Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Humbug Hero, Some Episodes in the Life of Kit Carson Jr.

 Digging into the background of the stage actors who were also dime novel heroes can be fraught with difficulties. It was said of Texas Jack Omohundro that he had the name “Texas Jack” copyrighted to protect himself from the many impersonators who appropriated the name for money or fame. There were at least one half dozen obituaries of “Texas Jack’s” (including a notorious train robber) and just as many dead “DeadwoodDick’s.” “Kit Carson Jr.” was another name that was widely assumed. There was a real Kit Carson Jr., son of the famed scout, but he never appeared on the stage or in a dime novel romance. One “Kit Carson Jr.,” described as “a son of the old scout,” killed his father and mother-in-law in La Junta California in 1912 then mounted his horse and escaped through Bent Canon. This prompted a letter (25 Nov) to the Editor of Variety, part of which read:

“My name is and always was Kit Carson, Jr. I am the grandson of Kit Carson the frontiersman, and have abundance of proof in St. Fe, N.M. Have met seven presidents, King Edward, Queen Victoria, and have wined and dined with nobility. Now the point: Unscrupulous degenerates have introduced themselves as “Kit Carson, Jr.” If you ever meet them, put up 20 to 1 (make it 1000 to 1) that you can find Kit Carson, Jr. Just keep this letter as a reference.

Kit Carson, Jr.

Flat Rock Ind.

P.S.: Have never killed anyone; been a preacher in Oklahoma, not a bad man.

The actor “Kit Carson Jr.” had replaced “Texas Jack” in the Buffalo Bill Combination in 1875 and failed in a short-lived attempt to tour in his own melodrama in 1876. In 1877 Frank Starr published Samuel Stone Hall’s dime novel Kit Carson, Jr., the Crack Shot of the West. A Wild Life Romance by “Buckskin Sam.”  The cover featured a striking image of the stage “Kit Carson Jr.,” an actor whose real identity has been a source of puzzlement to writers ever since. E. M. Sanchez-Saavedra unearthed the name of the actor in a scrapbook at the Smithsonian (see HERE) which held an annotated photograph which was the obvious source for the dime novel cover. The annotation read:

“Jim Spleen, alias Kit Carson, Jr. of Baxter Springs, [Kansas]. Genl. Sherman told me he posed as the son of Kit Carson and tried to enter West Point through that deception – but could not pass examination – in grammar & figures.”

Buckskin Sam (he weighed 125 pounds)

Since Buckskin Sam had been employed as a Texas Ranger J. C. Dykes, author of an article titled Buckskin Sam, Ranger and Writer, searched the Texas Archives for the background to Kit Carson, Jr, the Crack Shot of the West.

“The Texas Archives reveal that Sam was a member of Captain Edward Burleson’s company of mounted rangers in 1860. Joseph Carson, age 26, was the Second Lieutenant of Burleson’s company, and while Sam makes “Kit Carson, Jr.” somewhat younger in the novel, it seems likely that Lt. Carson was the model for Sam’s hero.”

It seems that Jim Spleen’s image was attached to the novel Kit Carson Jr. because of his fame (he received good reviews for his portrayal) in the Buffalo Bill stage plays. But why would Frank Starr wait two years, long after Kit Jr. had left Buffalo Bill and failed on his own, to publish the dime novel?

Kit Carson Jr. was Buckskin Sam’s first novel and was described in his obituary in the Omaha Daily Bee 19 Feb 1886.

“… eventually Col. Prentiss Ingraham and Buffalo Bill befriended him, discovered that he had unusual facility for description, and advised him to write fiction based on his own personal experiences. So Sam turned in to a cheap publishing firm a story called “Kit Carson, Jr.” The manuscript was so crude that they could not use it as it was, but they discerned merit in it, and advised him to have it edited for them to read. He then bargained with a professional writer, an Oxford graduate, to lick the narrative into readable shape. This partnership lasted until Sam’s death.”

Jim Spleen, aka “Kit Carson Jr.,” a man born with the gift of gab, “whose eloquence charmed a crowd,” had his own story to tell (Batavia News 21 Nov 1878) during a visit to Paterson, New Jersey:

“At the depot he went into the baggage room, took off his broad brimmed hat, his buckskinned suit and his long haired wig, revealing under the masquerade a bright looking young man of the world, a shrewd canvasser. “You boys are fools,” he said to the depot folks, “to be slaving out your lives here for $40 or $60 a month. I tell you the people like to be humbugged. -- Nobody could sell this book till I took hold of it and passed myself off as “Kit Carson, Jr.,” and now I’m coining money. Last night I cleared $50 in Middletown, and tonight $35 in Paterson. I’m making big pay. Boys, there’s nothing like it. The people will pay well for being humbugged. Give up your railroad job and buy a wig, a broad brimmed hat and buckskin suit, and then take the agency for a frontier story book. You’ll get rich. Come, let’s have a drink!”

