Thursday, June 30, 2011

LUKE SHORT..."King of the Gamblers" and "The Undertaker's Best Friend"

By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

Without question the American West had some interesting men, many of whom lived hard and died fast. Some found notoriety and won fortunes in an honest game of chance. Some stacked the deck while others turned to robbery, meeting their fate at the end of a rope. And a handful became so famous they are now viewed as icons of the Old West. Let's face it, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has never heard of Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson. But I have always been more curious about someone both Earp and Masterson not only considered a good friend but who was an integral part of their circle...Luke Short.

With striking blue-gray eyes, handsome good looks, meticulous grooming and an obvious sense of Victorian fashion, one can well imagine the impression Luke Short made wherever he went. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to think he'd just arrived from England, or was even an aristocrat with an impressive title.

Well, this Arkansas born, Texas reared young man did earn a couple titles in his young life, namely: “King of the Gamblers” and “The Undertaker’s Best Friend.” But these labels don’t really tell us who Luke Short really was, or why such important men like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson valued his friendship so much.

Born in 1854, Luke Short was one of ten children born to Josiah W. Short. His parents moved to Texas when he was two years old and settled on a ranch near Fort Worth. His youth, like much of his life, has been shrouded in mystery. In fact, many rumors still exist today. One such rumor is that he killed a Kiowa Indian and wounded another when he was just 8 years old. Whether or not this is true, we know Luke was fearless with a gun and had an adventurous spirit that led him to many new places and a variety of jobs.

In 1870, a 16-year old Luke drove cattle to the Kansas railheads. Admittedly, it’s hard to envision the dashing figure [pictured above] choking on dust and enduring all sorts of brutal weather, let alone driving herds of smelly cattle north to Kansas. It seems more feasible he took the job as a means to get out of Texas and—at trail’s end—used the earnings to seek his fortune at the gaming tables. What we do know is he spent the next six years as a gambler.

In 1876, Luke Short was living in Nebraska and working as a whiskey peddler. Perhaps his finances had bottomed out after a string of bad luck at the tables. Whatever the reason, it appears Luke had been trading or selling whiskey to the Sioux--a federal offense at the time. But rather than be arrested, Luke ended up working with the US Calvary as a Scout under General Crook in the Black Hills. His bravery and skill with firearms was soon put to the test. Alone, carrying dispatches from a distant outpost, Luke was attacked by ten Sioux warriors who raced after him armed with rifles. Riding like the wind, he killed five Sioux shooting over his shoulder. Seeing half their war party killed by the lone rider, the remaining five Sioux pulled back.

Luke remained with General Crook until the capture of Sitting Bull then eventually ended up in Dodge City where he spent time with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson [Pictured left], both of whom were deputies there.

Like most gamblers, Luke followed the big money and since Tombstone had saloons and gambling galore, he moved there. Smart, handsome, and always impeccably dressed, he soon achieved a level of notoriety and success as a high stakes gambler. He followed the circuit from town to town, and it seemed wherever he went Luke’s reputation with cards and guns preceded his arrival.

In January 1881, Wyatt Earp became manager of the Oriental Saloon, entitling him to receive one-quarter interest in its faro concession. [Pictured below is Wyatt Earp dealing at one of the Oriental's faro table. To his right, Doc Holliday watches.] Needing men he could trust, Earp wired his good friends Bat Masterson and Luke Short, and asked them to help him with the faro games in Tombstone. Living in Leadville, Colorado at the time, Luke accepted Earp's offer and traveled back to Tombstone.

Reputation is one thing; fact is another. While working at the Oriental in February 1881, Luke was forced to prove his reputation with a gun was not exaggerated. A known gunfighter and professional gambler named Charlie Storms started arguing with Luke inside the Oriental Saloon. Bat Masterson tried to diffuse the situation, and Storms left the saloon. Later, when Luke left the saloon with some friends, Storms was waiting. The gunfighter grabbed Luke by the arm, yanked him off the boardwalk into the street then went for his gun.

