At one time, the great cowboy legend Buffalo Bill Cody was the most well-known person in the world. I learned a lot about how he became a persona 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 built and named for his youngest daughter, and his handsome 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 Burial
People in Cody will swear he is buried on Cedar Mountain overlooking the town, which was at one time his request in his last will and testament. They will tell you that after he died of kidney failure while visiting his sister in Denver, his wife Louisa accepted $10,000 to have him buried at Lookout Mountain west of Denver.
Hearing this rumor, the people of Cody were furious! An undertaker and two of Cody’s friends, Fred Richard and Ned Frost, hatched a plan to travel to Denver with a dead local ranch hand to switch with Cody’s body in the mortuary and bring their hero 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.
The Cody people say that Denver locals heard about the plan to switch bodies, so 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 people say.
The Real Story of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody
Here’s the truth: 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, the family 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.
In addition, 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 the daughter of a well-established businessman who was best friends with a man named Joe Bona. Joe and his wife Marge 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.
Bona arrived in Denver in 1910 as a young man fresh out of the college of anatomy and embalming in Chicago. With his new embalming equipment, he eventually got a job at Olinger’s, and, 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. Nellie Synder Yost said in her book Buffalo Bill that 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!
My research into the life of Buffalo Bill led me to Joe Bona who rose quickly in his career, becoming a wealthy man with friends all over the world by the time I knew him in the 50s and 60s.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that the man who sat at our dinner table so many times had an intimate connection with the American champion I have grown to admire. Oh, the questions I would have asked!
Author Bio: Claudia Carbone is an award-winning travel writer and member of the Society of American Travel Writers, North American Travel Journalists Assoc. and Denver Woman’s Press Club. Currently, her work is published in The Denver Post, Colorado Expression Magazine, London Sunday Telegraph’s Hotelegraph, GoWorldTravel.com, RealFoodTraveler.com, MtnTown Magazine and The Villager Newspaper. Her blog Sleepin’ Around covers any place you can sleep on vacation. She still lives in Denver.