Most people only get one grave, but Buffalo Bill Cody always the showman, has two. That’s what I explained to my friends from Denver as we drove by Cedar Mountain, or Spirit Mountain as the locals call it.
My friends had visited the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave on Lookout Mountain just outside of Denver. That is where most people believe Buffalo Bill Cody is buried.
Like many Cody locals, though, I’m not so sure. There are some in Cody and elsewhere who believe that Buffalo Bill is in fact buried in an unmarked grave on Spirit Mountain overlooking the town he built, just as he had once written in his will.
What gives? The story of Buffalo Bill’s two graves includes enough intrigue for a full-length movie and involves a bold plan, a middle-of the-night trip to a Denver mortuary, an unlucky ranch hand bearing a likeness to Buffalo Bill and a passionate group of riled-up townspeople in mourning for their beloved town founder after his death in Denver on Jan. 10, 1917.
No one disputes the manner and location of his death. While visiting relatives in Denver in early 1917, Buffalo Bill Cody died from a persistent illness. Soon after, his wife Louisa arrived to claim his body and settle his affairs. While in Denver, Louisa was approached by representatives from the Denver Post newspaper and the city of Denver who offered her $10,000 each to bury Cody in the area where they felt his grave could become a tourist attraction.
Although Bill Cody was at one time regarded as the best-known person in the world and his Wild West Show was incredibly popular and profitable, he was also prone to bad investments and was incredibly generous. As a result, he and his wife were broke when he died. Louisa accepted this offer.
When Louisa returned to Wyoming and the town of Cody, its residents turned out to greet her with the expectation that she was bringing the town’s founder home to be buried. The townsfolk were shocked and more than a little upset when Louisa informed them that she had sold Cody’s body and that he was to be buried in Denver.
Among those who were especially unhappy were the town’s undertaker and two of Buffalo Bill’s old friends, Fred Richard and Ned Frost. Richard and Frost were aware of Buffalo Bill’s wishes to be buried on Spirit Mountain. The heartbroken friends hatched a plan that was bold. Downright nuts, actually. Playing a key, post-mortem role was an unlucky, indigent and conveniently dead ranch hand who bore a slight resemblance to the Buffalo Bill.
According to the story, the friends traveled to Denver, and presented themselves to Denver’s Olinger Mortuary as Buffalo Bill’s friends. After viewing the body, they told the mortician they would return home to Cody. Instead, they returned to the mortuary late at night and switched the body of Buffalo Bill with that of the dead ranch hand. They quietly brought Buffalo Bill back to Cody and buried him in secret on the mountaintop.
They were concerned, though, that a closer look at the ranch hand would easily reveal their clandestine escapades. So in a convoluted act of misdirection, they made the rounds to all 13 of Cody’s saloons, riled up the slightly pickled townsfolks and urged them to drive to Denver, grab the body of “Buffalo Bill” and return him to Denver. It didn’t take long to round up a caravan of 100 cars with more than 350 well-armed, slightly drunk men.
Denver police learned of the caravan as it was enroute, alerted the mortuary and rushed north to Wyoming to meet the Cody group before they could arrive. Determined to prevent a body-snatching, the mortuary poured tons of concrete over the grave. The caravan was met by law enforcement officials who convinced the disheartened townspeople to return home since the retrieval of the body was now impossible. They complied without incident, deeply saddened that their friend and leader would never get his wish.
Buffalo Bill’s friends quietly told others about the showman’s true resting place, although they closely guarded the exact location. Except to say that it has an expansive view of Cody, just as Buffalo Bill would have wanted.
Or so the story goes.
Until next time, I’m loving life and the legend here in Cody Yellowstone.