Custer of the West: Hollywood fact or fiction?

CUSTER OF THE WEST starred Robert Shaw in the lead role in 1967 and was a vague representation of the facts of the ‘Battle’ of the Little Big Horn and Custer’s last stand. There was also a rather less factual Errol Flynn version in 1941 called They Died with Their Boots on.  What the 1967 version sadly lacked, which the 1941 version seemed very proud of, was the tune ‘Gary Owen’ which was taken up by Custer as the 7th Cavalry’s march – to hear it  Click here (need sound of course).

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George Armstrong Custer was born in December 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio. He went to West Point in 1857 and graduated last in his class in 1861 just in time for the commencement of the American Civil War in April of that year. He performed courageously under the command of General George McClellan who saw to his promotion to acting captain but when McClellan was relieved of his command, Custer was reverted back to lieutenant.  General Alfred Pleasonton took over from McClellan and under him came Custer’s introduction to the world of extravagant uniforms and political maneuvering, and the young lieutenant became his protégé and soon regained his rank of (full) captain. Custer distinguished himself by fearless and aggressive actions in some of the numerous cavalry engagements and he was rewarded (and so not by mistake as in the Errol Flynn film!) with promotion as the youngest brevet [1] brigadier of the volunteers at the age of 23.


Cadet George Custer at West Point, c 1859 – to be last in his class on graduation in 1861

Whilst on leave during the Civil war he married Elizabeth ‘Libbie’ Bacon in February 1864. Her father was Judge Daniel Bacon who, initially, had not approved of Custer as a match for his daughter as he (Custer) was the son of a blacksmith. Well, this all changed when Custer had become a hero of the Civil War ….. oh,  and a brigadier general.


Brevet Brigadier General Custer, 1865

When the war ended, Custer was returned to his rank of captain but it was not long before he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel and assigned to the newly formed 7th Cavalry based at Fort Riley in Kansas where he joined the General Winifred Scott Hancock campaign against the Cheyenne ‘Indians’/Native Americans (see last post –  I need to call them ‘Indians’ for context purposes). However after the Hancock campaign, Custer was court martialled for going absent without leave (AWOL) – he had become indifferent and frustrated with the campaign and abandoned his post to go and see his wife – and he was suspended from duty for one year. He returned to duty before the suspension had expired at the request of General Philip Sheridan who wanted Custer for the Indian campaign.


Libbie Custer (1842-1933)

Now the Indian campaign took a bit of a turn when gold was found in the Black Hills of Dakota. These hills were owned by the Lakota Sioux Indians headed by Chief Sitting Bull as a result of the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. The government needed to control them because of the gold and the fact that 15,000 miners had moved into the Hills setting up towns such as Custer and  Deadwood (remember that place from Wild Bill Hickok post August 23, 2014). So, in the autumn of 1875, the government offered Sitting Bull $6 million for the land but the sum was turned down.  President Ulysses Grant then made two fateful decisions: (1) he would not stop miners flooding into the Black Hills; and (2) all Lakota and Cheyenne Indians must report to the reservations by January 1876 or be treated as hostiles (thus reneging on the Fort Laramie Treaty). The Indian tribes refused to comply.


Sitting Bull portrait

This seemed to be a great opportunity for more glory for Custer. By now he had been gambling and making bad business decisions and was in severe financial difficulties and needed a ‘way out’. A campaign against the Lakota Indians was a good option. Unfortunately he was called to Washington to give evidence at the Congressional Committee trying to discredit President Grant’s Administration’s handling of contracts with the Indian Agencies on the frontier. Custer managed to try and implicate the President’s brother, Orvil, which was a mistake. The President was furious and decided to keep Custer on the sidelines of the Indian war and ignored all requests from Custer to see him to apologise.  Eventually, General Alfred Terry, who needed Custer, eventually got him re-instated. So, in 1876, he headed to the Back hills in search of redemption and glory.


President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85)

By January 1876 the Lakota Indians under Sitting Bull had not moved to the reservation and General Terry had orders to force him and his followers to do so or destroy them in the process. The plan was a three pronged assault on the Indian village of Sitting Bull’s alliance of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne around Yellowstone River and four of its close tributaries, the Bighorn, Rosebud, Tongue and Powder (see map below). Terry (and Custer), with 1200 men, would approach from the east from Fort Lincoln; Colonel Gibbon, with 440 men, from the west from Montana; and General Crook, with 1100 men, from the south from Wyoming.  Terry and Custer left via separate routes to clear up any Indian stragglers. Apparently Terry had said to Custer that if he (Custer) got there before him to leave him some action. Custer allegedly replied, simply, “No” (but I have no source for that…).  Custer was a ‘dog off the leash’.


Plan of assault on the Indian camp at Little Big Horn

On the 25th June 1876, Custer, indeed, arrived about a day before Terry. Crook had arrived first and camped by the Rosebud River only to be attacked by a large force of alliance Indians under Crazy Horse and only just managed to avoid total defeat and retreated south. He reported this disaster to General Sheridan but made no effort to notify Terry.  Custer wanted glory for himself alone and, despite the tiredness of his soldiers who had been on the move all day, he insisted on going into action immediately.  As a result he split his force into three battalions, one under himself, another under Major Marcus Reno and the other under Captain  Frederick Benteen. Neither of these officers liked Custer and the feeling was mutual, particularly as Reno was an alcoholic.  Benteen was sent south and west, to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians; Reno was sent to charge the southern end of the encampment; and Custer rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs, planning to circle around and attack from the north.  This split was to prove fatal.


Major Reno (1834-89)

Custer had 208 officers and men under his command (including his two brothers, Tom and Boston, his nephew, Henry ‘Autie’ Reed, and his brother-in-law, Lt Calhoun), with an additional 142 under Reno, just over 100 under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall’s rearguard, and 84 soldiers under 1st Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey with the pack train. The Lakota/Cheyenne coalition may have fielded over 1800 warriors (although reports on this number vary).


