(Editor’s note: This is the final part in a series examining the life of Buffalo Bill Cody 100 years after his death.)
Buffalo Bill’s ghostly form speaks to visitors as they approach, curious about the Wild West Old West life he led.
Near the front of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, at the entrance to the Buffalo Bill Museum, there is Buffalo Bill Cody wearing a suit, a hologram of the scout and showman who almost single-handedly shaped the way Americans view frontier and western days gone by.
“Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce myself. I am William F. Cody.”
Only it is Peter Kooi Simpson Sr. doing the talking.
Cody died 100 years ago this year, ending at 70 a multi-faceted, extraordinary life that included naming this city.
The face of the hologram, as well as the Buffalo Bill in the film “Window to the West,” shown in the museum, is Simpson, 87, a Cody native, historian and one-time member of the state Legislature, as well as a thespian of some regard.
It took three hours of makeup to transform Simpson into a Buffalo Bill look-alike, but a lifetime of absorbing the man’s legacy brought his inner Bill out.
“That guy, when you live it here, you don’t take it lightly,” Simpson said. “He was the town builder.”
Buffalo Bill died in Denver, Jan. 10, 1917, and the 100th anniversary celebrations marking his passing are nearing an end.
In Colorado, officials at the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave in Golden conducted a memorial service and oversaw a special dinner and wake. As part of the National Western Stock Show in Denver, a “Wild West Show” was re-enacted for two days as an homage to Cody’s 30 years of international touring with cowboys, Indians, bison and horses.
In Cody, Buffalo Bill’s birthday of Feb. 26, was celebrated, two time capsules at the Center were opened, a days-long “Buffalo Bill Centennial Symposium” was conducted with speakers from around the world, the annual Buffalo Bill Art Show raised more than $1 million and the debate over where Buffalo Bill is really buried continued to mystify.
There were Buffalo Bill family reunions of different types in Cody and Golden.
“That resilience of William F. Cody was validated again,” said Bruce Eldredge, CEO and executive director of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Man of the world
William F. Cody was a man of the world, but remains a man with fingerprints and footprints in Cody.
Cody was a co-founder of the community in 1896. He founded the Cody Enterprise newspaper in 1899. He built the Irma Hotel in 1902. He held tryouts for his Wild West downtown. He organized hunts from his Pahaska Teepee lodge near the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, which had no gas station at the time.
The man who scouted and fought in the Indian Wars, winning a Congressional Medal of Honor, later filled the ranks of his employees with conquered Native Americans, featuring both his close friend Iron Tail, and briefly Sitting Bull as a star.
“He was a man of many parts,” said Paul Fees, former curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum.
Fees and three others co-wrote a Cody history book called “Buffalo Bill’s Town In The Rockies.”
Fees wrote of Cody riding on horseback up the North Fork, where he envisioned a new entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
“Buffalo Bill seemed to know what it took to make a town,” Fees wrote, noting Meeteetse dominated the area.
Now Cody has nearly 10,000 people and Meeteetse about 325.
Cody helped the city grow. He enlisted Major John Burke, his lead press agent for the Wild West, to convince people to move to town.
Burke was considered a marketing genius and at the July Buffalo Bill symposium, historian Joe Dobrow portrayed Burke as the prototype of the future advertising man.
“He knew everyone and befriended everyone,” Dobrow said of Burke. “He made them laugh. He made them cry. He made them break out their Roget’s Thesaurus. He was a pioneer of the marketing industry.”
Burke wasn’t selling beachfront property in Florida, but did aid Buffalo Bill in sparking interest in the new town of Cody, just as he had with the splendiferous, colorful poster art promoting the Wild West.
Burke and Cody business partner Nate Salsbury helped Buffalo Bill maximize his fame with good timing and acumen. The trio controlled the Wild West behind-the-scenes operations while Buffalo Bill was simultaneously the front man.
“This was a guy who was all over the world selling this place,” Jeremy Johnson, curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum, said of Cody as salesman for the new community.
Salsbury’s innovation was boosting the Wild West into the Congress of Roughriders of the World.
They made a fortune together
Cody’s open pockets
What many people can’t comprehend is how Buffalo Bill may have gone bankrupt.
He did run through tons of money, some of it because he made poor investments, or at the least poorly timed investments, and because he was exceptionally charitable and regularly gave money away.
“He was very generous,” said Cody’s Lynn Houze, a former assistant curator at the Buffalo Bill Museum.
Helen Cody Wetmore, one of Cody’s sisters, portrayed him as the ultimate big-brother leader of the family in her book “Last of the Great Scouts,” making sure everyone was financially taken care of through the years.
That included her and her sisters and their children. He was the only male with the wherewithal. Brother Samuel died as a teenager and their father had passed away, too.
