A young mind is turned by the dream of emulating Buffalo Bill’s wild Wild West

350px-Buffalo_bill_wild_west_show_c1898

In 1887 ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody brought his travelling Wild West Show to Europe. The show featured wild animals, reenactments of historical events from American history (such as the Civil War and the Indian wars), feats of horsemanship and skills such as sharpshooting and rodeo. It was a form of  circus with a peculiarly American frontier theme. Cody (below right, with Sitting Bull) was a master showman and thousands flocked to see performances in London, Manchester and Birmingham and even Queen Victoria took in a show as part of an American Exhibition in West London in what was her golden jubilee year.

225px-William_Notman_studios_-_Sitting_Bull_and_Buffalo_Bill_(1895)_edit

The touring show made a big impression on one young boy, 14 year-old Cecil James Eugene Harvey, who saw it in London. His head filled with cowboys and Indians (which were also the stuff of many of the cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’ that youngers consumed) Cecil struggled to concentrate on his work as a City office errand boy. His fantasy world overtook reality and soon he settled on a plan that would allow him to follow his dreams.

As an errand boy he was trusted to run money around the City as part of his duties and young Cecil realized it would be fairly easy to top up his rather poor weekly wages with some ‘extras’ from under his employer’s noses. On the 6 April he was sent out by Mr C. R. Bonne of Eastcheap to cash a cheque for £5 but he never returned.

His absence was noted however, and the police were informed. They sent out telegrams to alert other forces and Cecil was arrested in Salford by the local police. They sent him back to London in the custody of an officer from the met and on 21 April 1888 he was set in the dock at Mansion House Police to be quizzed by the Lord Mayor.

In keeping with his romantic ideas of the Wild West Cecil played the part of an outlaw in court. He told the magistrate that he had intended to go to America to start a new life but when he realized that he didn’t have the money for the passage he went up to Manchester, where Cody’s show was playing, so he could take it in daily instead. He was still determined to get to the States and even the Lord mayor sent him to prison for 10 years for this crime, ‘he would go afterwards’.

Young Cecil was unlikely to get 10 years penal servitude for embezzling £5 but he would have lost his employment. The Lord Mayor remanded hi in custody as is so many of the reports of the newspapers we don’t get to find out what happened to him. I suspect that he spent an uncomfortable few nights in a cell before being formally reprimanded by the Lord Mayor and sent home to a thrashing from his father (if he had one).

I like to think that one day he made it to America, although once there who knows if it would have lived up to his expectations. The world looks very different when you are 14, especially if that world is reflected through the pages of comic books or in the fantasy world of the circus or theatre.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 22, 1888]

In June this year my new book – which offers up a new suspect for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 – is published by Amberley Books. If you are interested in pre-ordering a copy you can find the details here.