Capt. Benteen, c1865 

Reno was the first to encounter resistance when he was attacked some 500 yards from the village. He was forced to retreat back up into the hills having lost a quarter of his battalion.  Here he met up with Benteen who asked where Custer was. By this time Benteen had received a note from Custer to come quick (see below) but he did nothing. In fact he and Reno sat and talked for about one hour and a half.  A Capt. Thomas Weir, a friend of Custer, was so frustrated with Reno and Benteen’s inaction, particularly as they could all hear gunfire in the distance, that he rode off to investigate. Benteen was shamed into following him.


Capt. Thomas Weir (1838-76)

In the meantime Custer had arrived on the hill north of the Indian camp and saw it for the first time and realised how mistaken he had been about the number of hostiles involved. He sent the above mentioned note to Benteen, “Benteen, come on. Big village. Come quick. Bring packs.” He then waved hist hat and shouted, “Hurrah boys, we’ve got them. We’ll finish them up and then home to our stations” (bearing in mind there were no survivors I’m not sure of the source of this alleged quote – although one source suggests that a couple of Custer’s Indian scouts were sent away before the final battle). What followed was a complete massacre of Custer’s force. The precise details of Custer’s fight are largely conjectural since none of his men (the five companies under his immediate command) survived the battle. The accounts of surviving Indians are conflicting and unclear.  Custer, himself, died with bullet wounds to the chest and head. With him on the hill were both his brothers, his nephew and his brother-in-law as mentioned above). This was indeed Custer’s last stand on ‘Last Stand Hill’ (as it is known today) as depicted in both Hollywood films, but not the last stand of his whole force.


Custer’s note to Benteen


There has been an archaeological survey of the battlefield which has produced some interesting results, including around 5,000 artifacts. The finds consist mainly of spent cartridges. It is known that the soldiers used the 1873 Springfield breach-loading ‘trapdoor’ carbine (a point the 1967 film fails to accept as, in the last stand, its soldiers use repeating Henrys/Winchesters), so finds of cartridges belonging to this gun indicate positions of Custer’s soldiers. Any other rifle cartridges indicate the positions of the Indians. It was discovered that the Indians were using 47 different types of guns from muzzle-loading ‘antiques’ to the modern repeating Henry rifle (similar to the famous Winchester). From such finds it is believed that at least 800 Indians were armed with a rifle of some description. Henry rifles had been given to the Indians by the government to shoot buffalo – there’s irony for you!


Above and below: the 1873 Springfield single-shot breach-loading ‘trapdoor’ carbine


It was these rifles that gave an idea as to why Custer failed in his encounter – other than being hopelessly outnumbered that is. Simply he allowed the Indians to get too close. The Springfield carbine is great at a long distance skirmish as it has an accurate range of around 600-700 yards, whereas the Henry repeater has an effective range of only 200 yards. However, once close-in the advantage reverses. The Henry can fire 13 rounds in 30 seconds compared with only 4 rounds from the single-shot Springfield. It doesn’t take  rocket science to work out who the odds are against at short range affrays.


The 1860 Henry repeating rifle

The distribution of the cartridges indicated that something like a third (or more) of Custer’s men had been separated from Custer and killed before being able to join him on ‘Last Stand Hill’ (where Custer was found), about a third were killed on the hill and a third (perhaps less) killed trying to escape down the hill to Deep Ravine near the river Bighorn.


On top of Last Stand Hill near where Custer fell (see his marker) looking to Deep Ravine in the distance


In the distance from Last Stand Hill can be seen more markers of those who fell trying to escape to the river through Deep Ravine



[1] A brevet was a warrant giving a commissioned officer a higher rank title as a reward for gallantry or meritorious conduct, but without receiving the authority, precedence, or pay of real rank.


One year after the battle, Custer’s remains and those of many of his officers were recovered and sent back east for reinternment in more formal burials. Custer was buried again with full military honours at West Point Cemetery on October 10, 1877 – a great honour for someone who finished last in his graduation class! The battle site was designated a National Cemetery in 1876.

Major Reno was dismissed from the army in 1880 due to alcoholism and died 9 years later. Benteen lasted a little longer but was suspended from duty due to being drunk and disorderly. He retired in 1888 but his inactivity at Bighorn continually hung over him.

Sitting Bull did not take a direct military role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn; instead he acted as a spiritual chief. He escaped to Canada but later found himself working for Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show. He died in 1890 aged 58/59.


Sitting Bull (1831-90)

You can visit the site of the battle and it has a Visitors Centre (of course). But I did read a guide to the site which said, ‘Where ever you go, watch out for rattlesnakes!’


P.P.S.  Finally, I always find these topics difficult because I love the Wild West and it’s ‘heroic’ characters.  They are part of the ‘Great American Way’,  However, the the more I read about Custer, the more I dislike him.  Accepted, he was very courageous but that was part of his ego, arrogance and flamboyance – which got him the nickname ‘Lucky’ (he should never have lasted as long a she did with his crazy military antics).  But that luck was to run out. I’m an avid supporter of the Native Americans and believe they were treated very badly by the US government and this leaves an imbalance with the ‘heroic romanticism’ of How the West Was Won. But that’s just my opinion.


Kit Carson in the Wild West

I WAS RUMMAGING though some of my books the other day and came across my Kit Carson’s Cowboy Annual of 1958 which had somehow survived my childhood. This particular volume includes a couple of tales of Davy Crockett. Great ‘Boys Own Adventure’ stuff! Of course in those days I assumed these were real characters until one of my ‘friends’ ruined it all by telling me they were only heroic fellows of some writer’s vivid imagination. Bit like hearing Santa Claus is not …… no, I can’t say it. Well, just how wrong was my friend! But I think it took me several years to find out.

