Luke Short

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Not to be confused with Luke Short (writer).
Luke L. Short
Luke Short.jpg
Luke Short
Born Luke L. Short
January 22, 1854
Polk County, Arkansas
Died September 8, 1893
Geuda Springs, Kansas, United States
Cause of death
Bright's Disease
Nationality American
Occupation Sporting Man
Spouse(s) Hattie Buck
Children None
Parent(s) Josiah Washington Short and Hetty Brumley

Luke L. Short (January 22, 1854 – September 8, 1893) was an American Old West gunfighter, cowboy, army scout, dispatch rider, gambler, boxing promoter and saloon owner. He was the last man standing in two of the Wild West's most celebrated gunfights—against Charlie Storms in Tombstone and Jim Courtright in Fort Worth.

Early life[edit]

Luke L. Short was born in Polk County, Arkansas on January 22, 1854. He was the fifth child born to Josiah Washington Short and his wife Hetty Brumley.The other Short children born in Polk County, Arkansas were: Martha Frances Short (b. April 10, 1847), John Pleasant Short (b. Sept. 5, 1848), Josiah Short, Jr. (b. May 30, 1851), Young P. Short (b. Nov. 1852), Catherine Short (b. Feb. 19, 1856)and Henry Jenkins Short (b. Feb. 15, 1859). Henry was the last of the Short children born in Polk County, Arkansas. Shortly after his birth the Short family, now consisting of nine members moved to Montague County Texas. The family, including 6 year-old Luke, was recorded there on the 1860 Federal Census. The final three Short children were all born in Texas: George Washington Short (b. March 8, 1863), Belle Nannie Short (b. March 24, 1864) and William B. Short (b. Oct. 21, 1867). In 1869, at the age of fifteen, Luke began working as a cowboy.From 1869 until 1875 Luke was engaged in the cattle business and made several drives to Kansas.[1]:5–13

Luke Short told researcher George H. Morrison that he went to the Black Hills in 1876 and left the Black Hills the following year to go to Ogallala, Nebraska.[2] The much repeated story that Luke was a whiskey peddler in Nebraska appears to be fiction. According to the story, Short supposedly killed a half dozen inebriated Sioux natives on various occasions during this venture. There is no documentation for any of this, and the story appears to have originated with a 1907 magazine article by one of Luke's famous friends.[3] Bat's story has been repeated and "improved " upon over the decades by numerous writers.

Between October 6 and October 8, 1878, Short was employed as a dispatch courier from Ogallala, Nebraska to Major Thomas Tipton Thornburgh who was in the field. Short was paid $30 for his service. From October 9 to October 20, 1878 Luke served as a civilian scout for Thornburgh. He enlisted at Sidney, Nebraska, at a rate of $100 a month. He only served twelve days and was paid $40 for his service.[4]

By his own account, in 1879 Short turned up in Leadville, Colorado where he practiced his skills at gambling.[5] Bat Masterson would later claim that Luke had seriously wounded a man during a gambling dispute in Leadville.[6] On June 1, 1880 Luke was enumerated on United States Census as being a resident of Buena Vista, Colorado—a community some thirty miles from Leadville. According to the 1886 interview he gave George H. Morrison, he left Colorado later that month and went to Kansas City.[7] Luke was only in Kansas City for a few months when he got into trouble. According to the local paper, a certain Texan named John Jones "was swindled out of $280 on Three Card Monte by one Luke Short, who is now in the calaboose.".[8] Luke was released from jail on October 11, 1880 after being incarcerated for six days.[9] The outcome of the case is unknown, but Luke was soon on the move again. By late November 1880 he was established in Tombstone, Arizona.

Notoriety as a gunfighter[edit]

The Dodge City Peace Commission: Standing ( left to right ): William H. Harris (1845-1895), Luke Short (1854-1893), William Barclay "Bat" Masterson (1853-1921), William. F. Petillon (1846-1917). Sitting ( left to right ) Charles E. Bassett (1847-1896), Wyatt Earp (1848-1929), Michael Francis "Frank" McLean (1854-1902), Cornelius "Neil" Brown (1844-1926). Photo taken by Charles Abram Conkling (1856-1936) on June 10, 1883. [10]

