An antique gun set to go on the auction block next month comes with an incredible back story tied to Wichita.
The trouble is, it may not be true.
“Bad Billy Hart was killed in a wild west shoot out in Wichita, Kansas in 1874” reads the description of Lot 407 from Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati. “This firearm was used in the shoot out and taken as evidence. The police department added the evidence number on the bottom of the back strap.”
Indeed, the back strap is marked with Wichita Police Department evidence number JA057-3028T.
But Wichita police records for evidence numbers go back only to 1970, Sgt. Nikki Woodrow, spokeswoman for the department, said in an e-mail. “Unfortunately , the WPD cannot confirm the legitimacy of this weapon,” she wrote.
Kansas historians also question the gun’s history.
“I think it’s made up,” said cowboy historian Jim Gray, director of the National Drovers Hall of Fame in Ellsworth. “I think somebody has gone to a great effort to make it appear legit.
“I can’t imagine the police would have filed numbers like this in the 1870s.”
The starting auction price on the gun – a Colt Army cut-down – is $1,000. Its estimated value is between $2,000 and $2,500, said Billy Lewis, assistant director of firearms at Cowan’s Auctions.
A similar gun in mint condition, Lewis said, might bring between $10,000 and $15,000.
Whether it was used in an 1874 shootout may be in doubt, but it is nevertheless a credible gun with a story, Lewis said.
“What I can guarantee is that the early western silent film actor William S. Hart had this in his collection,” Lewis said. “He was a known collector in the firearms world.”
Hart was born in New York state in 1864. He was especially popular during the 1920s and starred in several silent films, including one called “Tumbleweeds” made in 1925 about Caldwell and one of the land runs into Oklahoma.
“It was a cool movie. It is full of dust and grit,” Gray said. “He rides like the wind and is an excellent rider. He was just enamored with the cowboy way of life.”
Two letters adding some provenance to the gun are also included in the sale, Lewis said.
One is dated Feb. 2, 1936, from Hart stating he had this gun in his collection and gave it to J. Gonzalez-Vidal, a ranch hand of Hart’s. A second letter is dated June 12, 1948, verifying the first letter from Ramona Vidal, a relative of J. Gonzalez-Vidal’s.
In the cowtown days of Wichita, there were indeed shootouts.
In the 1870s, there were villains and numerous troubled souls on Wichita’s streets – and lawmen like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp to clean up after them.
In 1871, Jack Ledford – a notorious gunman, gang leader and sheriff-elect – was killed behind a Wichita saloon.
By 1872, Wichita had signs posted at all four main entrances into town, saying: “Everything Goes In Wichita. Leave your revolvers at police headquarters and get a check. Carrying concealed weapons strictly forbidden.”
In the summer of 1872, a gang rode into town from Texas. Their leader was Bill Martin, known as “Hurricane Bill.”
According to the “History of Wichita” by O.H. Bentley, “They used to ride around shooting up the town and committing all kinds of depredations, until the people were well nigh frenzied.”
That is, until the townspeople stood up to them. But no one was killed, Gray said.
And, indeed, there appears to be no known reports of the killing of a “Bad Billy” Hart, said James Vannurden, curator at Old Cowtown Museum.
David Chesanow, a historical-letter collector from Olympia, Wash., called The Eagle on Tuesday to talk about the gun.
“Part of my job is to research,” Chesanow said. “I check stuff all the time.
“As a collector, I know people make all sorts of claims. If you are a collector, you have to do due diligence. I did some research and could not find any reference to Bad Billy.”
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