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My 1958 Annual – Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, and friendly Native-American (I think he’s Chief Bear Paw from one of the the Davy Crockett yarns in the annual)

If you want more on Davy Crockett, see my Alamo post, August 16, 2014.  As for Kit Carson, or to be more precise, Christopher ‘Kit’ Houston Carson, he was born in Madison County, Kentucky in December 1809. He began his working life as a saddler but that was not for him. He lasted two years at that and then, at the age of sixteen, he joined a group of traders bound for Santa Fe, New Mexico. He learnt (and interpreted) Spanish, worked at a variety of tasks including cook, wagon driver, and in a copper mine, before linking up with a fur trapping party heading for California. He spent a year trapping along the rivers of Arizona and southern California before returning to New Mexico, in 1831, to join the trapper, Thomas Fitzpatrick. With his band of men he headed for the Rocky Mountains.  He spent ten years travelling around Western America learning of all the routes and passages through the territories.


Early photo of Kit Carson in beaver hat

During this period he came in contact with the Indians (I know we must call them Native Americans but I have to use the old phrase for context). Then in 1836, he married an Arapaho woman named Waanibe (Singing Grass), and had two children of which only one survived (Adeline). His wife also died in about 1841 giving birth to the second child. He married again, this time to a Cheyenne woman named Making-Out-Road (don’t ask), but it did not last. He then split the next eight years between his daughter who was being educated in St Louis (and staying with Carson’s sister) and trapping in Taos, New Mexico.


In case you didn’t know the whereabouts of New Mexico 

In 1842 he met a traveller/explorer, John C. Frémont, in St Louis. Frémont was planning to survey a route to the west – to be known as the Oregon Trail – and Carson was to be his guide. Three expeditions took place between 1842 and 1845 and both Frémont and Carson had their reputations sealed – Frémont as an explorer and Carson as a frontiersman guide. The American public was fascinated by tales from the Wild West, of Indians and trail blazers, and of unsettled land ‘there for the taking’.  In 1843 Carson married his third wife, a Mexican, Josefa Jaramillo. She was 14 years old and they were to have eight children (not sure where he found the time).

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John C. Frémont                                                                                     Josefa and son

Both Frémont and Carson found themselves caught up in the Mexican War of 1846-48 when the Mexicans demanded that Americans leave California. Needless to say they refused and the Mexicans lost the war and California. Carson spent most of his time as a courier carrying messages/dispatches between command posts and to Washington. It was quite a dangerous task but Carson survived it.


Billy Williams as Kit Carson in 1950s TV series, Adventures of Kit Carson  (no, I don’t remember it either)

It was around this time (1847) that the first ‘dime novel’ story about Carson’s adventures was produced. It was called An Adventure of Kit Carson: A Tale of the Sacramento. It was printed in Holden’s Dollar Magazine. Many followed.  As with Wild Bill Hickok (see my post, August 23, 2014), Carson’s fame was boosted by these dime novels which bore no relation to his actual activities. Not that it mattered too much to Carson because he was illiterate so couldn’t read them anyway!  Some of Carson’s actual accomplishments were made famous in Dr De Witt C. Peters’ book, The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson published in 1858.  Exactly 100 years later my Kit Carson’s Annual was published!


One the the dime novels of Kit Carson

In 1849 Carson settled near Taos and became an agent in the Office of Indian Affairs trying to keep peace and to ensure fair treatment with the Native Americans. Quite often Carson did not see eye-to-eye with his Territorial Governor, David Meriwether, and they often fell-out over the treatment of the Native Americans. Although Carson was in favour of good treatment to them he did find himself fighting hostile tribes and this got him repudiation as an Indian-fighter (sorry, Native American-fighter just doesn’t sound right).


Kit Carson from De Witt C. Peters’ The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson (1858)

The Civil War broke out in 1861 (to 1865) and Carson was appointed lieutenant colonel commanding the First New Mexico Volunteers Regiment for the Union. He fought (on the losing side) against the Confederates at the Battle of Val Verde, but also found himself involved in successful campaigns against the Apache and Navajo  Indian tribes between 1862 to 1864. In fact, he was very tired by this time (aged only 54) and did not want to fight the Indians and asked his commanding officer, Major James Carlton, if he could resign. Carlton said no and told Carson that he was to completely wipe out all the male adult Navajo Indians and capture all women and children. Carson did not often disobey orders but this was one time when he planned to do so. He had no intention of killing a whole tribe of male Indians (actually he couldn’t find them, but that’s not the point!). However, he destroyed their food supplies and crops forcing them to surrender to avoid starvation. There followed the ‘Long Walk of the Navajos’ to Bosque Redondo (a disastrous ‘reservation’ in its own right).  It consisted of some 9,000 Indians and many died on route – the military figures differ greatly from those given by the Native Americans.

Handouts/09.21.06/email from David Steinberg/Kit Carson2/Kit Carson

Lt Col Kit Carson

Carson was then involved in a large battle against Comanches and Apaches at Adobe Walls, an abandoned trading post. The battle raged on but proved indecisive. In fact, Carson retreated to New Mexico.  He remained in the army until 1867, retiring as a brigadier general.  Then, in May 1868, eight days before the signing of the treaty allowing the Navajo Indians to return to their homeland, Carson died of an abdominal aortic aneurysm at the age of 58.

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Last photo of Carson taken around March 1868, two months before his death

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean: Hollywood fact or fiction?

LET’S GO BACK to the Wild West (remember Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill of previous posts?) and meet Judge Roy Bean. The 1972 film starring Paul Newman in the lead and Ava Gardner as Lillie Langtry, is, shall we say, very loosely based on the facts and leave it at that.


So, who was Judge Roy Bean? What of his past? Well, he was born in 1825 in Mason County, Kentucky. At the age of 16 he was obliged to flee to San Antonio in Texas (those of you who read my post on The Alamo last august will recognise that name) and joined his brother, Sam, hauling freight. By 1848, he and Sam had set up a trading post in Chihuahua in New Mexico, but Roy was forced to flee again after shooting and killing a Mexican desperado. He ended up with another brother, Joshua, who had been elected mayor of San Diego in California in 1850.