Luke Short first met Wyatt Earp, William H. Harris and Bat Masterson in Tombstone, Arizona. Since Earp had lived in Tombstone for nearly a year when Luke arrived in November 1880, he likely met Luke first. William H. Harris arrived in Tombstone about a month after Luke.[11] Bat Masterson left Dodge City for Tombstone on February 8, 1881. On February 24 the Dodge City Times noted that "C.M. Beeson received a letter from W.H. Harris, which states that W.B. Masterson arrived in Tombstone, Arizona." ( Dodge City Times - February 24, 1881 ). William H. Harris was well acquainted with Wyatt Earp from Earp's time in Dodge City. Based on their previous friendship, Harris had no problem convincing his partners to engage Earp as a faro dealer at their Oriental Saloon in Tombstone. Faro was easily the most popular game in the Wild West and could be found in nearly every gambling hall. Luke Short was serving as the lookout, seated next to the dealer at a faro game in the Oriental when he became involved in his first celebrated gunfight on Friday, February 25, 1881.

A gambler named Charlie Storms, was nearly sixty—old enough to have been Luke's father—but age didn't make him less dangerous. Storms had been born in New Orleans and was a pioneer who arrived in California in 1849. For years he had been a "sporting man " in locations that included Virginia City, Nevada; Deadwood, South Dakota; and Leadville, Colorado.[12] Leadville was a town that both Luke Short and Charlie Storms knew well. Leadville, for its part, knew Storms far better than it wanted to. Five days after the killing of Storms by Luke Short, the Leadville Democrat provided what remains the most authoritative account of the killing. According to that account, the "favorite diversion" of Storms "was the handling of a six-shooter with humanity as a target." ( Leadville Democrat - March 2, 1881 ) According to this report it was Storms who was enraged by what he considered an insult from Short. On the morning of February 25 Storms approached Short and "catching him by the ear " demanded an apology. The account stated that Storms was holding Short's ear with his left hand—while his right hand contained a pistol pointed at Short. Luke Short drew his weapon and fired, causing Storms to release his grip on the ear. Storms managed to fire back at Luke, but missed. Short then put two more bullets into "the sinking soul of Storms." ( Leadville Democrat - March 2, 1881 ) A coroner's jury reached the verdict that Storms came to his death from three pistol wounds at the hands of Luke Short, and that the killing was justifiable.[13]

Dodge City War[edit]

Main article: Dodge City War

Luke Short left Tombstone soon after the Storms killing. He briefly turned up in Deming, New Mexico before arriving in Dodge City during April 1881. Dodge City would be his home base until the final months of 1883, although he made frequent trips to other places to pursue gambling opportunities during those years. Luke's friend William H. Harris had sold out his interest in the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone and provided Luke with employment as a faro dealer at the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City.The Long Branch was owned by Harris and his partner Chalk Beeson. By this time Harris had become a very wealthy man—one of the wealthiest in Kansas. During February 1883 Chalk Beeson sold his interest in the Long Branch. The "Dissolution Notice " stated that "Mr. Beeson is selling his interest in the business to Luke Short who will continue the business with Mr. Harris. "[14] The month after Short and Harris formed their partnership, Harris was nominated to run for mayor of Dodge City. On March 19, 1883 a "law and order " group nominated Lawrence E. Deger to run against Harris. Deger defeated Harris by a vote of 214 to 143 in the election of April 3. All five of the city council candidates running with Deger were also elected. On April 23 the Dodge City Council posted two ordinances that were immediately approved by Mayor Deger. Ordinance No. 70 was "An Ordinance for the Suppression of Vice and Immorality Within the City of Dodge City. " Ordinance No. 71 was "An Ordinance to Define and Punish Vagrancy. " On April 28, 1883 three prostitutes employed at the Long Branch were arrested by City Marshal Jack Bridges and policeman Louis C. Hartman. Soon afterward Short and Hartman exchanged gunfire. Neither man was hurt. Short was quickly arrested and released on $2000 bond.Short's preliminary examination was set for May 2, 1883.

