How, you may ask, does a 21st-century travel writer in Colorado have a connection to the great cowboy legend William (Buffalo Bill) Cody?
After all, during his heyday, Buffalo Bill was among the best-known people in the world. Well, I learned some revealing things when I traveled recently to Cody, Wyoming a town founded by the man himself.
As you might imagine, the townspeople in Cody love Buffalo Bill. Places are named for him; his photos are all over The Irma, the hotel he named for his youngest daughter, and his statue stands prominently in front of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. In fact, it was here that I fell in love with the man.
In the Buffalo Bill Museum—one of five different museums in the center—I learned that he was an advocate for the rights of Native Americans, for women, and for conservation. And I learned how Buffalo Bill became a persona, now a heroic American icon.
The Legend of Buffalo Bill
People in Cody say he is buried on Cedar Mountain overlooking the town, which was at one time his request in his last will and testament. They will swear to it. They say after he died of kidney failure at his sister’s home in Denver, his wife Louisa accepted $10,000 to have him buried atop Lookout Mountain west of Denver.
When the people of Cody heard this, they were furious. An undertaker and two of Cody’s friends, Fred Richard and Ned Frost, hatched a plan to travel to Denver to switch Cody’s body with a dead local ranch hand and bring him back home. They trimmed the guy’s beard to look like Cody’s, loaded him into the undertaker’s vehicle and drove to Denver.
At Denver’s Olinger Mortuary, where Cody’s body lay, they asked to view it as friends of the deceased. Later that night, they snuck back in and swapped bodies.
Denver locals heard about the plan to switch bodies and they hurriedly and unsuspectingly buried the ranch hand, thinking he was Cody, on Lookout Mountain and poured 20 tons of concrete on top of the casket. The undertaker and friends escaped with Cody and buried him on Cedar Mountain.
The Real Story of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody is buried on Lookout Mountain west of Denver.
As Cody lay dying at his sister’s home in Denver on Jan. 10, 1917, he remembered the beautiful view from Lookout Mountain and asked his wife Louisa, his daughter Irma, foster son Johnny Baker and others to bury him there instead of Cedar Mountain. “I want to be buried on top of Mount Lookout. It’s right over Denver. You can look down on four states there. It’s pretty up there.”
Buffalo Bill’s Burial Site on Lookout Mountain
Because the road to Lookout Mountain in Golden was impassable in winter and the ground was frozen solid, they postponed the burial until spring. There was another reason for the delay. According to the Rocky Mountain News, they expected European royalty whom Cody met during his Wild West show to attend.
Thus, after the funeral on Jan. 14 in Denver, they stored Cody’s body at Olinger Mortuary for five months, embalming it six times.
Finally, at the burial on June 3, 1917, his family and thousands of fans filed by the open casket to pay tribute to the beloved American icon. If an imposter were in there, someone would have noticed.
As for the concrete story, in 1948 the Cody American Legion Post offered $10,000 for the return of Cody’s body to Wyoming, prompting the Colorado National Guard to stand over the gravesite.
To ensure no one would steal his father, Johnny Baker had tons of concrete poured over his casket and that of Louisa, who died in 1921 and is buried on top of him. If she knew of the plot to switch bodies, she would not have requested to be buried with her husband.
Pahaska Tepee Gift Shop
That same year, Baker opened a museum, gift shop, and restaurant in a building he called “Pahaska Tepee” near the gravesite. Pahaska, which means “long hair,” is the nickname the Lakota tribe gave to Cody.
The Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave today is a top tourist attraction open year-round, just 30 minutes from downtown Denver. Though not as extensive as the museum in Wyoming, it features videos, artifacts, and exhibits covering the life and times of Buffalo Bill, with a special exhibit providing details surrounding his burial on Lookout Mountain. And then, there is his grave.
My Connection to Buffalo Bill
As a young girl growing up in Denver, I was fortunate to be the daughter of John A. Carbone, a well-established businessman and founder of Carbone Wines, the first urban winery in the state. He was particularly well-known in the Italian community, and one of his best friends was Joe Bona.
Joe and his wife Marge, a model, would come to our home frequently. They were a handsome couple, kind and nice to be around. I knew him then as the president of Olinger Mortuary, which is now Linger Restaurant (chef/owner Justin Cucci turned off the “O” in the neon sign above the building at 2030 W. 30th Ave. in Denver and turned it into an eatery.)
Joe Bona also had ownership in Olinger Mortuary with the founder’s son George W. Olinger and Olinger’s son-in-law Francis S. VanDerbur (father of Marilyn VanDerbur, Miss America of 1958). She wrote the book “Miss America by Day.”
Bona arrived in Denver in 1910 as a young man fresh out of a college of anatomy and embalming in Chicago. With his new embalming equipment, he eventually got a job at Olinger’s.
Yes, you guessed it. Joe Bona, at age 29, embalmed the body of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
According to the mortuary manager, Bona’s embalming process was good enough to retain 95 percent appearance after five months. According to Nellie Synder Yost, in her book “Buffalo Bill,” Bona said Cody had “fine, big veins” and on the day of burial said he was “as good a specimen as you could ask for – almost perfect preservation.”
Bona, if anyone, would know if the body he worked on was an imposter.
Bona rose quickly in his career, becoming a wealthy man with friends all over the world. It was at this stage in the 1950s and ‘60s that I knew him.
But I never knew his connection to Buffalo Bill, which is now my connection.
Author Bio: Claudia Carbone is a freelance writer in Denver. Read more of her work on Sleepin’ Around, A Hotel and Travel Blog for Go World Travel Magazine