Judge Roy Bean

All was well until he had a disagreement with a Scotsman named Collins in 1852. The latter challenged Bean to a pistol-shooting match on horseback and gave Bean the option of targets. Bean chose to shoot at each other. Well, why not! Bean won the contest by wounding Collins in the arm but was arrested for assault with intent to murder. Bean escaped incarceration in April and ended up in San Gabriel, still in California, as a bartender in a saloon owned by brother Joshua. In November, Joshua was murdered and Roy inherited the saloon.

In 1854, Bean’s girlfriend was kidnapped and forcibly married to a Mexican officer. Bean tracked him down and challenged him to a duel and killed him. The officer’s colleagues captured Bean and left him on his horse with  a noose around his neck. The horse failed to bolt and Bean’s ‘no longer-kidnapped’ girlfriend cut him free. He was left with a permanent rope burn on his neck and a permanent stiff neck – think himself lucky!


Bean had had enough of California – not proving so lucky – and headed to New Mexico and brother Sam again who had been appointed the first sheriff of Dona Ana County. By 1861 they both ran a store and saloon in Pinos Altos. However, they were then interrupted by the Civil War. Roy joined the Confederates and ran a blockade by hauling cotton from San Antonio to British ships off the coast at Matamoros, then returning with supplies. After the war he remained in San Antonio for the next 20 years working as a teamster in haulage. He combined this work with other activities not entirely legal or successful (he tried a dairy business but watered down the milk; he tried a butchers’ business by rustling stock – you get the idea). By the late 1870s he was running a saloon in Beanville (don’t ask) but this wasn’t to last – he was paid to leave (well, bought out for $900) by a disgruntled store-owner who did not approve of his unscrupulous activities.

Come 1882 he had purchased a tent by the Pecos River (still New Mexico) and set up a saloon for the railroaders. He called the bar the Vinegaroon. This was untamed territory and the nearest court was at Fort Stockton, some 200 miles (320km) away.  Then, in August 1882, he was approached by a Texas Ranger to set up a courthouse and introduce some law and order. This ominous task he accepted and he was ‘appointed’ (perhaps better described as self-appointed) justice of the peace for the new Precinct 6 in Pecos County, and, along with his one and only law book, the 1879 edition of the Revised Statutes of Texas [1], he did, indeed, deal out justice – of a kind – and called himself ‘The Law West of the Pecos’.

Judge Bean with beard behind bicycle front wheel 

I always thought he had a bit of a reputation as a hanging judge [2]. In fact this was not so at all. It appears that he only ever sentenced two men to hanging and one of them escaped. The death penalty was standard for horse thieves but Bean let them go provided they returned the horse [3]. Anyway, trials were always good for business as he insisted all jurors (chosen from his best customers) bought drinks during a court recess.

On a legal technicality note, a saloon-owner competitor of Bean’s sold land at Langtry (as it was to be called) to the railway with a contractual term that no land was to be sold or leased to Bean. Bean got around this by setting up his saloon tent (he called the Jersey Lilly after Lillie Langtry) on a railway right-of-way not covered by the contract, and here he squatted for the next two decades. This legal loop-hole was not of his own discovery but by an Irishman, Paddy O’Rourke, who was repaying Bean for freeing him after he had murdered a migrant worker.

Jersey Lilly Saloon, Judge Roy Bean holding court in 1900. Bean is in the centre of the photograph, wearing hat, sitting on a barrel and holding open his law book. 

There was no jail in Langtry so Bean only ever fined culprits, the money he kept for himself. He calculated some amounts of fines based on how much the defendant had in his pocket at the time. His court did not have the power to grant divorces but this minor detail did not stop Bean. He would charge $10 for a divorce and again pocket the’ fee’, along with $5 for weddings. I wonder if he ever offered a package deal?

The saloon is still there today!

Bean won re-election to his post in 1884, but was defeated in 1886. The following year, the commissioner’s court created a new precinct in the county and appointed Bean to be the new justice of the peace. He continued to be elected until 1896. Even after that defeat, he refused to surrender his seal and law book and continued to try all cases that suited him in his own ‘precinct’. It’s not quite clear what the justice who was elected was doing.

In March 1903, after a bout of heavy drinking in San Antonio, he died peacefully in his bed, aged 77-78. Could have been worse …..



[1] When newer law books showed up, Bean used them as kindling.

[2] The real so-called ‘hanging judge’ was a Welshman called George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem (1645-89).

[3] Reminds me of the Artemus Smith extract from 28th July 2014 post (following ‘House of the Virgin Mary)!


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I have discovered another volume of Artemus’ notebooks (followers will recall Dr Artemus Smith was an archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction). Here is another extract:

I encountered my good friend, Professor Rolande Circumspeque, in the Senior Common Room the other day in fits of laughter. I enquired as to the reason for such mirth and he showed me an article in The Monthly Planet, an aerospace journal he was perusing. It read:

‘When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero gravity.
To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 million developing a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300° C.’

“Interesting,” I commented, “but why do you find that so amusing.”

He replied, “The Russians use a pencil.” 




Wild Bill [Hickok]: Hollywood fact or fiction?

IN THE FILM ‘Wild Bill’, Wild Bill Hickok is admirably portrayed by Jeff Bridges but it bombed at the box office (took $2 mill but cost $30 mill) so you probably haven’t even seen it. The majority of the film deals with the last days of Hickok’s life at Deadwood with the odd b&w flashbacks which do cover some reportedly true aspects of his life – well maybe – let’s just say what has been recorded (perhaps exaggerated) in the newspapers. However, the historical truth of his last weeks/days are rather vague in any event and so the film seems to make them up, particularly with regard to Calamity Jane, and even more particularly with regard to Hickok’s killer, Jack McCall. But, based on my previous observation that you probably haven’t seen the film, I won’t go on about its failings.


