Almost Famous

Most likely due to their affinity as sporting men, Luke Short and Bat Masterson stand directly behind Frank McLean. The Dodge City Peace Commission photograph shows (standing, from left) William H. Harris, Short, Masterson, William F. Petillon (seated, from left) Charles E. Bassett, Wyatt Earp, McLean and Cornelius “Neil” Brown. – Courtesy Robert G. McCubbin Collection –
Most likely due to their affinity as sporting men, Luke Short and Bat Masterson stand directly behind Frank McLean. The Dodge City Peace Commission photograph shows (standing, from left) William H. Harris, Short, Masterson, William F. Petillon (seated, from left) Charles E. Bassett, Wyatt Earp, McLean and Cornelius “Neil” Brown.
– Courtesy Robert G. McCubbin Collection –

On June 10, 1883, eight men walked into a large tent, the temporary photography studio of 26-year-old Charles A. Conkling in Dodge City, Kansas. The group portrait they posed for became known as the ”Dodge City Peace Commission.”

The photo marked their victory over the town, which allowed Luke Short back in to resume his gambling business. Three members—Short, Bat Masterson and Michael Francis “Frank” McLean—were all 29. Unlike Short  and Masterson, Frank was not a gunfighter, but he was every bit their equal as a sporting man. Frank shared Masterson’s interest in boxing and Short’s passion for  horse racing.

Born in April 1854 in Decatur, Indiana, Frank was the youngest of eight children. During his 20s, he drifted to Texas and then Kansas. On September 12, 1883, three months after his service as a “peace commissioner,” he married Elsie Belle Polley in Lawrence. Her affair with Frank caused the divorcée to lose custody of her five children to wealthy cattleman Abner H. Polley. Elsie went on to have four daughters with Frank.

Toward the end of 1884, Frank and Short explored gaming opportunities in Fort Worth, Texas. The two bought a one-third interest in the White Elephant Saloon. Before Frank left to move his wife and daughter from Lawrence, Kansas, to their new home, the White Elephant threw him a going away party on February 19, 1885.

The Fort Worth Daily Gazette had some fun at the underweight gambler’s expense: “…one of the proprietors of the White Elephant, departed  for [Kansas] Thursday evening. His many friends and admirers in the city, knowing of the velocity of the winds in  that state and knowing Mc’s thinness (he having served in a museum as a skeleton for three years), combined together and purchased an elegant cane for him to cling to, which was presented at 8 p.m. on the evening of his departure…. Toasts were responded to by  several guests, and the programme was varied by McLean swallowing his cane.”

The family didn’t stay long in Fort Worth. Elsie got ill with typhoid fever, and they left in August so she could recuperate in Lawrence, Kansas.

Elsie recovered from her illness, and Fort Worth, Texas, became the birthplace of her second daughter with Frank, Edna, born on April 26, 1887. Soon afterward, the family moved to El Paso, where two more daughters were born. The family made their last home in Chicago, Illinois. On March 8, 1895, Elsie died at the age of 43. With four young daughters to care for, Frank married Anna Gribbin on June 2, 1896. The bride was 31, and the groom was 42.

Frank lived to see the new century. The 48 year old died on May 11, 1902, in Chicago. A sporting man to the end, he was listed as a “manager [of] club rooms” on his death certificate.

The Dodge City Peace Commission photo remains the only known likeness we have of Frank. Still, considering  that the group portrait  is one of the most reproduced Old West images, he may not need another photograph.

Jack DeMattos is the coauthor of The Notorious Luke Short and the author of six books on Western gunfighters, including Mysterious Gunfighter: The Story of Dave Mather.

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