Monday, February 6, 2012

Kit Carson, Jr. Matinee Idol and Cover Boy


by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

In 1877, purchasers of Frank Starr’s New York Library*, issue number 3, were treated to the image of a handsome frontier hero with sombrero and long rifle gazing piercingly off into the far distance. Unlike most dime novel illustrations drawn from pure imagination, this woodcut was obviously copied from photograph of an actual person. The pose is reminiscent of the theatrical photos by New York celebrity photographers Napoleon Sarony and Jose Maria Mora. (*Update: since writing this post the original photographic image used to illustrate the cover has been traced to Mora.) The story it illustrated was Kit Carson, Jr., The Crack Shot of the West. A Wild Life Romance by “Buckskin Sam.” This exciting western tale was written by Sam S. Hall (1838-1886), a short, feisty alcoholic former Texas Ranger living in Wilmington, Delaware. Hall’s yarn was set in 1860, when the Rangers were in hot pursuit of Juan N. Cortina, freedom fighter and bandit, who periodically raided the Texas frontier. It includes several real-life characters that Hall had known personally, plus an assortment of fictional Rangers and villains. The same cast appeared in sequels like Wild Will the Mad Ranchero.

(*Frank Starr was the print foreman of the firm of Beadle and Adams. The series was renamed Beadle’s New York Dime Library a year later. Reprints replaced the old masthead with the new one in 1878.)

Kit Carson Jr. may be found HERE

 According to Louis S. Warren in Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) pp. 170-171, Texas Jack Omohundro took a break from acting with the Buffalo Bill combination in 1874. As a temporary replacement, Cody hired a young man known only as “Kit Carson, Jr.” When Texas Jack returned in 1875, “Carson” left the troupe and started his own rival company, to Cody’s intense disgust. The new combination failed and “Kit Carson, Jr.” faded into oblivion – almost.

Robert A. Carter, in Buffalo Bill Cody, The Man Behind the Legend (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), p. 211, quotes from correspondence between William Cody and author Sam Hall. Hall wished to try his hand at acting in western melodramas, but Cody, knowing of his friend’s weakness for “tanglefoot” and the hardships of traveling troupes, dissuaded him in a letter of July 5, 1879:

“I have no part in either my dramas that would be suitable for you to play as I did say that I would never have another Scout or western man with me…for just as soon as they see their names in print a few times they git the big head and want to start a company of their own. I will name a few. Wild Bill Texas Jack John Nelson Oregon Bill Kit Carson and Capt. Jack all busted flat before they were out a month and wanted to come back. Because I would not take them then they talked about me.”

In the same letter, Cody mentioned that “Kit Carson, Jr.’s” prospects were not furthered by his arrest for striking his wife with intent to kill!

 In The Lives and Legends of Buffalo Bill (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960) p. 212, Don Russell cited a letter from Kit Carson III denying that any member of his family had ever toured with Cody under the name of “Kit Carson, Jr.”

There the matter rested until April 2004, when Smithsonian magazine announced the existence of a forgotten bit of western Americana. Tucked away in the Smithsonian Institution is a crumbling scrapbook of photographs and sketches by James Earl Taylor (1839-1901) who specialized in western illustrations for Frank Leslie and other publishers. The Smithsonian digitized this scrapbook as part of an ambitious project to make more of its hidden treasures available to the public. While browsing through the superb digital photos of Native Americans, western scenery and historical personalities, I chanced upon the smoldering visage of “Kit Carson, Jr.”

Taylor had annotated the image as follows:

“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.”

While this tantalizing clue raises as many questions as it answers, it supplies the original image from which Beadle’s engraver worked. Judging solely by his behavior, “Jim Spleen” was far from being the winsome hero of Sam Hall’s novel. His expression as captured by the unknown photographer eerily recalls actor Malcolm McDowell’s chilling portrayal of the twisted, vicious “Alex” in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

 A note on James E. Taylor (1839-1901):

Born in Cincinnati, Taylor graduated from the University of Notre Dame du Lac at the age of 16. At 18, he had painted a panorama of the Revolutionary War. Under the patronage of the Rev. Henry W. Bellows, he moved to New York to study art in 1860. Caught up in the war fever, he enlisted in the Tenth New York Infantry (National Zouaves) in 1861. He served two years and was promoted to sergeant. While still in service, he sent some battlefield drawings to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and was hired as a “special artist” when he left the army in 1863. For the remainder of the war, he traveled with the Union Army in Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolina and Georgia sketching battles and incidents of army life. A staunch member of the “Bohemian Brigade” of war correspondents and artists who risked life and limb to report on the conflict, he accompanied Sheridan’s army throughout the Virginia Valley campaign, and from Savannah to Richmond. Leslie’s published 61 of his wartime drawings. General William T. Sherman commissioned his painting of “The Last Grand Review” in 1865.

 After the war, Taylor traveled to the West with Gen. Sherman and the Indian Peace Commission, and his drawings of the Medicine Lodge Council treaty negotiations were published in Leslie’s in November 1867. His drawing “Branding Cattle on the Prairies in Texas” published in Leslie’s in June 1867 was the first illustration of the western cattle industry printed in a national magazine. He was an avid collector of photographs of western people and places to assist his artwork. He also sketched scenes depicting the struggles of Blacks during the Reconstruction years.

Besides his factual news sketches, he drew hundreds of illustrations for Frank Leslie’s Boys’ and Girls’ Weekly, including the Jack Harkaway serials.

 He also created a series of wash drawings of the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, several of which appeared as engravings in Leslie's reports on the relief and recovery efforts. After leaving Leslie in 1883 his Civil War subjects appeared in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War and in many other books and magazines during the 1880s and ‘90s. A lifelong bachelor, he died at his residence on Lexington Avenue in 1901.

The  J.E. Taylor album may be browsed HERE

 Also see:
James E. Taylor, With Sheridan Up the Shenandoah Valley in 1864: Leaves from a Special Artist's Sketchbook and Diary. (Cleveland, OH: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1989

James Earl Taylor in middle age.

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