Despite the fact Storms .45 cleared his holster, Luke’s speed and skill took center stage. Luke fired first and killed Storms with a bullet to the chest. Both men were standing so close to one another that Storms shirt caught fire from the muzzle flash on Luke’s gun.

Among the witnesses were Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Virgil Earp. Before being arrested pending an investigation, the ‘dressed to the nines’ Luke turned to Masterson (who had tried to be friendly toward the angry Storms earlier) and said, “You sure pick some of the damnedest friends, Bat.” [Pictured left: Bat Masterson]

The ruling was self-defense and no charges were filed against Luke. However, in April 1881, just two months after the Storms shooting, he decided to return to Leadville, Colorado. At the same time, Masterson returned to Dodge City to help his brother, Jim. Consequently, both men were not in Tombstone on 26 October 1881 at the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Then again, as we know, Wyatt Earp had his brothers in town, as well as another friend named Doc Holliday.

It has often been said that a man can best be judged by the friends he keeps. Men in this era did not trust easily. They were brave yet cautious; that’s how they stayed alive. One has to remember they lived in a time when arguments were settled more often with bullets than words. Friendships were forged with bonds of trust and loyalty. The expression, “I’ve got your back”, might very well have originated in the American West. Most certainly, I think it describes the relationship between Luke Short, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp. They looked out for each other, almost like brothers.

A perfect example of this happened in 1883 during The Dodge City War. Often called the “Wickedest City in America”, a corrupt association known as the Dodge City Gang had a stronghold on politics and law enforcement. Not only did they also control the liquor business, the mayor, Alonzo B. Webster, owned two saloons. To say this gang was out of control is an understatement, and they also had a long-standing animosity toward Bat Masterson and his brother, Jim (the city’s former marshal), whom Webster had fired shortly after taking office.

So, how exactly did the Dodge City War start? Lest you think Miss Kitty of television’s Gunsmoke owned the Long Branch Saloon, think again.

In 1883, Luke Short and a friend named W.H. Harris became 50-50 owners of the Long Branch Saloon. Webster and his gang didn’t like this; after all, Luke Short was very good friends with the Masterson brothers. Determined to get rid of Luke, the Mayor ordered several of the prostitutes working at the Long Branch Saloon arrested. When Luke protested, he was threatened by a policeman named Louis Hartman. Gunfire was exchanged and although no one was injured, Luke was told to "get out of Dodge" right after being labeled an "undesirable".

Let’s say the edict didn’t sit well with Luke. He contacted Earp and Masterson, both of whom not only conveyed their full support but felt a show of force was necessary in order that justice for Luke might prevail. They immediately recruited men to join their ‘Dodge City Peace Commission’.

[Pictured Left: (Seated L-R) Charles E. Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain, Neil Brown (Standing L-R) W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, and W.F. Petillon.]

In addition to Luke Short, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, the Commission included Luke’s Long Branch partner, W. H. Harris, famous gunman Charlie Bassett, and some very skilled gunfighters. Understandably intimidated, Mayor Webster and his cronies backed down. Luke was allowed to peacefully return to the Long Branch and Webster promised no further action would be taken. Luke remained in Dodge City for a few more months then went home to Texas.

Settling in Fort Worth, Luke Short was impressed by a prestigious saloon called The White Elephant. Operated by Bill Ward, The White Elephant already had a reputation as a “gentlemen only” establishment and catered to only the best clientele. The biggest saloon in Texas at that time, patrons could enjoy fine dining, drinking, billiards, and even purchase a “Billy Ward Choice Cheroot” for five cents—made exclusively by the saloon’s cigar factory on the first floor. To get an idea of the size, the combined restaurant and bar area (also on the first floor) measured 4,458 square feet.

Luke’s investment in The White Elephant made him owner of the saloon’s gambling concession. As such, he had full rein of the entire second floor. A plush, private faro room was created for so-called Big Games that regularly attracted famous gamblers like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Charlie Coe. Under Luke’s leadership, The White Elephant became known as the place to go for honest games, first-rate players, excellent food and drink, and an elegant, refined atmosphere.

