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Wild Women Of The West: Emma Walter

Love and the Pugilist

January 02, 2020

The Olympic Club Amphitheatre in New Orleans was filled to overflowing on January 14, 1891.  Among the enthusiastic crowd that had converged on the scene was Bat Masterson, the charming, always well-dressed, part-time lawman, pugilist and sportswriter.  He sat closely to a twenty-four-square-foot boxing ring in the center of a massive room, under a bank of bright lights that surrounded the arena. Box holders and general ticket holders eager to see the fight between Jack Dempsey and Bob Fitzsimmons filtered through the main gate and quickly hurried to their assigned places.  Security guards were stationed at several other entrances to the room keeping determined boxing fans from sneaking into the event without paying and barring entrance to any female who had a desire to see the highly publicized match.

A competent announcer squeezed between the ropes carrying a speaking trumpet (predecessor of the megaphone) and positioned himself in the center of the canvas ring.  In a clear, bold voice he introduced boxer Jack Dempsey to the more than four thousand spectators awaiting the action. Dempsey was escorted to the arena by his coach and his coach’s assistant.  The twenty-eight-year-old boxer wore a determined expression. Fitzsimmons, also twenty-eight, looked just as resolute about the work to come when he appeared and was led to the ring. Cheers erupted for the pair.  At the request of the referee both men shook hands and at the appropriate time began to fight.

The audience and amphitheater staff were transfixed on the action.  Fans jumped to their feet at times and shouted instructions to the boxer they wanted to be victorious.  A pair of guards at a side entrance of the club were so focused on the boxers in the ring they scarcely noticed the medium height man pass by them wearing derby hat, black coat, and tan trousers.  The dark-haired, mustached gentleman kept an even pace with two men flanked on either side of him who appeared to be his friends. They exchanged a few pleasant words with one another as they made their way toward the ring.  When the three reached the spot where Bat Masterson was seated, they stopped and the dapper man wearing the derby hat leaned down to speak to the western legend. Bat looked away from the boxing match a bit surprised and smiled.

A reporter sitting nearby witnessed the scene, jumped to his feet, and pointed at the person wearing the derby hat.  “That’s a woman!” he shouted incredulously. Uniformed guards quickly swarmed the scene, grabbed the imposter’s arms, and quickly ushered her toward the exit of the building.  In the commotion the derby hat fell off and a curly mop of brunette hair tumbled out from under the hat. It was indeed a woman. It was Emma Walter Moulton, world renown juggler and sometimes professional foot racer.  She was there because her lover Bat Masterson was there, and she didn’t want to be away from him.

According to a newspaper account of the incident in the January 17, 1891, edition of New York Clipper, “The woman was greatly embarrassed, but she withstood the ordeal wonderfully well.  She was placed in a streetcar and taken to the 5th Precinct Station.  Her name was Emma Walters [sic] and her age with thirty years.”  Emma was jailed for violating a city ordinance that made it illegal for women to attend public sporting events.  After several hours of being locked up, she was bailed out of jail by Jake Kilrain, one of Bat Masterson’s friends from Denver.

Emma Matilda Walter, the woman who dared venture into the exclusive territory of the opposite sex to be near the infamous western figure, was born in Roxborough, West Philadelphia, on July 10, 1857.  Her father, John drove freight wagons for a living and continued in the line of work for the Union Army during the Civil War. He died of typhoid fever in 1862. Catherine, Emma’s mother, was unable to support herself, Emma, and Emma’s younger sister, so they went to live with Catherine’s brother, William Banton, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.  When William could no longer afford to care for them, the three moved to West Philadelphia to live with Catherine’s mother.

In 1872, Emma made the acquaintance of Edwin Winford Moulton, a twenty-five-year-old Minnesota native, and professional athlete who had made a name for himself as a foot racer.  He often appeared at state fairs where overconfident men would bet money on themselves that they could run faster and farther than Edwin. Edwin seldom, if ever, lost. In 1868, he boldly challenged any runner in the Northeast to compete against him.  While traveling through Pennsylvania in October 1872, in search of a worthy opponent to answer the call, he met Emma. The two quickly fell in love and were married on January 13, 1873, at the Asbury Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.

