Ned Buntline was the pseudonym of Edward Zane Carroll Judson Sr. who was born on 20 March 1821 in Harpersfield, New York. At the age of five he moved with his parents to Bethany, Pennsylvania, and then at thirteen ran away from home and became a soldier. The next year he shipped out on a Navy vessel and then rescued the crew in New York’s East River resulting in him receiving a commission as a midshipman in the Navy from President Martin Van Buren. As a seaman he also served in the Seminole Wars but saw little combat.
Judson’s first stab at publishing was an adventure story he wrote that appeared in The Knickerbocker in 1838. He then spent several years starting newspapers and story papers only to mostly experience failure. However, an early success that helped launch his fame was The Mysteries and Miseries of New York, a gritty sensationalized serial story of the Bowery and slums of New York City that had murderers, drunks, prostitutes, child snatchers, gamblers, folk heroes, and adulterous husbands and wives.
In 1844, Judson adopted the pen name “Ned Buntline,” with buntline being a nautical term for a rope at the bottom of a square sail. Next, he “detached from the navy in 1845 … [and] traveled to Eddyville, Kentucky, where in November 1845 he supposedly captured two murderers who were hiding in some woods, an accomplishment that won him six hundred dollars.” Yet, that was not the last of his unusual adventures.
A year later he romanced the teenage wife of Robert Porterfield. Unfortunately, Porterfield learned of the affair and then challenged Buntline to a duel. He killed Porterfield but in the process was shot and injured by Porterfield’s brother. During the melee Buntline escaped but he was subsequently captured and hung from an awning by a lynch mob. Just as the life was about to be squeezed out of him friends helped him escape and then a Tennessee grand jury refused to indict him for murder. He was therefore free of any charges linked to the duel, but that did not mean he would avoid trouble.
Another difficulty Ned Buntline found himself facing happened on 9 April 1849 when he mentioned a well-known Manhattan madam, Kate Hastings, in his newspaper. He described her as “the infamous cast-off mistress of a deceased gambler, known as ‘gallows Kate Hastings,’ the keeper of a low house of prostitution on Leonard-Street.” She took offense and accosted him in the middle of Broadway,
“‘You dirty, mean, sneaking, paltry sonofabitch! How dare you publish me in your paper!’ Hastings hollered, then pulled out a horse whip and thrashed him until he needed medical attention … [He] took Hastings to court for the assault, and won, but this only served to publicize the fact that he was frequent visitor to Hastings’s house of prostitution. The judge was forced to find in the writer’s favor … but he was so outraged at Judson’s behavior that he fined Hastings a mere six cents.”
Through his columns and his association with New York City’s notorious gangs of the early nineteenth century, Ned Buntline also became one of the instigators of the Astor Place Riot that started because the American theatre was dominated by British actors and managers. A riot had been brewing for more than 80 years after an entire theatre was torn apart while British actors were performing on stage.* In addition, there was a dispute between two Shakespeare specialists, William Charles Macready, who had the reputation as the greatest British actor of his generation, and Edwin Forrest, the first real American theatrical star and owner of Fonthill Castle.
Ultimately, everything came to head on 10 May 1849 at the Astor Opera House in Manhattan. Macready was scheduled to appear in Macbeth at the Opera House while Forrest was scheduled to perform Macbeth on the same night, only a few blocks away at the huge Broadway Theater. Tensions were high when the riot broke out and it resulted in 23 people dead and 120 people being injured. Moreover, in September 1849, because of Buntline’s involvement and reporting he was “sentenced to a year’s imprisonment [at Blackwell’s Island] and a fine of $250.”
After his release Buntline became a “prolific writer of sensational stories for the weekly papers, producing in all more than 400 serials, most of them under his pen name, [Ned Buntline].” In fact, “every experience of his incredible lifetime [soon] glamorized in his conversation and his blood-and-thunder novels and stories.” For instance, one embellished encounter had him “leaping from a window in Nashville after he’d killed [Porterfield] … in a duel.”
