the stories were for young people, so the one thing that stood out about the biographies (although not evident to a fifth-grade reader) was that they were all full of fluff. The writers told the story of a young Washington, who cut down his father’s cherry tree and then later, for no apparent reason, threw a dollar across the Potomac. They wrote about young Ben Franklin, who authored Poor Richard’s Almanac — and the rough-cut John Fremont, who saved California. Missing from these stories was that when Washington was a young man, there weren’t any “dollars” in the American colonies, Franklin plagiarized Shakespeare, or Fremont would have sold his sister into slavery for political advantage.
There were two types of stories about early America: the sanitized version and the unmitigated truth. The truth is that some of the actual characters in America’s history were less than exemplary people. They were often profane, intemperate, untrustworthy, and dangerous. Some men wore the badges of law enforcement officers while robbing banks in nearby towns.
In the formative years of the United States, the truth about society is that almost everyone had their freedom — and little else. Young men faced a short lifespan of back-breaking labor; their women suffered through a short life of pain and deprivation. In 1790, 36% of American households contained seven or more people. A century later, 23% had seven or more persons. The large size of American families was partly so that the children could eventually assist their fathers and mothers in running the farm. The larger the acreage, the more people needed to work it.
The period between 1750 and 1950 was difficult for young people. Muscle-sore and work-weary parents guided their offspring through their daily routine: awaken, milk and feed the livestock, breakfast, repair or replace fencing, break for a noon meal, bale, repair, haul, supper, read a few passages from the Bible, and go to bed. This sort of activity went on week after week, month after month, year after year — and by the time the “children” reached ten or 12-years-old, they were ready to strike out on their own. All kids develop romantic notions about living an adventurous life away from home — and besides, life couldn’t be more challenging than what they were used to — could it?
Many of these youngsters (mostly the boys) would follow a different path from their angry, broken-down fathers and mothers. They would follow an easier path — or so they imagined. Some could find work mucking out stalls at a livery, emptying spittoons in a saloon, working for a blacksmith, or ranching — reminiscent of their life on the old man’s farm. In surprisingly large numbers, others turned to robbery, gambling, and drinking rotgut whiskey. Many of these kids simply “disappeared” from the face of the earth. Life in rural America was bad, but life in America’s growing cities was even worse. The average lifespan was 38-40 for both males and females. In 1950, only 13% of the population lived to age 65.
We should conclude that children didn’t have much of a childhood in the mid-1800s — a condition that lasted through the end of World War II. The period between 1850 and 1950 was remarkable for its violence and human suffering.
Levi Richardson was one of those lads. Born in 1851, he lived barely 28 years. He was born in Wisconsin, left the home fires at an early age, found work as a buffalo hunter, and eventually found his way to Ford County, Kansas — which ultimately became the location of one of the west’s more dangerous towns: Dodge City. In Dodge City, Levi Richardson was known as a fast gun and a perilous mankiller. According to the rumor of the day, Levi would just as soon shoot an Indian as look at them, and he was reputed to have sent more than a few Indians to the happy hunting ground in the sky.
No one is quite sure why Levi had a reputation as a gunfighter. Besides the one gunfight in which he was killed, no one can remember any other “more successful” shootouts. Maybe he was all mouth. He arrived in Dodge City around 1874 — at about the same time the Indian Wars were in full swing. By the time Levi was 23 years old, he was a drifter, a boozer, a gambler, and a loudmouth. Not many people liked Levi Richardson, but Levi didn’t seem to mind. Levi did have one friend, though: a town marshal named Masterson, but then, not many people were fond of Bat Masterson, either.
Deputy town marshal Wyatt Earp knew Richardson but didn’t think much of him. Levi proved he was smarter than some by keeping a low profile around another gambler, a fellow named John Holiday. Most folks called John “Doc.” Another fellow Levi got along with was a gambler named Frank Loving.
Frank Loving was a few years younger than Levi — born in 1860. He was from Missouri but moved with his family to Texas after the Civil War. Frank’s father was killed in 1870, and it was shortly after this that young Loving left home to become a gambler. A ten-year-old gambler is hard to imagine. My guess is that he started off working in saloons and eased into the gambling racket. Loving also ended up in Ford County, Kansas, where he spent most of his time at the famed Long Branch Saloon, then owned by Charlie Bassett. Bassett later became the Ford County Sheriff and, alternately, Dodge City Town Marshal.