On April 30 Luke Short was again arrested ( along with five other gamblers ) and placed in the "city calaboose." The following day Short and the five others were escorted to the train depot and given their choice of east or west-bound trains. Short went east to Kansas City, Missouri where he looked up Charles E. Bassett at the Marble Hall Saloon. Bassett and Luke had a lot in common, not the least of which was that both had, at different times, owned an interest in the Long Branch Saloon. Bassett had served as the first sheriff of Ford County, as well as city marshal of Dodge City. Both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson had, at various times, served under Bassett as deputies. Together, Short and Bassett, along with William F. Petillon, began laying the groundwork for Luke's reinstatement in Dodge. Luke went to Topeka on May 10, where he presented a petition to Governor George W. Glick. Short returned to Topeka and was joined there by Bat Masterson. Things started to heat up when Wyatt Earp arrived in Dodge City, along with several gunfighters, on May 31. Short, Earp and Petillon met in Kinsley, Kansas on June 3, 1883 and took the afternoon train to Dodge City. Mayor Lawrence E, Deger issued a proclomation the following day ordering the closing of all gambling places in Dodge City. Deger's action came during the cattle season and promised ruin for the cowtown's seasonal boom. So it was that economics - rather than bloodshed - resolved the "Dodge City War." Additional pressure to resolve the issue had come from the Governor as well as the Santa Fe Railroad, which did considerable business in Dodge. The gambling halls, dance halls and saloons were then ordered reopened - including the Long Branch. On June 9 both sides met in a dance hall that opened that night and resolved their differences. The following day - June 10, 1883 - eight men gathered and posed for what has become one of the most reproduced Wild West history photos. The group was immediately dubbed the Dodge City Peace Commission. The men in the historic photo were William H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, William F. Petillon, Charles E. Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Michael Francis "Frank" McLean and Cornelius "Neil" Brown. Shortly after the photo, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp departed on a west bound train for Colorado.

The Long Branch Saloon had reopened, and the "Dodge City War " had ended without a shot being fired, but the time had come for Luke to move on.[15]:p67 On November 19, 1883 Short and Harris sold the Long Branch to Drake and Warren. Short then moved to San Antonio for a brief time, before deciding to locate in Fort Worth.

Short versus Courtright gunfight[edit]

[[File:Sheriff Jim Courtright.jpg|thumb|left|Ft. Worth City Marshal [[Jim Courtright (gunman)Timothy Isaiah "Jim" Courtright was killed in a gunfight with Luke Short. This photograph was taken sometime between April 6, 1876 and April 1, 1879, when Courtright was serving as city marshal of Fort Worth.

Luke Short's name will always be associated with three of the most celebrated saloons in Wild West history: the Oriental in Tombstone, the Long Branch in Dodge City, and the White Elephant in Fort Worth. Jacob Christopher "Jake" Johnson, Luke Short and James A. "Alex" Reddick became the new owners of the White Elephant in December 1884, along with several other investors who owned shares in the business. Timothy Isaiah "Jim" Courtright, a former marshal of Fort Worth, reportedly ran a protection racket in which he offered his "protection " to saloon and gambling house owners. Short would not be intimidated and refused, saying that he would personally provide any protection that his saloon needed. This irritated Courtright, who felt that it was necessary to make an example of Short as to what could happen if his services were declined.[16]

Courtright had a reputation as an excellent gunman[17] who had killed several men in the line of duty, and Short was known to have killed Storms. Both men were feared within the community. Short's reputation was based mostly on hearsay, except for the Storms gunfight, whereas Courtright's exploits were well documented.

On the night of February 8, 1887, Courtright called Short out of the White Elephant. Courtright reportedly had been drinking. Facing one another, Courtright said something in reference to Short's gun (apparently to give the impression that the inevitable gunfight was "in self-defense "). Short stated that he was not armed, although he was. Short then indicated that Courtright could check for himself, and walked toward Courtright while opening his vest. When he did so, Courtright said loudly "Don't you pull a gun on me! " and quickly went for his pistol.[16] Courtright's pistol, however, got hung-up on his watch-chain. Short pulled his pistol and fired once, tearing off Courtright's right thumb. Courtright attempted to shift his pistol to his left hand, but Short fired at least four more times, killing him.[16][17]

The gunfight became well known due to the notoriety of both men. Courtright's funeral was attended by hundreds of Ft. Worth residents. Despite his reputation for corruption, he had lowered Fort Worth's murder rate by more than half during his time as town marshal. Short was arrested for the shooting, but his actions were ruled justifiable self-defense.[16]

Later life and death[edit]

The gunfight gained Short considerable notoriety and a legend as an Old West gunman. He continued his life as a gambler and invested in other saloon interests, living in several other cattle towns over the next five years. He died peacefully in bed in Geuda Springs in southern Kansas, on September 8, 1893.[citation needed] The cause of his death is listed as "dropsy ".[notes 1]

In popular culture[edit]

On February 22, 1955 Luke Short was played by actor Wally Cassell (1912-2015) in an episode of the syndicated western TV series Stories of the Century[18] The part of Jim Courtright was portrayed by actor Robert Knapp (1924-2001). Wally Cassell, the actor who portrayed Luke Short, died in Palm Desert, California on April 2, 2015 at the age of 103.

