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Adams One-Fifty: “The Establishment of Law and Order on Western Plains”


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164.     DE VENY, William. The Establishment of Law and Order on Western Plains. Portland, Oregon: Optimist Print, The Dalles, Oregon, 1915. [1] 2-120 pp., 4 photographic plates, one of which is a duplicate (confrontation of armed horsemen, group portrait of famous Western lawmen, moving photostudio to another town), 2 full-page text illustrations (murder and mayhem), pictorial initial of wolf signed “CR.” 12mo (17 x 12.6 cm), wanting original photographic wrappers with portrait of author (supplied in excellent facsimile), original heavy staples. Title page slightly dusty with some minor chipping at gutter margin (neatly reinforced), small rust stains from original staples, otherwise a very good copy of an exceedingly rare book.

Plates & text illustrations:

The Surprise Bunch “held up.” Half-tone photograph between pp. 32-33. Staged shot of a long line of armed horsemen from Ulysses holding another group from the town of Surprise captive at gunpoint during a county seat contest.

Duplicate of preceding, in same location.

A little scrap in a Cincinnati “drug store.” [lower left] Caughey. Wood-engraving on p. [48]. Scene showing gunmen and two dead bodies in a saloon.

Top row; W.H. Harris, Luke Short, W.B. “Bat” Masterson, W.H. Petillon. Bottom row; Charley Bassett, Wyatt Earp, C.M. McNort, Neal Brown. Half-tone photograph between pp. 64-65. Group shot of famous lawmen.

My arrival in Cincinnati, from Ulysses. Half-tone photograph between pp. 96-97. View of De Veny’s studio arriving in Cincinnati, Kansas, after having been moved there from Ulysses, Kansas.

The killing in county to the north of Santa Fe Rail Way. [lower left] Caughey. Wood-engraving on p. [112]. Street scene of gunfight.

     First edition. Adams, Guns 584: Adams, One-Fifty 47: “The author states in his preface that it was his intention ‘of having about one hundred copies printed to be used by my family and myself for gifts to a few personal friends’…. According to all the information I was able to unearth, there was only one copy known to authorities, that one being locked in a vault of the Oregon Historical Society…. The book deals largely with lawlessness in the various Kansas county-seat fights and has some material on Dodge City, where the author lived in its early days.” We know of three institutional copies (Oregon Historical Society, Library of Congress, and SMU, which has Adams’ former copy), and two copies in private hands. According to Library of Congress copyright details, the book originally sold for 50 cents.

     De Veny (1852-1918), an Illinois native, was a man stricken with wanderlust who met a wife with the same passion. In this narrative, De Veny recounts his wanderings through the early Midwest and his adventures there. Although a resident of Seattle when this book was published, De Veny here relates earlier experiences before he moved to the West coast, including his childhood and his eventual drift westward to Kansas and Nebraska. His narrative includes interesting remarks about Dodge City, where he lived for a while and which he defends as a prosperous place, despite its unsavory reputation.

     A major portion of this biographical narrative is, as De Veny says, taken up with his adventures and involvement in contests for locating county seats in Kansas and Nebraska, a process that sometimes brought out the worst in people in both monetary and political terms. As he explains: “A county seat fight is about the strangest sort of scrap that can be imagined. In the first place such a contest as a rule works up more ill will, destroys more friendships, makes more enemies, breaks up more families and produces more pure cussedness than any other sort of a political contest ever fought” (p. 26). Land speculators, for example, often had relatively large sums of money riding on which community would become the county seat. To lose the election meant to lose one’s investment. Residents of competing towns also had significant stakes in election outcomes. In one case, for example, residents of the town of Surprise attempted to move the entire town surreptitiously in the middle of the night to take up residence in a nearby area considered more favorable for their election chances against the town of Ulysses. Their plans were undone, however, by the clever maneuverings of their opponents. Because De Veny was heavily involved in several of these contests and well understood the legal and political maneuvers that would come into play, his recounting of these events is an important record of life on the frontier that gives insight into the present shape of the landscape.

In one instance, the run-off between Cincinnati and Ulysses in present-day Grant County became so heated that a local doctor, in cahoots with De Veny’s opponents, actually poisoned him under the guise of giving him treatment. De Veny finally figured out the ruse but was weakened for quite some time. Cincinnati won the election, but the victory was not permanent. In the end, present-day Ulysses became the county seat and Cincinnati disappeared, its land now incorporated partially into Ulysses itself.

De Veny enjoyed a reputation as something of a gun slinger or crack shot because of two totally fortuitous incidents. When he went west, he packed a .22 caliber pistol, which was considered a serious weapon in his hometown. He had not been in the area long, however, before he realized how puny his weapon was compared to the .45 calibers that everyone else carried, and quickly upgraded his personal firepower to a pair of .45 Navies. De Veny himself admits that the guns were primarily for show and that he had no real idea how to use them.

     In the first incident that made him famous, De Veny witnessed a farmer’s wife chasing a chicken that she intended to cook, but the woman was having no luck. De Veny pulled his .45 and by sheer luck managed to blow off the chicken’s head with the first shot while the bird was at a full run, a feat witnessed by a companion. Later that same day, he was riding back to town with his companion when they spotted an owl about 30 yards away. De Veny’s companion urged him to try his skill and shoot the owl, a trial that De Veny was, of course, reluctant to undertake given the serendipitous nature of his earlier shot. Finding that his honor left him little choice but to try, De Veny pulled out his .45 and, to his own amazement, repeated his feat by blowing off the owl’s head as well. Afterwards, stories spread rapidly and apparently gained De Veny much respect. Oddly, De Veny never seems to have fired another shot after that day. He did indeed draw his weapon from time to time, but only to use it as a club to hit people upside the head. After the chicken incident, he was known as “Buffalo Bill” De Veny. He helped his reputation along by telling his own lies about his handgun prowess.

     An important historical aspect of De Veny’s life is that both he and his wife were early photographers. His wife, Martha Rosetta Ellis (1853-1927), was already a photographer by profession when they married and taught him the trade, which the two pursued off and on over the years. They were married in Clay County, Nebraska, where they set up a photography shop, at one point rigging up a traveling studio and going to Arkansas. When they settled in Ulysses, they set up a photography studio there, which became embroiled in an unusual way in the county seat fight between Ulysses and Cincinnati. Apparently persuaded that De Veny was an important ally, the Cincinnati partisans bought him off with so much money that his wife thought he had robbed a bank. Shortly thereafter, De Veny dragged his entire photographic studio westward to Cincinnati (the arrival of which is recorded by the photographic plate between pp. 96-97). If De Veny is actually in the picture, the photograph was undoubtedly taken by his wife, as he seems to imply (p. 95). If nothing else, the image is a highly unusual one in the history of Western photography.

     Sometimes described in historical accounts as a podiatrist, De Veny was actually far more influential as a politician, social organizer, and photographer. In an odd twist, it has also been asserted that he was a double for Buffalo Bill and actually performed his own Wild West shows as an impersonator, apparently with the real Buffalo Bill’s connivance (see Don Holm’s article “Were There Two Buffalo Bills?” in Frontier Times, September, 1965, pp. 35, 61). As the photographic portrait on the wraps demonstrates, De Veny could easily be mistaken for Buffalo Bill. De Veny’s biography is a highly important, well written account of life in the early Midwest and is redolent with details of frontier life that could be known only by someone who experienced them firsthand.


Sold. Hammer: $500.00; Price Realized: $600.00

Auction 22 Abstracts

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