For a short time after Emma and Edwin were wed, Edwin continued to travel the fair circuit.  Time and time again he proved himself to be the fastest runner, earning a modest amount of cash in the process.  He was listed as one of the top three sprinters in the country in February 1874. Although he was pleased with the recognition, Edwin did not feel his income was compensatory to the work and travel he had to do.  He missed his bride but knew he could not support them both on the road. In an attempt to generate more work, he developed a plan to incorporate Emma into the business.

In September 1874, Edwin announced that he and Emma would be racing against one another in the one-hundred-yard dash at a series of scheduled fairs.  Newspapers and magazines containing articles about the events captivated the public’s attention. Audiences turned out in droves to see the woman who would dare match her skills with a sprinter who had won more than three hundred races.  The popularity of the unusual challenge was evident in the increased ticket sales. Not only did the Moultons benefit monetarily from the race but they also sold numerous photographs of themselves in their running uniforms. Emma was thrust into the limelight with her husband, and she reveled in the attention.

In October 1875, the Moultons raced in front of a large crowd at the North Hampton, Massachusetts, county fair; so many people had gathered at the site of the happening that Emma and Edwin could barely move.  When they finally made it through the throngs of spectators and the race commenced, Emma beat Edwin by two feet. Edwin took advantage of his wife’s accomplishment and growing popularity and announced he would offer a cash prize to any woman who raced against her and won.  There is no record of anyone accepting the challenge.

For the next three years the pair toured the country entertaining fair goers with their speed and agility.  At some time during this period Emma learned how to juggle, she became proficient in Indian Club Swinging, bowling-pin shaped clubs once used primarily for exercising. Her talent was recognized by a theatrical agent who encouraged her to pursue a stage career.  Emma took his advice and developed a few routines – including a trick called the “hurry” in which all the clubs are passed from hand to hand with lightning speed succession.  The style of Indian clubs Emma used weighed two pounds each and were six and a half inches long.

According to an informational pamphlet about the clubs published in 1886 by the Montgomery Ward Co., club swinging was considered a type of gymnastics relegated specifically to men.  The author of the pamphlet believed women lacked the upper body strength necessary to keep the clubs moving.  Emma was the exception. Theatre owners in Boston, Chicago, and Providence, Rhode Island, hired her to appear on stage with her act.  She was a major draw. By 1877 Emma was known as the “Queen of Clubs.”

Edwin refused to deviate from the ongoing schedule he had set for himself with various fair organizers in order to be with Emma, and their relationship began to falter.  The couple became even more estranged in August 1878 when Emma joined celebrated pantomimist Tony Denier’s Humpty Dumpty theatrical troupe. Denier’s Humpty Dumpty troupe consisted of twenty-five different acts from performing elephants to gymnasts.  Emma, billed as the “Champion of All Lady Club-Swingers”, committed to play venues from New Jersey to Utah.

Emma and Edwin rarely saw one another during the 1878-1879 theatrical seasons.  She began spending a great deal of time with acrobat Frank Clifton. Frank performed with his brother James, and both were members of Denier’s troupe. Emma was frequently seen in public with Frank, but her involvement with the acrobat went largely unnoticed by newspapers until the company’s last show which was set in Chicago. “The Champion Club-Swinger Emma Moulton is charged with running away from her husband, E. W. Moulton, to join Frank Clifton, a horizontal-bar athlete…,” an article in the August 17, 1879, edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported.  “Clifton was last evening arrested upon a warrant charging him with adultery, but Mrs. Moulton could not be found.  The injured husband is willing not to prosecute if Emma will return to her mother’s home at Philadelphia and quit forever the variety business, which he always objected to her entering.  Clifton pleads not guilty, of course, but Moulton says he can prove that they roomed together for a week at No. 409 W. Madison Street.”

Days after the news that Emma and Frank were romantically involved, the two decided to go their separate ways.  Neither believed the affair could survive given the scandal that erupted. After being released from jail, Frank left Chicago and found work with another troupe located on the East Coast.  Emma and Edwin reconciled and returned to life on the road. Edwin was no longer running foot races. He had ventured into the business of training athletes. His clients included sprinters, wrestlers, boxers, and bicyclists.  Emma continued with her juggling act and added singing to her repertoire as well.

