Buffalo Bill, Boozers, Brothels, and Bare-Knuckle Brawlers
*** 3 out of 5 stars
Review by: Mark Palm
For many people with a nostalgic streak the phrase “The Good Old Days” usually conjures up visions and memories of simpler times, often based on a belief that in the past people were more virtuous and moral, and that right and wrong were more clearly defined. I suggest that this is a bunch of hogwash. If you spend any time seriously reading about the past, written by people who are not wearing rose-colored glasses, the amount of vice that was taken as a matter of course is astounding, particularly to the prudes out there. If you doubt me, I suggest that you read Buffalo Bill, Boozers, Brothels, and Bare-Knuckle Brawlers: An Englishman’s Journal of Adventure in America, transcribed and edited by Kellen Cutsforth.
The book is essentially a six-month diary, beginning in autumn of 1884, of the adventures of three rich, young Englishmen who decide to take a tour of America. Most of the contributions are provided by Evelyn Booth, but his friend, Dr. John Frizzle interjects some comments here and there. Reginald Heygate, the third member of this party, is silent. The young men’s journey starts in London, typically we come to discover, with some petty larceny, mainly the stealing of a crate of ducks, who were distributed at a pub. After arriving in New York the trio travel to Illinois, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Florida. If you want to know what they did the majority of the time, see the title above.
Their shenanigans are often amusing, in a frat-boy sort of way, and are enhanced by Booth’s candor and wit, and he is frank in his discussion of subjects that were taboo at the time. Since this is a diary that is not all that surprising, but this work is not like the diaries of Anne Frank or Harry Truman. They are a basic commentary on food, drink, lodging and adventures, without the vision of social commentary that makes Fear and Loathing much more that an endless but entertaining debauch. Description and depth are sparse, but I expect that’s because these young men were interested in other things.
Mr. Cutsforth does an admirable job of providing a backstory and copious notes explaining and clarifying the means and mores of the times, as well as “ translating” the slang of the day, all without bogging down the story. Buffalo Bill does play a role in this tale, and Mr. Booth and the famed showman eventually became friends. I think that having his name in the title of this book is a bit of a stretch though, and more a matter of marketing than anything else. Although the prose in this book is bare-boned at best I think kudos are in order for Mr. Cutsforth for bringing use this diary.
Beyond the carousing and carrying on there are some interesting and entertaining bits of first-hand information about the era that can’t be experienced through a more academic approach. In the end though, like most stories about partying, to get the most out of it you really had to be there.