Bat Masterson’s sister - Murder Most Cruel

KC Daily Journal 9-10-1893 p 1Under lurid headlines, the September 10 issues of the Times  and the Sunday Journal ran stories on the murder of a local businesswoman: “STRANGLED,” said the Journal: “Mrs. Jane Wright Choked to Death in Her Office. Face Crushed by a Blow…. BRUTAL, DELIBERATE WORK.”Kansas City Times 09-10-1893-p5

“MURDER MOST CRUEL,” went the Times story: “Mysterious Tragedy Within Fifty Yards of the Junction. MADAME WRIGHT THE VICTIM. Her Dead Body Found in Her Office in the Hall Block. A SISTER OF BAT MASTERSON.” 

Both papers noted the proximity of the gruesome murder to the Junction, Kansas City’s busiest spot, which would have been crowded at the time. Both went into detail on the position and condition of the body, the manner of its discovery, and the scene of the crime. The Times added an additional point of dramatic interest:  the murdered woman was “a sister of Bat Masterson, one of the most noted men in the West, known as a desperate fighter and said to have a record of more men killed than any man on the frontier.”[1]  

Any news about Bat Masterson was of national interest. In January he was reported to have jumped in the ring during a prizefight in defense of a boxer he was backing. [2] In March, he was interviewed by a Kansas City Times reporter while on his way to Nashville “for the purpose of making books on the coming races.” Masterson, says the reporter, is “known throughout the country as one of the land-marks of Dodge City in its most palmy days.” To the reporter he predicted, wrongly, that the English fighter he was backing, Charley Mitchell, would “to a moral certainty” beat Jim Corbett in their January bout. [3]

Bat Masterson 1879In a separate piece, the reporter did an admiring profile of the famous lawman, gambler, and gunfighter:  

A man probably 38 years of age, although looking two or three years younger; about five feet, nine inches tall…. He wore a black derby hat and a spring suit of clothes, light in color and beautifully made. He was not flashy in any respect and yet he looked like a gambler or sporting man. He is extremely polite in manner, talks well and easily and uses very good English….

This is a the man who is said to have killed as many men as any other of the noted border characters, and yet never a one by unfair advantage, and who now has a reputation on pugilism and a man who is willing to back his judgment as long as his money lasts.[4]

Kansas City police chief Thomas Speers, an accomplished raconteur, told of having driven out of town a gang of “confidence men and killers from all over the United States. There was Bat Masterson and Luke Short and Johnny Rooney and McSweeney and a whole lot more of them.”[5]  With Masterson, Luke Short had been a member of the “Dodge City peace commission” of 1883 featured in an iconic photograph.

By coincidence, Luke Short died in Geuda Springs, Kansas, on the same day as the murder of Mrs.Dodge City Peace Commission Wright. Short, reported the Times, was “one of the best known of the men who achieved a reputation as ‘killers’ in the West in the early days. He was spoken of as having a private graveyard. He was a sure shot and quick with the revolver.”[6] The Times story recalls his role in the conflict which led to the formation of the “peace commission”: Short had been operating the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City when he was run out of town by a rival saloon owner who also happened to be the town mayor. Short gathered a group of friends including Bat Masterson, “Senator” Charles Bassett, a Kansas City resident, and Wyatt Earp -- although Earp, who had yet to achieve legendary status, is not mentioned in the Times story.  

Short’s group, “armed to the teeth,” returned to Dodge City to confront the mayor, but no fighting took place in what became known as the “Dodge City War.” Both sides “paraded the town for several days and business was entirely suspended.” [7] A compromise was reached allowing Short to return to town.

Luke ShortShort’s death occasioned reminiscence by a man from Liberty, Missouri, who’d met Short at the Excelsior Springs soon after the events in Dodge City. It was Short’s wish “that his identity should remain unknown, owing to the eyeing and attention he would naturally attract,” the man told the Times. “He was a very mild-mannered man, and a stranger would never have guessed him to be the ‘noted killer.’ He could repeat the poems of Byron and other bards hour after hour.”[8] 

Given the romantic notoriety and newsworthiness of such “Wild west” figures, it isn’t surprising the Times was eager to publicize an association between Bat Masterson and the murdered woman, whose life was of less interest than her violent death.

By her son’s account, Mrs. Wright was born Jane Masterson in Toronto in about 1837, the eldest of five children, one of whom was Bat, “an unruly boy,” she said, who ran away from home and got a severe whipping from his aunt[9]. Jane was married at 17 to a wealthy slave-owning planter from Louisiana and sent money to bring Bat and his siblings to Buffalo: “He drifted out west,” said the son, “and we often heard of him since as an officer of the law and a referee at prize fights. We have written to him several times, but he never answered our letters.”[10]

Jane’s husband died of yellow fever in 1853 and, illiterate, she was cheated out of her inheritance. She migrated to Cincinnati, where she married again. After her second husband deserted her, she came with her son to Kansas City and opened an employment bureau. Business was apparently good – her office was said to always be crowded with job seekers – but it was a dodgy and even dangerous sort of business. Wright kept a revolver in her office, another at home, and kept her money on her person.