Other experiences by Buntline were also exaggerated. For instance, his Seminole War experiences and his sea life activities, both of which had been primarily ordinary, were morphed into tall tales. One such fiction was that a scar he had gotten on his chest during the Portferfield duel was caused by an Indian arrow or an Indian knife while he was fighting the Battle of Ash Hollow, an engagement of the First Sioux War that was fought in September 1855 between United States Army soldiers and a band of the Brulé Lakota along the Platte River in present-day Garden County, Nebraska.
Ned Buntline also used other pseudonyms that included Captain Hal Decker, Scout Jack Ford, and Edward Minturn. He was highly creative and an extremely busy as writer and the Sunday News reported:
“Ned’s wildly successful dime novels kept even this prolific writer busy. He farmed out some of his work, and once when a ghost writer killed of his hero in an early chapter to see Ned squire, Ned took over the later installments and used the hero’s ghost right up to the end.”
When Judson became famous as Ned Buntline, he left Bethany in Wayne County. However, he frequently returned for short visits. It was during one of these quick stays that Scranton Pennsylvania’s Tribune noted:
“Ned one time was rusticating the woods of Pike county, near the Wayne county border in a cabin he had built himself. He was taking notes, he said for use in a book he was writing. At that time he was still susceptible to enthusiasm, as he called it, … Ned was then at the height of his fame, and when a party of local choice spirits made up a party to go to Jink pond on a fishing bout they sent an invitation to Ned to be one of the them. He accepted and joined the party. … On the way into the pond, Ned Buntline saw much that pleased him and he frequently exclaimed: ‘I’ll put that in my book! I’ll put that in my book!’ … During the day Ned Buntline had seen so many things that struck him as novel and funny that he had kept his exclamation, ‘I’ll put that in my book!’ working overtime.
An invaluable and favorite feature of the angling outing was an Indian war dance around a campfire … The performance of this by leading citizens was so realistically wild and savage that [Ned’s] enthusiasm became quite uncontrollable, and seizing a fire brand from the fire he waved it about his head and joined in with appropriate yells … concluding his part … by hurling his burning stick of wood in the air. The flying fire brand collided with one of the other dancers, a most worthy citizen … The sparks from the brand flew about him like Fourth of July fireworks. That was particularly pleasing incident to Ned Buntline, and he danced and yelled: ‘I’ll put that in my book! I’ll put that in my book!’
The citizen against whose personality the fire-brand had landed was … ruffled … by the introduction of the new feature in the dance, … he strode to where Ned was yelling that he would ‘put that in the book,’ landed a good one between the enthusiastic eyes, and sent him to the grass, almost in condition to take the count. Then as Ned scrambled to his feet, the ruffled citizen exclaimed, ‘Put that in your book!’”
In 1853 Judson organized the “Know Nothing” movement, formally known as the “Native American Party” (at that time meaning descendants of colonists or settlers, rather than indigenous Americans). It originally started out as a secret society and was primarily an anti-Catholic, Anti-Irish, anti-immigration, populist, and xenophobic movement, although it was also progressive in its stances. Fears by the group also helped encourage dozens of conspiracy theories. It was also a forerunner to the temperance movement. In addition, the Know Nothing movement briefly emerged as a major political party in the form of the American Party where adherents simply replied, “I know nothing,” when asked about its specifics by outsiders, providing the group with its name.
When the American Civil War broke out Buntline enlisted in the 1st New York Mounted Rifles and became a sergeant before he was dishonorably discharged for drunkenness. In fact, he preached temperance at lectures even though he was usually drunk. Of this period the Press and Sun Bulletin remarked:
“He was what used to be called a periodical drinker – not like Mark Twain, who wrote in Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes’ autograph album: ‘Total abstinence is so excellent a thing that it cannot be carried to too great an extent. In my passion for it I even carry it so far as to totally abstain from total abstinence.’”
While traveling through Nebraska Ned Buntline met Wild Bill Hickock. Buntline hoped to write a dime novel about the folk hero but Hickock was anything but receptive when they met. In fact, he threatened Buntline with a gun and told him to get out of town. Buntline did but he still thought about Hickock and planned to cast Colonel William F. Cody as Hickock’s sidekick. However, when he met the gregarious Cody in the summer of 1869, he found he was much more interesting than Hickock and it was because of Buntline’s creative pen that this American soldier, bison hunter, and showman became famously known as “Buffalo Bill.”
