A new book profiles three groundbreaking press agents, including Arizona John Burke, the man who turned William Frederick Cody into Buffalo Bill.
Arizona John Burke was the press agent to William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, but he was a celebrity in his own right, too. The tall, 300-pound promoter networked — and namedropped — ceaselessly, accessorized his flamboyant ensembles with a diamond horseshoe pin and sombrero, and orchestrated over-the-top PR stunts that regularly landed both him and his famous charge in the headlines. This bombastic facade hid his prescient public relations genius. Frequently dismissed by scholars as a buffoonish sidekick and ultimately buried penniless in an unmarked grave, Burke finally gets his due in a new history book claiming he helped create both Buffalo Bill’s global celebrity and the modern-day marketing industry.
Joe Dobrow’s Pioneers of Promotion: How Press Agents for Buffalo Bill, P. T. Barnum, and the World's Columbian Exposition Created Modern Marketing (2018) profiles the groundbreaking yet largely forgotten PR agents who helped bring the 19th century’s most sensational shows, like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, to the masses. They did this by developing now-ubiquitous methods like celebrity endorsements, press kits, mobile billboards, licensing deals, and more.
“[Marketing] was not a creation of the 20th century,” Dobrow says in an interview with C&I. “A lot of really seminal stuff happened” in the early Gilded Age, “and if anything, my hope is that this book helps open some minds and maybe pushes back the starting line for this industry by two to three decades.”
Burke is one of three promoters featured in the book, along with Barnum & Bailey’s R.F. “Tody” Hamilton and the Chicago World Fair’s Major Moses P. Handy. Dobrow is uniquely positioned to tell their stories: The former Whole Foods marketing executive studied history in college, and in grad school he worked with Western historian Howard Lamar. Noting the scarcity of research on Burke and his peers, Dobrow analyzed 1,500 newspaper articles and other historic sources to learn more about their contributions to his industry.
Buffalo Bill himself is inarguably Burke’s most famous creation. Today lumped into the same historic Old West canon as figures like Davy Crockett, the showman played a larger-than-life version of his real-life alter ego, a U.S. Army scout named William F. Cody. Born in 1846, Cody built his reputation as a fearless scout, rider, and buffalo hunter. He demonstrated feats of courage in minor albeit well-publicized battles, and to top it off, he was handsome to boot. It wasn’t long before Ned Buntline, an East Coast dime novelist, “discovered” the scout, with Cody appearing in theatrical adaptations of Buntline’s novels. This fame might have been fleeting if Burke hadn’t entered the picture, Dobrow claims.
Despite the name “Arizona” and an assumed title, “Major,” Burke was a lifelong civilian who was born on the East Coast. Burke launched his own career as a theatrical manager in Washington, D.C. When he wasn’t boosting shows and handling actors, he worked as a frontier scout. This led to the manager’s first fateful meeting with a pre-fame Cody in the late 1860s.
At the time, “marketing” as we know it today didn’t exist. Businesses still relied on simple, descriptive newspaper ads to peddle their services. Still, Cody immediately recognized Cody’s raw potential for monetization when he passed through a camp in North Platte, Nebraska, and caught sight of Cody astride a horse: “Physically superb, trained to the limit, in the zenith of manhood, features cast in nature’s most perfect mold. ... When he dismounted I was introduced to the finest specimen of God’s handiwork I had ever seen,” Burke would later recall.
Several years later, Burke was fatefully roped into a Buntline production after one of his actor clients accepted a stage role opposite Cody. Burke ended up becoming an integral part of the production, booking venues and drumming up publicity.
Burke was a keen social observer who understood that progress was a double-edged sword. He knew “that the world was changing, and that there was a sense of loss that the public was beginning to feel” about the vanishing Wild West way of life, Dobrow says. Burke tapped into this nostalgia by billing Cody’s shows as “educational” representations of a real — and rapidly disappearing — open frontier.
Cody graduated from stage to stadium when Dobrow organized a live Independence Day rodeo exhibition called the Old Glory Blow-Out in 1882. Thousands attended the spectacle — and in its wake, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was born. Launched the following year, the new touring show featured reenactments, horse racing, real Native actors, and a gun-wielding Cody. And behind the scenes, as always, was Burke, the show’s general master and promotional puppet master.
Nostalgia wasn’t the only card in Burke’s deck. Literacy was also increasing, and “by 1880, there were about 5,500 daily newspapers in the U.S.,” Dobrow says. “Burke understood the power that these newspapers held over the common man.”
To worm Buffalo Bill’s name into headlines, Burke created what’s today understood as one of the very first press kits. (These packets included compiled cast stories, images, biographies, and listicle-esque checklists entitled “15 Good Reasons to Visit Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.”) He cozied up to journalists, giving them special behind-the-scenes tours akin to today’s “backstage pass.” He even went so far as to create his own branded newspapers and magazines, the precursors of in-flight magazines and other corporate publications.
Other contributions included planted news stories, licensing deals, and horse-drawn carriages decorated with Buffalo Bill pictures—the 19th century equivalent of the “moving billboard.” And perhaps most importantly, Burke understood the power of celebrity. Mark Twain attended two showings of the Wild West show in 1884; he loved it so much he wrote an effulgent letter to Cody praising its authenticity: “Down to its smallest details, the show is genuine — cowboys, vaqueros, Indians, stage coach, costumes and all,” the missive read. Burke, in turn, sent the letter to newspaper editors to reprint; in doing so, he created one of the very first celebrity endorsements.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show ultimately became a global sensation, attracting millions of visitors worldwide. When Cody died in 1917, at the age of 70, more than 20,000 people attended the star’s burial atop Golden, Colorado’s Lookout Mountain. The same year, Burke died while visiting his home base of Washington, D.C. Heirless (and mysteriously broke), the celebrated press agent was interred without a headstone. Dobrow thinks that both the pomp of Cody’s burial and World War I’s looming spectre prevented Burke’s friends from erecting a permanent monument.
Burke’s legacy slowly faded—and soon, despite a lifetime of lionization, he was nearly forgotten. “That is not what anybody would have wanted,” Dobrow says. Following a visit to Burke’s bereft burial plot, Dobrow felt a personal obligation to purchase a headstone and hold a graveside memorial on the 100th anniversary of Burke’s death in 2017. (Fitting with Burke’s love for the theatric, the ceremony was livestreamed.) “I’m part of the generation of people who spent a career in marketing because of what he did,” Dobrow says.
And marketers aren’t the only ones who owe Burke a debt of gratitude: “For all intents and purposes, Burke made the flesh-and-blood man William F. Cody into the mythic figure of Buffalo Bill,” Dobrow says. “I think if Burke had not existed, if it were just another run-of-the-mill press agent out there who had been hired to generate some publicity for the show, we would not remember [Cody] today the way that we do.”
Photography: Author photograph and book image courtesy Joe Dobrow. Middle photograph courtesy Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, Golden, Colorado.