So, what was Hickok really all about? Well, firstly, his name wasn’t Bill – he was really James Butler Hickok. There are one or two stories revealing how/why he became ‘Wild Bill’ but none of them can be substantiated. Whilst in Nebraska, it has been suggested that he was derisively referred to as ‘Duck Bill’ by David McCanles – he later shot McCanles, but for  different reason (maybe). Hickok claimed that he had been nicknamed ‘Shanghai Bill’ whilst part of General Jim Lanes’ ‘Free State Army’ (the Jayhawkers) in 1855 because of his height (he was tall) and slim build. One source says Hickok simply changed this to ‘Wild Bill’ in 1861. It was as a Jayhawker that he meet a 12 year old U.S. Army scout called William Cody – later known as Buffalo Bill.

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‘Wild Bill’ Hickok (1837-76) 

He spent his early life as a ‘freight driver’ and then as a packer/wagon-master for the Union army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. The following year he was discharged for an undisclosed reason. He joined the Springfield Missouri detective police counting troops in uniform found drinking on duty (exciting, huh!). He was then hired by General John B. Sanborn as a scout, but by the end of the war, in 1865, he spent his time gambling in Springfield.  According to the History of Greene County, Missouri published in 1883, Hickok at this time was “by nature a ruffian… a drunken, swaggering fellow, who delighted when ‘on a spree’ to frighten nervous men and timid women.” ……. yawn.

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Hickok and hat

Lawman and gunfighter notoriety

Now down to business. Well, perhaps. Like most of the Wild West ‘heroes’ it is sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from fiction – especially when, as was Hickok, they became famous through the ‘dime novels’. He allegedly shot and killed 39 men (the dime novels suggest many more). But let’s have a look at what is believed, and most likely, to be true.

In Springfield, Missouri, Hickok had a long standing dispute with a Dave Tutt over Hickok’s girlfriend, Susannah Moore. Naturally, the dispute arose because Tutt thought she was his girlfriend. In July 1865, in a card game, Hickok gave Tutt his watch as collateral but told him not to wear it. Tutt wore it in the street and was called out by Hickok – it was a gunfight waiting to happen. Allegedly they were 75 yards apart (a long distance for a duel [1]). Tutt shot first and missed; Hickok shot second and didn’t. Tutt collapsed and died; Hickok got his watch back – but not the girl.

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Painting of Hickok shooting Tutt at 75 yards (allegedly)

Hickok was arrested for the killing and the charge reduced from murder to manslaughter (I don’t want to get technical about the law but manslaughter implies a non-intent to kill – perhaps at 75 yards he didn’t expect to hit Tutt!). The jury went for an acquittal on the grounds of a fair fight. This was not a popular verdict at the time – presumably because Hickok was not a popular character – or because there was never such a thing as a fair fight with Hickok unless he had no gun!

In July 1869, Hickok was elected sheriff of Hays City, Kansas. Within a month he was involved in a couple of altercations, one where he ended up shooting and killing a Bill Mulvey, and other doing similar to a Samuel Strawhun. Then, in July 1870, he had a bar fight with Jeremiah Lonergan and John Kyle, two soldiers from the 7th Cavalry (Custer’s famous unit ‘to be’). Lonergan had Hickok on the floor and fired his gun at Hickok’s head. The gun misfired allowing Hickok to gather his own guns. He killed Kyle with two shots and wounded Lonergan with a shot in the knee. Hickok had a reputation for trouble and failed to get  re-elected sheriff. Perhaps they expected their sheriffs to fight with pillows …….

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Painting of Hickok with his famous ivory handled Colts

In October 1871, Hickok was marshal of Abilene when he encountered Phil Coe, a saloon owner, following a fracas in the street outside Coe’s saloon. Coe had fired a couple of shots into the air and Hickok demanded his gun. Stupidly, Coe turned his gun on Hickok but Hickok was quicker, fired first and killed Coe. Then Hickok heard a shout behind him, turned and fired, killing the figure running towards him. The figure was his own deputy marshal, Mike Williams, coming to his aid. Hickok was relieved of his duties as marshal as a result. There are no further reports of Hickok gunfights.

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Newspaper picture of Hickok having shot Coe (far right) and turning his gun on the drunken crowd just before Williams appeared

In 1873, Hickok joined Ned Buntline’s Wild West show, Scouts of the Plains, with Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro. But Hickok was no actor and was always forgetting his lines. He was soon to give this up, as did Texas Jack.   Cody went on to form his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1882, which had appearances by Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley.

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Hickok, Omohundro, Cody (1873)                                             ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (1875)

In 1876, in Kansas City, Missouri, Hickok was diagnosed with glaucoma and likely to lose his sight and his health generally was in decline. In March of that year, in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, he married Agnes Thatcher Lake, a 50 year-old circus performer. But before very long, in the same year, he headed, alone, to Deadwood, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, to make his fortune (well, that’s what he supposedly told Agnes). He arrived in July and met up again with Martha  Jane Cannary (aka Calamity Jane). Jane alleged she had been married to Hickok but this was wishful thinking on her part – it is believed he had little time for her.

On 2nd August, 1876, Hickok was playing cards at Nuttal & Mann’s saloon in Deadwood. He had his back to the door – unusual for him as he liked to see who was coming in. Well, one Jack McCall was coming in and came up behind Hickok and shot him dead at point blank range. Hickok was playing five card stud and was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights (the fifth card had been discarded and not replaced) – now known as ‘Deadman’s hand’ – not his lucky night.

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Deadwood, 2nd August 1876

It is not known why McCall killed Hickok, although, at his trial, he did say it was in revenge for Hickok killing his brother, Lew (who had been killed by a lawman in Abilene but it was not know who the lawman was). The jury in Deadwood accepted this and acquitted Jack. Is that retrospective defence of another?! McCall left town but had to brag about the deed and was arrested again in Yankton, Wyoming. His trial in Deadwood was not recognised as the town was still in Indian territory and not part of the USA. This time McCall was not so lucky – he was found guilty and hanged.


‘Not so second time lucky’ Jack McCall

Hickok was buried in the Ingelside Cemetery in Deadwood, but in 1879 he was moved by his friend, Charlie Utter, to the new Mount Moriah cemetery. His original wooden grave marker went with him but was eventually destroyed by souvenir hunters who whittled bits off it! It was replaced with a statue of Hickok which was also destroyed by relic hunters. Then came a life-size statute which was defaced. So the grave area was enclosed in a cage for protection. But in the 1950s this was broken into by more relic hunters and the statue stolen. Finally a cast-iron fence was erected along with a new bust of Hickok.