According to the April 21, 1884, edition of Rocky Mountain News, the Moultons had journeyed west and Emma was appearing at various clubs in Denver.  Between 1883 and 1887, Emma and Edwin traveled from their home base in Minneapolis to theatres and fairs beyond the Mississippi.  Emma received glowing notices and, consequently, more requests to perform. In 1888 Emma accepted an extended engagement to appear in Denver, Colorado.  Edwin, who was not coaching outstanding runners like Al Tharnish, the world’s fastest human, and future Olympiad Alvin Kraenzlein, objected to Emma spending so much time away from him.  An altercation the two had on March 15, 1889, about that issue made the Rocky Mountain News.  The article contained harsh accusations about both Edwin and Emma.

“Edwin Moulton was arrested last night at the corner of 18th and Larimer Streets after a hard fight.  Moulton is a foot racer by profession, and under that guise he has duped many men out of hundreds of dollars….  Last fall Moulton’s wife, who is engaged in one of the variety theatres, ran away with a negro minstrel named Shehan, to Los Angeles.  Moulton obtained a letter of introduction to the chief of police in that place, went there and, after locating his better half, fleeced the head of the police department out of $50 and departed for home.  He has been in Denver for some time, and when times are dull and ‘suckers’ few, he spends his time gambling. He takes the proceeds of his wife’s disreputable earnings and makes her life miserable generally.”

Although nothing was made official until 1893 the Moulton’s marriage did not survive.  Edwin returned to Minnesota where he was hired by the University of Minnesota to be the trainer and head coach of the football team.  Emma remained in Denver where she appeared on stage at Denver’s Palace Variety Theatre and Gambling Parlor. The seven-hundred-fifty-seat performance hall and gambling facility was managed by the celebrated, former lawman Bat Masterson.  Historians and biographers such as Robert DeArment believe Emma and Bat had been involved for years prior to Bat taking over the Palace; other scholars like Chris Penn (a contributing writer for Wild West Magazine) insist they met in March 1889, a month before Emma was hired to perform at the theatre.  The fact that the pair became lovers and eventually married is not disputed.

Bat Masterson was four years older than Emma.  Born Bartholomew Masterson in Canada in 1853, Bat had been employed in a number of professions prior to managing the Denver theatre.  He left home at the age of seventeen with his brother Ed and became a buffalo skinner in Kansas. He worked as a grader for the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, a scout for the army, and a buffalo hunter.  Bat was an expert with a gun and on July 27, 1874, was the youngest of twenty-nine defenders at the Battle of Adobe Walls, a fight between buffalo hunters and the Plains Indians.

On November 8, 1874, he was a participant in the renowned epic “Charge of the Wagon Brigade,” when scouts located Cheyenne medicine man and chief Gray Beard’s camp on McCleland Creek in Colorado.  Lieutenant Frank Baldwin with the Sixth Cavalry attacked the camp, routed the Indians, and rescued two girls who had been held captive since September 11, 1874, when Gray Beard’s band had massacred the rest of their family along the Smoky Trail in Kansas.

It was during his experience as a scout that Bat killed a man to save his own life.  It happened in Sweetwater, Texas, as January 25, 1875, at a dancehall. Bat and a friend, Virginia Riordan (also known as Molly Brennan) went to the dancehall after hours to have a snack.  Sergeant Mel King, a member of the Fourth United States Cavalry, heard of this and became insanely jealous because he considered Molly to be his girl.

Shortly after Bat and the woman had gone into the building and lit a small kerosene lamp, the drunken King walked through the doorway.  Molly jumped in front of Bat and begged the soldier-gunslinger not to shoot. King fired point blank at the woman. The room was filled with her screams as well as with the stench of gunpowder and burned flesh.  The bullet passed through Molly’s abdomen and entered Bat’s pelvic bone. As Molly fell on the floor dead, Bat fired his revolver and shot King through the heart.

The shots aroused the saloonkeeper who rushed to the scene with some neighbors.  The local doctor said that Bat would not live. His friends refused to accept the diagnosis.  They took Bat to an army surgeon who removed the slug and continued to treat him. He recovered fully with no ill effect apart from a slight limp which he carried for the remainder of his life.

By the time Bat was well again, the Indian trouble had subsided and he was no longer needed as an army scout in the Panhandle country.  He went to Dodge City, Kansas, where he became sheriff of Ford County. Not only did he distinguish himself as a law enforcement officer, leading posses in successful pursuits of train robbers, murderers, and horse thieves, but also as one of the owners of the Long Branch Saloon. He had a reputation as a shrewd businessman and possessed talent for gambling and worked on perfecting the art whenever he wasn’t on duty.  He enjoyed sporting events – horse racing, bear wrestling, and particularly boxing. He refereed several boxing matches and became a fine pugilist in the process.

