“Spose Ma will think I am crazy but this is a circus anyone need not be ashamed of.
“All nice girls, no swearing or anything rough, we are not allowed to monkey with the boys at all. It could not be stricter.”
Bettie Herberg wrote this to her sister Esther on April 29, 1911, in the same month she began working for the 101 Ranch Real Wild West Show and two days after she had written: “I do not think I will stay as it is too hard for the money there is in it, but will have to stick with it for a while to pay back my fare.”
Yet stay she did. A century later, almost to the month, on March 12, “Buckskin Bessie” spoke through her letters and photographs to collectors gathered in Ponca City, Oklahoma, to bid on the 101 Ranch collection of Jack Keathly.
Letters written to Bessie from 101 Ranch showman J.C. Miller were purchased by an International Fast Draw Champion with the SASS alias “Buckskin Bessie.” Monica James, of Glendale, Arizona, had rescued other letters by Bessie before they were almost carelessly disposed of after an estate sale; inspired by what she read, she wrote the historical biography of the showgirl, Buckskin Bessie: Her Lost Letters, in 2006.
In her book, James documented the 15-year relationship between Bessie and Joe, one which did not meet his mother’s approval. “Many of the letters described how they were secretly keeping contact through other friends,” she says of her recent purchase. She learned from them Joe’s last ditch attempt to make money to promote a boxing match featuring Jess Willard, as the Wild West Show had shut down by 1918.
“After reading them, I question if his ‘accidental carbon monoxide poisoning’ was perhaps suicide and not the suspected foul play that was held by some,” she says.
Joe died 16 years before Bessie burned alive in her home in a 1943 fire that many suspected was also foul play. She was about to turn 58. “I spent two years researching but I don’t know if I ever really knew Bessie,” James admits. “She was a complicated woman and should not have died in such a tragic manner.”
The 101 Ranch auction hammered in at nearly $45,000.