Nov. 5, 2012, 3:15 p.m.

Art exaggerates life

Buffalo Bill's 'Dime Novels'

During the late 1800s, dime novels transformed the ordinary man William Cody into the fantastic Buffalo Bill, eventually blurring the line between reality and fantasy.

Dr. John C. Rumm, curator of Western American history at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, gave a presentation Oct. 17 at Laramie County Community College, highlighting how dime novels helped to take the ordinary man William F. Cody and make him the extraordinary Buffalo Bill.

Dime novels, the melodramas of the 19th century, consisted of four or five sections. Many of them came in weekly installments, much like the TV series we watch today. The most popular dime novels featured Buffalo Bill and his many wild adventures, one of which depicted an extraordinary escape from Aztecs in a makeshift hot air balloon.

Cody was born in the town of Le Claire, Iowa. “He had what we would consider a typical boyhood. He did things like hunting and trapping small animals. He was particularly fond of quail,” Rumm said about Cody’s childhood. This was the beginning of his greatness.

Cody himself said, “My love of hunting and scouting and life on the Plains was the result of my early surroundings.” Cody took his love of hunting to make name for himself quite literally. Following his father’s death, Cody worked many odd jobs. The job that gained him the most notoriety was fulfilling a contract with a railroad construction company to provide food for the workers. During an 18-month period, he killed 4,280 buffalo, earning him the name Buffalo Bill.

Quite by fate, the publishing company of Street and Smith hired a writer who went by the pen name Ned Buntline, known for writing stories of swashbuckling pirates. The company wanted a fresh adventure from the Western frontier. So, they sent Buntline to the West where he eventually found Cody.

That is how what simply started out as a nickname became an international icon.

Rumm wanted the audience to remember Buffalo Bill was a completely different person from William Cody. Buffalo Bill led a life full of fantastical adventures. As a character, Buffalo Bill was invincible. William Cody, however, did all the ordinary tasks that come with managing a ranch and providing for a family.

Cody’s biggest goal in life was to make a difference, and in the end he was unsure whether he accomplished that goal. What he did give the world is a place to escape, a place where all the world’s problems disappear.

Rumm’s presentation was sponsored by the LCCC Ludden Library.