The summer of 1876 found Bat on his way to Deadwood, South Dakota, to try his luck searching for gold in the Black Hills.  He never reached Deadwood, however; he stopped off at Cheyenne, Wyoming, where his gambling luck became so fantastic, he decided to stay for a while.  In the fall of 1876, he returned to Dodge City to help a friend in trouble. He took another turn as a law enforcement agent in the area, remaining in office as a United States marshal until January 1880.  He drifted into Colorado, Nebraska, and Arizona, involving himself in a variety of altercations with outlaws and gunfighters riding rough shod over the various territories. In between keeping the peace in different western locals, Bat traveled back to Dodge City time and time again.  He had made lasting friends at the cattle town and was concerned for their well-being. In November of 1884, he decided to start his own newspaper in Dodge City. He called it Vox Populi, but it didn’t survive its first edition.  Bat printed unflattering articles about political figures in the county, and the paper was not well received.

By 1890 Bat was back in Colorado dealing faro at popular gambling halls in Denver until he took over management duties at the Palace Variety Theatre.  Emma’s song-dance-juggling act was a favorite with Palace audiences. Bat gave her top billing on the theatre’s marquee, and when the footlights were extinguished in the evenings the entertainer and manager would retire to the same hotel suite.  According to author and researcher George G. Thompson, who acquired information about Bat from his brother Thomas, Emma and Bat were married on November 21, 1891. A record of the marriage has yet to be found, but divorce records do exist between Emma and Edwin Moulton. They show that the estranged couple’s marriage was legally dissolved on November 9, 1893.

Emma retired from the stage in 1892 and contented herself to being wife to Bat.  She preferred the behind the scenes life filled with housework, bridge with friends, and reading.

Bat eventually gave up his job at the Palace and went to Creede, Colorado, where he operated a gambling house and saloon.  During his stay there he decided to become a promoter of horse races and boxing matches. Bat went broke backing boxers Charlie Mitchell and Bob Fitzsimmons in two separate bouts against James Corbet.

Bat traveled a great deal, more often than not, unaccompanied by Emma.  She missed him but was not insistent that he stay put. Likewise, Bat was aware that Emma enjoyed her independence.  Their lifestyles suited them fine. According to the August 29, 1895, edition of the Glenwood, Iowa, newspaper the Mills County Tribune, “Masterson is very happily married, and has an interesting family, his wife being a cultivated lady.”

At the turn of the century the Mastersons were living in New York.  Bat had accepted an offer from President Theodore Roosevelt to be the United States marshal for the Southern District of New York.  Emma and Bat both appreciated the job. Bat was home evenings, and in contrast to the unpredictable earnings of sports promotions, the government salary was steady and substantial.

In 1903 Bat resigned from his post as United States marshal and took a job as sport’s editor of New York’s Morning Telegraph Newspaper.  Emma was proud of the opportunities that Bat was presented, but the East Coast climate was hard on her health. She suffered with asthma and epilepsy; a condition made worse by the area’s damp weather.  Colorado’s weather was dry and the air crisp. Bat tried to persuade Emma they needed to return to the West, but she refused. She did not want him to sacrifice a job for which he was perfectly suited just for her.

On Tuesday morning, October 25, 1921, shortly before noon, Bat strolled into the newspaper office to write his column.  That afternoon he was found dead at his desk, slumped in his favorite chair, his last column clutched in his hand. The cause of death was a heart attack.  He was sixty-six when he passed away. Emma was devastated. She laid her husband to rest at the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. The inscription on his tombstone read “Loved by All.”

Emma lived another eleven years and was faithful to Bat to the end.  She died on July 12, 1932. Local newspapers carried a six-line obituary about her passing.  “Mrs. Emma Masterson, widow of William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, celebrated western pioneer, was found dead in a New York hotel where she had been living three years,” the Canadian newspaper the Lethbridge Herald notice read.  “Emma was seventy-five years old.”

Emma and Bat never had children.  Her belongings and Bat’s belongs were left to her sister.  Emma was buried next to her beloved Bat.

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