Even though she portrayed “Will,” as members of the family called Buffalo Bill, as someone who teased his sisters mercilessly, “... we fairly worshipped him and cried harder when he went away than when he was home.”
Where did so much Buffalo Bill money go? Apparently, he had good business sense in some ways and poor judgment in others.
Cody had his hand and bank account in the Cody Canal, the new dam, the formation of the city and the development of its core.
“He sort of had open pockets,” Fees said. “His investments in the town were not bad choices. The problem was he made them all at once. He was not a gradual investor, so he was always broke.”
Near the end of his life, Cody invested in mining in Arizona. Fees said those who think he did well there are wrong. He succumbed to blandishments of so-called friends.
“The mines were a real drain on him,” he said. “He was someone who relied on his friends, or people whom he thought were his friends. They were faking reports to Cody about how the money was being used. Cody was taken for a ride there.”
Under the intense
Three dozen speakers at the symposium viewed Cody and his relationship to the American West from different perspectives, including his real-life exploits, the Wild West, his influence on movies, TV shows, and most tellingly, on other nations, from England to Italy to the Congo.
During his lifetime, while touring with the Wild West, it is often noted Buffalo Bill was the most famous man in the world and the most photographed man in the world.
He was a real human being often fictionalized. He traveled the world routinely in a pre-airplane world, but also regularly retreated to Scout’s Rest ranch in North Platte, Neb., or the TE Ranch in Cody.
He was married to Louisa Frederick from 1866 to 1917 when he died, but they were often apart and nearly divorced in 1905.
It was said Louisa Cody got revenge on Buffalo Bill’s philanderings by accepting $10,000 from Denver bigwigs to pay for his elaborate funeral and bury him in Colorado instead of on Cedar Mountain overlooking Cody.
“I don’t think she was that destitute,” said Johnston, the symposium organizer. “He certainly was not penniless. I know a lot of things were in Louisa’s name. But it certainly wasn’t the nest egg he hoped for.”
William F. Cody, like any man, had his virtues and his faults, and because so much of his life played out under an intense spotlight, they were all dissected, from adventures on the frontier to the drinking he took up, from numerous acts of generosity and family loyalty, to his rocky marriage, from business mistakes to longlasting creations bearing his name.
Famed shooter Annie Oakley always said Cody was square with her. He gave youngsters free tickets to the Wild West and adored children.
Houze believes some Cody residents underestimate Buffalo Bill’s importance to the community and unfairly see him in a negative light.
“They think, ‘Let’s knock him down a peg,” she said. “I don’t know what it is about some people. Other towns around the world would kill to have such a celebrity they could trade upon. We need a hook (for tourism) and Buffalo Bill is a great hook.
“Where would this town be without Buffalo Bill? Where would the Center of the West be without Buffalo Bill?”
Battle over the burial
William F. Cody passed away in January of 1917. The spirited debate over where he wanted to be buried and where his body lies, has continued for a century.
When he wrote a will, Cody requested he be buried on Cedar Mountain overlooking Cody. Louisa claimed he changed his mind on his death bed, asking to be buried on Lookout Mountain in Golden.
Bob Richard, a member of a multiple-generation Cody family, has long contended his grandfather told him how he and two others sneaked into Denver and absconded with the real Buffalo Bill’s body and buried it in an unmarked grave atop Cedar Mountain.
The story is doubted, but so is the belief Cody chose burial in Colorado. When Steve Friessen, then director of the Gravesite Museum, was in Cody for the symposium, he was repeatedly ribbed by Eldredge, Johnston and others who said, “We really have the body.”
When not teasing Friessen, the same people say they truly believe the body is under 20 tons of concrete in Colorado.
“I believe he’s up there,” Richard said of Cedar Mountain. “But my comment is, bottom line, his spirit is up there and it otherwise doesn’t matter.”
Becoming a hologram
Pete Simpson auditioned to be hologram Buffalo Bill on a whim when tryouts were called at the Holiday Inn.
Beyond the makeup applied in a Portland, Ore., studio, Simpson was decked out in Buffalo Bill hat, leggings, and other items.
“Most everything is his clothing,” Simpson said. “Yes, they fit.”
The set was a replica section of Cody’s office at the TE Ranch.
“It was a thrill to see it come to life,” Simpson said of the hologram and film, which made their debuts in 2012.
Simpson said he is often teased by Cody residents asking if he gets sick of hearing his voice in the hologram.
“No,” he joked, “not half as much as the guys (nearby security) sitting at the desk.”
At times, Simpson said, he has stood in front of the hologram with children watching.
He tells them, “I’m the guy,” (playing Cody), Simpson said. “The kids love it.”
Just as the kids always loved bigger-than-life Buffalo Bill Cody.