She didn’t trust banks, and for good reason:  bank runs were occurring across the country in the depression of 1893. The Kansas City Safe Deposit Bank failed in March, ruining many of its depositors.  In July, the National Bank of Kansas City suspended operations. Jane Wright KC Star 09-10-1893 p 1

Speculation about the motive for her murder included not only robbery, since her habit of carrying her money with her was known, but revenge: “Many Italians have recently been deceived and defrauded by employment agents in Kansas City,” [11] reported the Times, and it was speculated that revenge might have been taken on her if she was one of those employment agents.  It was speculated also that she “may have deceived some woman, whose brother or relative sought revenge.”

 Indeed, an acquaintance described her as such a penny pincher that she would get free office work out of young women to whom she promised jobs that never materialized: “She never paid a cent for her clerks,”[12] he reported, thus adding to speculation that the relative of a deceived woman may have killed her. One onlooker among the crowd watching Wright’s body carried from her office said her murder was “the best thing that’s happened in this town for years. I’m glad the old woman is dead, and I’m goin’ to her funeral an’ throw up my old hat and holler hurray as loud as I ken.” His opinion of Wright’s son Edward Froisy was no higher:  “They’re two of the worst cases that ever held out in this town. My sister went up to Froisy there months ago to look for work. He took a dollar from her and promised her a job. She went to different places he sent her, and they were all fast houses. Then he sent her over to his mother, the old Madame, and she talked her into goin’ out to Kansas to work in a hotel. My sister went, and when she got there she found that the house was worse than any she’d been sent to here.”[13]  Even neighbors in the remote area south of Brush Creek where she and her son lived had sworn to “get even” after quarreling with them.

It proved to be Wright’s penchant for carrying money concealed in her clothing, not revenge, which led to her death.  The culprits had been hangers out at her son’s office, also an employment agency; there they learned of the money she had with her, which they believed to be about $1,500, a considerable fortune in 1893. Another man they sought to bring into the plan backed out, warning the conspirators, “Boys, you can’t get old madame’s money without killing her. I know her. She loves her money. She will give up her life before she will her money….”[14] Perhaps Mrs. Wright resisted, or perhaps the two robbers went prepared to kill her, though they denied any intention of murder.  They found only about $400 on the body, overlooking a number of gold pieces and rings hidden in her undergarments, “each piece carefully wrapped so that gold might not clink and jingle….”[15] The robbers accused each other of being the one who actually strangled Mrs. Wright.

“The only wonder,” reflected Chief Speers after the arrest of the culprits,“is that there is not more of this kind of crime. Desperate men are to be found everywhere. At the same time there are lots of people who are known to carry their savings around with them all the time. I wish you would say to such people for me that the place for their money is in some bank.”[16]

Jane Wright’s claim to be Bat Masterson’s sister was disputed by Masterson’s family. The Daily Journal reported that it had received a telegram from Masterson’s brother in Wichita denying that the murdered woman was their sister: “They have only one sister,” said the telegram, “and she lives here and is the wife of the chief of police of this city.”[17] The Times reported on the denial by the Wichita Masterson family of a relationship to Mrs. Wright, as well as on a telegram apparently from Bat Masterson himself disclaiming any knowledge of Mrs. Wright and the testimony of Charles Bassett that he had never heard Masterson speak of having a sister in Kansas City. Nevertheless, it subtitled its story “Everything lends [sic] to show Bat Masterson and Mme. Wright related,” and repeated the claim of Mrs. Wright’s son that his mother was a Masterson from Canada, adding such corroborative details as that her father “was a soldier in the Queen’s guards and stood 6 feet in his stocking feet.” [18]

If the Times was unwilling to concede error to its arch-rival in the Kansas City newspaper wars, perhaps Jane Wright of Toronto, child bride, widow, abandoned wife, and hard-scrabble businesswoman in a society hostile to independent women, had a more practical reason for claiming an association with the famous gunslinger -- the same reason she kept a revolver in her office and another at her home.

[1] “Murder Most Cruel.” Kansas City Times, September 10, 1893, p. 5.

[2] “Bat Masterson in the Ring.” Kansas City Daily Journal, January 31, 1893, p. 6.

[3] “Says Mitchell Will Win.” Kansas City Times, April 26, 1893, p. 1.

[4] “Talk of the Town.” Kansas City Times, April 27, 1893, p. 4.

[5] “Speers’ Stories.” Kansas City Mail, July 25, 1893, p. 1.

[6] “Luke Short Dead.” Kansas City Times, September 10, 1893, p. 5.

[7] “Luke Short dead.” Kansas City Times, September 10, 1893, p. 5.

[8] “Talk of the Town.” Kansas City Times, September 15, 1893, p. 4.

[9] “Known as his sister.” Kansas City Times, September 15, 1893, p. 5.

[10] “Murder Most Cruel.” Kansas City Times, September 10, 1893, p. 5.

[11]Murder Most Cruel.” Kansas City Times, September 10, 1893, p. 5.

[12] “Murder Most Cruel.” Kansas City Times, September 10, 1893, p. 5.

[13] “Murder most Cruel.” Kansas City Ties, September 10, 1893, p. 5.

[14] “It was a cruel plot.” Kansas City Times, September 12, 1893, p. 3.

[15] “Murder most Cruel.” Kansas City Ties, September 10, 1893, p. 5.

[16] “It was a cruel plot.” Kansas City Times, September 12, 1893, p. 3.

[17] “Have Sealed Their Doom.” Kansas City Daily Journal, September 13, 1893, p. 8

[18] “Known as His Sister.” Kansas City Times, September 15, 1893, p. 5.

July 5, 2012