On February 25, 1958, Grant Richards played Short in the episode "Wyatt Fights " of the ABC/Desilu western series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. In the story line, deputy Wyatt Earp (Hugh O'Brian) is caught in the middle when two saloon owners want to take over a third establishment, the Long Branch Saloon. Paul Brinegar plays the role of James H. "Dog " Kelley, the mayor of Dodge City.[19]

On January 7, 1960 an episode called "The Pied Piper of Dodge City " (Season 2, episode 13) was broadcast on the Bat Masterson TV series which starred Gene Barry (1919-2009) as Masterson. In that episode an actor named Donald "Red " Barry (1912-1980), who was no relation to Gene Barry, portrayed Luke Short. That episode concluded with Gene Barry, Don Barry, and other actors posing for the television version of the Dodge City Peace Commission photo.

On January 25, 1960, Bob Steele (1907-1988) played Short in the episode "The Terrified Town " of the CBS western television series The Texan, starring Rory Calhoun.[20]


  1. ^ "Dropsy " is the 19th century term for congestive heart failure with severe body edema.


  1. ^ DeMattos, Jack; Parsons, Chuck (May 15, 2015). The Notorious Luke Short: Sporting Man of the Wild West. Texas: University of North Texas Press. ISBN 1574415948. 
  2. ^ Morrison, "Luke Short Dictation," March 19, 1886. Hubert Howe Bancroft Texas Dictations, Manuscript P-033, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
  3. ^ Masterson, W.B. "Bat". "Famous Gun Fighters of the Western Frontier: Luke Short." Human Life Magazine, April 1907
  4. ^ "Reports of Persons and Articles Employed and Hired at Sidney Barracks, Nebraska During the Month of October, 1878. " Old Military Records Division, National Archives
  5. ^ Morrison,"Luke Short Dictation, March 19, 1886"
  6. ^ Masterson,"Luke Short," Human Life Magazine, April 1907
  7. ^ Morrison,"Luke Short Dictation, March 19, 1886 "
  8. ^ Kansas City Star—October 7, 1880
  9. ^ Kansas City Star—October 11, 1880
  10. ^ Luke Short in Dodge City Peace Commission; 1883; original photograph; Ford County Historical Society; retrieved October 2014
  11. ^ Dodge City Times—January 1, 1881
  12. ^ Arizona Weekly Citizen, Tucson, February 27, 1881
  13. ^ Leadville Democrat—March 2, 1881
  14. ^ Ford County Globe, Dodge City—February 6, 1883
  15. ^ Woog, Adam (February 28, 2010). Wyatt Earp. Chelsea House Publications. p. 110. ISBN 1-60413-597-2. 
  16. ^ a b c d Tarrant County Historical Journal—Edition 01 Jim Buel
  17. ^ a b Tarrant County Historical Journal—Bad Blood
  18. ^ (Season 2, Episode 10 - "Jim Courtright ")
  19. ^ ""Wyatt Fights ", The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, February 25, 1958". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved May 6, 2014. 
  20. ^ "The Texan". Classic Television Archive. Retrieved January 31, 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Famous Gun Fighters of the Western Frontier: Luke Short by W.B. (Bat) Masterson. Human Life Magazine, April 1907.
  • Luke Short and His Era: A biography of one of the Old West's most famous gamblers, by William R. Cox. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1961.
  • Luke Short: A Biography of one of the Old West's Most Colorful Gamblers and Gunfighters, by Wayne Short (Luke Short's great-nephew). Tombstone, AZ: Devil's Thumb Press, 1997.
  • The Notorious Luke Short: Sporting Man of the Wild West by Jack DeMattos and Chuck Parsons. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2015