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Hickok’s grave at Mount Moriah cemetery

Hickok’s favourite guns were a pair of ivory handled cap-and-ball 1851 Colts .36 Navy Models pistols (if that means anything to anyone). They were sold to two separate people after his death to pay off his debts. They were supposedly reunited and appeared in the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming – but there are some sceptics who suspect they are not the genuine items. In fact, he had several guns. The gun he had when he was shot was a Smith & Wesson No.2. This gun went up for auction in November 2013, at Bonhams, San Francisco, California. The final bid was $220,000 – which failed to meet an undisclosed reserve (ca. $300,000). Wow, some expensive gun!

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Possibly Hickok’s Colts                                                       Hicock’s Smith & Wesson at his death


[1]  Hand gun accuracy was notoriously bad – at the OK Coral, Wyatt Earp & C0 were missing at 10 yards (well, some of them were) – so, although Hickok was a supposed to be a pretty good shot, 75 yards is a bit over-optimistic!

Next week: Okay, enough Wild West, let’s go back to some archaeological characters: John Pendlebury, Hollywood fact or……. no, Hollywood didn’t make a film of him, but it should do. Not just because he was an archaeologist of great courage, determination and non-fiction, but because ….. ah, find out next week.

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

Whilst in Italy, I was reviewing some oddments of Roman pottery when I met a most agreeable and charming Italian archaeologist. Unfortunately, the time I chose to seek his learned advisement, his sister had just produced twins, a boy and a girl, and I could gain little sense from him over his understandable excitement at being an uncle.  I enquired as to what they were called.

“Ah,” his grin filled the room, “leetle girl is Denise”

“That’s nice”, I said, “and the boy?”

“He is de nephew.”

Art Smth

The Alamo: Hollywood fact or fiction?

THERE WAS an Englishman, a Scotsman, an American and a Mexican on an aeroplane. The engines began spluttering and the pilot came back and said, “We have lost power. Unless three of you jump out of the plane we will crash and we’ll all die. The problem is there are no parachutes.” The Englishman jumped up and shouted, “Remember Trafalgar” and threw himself out of the plane. The Scotsman jumped up and shouted, “Remember Bannockburn” and threw himself out of the plane. The American jumped up and shouted, “Remember the Alamo” and threw the Mexican out of the plane.


So was Hollywood’s ‘The Alamo’ anything like the true facts? Well, first of all, which Hollywood Alamo? Since 1915 there have been about 12 movies on the Alamo, the latest being the rather rambling (but slightly more authentic) Billy Bob Thornton effort in 2004. But the only great version, which most people relate to, is the John Wayne version in 1960 (okay, that’s my opinion – and yes, I’m a John Wayne fan). Big John starred in it of course, but he also produced and directed it. In fact, initially, he only intended to play the small part of Sam Houston so he could concentrate on directing but the money-providers would have none of it. And rightly so – only John Wayne could have played Davy Crockett.


 The Alamo – ‘fighting for freedom’ …..?

So what really happened? Well, more to the point how did it come about? Hollywood will have it the ‘Texans Fighting for Freedom!’  Well, not exactly. It’s quite complex but let’s try and keep it simple. In the early 1800s there were these American ‘mercenaries’ called filibusters looking around for land and Florida and Texas, both owned by the Spanish, were targets. America bought Louisiana from the French in 1803 but the borders into Texas were ill-defined. In 1813, the filibusters wandered into Texas to try and redefine these borders in America’s favour but set up their own Green Flag Republic, independent of the US – and Spain. The USA was none too happy and so withdrew its support and the new GF Republic was crushed by the Spanish. In 1819 Spain negotiated with the USA wherein the latter was able to purchase Florida in return for giving up any claim on Texas.

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America before the Americans – Spain in green, France in brown, England in purple (or is it mauve)

So that is all fine until Mexico obtained Independence from Spain in 1821. And Texas became part of Mexico. There followed a flood of American settlers into Texas (Anglo-colonials) and Mexico decided to encourage this new immigration to allow the land to be developed which they were unable to do themselves (Mexican mistake no. 1).  An ’empresario system’ was set up with the Mexican government by Stephen F. Austin wherein 300 immigrant families would settle in Texas (Austin’s father, Moses, had made a similar deal with the Spanish but died and then Spain gave up Texas before it all came about). Empresarios (American immigrants in Texas) were appointed by the Mexican government to sell land to immigrants at $30 (on credit) for 4000 acres (the cost in the USA would have been $5000 cash – a pretty good deal if you ask me!). In return, immigrants would become Mexican citizens and Catholic.


Stephen Austin –  the ‘Father of Texas’ – one man and his dog

Then trouble began. First of all, one Haden Edwards decided that he would to go independent but he was put down by Austin who wanted to keep the peace with Mexico (makes sense bearing in mind the deal). Then, in 1829, Mexico abolished slavery. Unfortunately most of the immigrants were from the southern States of America (mainly Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri) and so had slaves themselves. But the Mexican allowed them to keep them. Enter William Barret Travis (played by Lawrence Harvey in the film), a lawyer who had fled his hometown of Claiborne in Alabama, and his wife and child, to avoid debt. He was pro-slavery (and had with him his slave, Joe – one of the few who survived the Alamo, but didn’t appear in the film) and openly challenged the Mexican officials on the topic and was arrested. On his release he emerged as a rebel against Mexico. But alone he had little impact.