Rosewood and mahogany fixtures were installed. Thick carpets and heavy curtains were imported. An elegant two-bedroom apartment was custom built for Luke and his wife, Hettie, and included a private entrance. A dumbwaiter even allowed them to order from the restaurant downstairs and dine in the privacy of their residence.

Luke’s flair for style was also responsible for The White Elephant’s famous bar on the first floor. It was enormous—taking up the length of an entire wall. Also custom-made, it had a front counter where customers stood, a liquor case for merchandise, and an elegant mirrored back-bar that stretched the length of the bar’s counter. Hand carved out of rich, dark mahogany, it was also decorated with onyx and crystal lighting fixtures.

But just like Dodge, corrupt politicians and lawmen can be found everywhere, including Fort Worth. Although once a respected former Marshal of Fort Worth, Timothy 'Longhaired Jim' Courtright, had a new occupation that many found corrupt. He ran a protection racket for owners of saloons and gambling establishments in Fort Worth. And he wanted the popular White Elephant Saloon to be his newest, biggest client. But if there was one thing Luke Smart knew how to do, it was protect the White Elephant himself. He rejected the offer, a fact that aggravated and annoyed the former Marshal. What would happen if other clients thought they could do the same for their business?

Things came to a head on 08 February 1887. Luke Short was at the White Elephant with visiting friend, Bat Masterson. While having his shoes blackened, an employee informed Luke that Courtright wanted to speak with him outside the saloon. “Tell him to come inside,” Luke said. After being told Luke's reply, Courtright yelled from the doorway for Luke Short to come out.

A few moments later, Luke calmly walked out into the cold February night air. He listened as Courtright, who’d obviously been drinking, voiced his anger that Luke had refused his service of protection. Courtright also told Luke that as a former lawman everyone would believe him if he killed Luke and claimed it was self defense. After all, everyone knew Luke always had a gun on him.

Was Courtright bluffing or did he intend to kill Luke in cold blood? Not sure of his intent, a deceptively calm Luke Short said he was unarmed and if Courtright wanted to check for himself, he could. Luke took a step toward Courtright while opening his vest.

“Don’t you pull your gun on me!” Courtright shouted as he drew his pistol. Although faster on the draw, Short didn’t shoot to kill. Instead, he shot off Courtright’s right thumb, making it impossible for the man to fire his revolver. Clearly, had Luke Short wanted to kill Courtright he was skilled enough to do so with one bullet. Unfortunately, Courtright wasn’t bluffing. He did want Luke dead, and tried to switch his single-action revolver to his left hand. Before he could do so, Luke shot and killed him. [Pictured right: Timothy 'Longhaired Jim' Courtright]

Luke was taken into custody. Bat Masterson—concerned for his friend’s safety—convinced the sheriff to allow him to remain with Luke in the jailhouse, armed and ready if anyone thought to take justice into their own hands. Masterson’s argument must have been very convincing since the sheriff also allowed Luke to be armed in his cell. Once again, the ruling for Luke Short was self-defense.

Over the next five years, Luke Short invested in other saloons and continued his life as a professional gambler. His friendship with Earp and Masterson remained constant. In August 1893, Luke traveled with his wife, Hettie Beatrice Buck Short [pictured right], to Geuda Springs in Kansas. Luke had Dropsy (now known as Congestive Heart Disease) and the waters in Geuda Springs were said to have health-restoring minerals. Sadly, he died in his sleep on 08 September 1893. He was only 39 years old. His body was returned to Fort Worth, and he is buried in Oakwood Cemetery; ironically, so is Courtright.

