What do you do with a footnote to a footnote to history?

One of my side-side projects is to look at a window in the career of E.Z.C. Judson, aka Ned Buntline. Judson is perhaps one of the most important people in nineteenth century theatre history who had almost nothing to do with the theatre. Here is a succinct overview of his bizarre career, but some highlights:  Ned fought in several wars, sailed in the Navy, was convicted of instigating the Astor Place Riots (which he probably didn’t do), and “discovered” Buffalo Bill Cody.  During it all, he constantly wrote, eventually producing a string of newspapers and a dozen or so novels.

Judson’s first big success was the five-part The Mysteries and Miseries of New York (1847), which, like several city “mystery” books before it, purported to reveal the underworld of New York.  Unlike his predecessors, however, Ned was deeply familiar with the city’s darker side. In his newspaper Ned Buntline’s Own, he took a reformist’s mindset to attack the city’s criminals, prostitutes, and corrupt officials, but in his private life, he spent more than a fair share of his time in their company.  The book spawned several stage adaptations (now lost, as far as I can tell) and made Judson a sort of celebrity, something which seems to have gone to his head in all the wrong ways.

Currently, I am looking at the years 1849-1875 in his career, a period bookended by his alleged participation in the Astor Place Riots and the year that ended his association with Buffalo Bill. With the help of a research assistant, Mallory Mullins, I have been going through newspapers looking at every mention of Judson during this period, and, as it turns out, there is a lot of them!  He lived an eventful life and it’s one that I am surprised to find has received little scholarly attention.  Ned seems to have had the talent of always being in the middle of high drama wherever he went, so almost every newspaper mention that we have looked at was deeply embedded in fascinating historical moments. One such example is this scantly reported incident from July 1849, almost two months after the Astor Place Riots:

I was surprised to find that this appears to be barely a footnote in this, somewhat neglected, phase of his career, with almost nothing written about this event, either in the contemporary press or subsequent scholarship.   Maybe because he got beaten up so often?  As Mallory trawled through the papers, she noted, “People just love beating up this guy,” and it’s true: he got into so many scrapes that I probably would not have even bothered with investigating this one had she not flagged it as particularly comic.  Once on the trail, it was difficult to find any more primary source information than is printed above. This guy had just been charged with instigating the bloodiest riot since the Revolutionary War, and no one was paying much attention to him getting beaten up in Philadelphia!?  It took a while before I could find enough details of the incident to get a clue as to why McGown beat Judson so severely, not to mention what Judson was doing in Philadelphia in the first place.

It seems that Ned (Judson), who was mixed up in the nativist, fairly-anti-establishment Know-Nothing politics in New York, also had connections to similar groups in Philadelphia. He sailed there in his own yacht and may have been in the city to stir things up as he had in New York. He also may have just been trying to move to a new city and more or less start over, a habit he frequently indulged, as he had a way of making enemies wherever he went.

Looking at a pamphlet written attacking Judson by editor Thomas V. Patterson, The Private Life, Public Career, and Real Character of That Odious Rascal Ned Buntline!!! (1849) I came across this more expansive mention of the incident.

The “second” Ned turns out to be Ned McGowan (spelling was not quite standardized), who comes across the page like Judson’s double. In McGowan’s career, he was a judge, newspaper editor, poet, state assemblyman, “shoulder-hitter” (bouncer or enforcer), and police Captain who had a habit of getting into trouble and landing on his feet. For example, when an enemy in the state assembly had accused him of bribery, the two met on the legislature floor and a fight worthy of the WWE ensued. McGowan was stabbed, but was still able to retaliate by smashing a chair over his assailant’s head. In full view of the entire body of state lawmakers. He later became a policeman before being convicted (perhaps wrongly) of robbery, leaving Philadelphia shortly after he cracked Judson’s head.

It seems like Ned had published bad things about McGowam and his associates, which led to the beating, a pattern that Buntline must have been used to by now (see Mallory’s note above). Here is the event in McGowan’s retelling (my favorite is the final line about mustaches–it’s always nice when historical figures show they are adept at throwing shade):

Daily Alta California, Volume 37, Number 12601, 13 October 1884

Soon afterwards, McGowan went to San Francisco looking for gold. He began by operating a roulette wheel in a brothel and soon became a judge in a period of vigilante chaos. Lauded for successfully facing down a  mob, he was eventually forced to flee when he got into some deeper trouble with the San Francisco Know-Nothings, a group with deep ties to Judson (hmm…). McGowan fled to Sacramento, where, unable to lay low, he started a newspaper attacking the Know Nothings, prompting a violent rebuttal.  Eventually fleeing the state, McGowan evaded the vigilante “army” several times (once by being rolled into  a carpet and smuggled away, à la Cleopatra), and eventually almost started a (sort of) war in Canada. 

What is it with these people? And why don’t we talk about them more!?

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