Col. William B. Travis 

If you were paying attention above, the original deal was limited to settling 300 families – we are way passed that figure now. So, in 1830, Mexico decided to curb immigration into Texas as it was concerned it was losing control. This was ignored by the American immigrants (there’s a surprise). By this time Mexico was having its own internal squabbles between centralists and federalists. Antonio de Padua Maria Severino Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez de Lebron – known as Santa Anna – (his father must have been an ardent supporter of some Mexican football team) was leader of the federalist but when he took control as President in 1833 he became a centralist, then a dictator. Zacatecas objected so Santa Anna sent a force and destroyed the city and all the inhabitants. Texas (particularly Travis) supported the federalists and was now very concerned about Santa Anna’s intentions regarding Texas (bearing in mind what happened at Zacatecas – he thought it was next). Likewise, Santa Anna was concerned about the intentions of the immigrants in Texas (independence) and decided to begin to remove their arms. This began in October 1835 with a single canon at Gonzales, which had been given to the town by the Mexicans to defend against Indians. The Mexicans marched on Gonzales and demanded the return of the canon (Mexican mistake no 2). The Texans replied “Come and get it”. There was  a bit of a skirmish but the Texans held onto the canon and sent the Mexicans home. The Texas Revolution had begun.


Mexican march on Gonzazales

 Re-enter Stephen Austin. He now objected to Mexico adding neighbouring Coahuila to the Texan State and was imprisoned for 18 months (Mexican mistake no 3). This was to also to spur the Texans to rebellion.


Santa Anna ‘FC’

Then enter Jim Bowie (played by Richard Widmark in the film). Whatever impression you got/have of him, he was a large scale Kentucky criminal escaping his past of land-grabbing frauds in Louisiana. (By the way, he didn’t invent the Bowie knife – he just used it a lot and the name stuck). He headed to Texas in search of more opportunities (to perhaps defraud more people). Anyway, he claimed large areas of land through the empresario system which were subsequently taken away from him by Santa Anna. This caused Bowie to support Texas independence. In the film, whilst defending the Alamo, he hears of the sad news of the death of his wife (Maria Ursula) of the plague. She did die of cholera, but three years before the Alamo. Perhaps news just travelled very slowly in those days.


Col. Jim Bowie 

Finally, enter Davy Crockett (played by …. oh, you know). He had been elected for US Congress in 1827 and hoped for an opportunity at the presidency. Unfortunately he was not re-elected to Congress for a fourth time  in 1835 and so left for Texas in the hope of more opportunities. He had said, and forever repeated it, that if he wasn’t re-elected “you may all go to hell, and I’ll go to Texas.”  He wasn’t and he did. He was a true frontiersman and larger than life character. Perfect for John Wayne to play – in fact, if  I was making a film about John Wayne I would cast Davy Crockett to play him – although, admittedly, that would prove somewhat logistically difficult. Anyway, I digress, Crockett joined Travis and Bowie at the Alamo to hold up the Mexican army under Santa Anna until help arrived. It did not quite work out like that.


Col. Davy Crockett 

The battle

The rebels (that’s the Texans and Mexican allies, the Tejanos), led by Ben Milam, first took San Antonio Bexar (we’ll call it Bexar cos it’s easier – but it’s now just known as San Antonio – see map above). It was a five day battle and, as the rebels were on the verge of retreating, the Mexicans surrendered! But, on the 3rd day, Milam had been shot and killed by a sniper (Felix de la Garza – who was also shot and killed in return – fair’s fair).  Frank Johnson had taken command. 150 Mexican casualties against 5 rebel deaths. Then the Alamo was taken by the rebels without a fight. When Santa Anna heard the news he was greatly vexed. He said, “Ungrateful rebels had humiliated their mother country” and gathered his force and marched on Bexar.

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Ben Milam

End of December 1835, Johnson left Bexar and Lt Col James Neill took command. By January he had only 85 men.  Jim Bowie and 30 volunteers arrived, then Travis with his ‘regulars’. Davy Crockett and his men from Tennessee joined shortly afterwards. On hearing of Santa Anna’s approach the rebels vacated Bezar and headed over the river to the nearby fortified Alamo.


Davy Crockett in his more famous buckskin outfit

San Antonio de Valero was originally built as a mission to Christianised the Indians (sorry, native Americans) but it was closed, unfinished, in 1794. It was later garrisoned by a presdial company from Alamo de Parras, in Mexico, and renamed the Alamo.

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The church of the Alamo today

O’Neill had to leave as he had heard of illness in his family (he wasn’t stupid – get out of there asap!). Admittedly, he did expect to be back before Santa Anna’s arrival but no one realised how close Santa Anna was. Bowie was left in charge but was taken ill (possibly TB) and in no fit state to command (so, unlike in the film, he wasn’t much involved in the siege or the battle). Travis (aged only 26) took over and wrote many letters pleading for reinforcement – all ignored.


One of Travis’ many letters pleading, in vain, for reinforcements at the Alamo – he always signed them of ‘Victory or death’

The numbers at the Alamo vary from source to source – 160, 180, 200, 250. If we go with 200 we can’t be far out. Santa Anna had anything from 2000-6000 men (that figure varies as well – he may have had around 6000 in total, but used only 2000 on the attack on the Alamo). The Mexican weakness was its artillery – it only had two 8 pounders, two 6 pounders and two 4 pounders. These were not much use for breaking up the thick walls of the Alamo. The siege began on 23rd February and lasted just under two weeks. Santa Anna could have waited another four weeks or so and starved the rebels out but he feared rebel reinforcements at any time. So the attack began at 5.00 am Sunday 6th March and lasted just about an hour and a half before all the rebels were killed. Travis was shot and killed at the very beginning; Bowie was killed in his bed, unable to move due to his illness; and Crockett was killed towards the end (it’s not known exactly where, when or how – some say he was captured and executed, but I doubt that). What is certain, unlike in the film, he was not killed blowing up the powder magazine and taking a load of Mexicans with him. Robert Evans was given this task but he was shot and killed before he managed it.