It's seems very likely that Junior's stage-show agents commissioned Frank Starr to supply a dime novel for their short-lived venture and Junior lived off the avails for the rest of his life. Soon after another article THE NEW HUMBUG, repeated the above story of the “dapper youth, who had taken this unique method of selling an unsalable work,” and ended: “The humbug referred to in the above was at the Potsdam fair and tried to lasso the flying machine.” On 1 October Junior was in Geneva where he lassoed delighted street Arabs and harangued a large crowd in front of his hotel, holding them “spellbound for three mortal hours” with topics ranging from scout life to the merits of the “greenback.”

“… taking his statements as true, he is the greatest traveler now living, although but 26 years of age. He scored without mercy the administrations of Grant and Hayes for mismanagement of Indian affairs, which has resulted in the loss of so many lives and so much treasure. This “scout” is a model temperance man, if we may believe him -- asserting that he never tasted strong drink, beer, wine, cider, tea or coffee -- never smoked tobacco in any form, nor ever played a game of cards, nor indulged in gambling of any kind. He denounced Mormonism, but held it to be respectable as compared with the practices of the Oneida community. The scout sold quite a large number of books containing an account of his romantic life and adventures.”

When Kit Carson Jr. appeared in Oswego with Dr. Redwing, a heavily muscled patent medicine salesman, he added to his ‘biography’ thus:

“Kit was born in Texas… was with Buffalo Bill for several years on the plains and in show business; was with General Custer in several fights… is a crack shot and last year went to Russia and took part with her sharpshooters in the Balkans… temperate, never drank a “taste” in all his life… He is a good talker and during his stay here will deliver lectures on the streets and sell books.”

On 22 Sept 1879 the Evening Auburnian reported that “the scout of the plains, who sometime since delivered street lectures in this city, was assaulted on a rail road train near Canajoharie. The Utica Herald said Carson and his wife Caroline W. Carson were on their way from Syracuse to Amsterdam, for sporting purposes:

“At Fort Plain three tramps boarded the train. One of them quite drunk came into the car and without provocation or cause, according to the affidavit of Kit Jr. walked up to him and struck him in the face twice, inflicting ugly wounds. While Kit was getting his revolver from his satchel the tramp struck Kit’s wife, Caroline W. Carson, in the face, fearfully bruising her. The fight at this time was quite exciting, the passengers all endeavoring to get a crack at the tramp. At this station the tramp and the Carson’s got off -- the former being placed in the hands of Officer Barrett. The tramp, who gave his name as Charles Phelps of Albany, was arraigned before Justice Charles W. wheeler on two charges of assault and battery. Mrs. Carson’s clothes were considerably torn and her face was very much bruised.”

Kit Carson Jr.’s last appearance was addressing a temperance meeting on 5 Jan 1880 at Talmadge Hall in New York City. Kit Carson Jr. “formerly attached to the Buffalo Bill combination,” died 5 March 1881, with his wife at his bedside. While staying at the Reed House in Chattanooga he was taken sick with smallpox and removed to the pest house. His age was given as thirty-five. Most newspaper accounts gave his birthplace as Texas, but none ever gave his true name, Jim Spleen, and what name, I wonder, was engraved on the flim-flam man’s tombstone in 1881?

1 comment:

  1. Sam Hall was trying to write an account of his own adventures on the Texas frontier in 1876 when he met "Kit Carson Jr." Dime novels were cheap promotional material, especially for the young boys, so Sam wrote Carson into his story as the main character. It had a better chance of being published with the romance aspect of "Kit Carson Jr." and Carson could hand out copies during his travels. There's even some evidence that Sam acted in Kit's combination on tour during the 1876-1877 season.

    I've tried for years now to figure out who Kit Carson Jr. really was. I don't believe the "Jim Spleen" note at all. In several interviews he gave to reporters during his travels, he always maintained he was from Guadalupe Co., TX and claimed his mother was Irish and his father was from KY. His wife's name appears as Celestia in some places and Caroline in the article you cited, but he left few clues to really verify. No Jim Spleens (or varied spellings) match any of his claims, but my search will go on.