Historically Speaking: The life and death of Ed Masterson

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
On April 9, 1878 Dodge City Marshal, Ed Masterson was shot and killed by Jack Wagner in Dodge City.

People liked him as a boy, people liked him as a man, and the public liked him as a law officer.

But Ed Masterson never learned to shoot first and ask questions later. One-hundred forty-three years ago on April 9 this habit cost Ed his life.

Dodge City’s permanent residents liked and respected Ed Masterson, who arrived in Ford County along with his famous brother Bat in 1872.

They came from Sedgwick County and laid four miles of grade for railroad tracks through the County as subcontractors for the firm Cutler and Wiley.

In November, the brothers joined the buffalo hunt with Henry H. Raymond and killed as many as 20 buffalo a day. Later in the decade, the Masterson brothers lives turned to law enforcement.

In 1877, Bat became undersheriff for the first Ford County sheriff, Charlie Bassett, and Ed went to work for the City of Dodge City as an assistant marshal. He moved up to marshal later that year.

In 1878, Bat took over as sheriff. Another Masterson brother, James, joined the police in 1878.

All three Masterson brothers were enforcing the law for the city, county or both when tragedy stuck.

At that time there was a law against carrying firearms in Dodge City. However, lawmen only stringently enforced this ordinance north of the railroad tracks or “deadline.” They largely ignored it south of the tracks.

Only when there were problems did the law get involved with the carrying of guns south of the deadline.

On the evening of April 9, 1878 Dodge City Marshal, Ed Masterson and Policeman Haywood were summoned to quell a disturbance at A.J. Peacock’s Saloon south of the tracks. Here Jack Wagner, Alf Walker and four other cowboys, having just arrived in town, were dancing and drinking.

When the party became too rowdy, someone contacted the law. The cowboys were carrying pistols contrary to city ordinance, and Ed Masterson asked Wagner, the most intoxicated, to surrender his weapon.

Ed, being a nice and trusting person, believed he had disarmed Jack Wagner when Wagner surrendered a single pistol. Unfortunately for Ed, Wagner had a second pistol hidden and shot Masterson in the abdomen. A gun battle ensued, Wagner was mortally wounded, and Alf Walker was shot in the lung. Wagner shot Masterson at such close range that the flash set fire to the marshal’s clothing.

Masterson staggered about 450-feet across the tracks to George Hoover’s liquor store where he collapsed and was carried to his brother Bat’s room. He died 40 minutes later in the company of his brother and friends.

The next day Dodge City saw its biggest funeral to date.

A large procession led out to the Fort Dodge cemetery and businesses stayed closed until six o’clock that evening. This was the first such honor paid to anyone in Dodge City’s history.

Following the death of his brother, Bat arrested the four associates of Walker and Wagner as accomplices in the murder. Bat's friend, County Attorney Mike Sutton, and City Attorney E. F. Colborn examined the case before a justice of the peace.

Despite a crowd of people standing within a few feet of the shooting, no one saw the affair from the beginning. There was insufficient evidence to charge the four cowboys or Alf Walker, who survived his grievous wounds, with a crime.

Unfortunately in many violent killings, this "verdict" was a common outcome in the wild west.