By every account, Levi Richardson, and Frank Loving, who some people called Cockeye Frank, got along well enough — until 1879. Frank Loving, a married man, concluded that Levi was making a play for his wife, Mattie. At first, Loving addressed his concerns verbally, which in time escalated to a fistfight in the street outside the Long Branch. When the fight was finally over (people get tired of swinging fists after a while), Levi told Frank (who was unarmed at the time), “The next time I see you, I’ll blow your guts out, you cockeyed son of a bitch.”
On 5 April 1879, Richardson decided he’d had enough of Cockeyed Frank. He stepped inside the Long Branch Saloon with one thought in his pea-sized head: blowing Frank’s guts out. But Loving wasn’t in the saloon, so Levi decided to wait. Frank finally showed up for work at around 9 a.m., seating himself near a potbellied stove at the end of a long table. Levi joined him at the table, and they spoke in low tones. Richardson suddenly stood up and, in a louder voice, said, “You wouldn’t fight anything, you damn son of a bitch.” Frank answered, “Well then, try me and see.”
Levi went for his gun, clearing leather, and Frank did the same. The two men fired eleven shots from a distance of about two feet. One of Levi’s five shots grazed Frank’s hand. Frank fired six shots, hitting Levi in the chest, side, and arm. Deputy Marshal William Duffy entered the saloon as Frank fired his last bullet and disarmed Levi as he fell to the floor. Town Marshal Bassett arrived next and arrested Loving, which was standard procedure back then. Levi, lying on the floor, bled out and died. Officials ruled the shooting self-defense two days later, promptly releasing Frank Loving from custody. Since Levi had his boots on at the instant of his death, well — you know.
No one else was hit by errant bullets inside the Saloon — but it was, after all, just a little past nine in the morning. Locals couldn’t imagine what happened to Levi’s other four bullets. There were several gunfights in the Long Branch Saloon, but the Loving-Richardson shootout was the more famous among them. A short time later, 19-year old Frank Loving left his wife and children to pursue full-time employment as a gambler over in Trinidad, Colorado.
Frank Loving and John Allen had a lot in common. They were both professional gamblers, they were both loudmouths, and they had known each other since their good old Dodge City days. Early in the evening of 14 April 1882, Loving and Allen got into an argument. Loving suggested that they step into the street and settle the matter. Mutual friends prevented any gunplay that day, and both men went their separate ways. Frank Loving stewed in his juices overnight, apparently deciding that the matter was unresolved.
The next morning, Frank Loving entered the Imperial Saloon, where Allen worked, with a gun in his hand. When Allen noticed the handgun, he stood up, drew his pistol, and fired at Loving. And missed. Loving returned fire — and missed. Saloon patrons scattered left and right. In the melee, someone knocked the gun out of Loving’s hand. Using a patron as cover, Allen shot at Loving two more times, missing both times.
Frank Loving recovered his pistol and emptied it at Allen, who was by then quickly finding his way toward the back door of the Imperial into the alley. None of Loving’s bullets hit Allen. Allen quickly took refuge in Hammond’s Hardware Store, two doors down from the Imperial. Loving pursued Allen into the alley but could not find him. Meanwhile, while serving as a deputy town marshal, James Masterson (Bat Masterson’s younger brother) located Loving and disarmed him. Having done so, Masterson searched for Allen, who seemed to have disappeared.
Sometime later, Masterson returned to the Imperial and learned that Loving had re-armed himself with two revolvers and was out looking for Allen. By then, Loving had entered the hardware store to buy ammunition for the guns — and this is where Allen stepped up behind Loving and shot him. After Masterson and Town Marshal Lou Kreeger discovered Loving, who was badly wounded, they arrested Allen.
Frank Loving died from his gunshot wound on 21 April. Allen went to trial in September 1882, charged with Loving’s murder. Allen successfully argued that he acted in self-defense and won an acquittal. Since Loving died with his boots on — well, you know. John Allen moved back to Dodge City, where he became a preacher. It didn’t pay as much as gambling, but it was safer.