Buffalo Bill’s Grave, Part 2: National Guard Called Out To Protect Buffalo Bill’s Body

According to reports, the Colorado National Guard was called out twice -- in 1917 and again in 1948 -- to protect Buffalo Bill's body from being stolen.

Wendy Corr

May 18, 20225 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

This is the second part of a two-part series about Buffalo Bill Cody’s gravesite. Part one can be found here.

In January of 1917, the citizens of Cody, Wyoming, were devastated to find out that their town’s founder, namesake and hero, Col. William F. Cody, had died of kidney failure while visiting his sister in Denver, Colorado.

But in the weeks following his death, their grief turned to anger as details emerged about how Cody’s wife, Louisa, had “sold” Bill’s body to the publishers of the Denver Post so the famous showman could be laid to rest in Colorado… capitalizing on the Western showman’s fame.

Bob Richard, noted Cody historian and author, told Cowboy State Daily that Louisa met with the mayor of Denver, along with the two owners of the Denver Post, Harry Tammen and Frederick Bonfils, shortly after her husband passed.

“After much discussion, and she has to catch the train at 11 o’clock, the mayor said, ‘I’ll give you $10,000,’” Richard said. “And that’s when the publisher said, ‘And here’s another $10,000, that’s $20,000 – if we can have his body and find a place and have a proper burial here.’ She says, ‘He’s all yours,’ and took the money and put it in her big bag. And then they hurried her very quickly to Union Station and got her on the train. 

“And she came back to Cody,” Richard continued, “and all of Cody – or a big portion – met the train across the way at the Burlington Cody Inn, and they waited for the baggage door to open, and it didn’t open. And they said, ‘Where’s Bill?’ She says, ‘I sold him,’ and got in the carriage. But the $20,000 in today’s dollars would be about $490,000 in value.” 

Switched Bodies

That’s when – according to the tale told to Richard by his grandfather, Fred, Fred’s brother-in-law Ned Frost and the Cody mortician John Vogel – a plan was hatched to go to Denver and switch bodies — Bill’s for a dead ranch hand who bore a striking resemblance to Bill.

According to legend, the plan was a success, and the three men buried Col. Cody where his 1906 will had requested, atop Cedar Mountain overlooking the town that he founded.

But, Richard said, in an effort to throw anyone off the trail, Vogel, Fred Richard and Frost created a very elaborate diversion as soon as they returned from burying Cody.

“They turned the horses in, and then went and showered, and then Ned, Fred and John hit every bar and club in Cody, commenting how Cody folks should go down to Denver and bring back Bill’s body,” Richard said, “never mentioning that he was already here.”

Richard said for three nights the men riled up their fellow townspeople, urging them to caravan to Denver to reclaim their beloved Buffalo Bill.

“On Friday, everybody in Cody got in a bunch of cars,” he said. “And I’ve heard 400, I’ve heard 100 – with three or four armed men. And as soon as they left town, Vogel got on the phone and called (Denver mortician John) Olinger and said, ‘Cody people armed to the teeth are coming down to steal Bill’s body.’”

Richard said the Denver mortician notified Denver’s mayor and the publishers of the Denver Post, asking for direction.

“And the mayor said, ‘Well, we’re negotiating on Lookout Mountain’ (for a burial location),” Richard said. “‘We’ll get it dug and get him buried today.’ So Olinger took the cadaver up there and they announced that there was going to be a burial, and notified Louisa and all the powers that be, and they quickly laid him to rest.”

Call Out The National Guard

But there was the matter of the mob that was at that moment driving to Colorado. So Richard said the powerful Denver contingent made a decision.

“They knew the Cody people were coming, so they sent the National Guard up to the Colorado/Wyoming border and repelled everybody,” Richard said. “So (the Cody caravan) went back to Cheyenne, and they called John Vogel and said, ‘John, the Army stopped us. We can’t even get into Colorado.’ And Vogel says, ‘Men, you’ve done your job well, come back, and we’re going to have a big party at the Irma.’”

While the historical record doesn’t quite match up to the tale Richard’s grandfather and uncle told him, a similar scenario actually did play out in 1948.

According to an article posted on the Denver Public Library’s website, that was the year that the Colorado National Guard was called to stand guard over the Lookout Mountain grave site after American Legion members in Cody offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could steal Cody’s body. 

The article also reported that in 2006, Wyoming legislators debated (jokingly) about mounting a “clandestine” effort to retrieve Buffalo Bill’s body.

No matter where the frontiersman, investor, entertainer and visionary is actually buried, the legacy of Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody remains as vibrant today as it was 100 years ago, as even years after his death and burial, he continued to make headlines.

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Wendy Corr

Broadcast Media Director