From 1860 until 1863 Ned Buntline was an ardent Republic and initially supported James G. Blaine when he was nominated for president. Unfortunately, rumors had begun to spread that Blaine had been involved in a transaction with the Union Pacific Railroad which had paid him $64,000 for some Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad bonds he owned even though they were nearly worthless. The alleged transaction was presented as a sham designed to bribe Blaine and he denied the charges as did the Union Pacific directors. Nonetheless, Democrats demanded a congressional investigation and testimony seemed to favor Blaine’s version until James Mulligan, a Boston clerk who had been employed by Blaine’s brother-in-law, testified. He maintained that the allegations were true, he had arranged the transaction, and he had letters to prove it. He then brought forward one written by Blaine that ended with the damning phrase, “Burn this letter.” After that Buntline, like many others wanted Grover Cleveland as president.
Buntline was married six times. His wives were Seberina Escudero, Annie Abigail Bennett, Marie Gardiner, Katharine Myers Aitchison, Lovanche L. Swart, and Anna Fuller. Of his married life biographer Julia Bricklin reported:
“Judson’s marriages and sexual proclivities were viewed together negatively, but it is important to put his liaisons into context. To be sure, most of them were opportunistic, ill conceived, and criminal. But, it should be noted that two of Judson’s driving forces through his whole life were the ideas of reinvention and legitimacy, which were sometimes at direct odds with each other; marriage was a primary way for him to achieve both. He moved from city to town to hamlet, east to west, urban to rural and back again, chasing adventure and income. He met many, many different kinds of women – and, in his own corrupted or contorted way, thought a marriage ceremony would bring validity to his liaisons – both for him and his partners. And though he truly found his intellectual match with at least two of his wives, the others should not be relegated to a much lower status; he had a genuine affection for their exoticism, energy, ability to be a good helpmeet, or some combination of all of these things.”
Ned Buntline spent the last years of his life at his home in Stamford, New York in his home that he called the “Eagle’s Nest.” It was there that he died on 18 July 1866 of congestive heart failure. Remembrance of Buntline after his death often mentioned his writing skills:
“Buntline depicted men and women as he had actually observed them in mining camps, on cattle ranches, in Indian warfare, in border feuds … He was the creator of the dime novel in the sense that a dime novel was a thriller that at the end of nearly every chapter – without fail at the end of each installment – left the hero between the devil and the deep sea. How that hero could possibly be saved from whatever dilemma he was in, of course made the intrigued reader very anxious to get the next installment.”
It was also reported of him (although it might be tall tale):
“Just a few hours, if not minutes before his death, in spite of his enfeebled condition, Ned Buntline is said to have stood up in bed, unaided, and prayed with a fervid eloquence that seldom comes from dying lips. He realized that he was face to face with the Grim Specter and the profound solicitude he felt for his own eternal spirit had given him the temporary strength to rise, and with sobbing voice implored mercy from that Omnipotence of whose personal existence he so often had been in doubt.”
*British actors touring around the United States had found themselves the focus of often violent anti-British anger, because of their prominence and the lack of other targets.
-  J. Bricklin, The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline (Lanham: TwoDot, 2020), p. xvi.
-  Ibid., p. xvii.
-  Ibid., p. xvi.
-  Press and Sun-Bulletin, “How ‘Ned Buntline’ Turned from Runaway Boy to Writing Genius; His Relations with ‘Buffalo Bill’ and the ‘Know Nothings’,” April 11, 1929, p. 10.
-  Ibid.
-  Sunday News, “King of the Dime Novelists,” January 6, 1952, p. 17.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  The Tribune, “Three Wayne County Boys Who Have Spun Many Yarns,” July 18, 1911, p. 8.
-  Press and Sun-Bulletin, p. 10,
-  Public Opinion, 1 vol. (Washington, D.C.: Public Opinion Company, 1886), p. 288.
-  J. Bricklin. 2020, p. xxi–xxii.
-  Press and Sun-Bulletin, p. 10.
-  Ibid.