Dawn at the Alamo – the man standing with hand gun on the right is William Travis – about to be treacherously stabbed in the back by a cowardly Mexican (18th century anti-Mexican propaganda) – Travis was actually shot in the forehead

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The mission of the Alamo before the battle (north to the left)

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What was left of the mission after the Mexicans had destroyed most of it 

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Today the Alamo church is right in the centre of San Antonio

The General Council (of Texas) decided it couldn’t (or shouldn’t) raise an army to send to the Alamo until it had declared Independence for Texas. This was eventually done on the 1st March but, due to numerous spelling mistakes, it was not signed until two days later! If that delay wasn’t enough, Sam Houston was involved and was to be given command of the Texan army and, after signing the Declaration, he and some of the other delegates went on a two day drinking spree to celebrate – never mind the Alamo.


Sam Houston (played by Richard Boone in the film)


Santa Anna then sent a force against the rebels at Goliad (see map way above). By the time the Mexicans got there the rebels had fled, but due to the incompetence of their commander, James W. Fannin, who dillied and dallied, the Mexicans caught up with them. They surrendered but Santa Anna sent a message to execute them all – some 400 (Mexican mistake no 4). In the film, this defeat happened before the fall of the Alamo and used, by Hollywood to excuse Fannin for not coming to the rescue. In truth, he just couldn’t make a decision (at one point, he did start off for the Alamo but changed his mind). Anyway, this atrocity of the execution of Fannin’s army woke the Americans up. It sparked an out-pour of sympathy for the rebels and thousands of volunteers began their way to Texas. In the meantime, Santa Anna was in pursuit of Houston and his newly formed army – which, due to the Alamo, had gained time to prepare itself (despite Houston’s drinking). Santa Anna came upon Houston with only half his (Santa Anna’s) army – he thought Houston and his rabble force would be easy pickings (mistake no 5 – final mistake). In fact, Houston made a surprise attack on the siesta sleeping Mexicans and defeated them at San Jacinto river (the attack itself lasted only eighteen minutes but carnage followed with 600 Mexican casualties against 11 rebel deaths). Santa Anna was captured and used as a hostage to gain a Texan Republic under the Treaties of Velasco.


James W. Fannin – his execution on the order of Santa Anna led to much support for the Texan cause

Santa Anna was eventually allowed to return to Mexico where, amazingly, he remained in power on and off for several years until, in 1855, the Mexicans finally got fed up with him and chucked him out. He died, a cripple (he had had a leg amputated in 1838), almost blind with cataracts, and in poverty, in 1876. Interestingly, he was a devoted fan of Napoleon and collected books, statues and images of the Frenchman. He was especially proud of his own nickname ‘Napoleon of the West’ after the Telegraph and Texas Register referred to him as such. Which part of the minor detail that Napoleon lost did he miss?

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Santa Anna in 1870

Texas became the 28th State of the USA in 1845 but Mexico had never accepted the Treaties of Velasco as valid. This led to the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 when Mexico was finally defeated.

So, was the Alamo about ‘Texans fighting for freedom’ as the film depicts? Well, ‘freedom’ can sometimes be muddle with self-advancement at the expense of someone else.  However you argue it, Texas belonged to Mexico and the  Mexicans did a noble thing in offering land to a limited number of immigrants (300) at a ‘next-to-nothing’ price in return for becoming Mexican citizens. That ‘limited number’ was ignored by the immigrants and eventually they demanded independence. Fair or what? Okay, Santa Anna was a despot and a tyrant so only had himself to blame.


American expansion

The rebels argued that “legitimate political authority rested on the consent of the governed, who had the right to withdraw that consent and change their government if it threatened those inalienable rights it was formed to protect.” As they saw it, that was exactly what Santa Anna (the government) was in the process of doing. Well, that’s okay if your country is run on a democratic process, which theirs (Mexico) was not. If such an argument is to succeed then the whole of Mexico should have rebelled against Santa Anna, not just a bit of it. Oh well, that’s politics ……. or is it just land-grabbing?

It must be an ‘American thing’ – a few years before the Alamo, around 1775-83, didn’t immigrants in America demand – and take by force – independence of a country that belonged to someone else? ….. but we won’t go there.


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Alamo trivia: One of the women survivors was Capt. Dickinson’s wife, Susanna Dickinson, and also their daughter, Angelina (named Lisa in the film and played by John Wayne’s daughter, Aissa). Other than Travis’ slave, Joe, who was also allowed to leave, Susanna was the only one able to say what happened at the Alamo – but, like Joe, she didn’t see very much. Nor did she grieve for her husband (who had died at the Alamo) very long, remarrying the following year. That didn’t last and the year after that she divorced him for cruelty and married again. That husband died of alcoholism, so she married a fourth time in 1847, but that ended in divorce due to her adultery. Then she married a fifth and final time in 1858, which lasted to her death in 1883, aged 68. Her daughter, Angelina, was certainly as active, but not as fortunate. She had two husbands and four children before becoming a prostitute and died of a uterine hemorrhage in Galveston, in 1869, aged 34. I wonder if John Wayne bothered to check what she became before he cast his young daughter in her role?!

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Lisa (actually Angelina) (played by Aissa Wayne) on mule with her mother, Susanna Dickinson, leaving the Alamo at the end of the film. 

Next week: Let’s stay with the Wild West (sorry girls) and have a look at ‘Wild Bill’: Hollywood fact or fiction? – that will be Wild Bill Hickok (although his real name wasn’t Bill)


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

One of my new colleagues came into my local hostelry and ordered three pints of bitter and sat next to me.

I commented, “You know, a pint goes flat after awhile. It would taste better if you bought one at a time.”

He replied, “Well, you see, I have two brothers. One is in America, the other in Australia, and I’m here in the UK. When we all left home, we promised that we’d drink this way to remember the days we all drank together.”

I admitted that this was a jolly nice custom, and left it there.

He became a regular in the bar and always drank the same way – ordering three pints and drinking from each of them in turn.

One day, he came in and ordered only two pints, sat down and began to drink from each of them.  This caused me concern and I said, “I don’t want to intrude, but has one of your brothers died?”

He looked at me and laughed. “Oh, no,” he said, “Everything is fine with them. It’s me ….. I’ve quit drinking.”

Art Smth