One can only wonder what else we might have learned about Luke Short had he lived longer. What other adventures might he have had with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson?
We do know the lives of Luke's surviving friends ended at opposite ends of the country. Bat Masterson died in 1921 while living in New York City. A columnist for the New York Morning Telegraph, he suffered a fatal heart attack at his desk. Masterson was 67 years old. Wyatt Earp, the eldest of the three friends, outlived them both. Earp died at his Los Angeles home in 1929; he was 80 years old. [Pictured left, one of the last photographs of Wyatt Earp taken a year before his death]

Thank you so much for taking the time to visit the Sweethearts of the West blog and read my post this month about Luke Short. I have always been intrigued by who exactly Luke Short really was, especially since one cannot visit Fort Worth without hearing about his famous shootout with Courtright. But there was much more to the man than that one incident. I hope you will agree. On a side note, Luke Short, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson are all featured in my historical western, Whisper in the Wind. As a historical writer, I love it when research is found that can be incorporated into my work. ~ AKB


  1. Great blog--he's someone I'd not heard much about before!

  2. Ashley, that's a great blog. I love the Old West and I've always liked the Earp guys. :)

  3. Thanks, Nicole. He was an interesting person, to say the least.

  4. Hi Geri! Yep, the Earp brothers are definitely symbols of the Old West (and handsome, too!). I just wish that when films were made about them, they also addressed Wyatt's close, long-standing friendship with Luke Short. There is a history there. I think Luke and Wyatt were kindred spirits in a way -- very much alike; both were men of few words, didn't like to talk about their past, and were very private. Bat Masterson was the more outgoing of the three. His tombstone even reflects his amiable nature, "Loved by Everyone".

  5. Ashley--fascinating stuff!I never heard of Luke Short, and was very intrigued by his close friendship with Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. It's also interesing that they all dressed so well--at least for these photos. But those clothes were not cheap--even from a black and white photo you can tell they were quality.
    The Long Branch? Was that the name of the saloon in Gunsmoke?
    Also, the bar in the White Elephant was stunning--it probably came right out of some Victorian mansion.
    I loved this post--very compelling reading, about the lives of these famous men.

  6. Ashley,
    What a wonderful post! I didn't know about Luke Short--had no clue. Very interesting, and you'd think there would be more mention of him in all the movies made about Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and all the "gang" back then. LOL Thanks so much for a truly interesting and informative post. I really enjoyed reading this and learning about Luke.

  7. Celia, Yep, the name of the saloon in Gunsmoke with Miss Kitty Burke was called the Long Branch. And the photo of the bar I posted in the blog has been identified as the actual Luke Short bar he had custom made for the White Elephant.

    Thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  8. Cheryl, you and I think alike! It always bothered me they didn't mention Luke since he was such good friends with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson for well over 25 years. I think a great deal of that is perhaps attributed to the fact he died young. It just seemed that both Wyatt and Bar looked out for Look, almost like a little brother. They certainly seemed protective of him, not that he couldn't take care of himself. I also cannot help but think in that last photo taken of Wyatt Earp (a year before he died), he looks sad...almost like he misses his friends and is ready to meet them in the great beyond.

    Thanks for your comments, Cheryl!

  9. Luke Short is a name I've never heard before, but after reading your great accounting, I will remember him for sure now. He certainly lived up to the life of a gambler and undertaker's friend. It would be interesting to see what he would have done if he'd lived longer. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Ashley, great photos. I knew the story of Luke Short but hadn't seen his photo. He was very handsome. Love stories about old Fort Worth and the characters who lived there. As usual for you, you did a wonderful job on your blog post.

  11. Hi Paisley, thank you for your comment. And it is sad he did not live longer, but like Wyatt he died peacefully. I would love to see a movie made about him with Johnny Depp as Luke Short. What do you think?

  12. Thanks, Carolyn! Like you I enjoy history, especially local history. Luke Short was extremely handsome, and wasn't his wife pretty?? She looks like a lovely young lady, and one can see why he was protective of her. I failed to mention that at the White Elephant no prostitution was allowed. No women were allowed. If customers wanted sex, they had to go somewhere else. That rule plus the fact Hettie lived with him on the premises says alot. Everything I learned about Luke, combined with the air of mystery about him, compelled me to include him in my book -- along with his more famous friends. ;)

  13. Ooooh, Johnny Depp playing Luke Short would be perfect casting AND it would be a western. :)


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