Origin Of Famous Baby-Switching Prank In ‘The Virginian’ May Be Unraveled — Again

Many Wyoming communities have claimed they inspired the baby-switching prank pulled by The Virginian in Owen Wister’s famous novel of the same name. A historian, however, says the location really is Thermopolis.

Renée Jean

June 30, 202410 min read

Owen Wister adn the Virginian 2 6 30 24
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Among the most popular of the funny cowboy antics recounted in Owen Wister’s book “The Virginian” is a prank that has become world-famous.

In the prank, The Virginian, slightly inebriated, switches clothing on some sleeping babies during a dance party.

The parents, after dancing the night away, don’t notice what has happened in the dim lighting. When it’s time to leave, they pick up the right clothing, but the wrong children, and don’t notice it until they arrive home.

These are all ranching families, so the distances they’ve traveled could, in some cases, be quite vast. That causes no little consternation in the small, fictional community of Bear Creek.

When The Virginian admits he pulled the stunt, Molly, the story’s love interest, is indignant. She questions his manhood and asks how he could be so insensitive.

He, in turn, admits he wasn’t thinking at all. It was probably the whiskey.

Far from being put off, Molly and the Virginian find themselves getting further entangled, and each goes home dreaming about the other. The incident serves as a key plot point.

It’s a funny little tale, and one that Wyoming communities have rushed to claim over the years, from Natrona to Johnson County and beyond.

Even other states, like Texas and Nebraska, have tried to lay claim to this popular and funny tale — although, who knew so many parents would publicly admit leaving babies unattended at a dance party, where any old drunken cowboy could come along and switch them around?

The Hot Springs County Connection

Wister has never revealed the true inspiration for the prank in his novel, giving plausible deniability to whichever cowboy actually inspired the tale.

But Thermopolis historian Jackie Dorothy, who has been researching Owen Wister’s ties to Hot Springs County for her podcast Pioneers of Outlaw Country, believes she’s found an oral history that has the edge on all other claims.

For one, Hot Springs County is where Wister started his Wyoming adventures in 1875. It served as a kind of headquarters because his family had ties to people in the area.

“Where he spent most of his time in the ensuing years was in the Wind River Mountains and the Owl Creek,” Dorothy said. “The Embar Ranch, Jay Torrey — those were his friends. So, a lot of (‘The Virginian’) happened right here.”

When “The Virginian” first came out, Wister’s Hot Springs County friends avidly read it, Dorothy said. Many recognized themselves, as well as their friends in the pages of the book.

Over the years, they’ve told and retold the stories in their families, passing them down to next generations and creating a rich oral history that Dorothy has been collecting for posterity.

  • Dave Picard with a wolf.
    Dave Picard with a wolf. (Courtesy Jackie Dorothy)
  • Dave and Mary Picard.
    Dave and Mary Picard. (Courtesy Jackie Dorothy)
  • The 2B Ranch owned by Dave and Mary Picard.
    The 2B Ranch owned by Dave and Mary Picard. (Courtesy Jackie Dorothy)

Dave Picard

That’s how she discovered the tale of Dave Picard, a rancher who would have been the same age as Butch Cassidy at the time, and just one year younger than Wister.

“Dave Picard’s grandchildren live here,” Dorothy said. “Not his great-grandchildren. Not separated by anything. The Picard Ranch, part of it is still in the family.”

In one podcast episode, Dorothy relates the tale of when Mary Picard sheltered Wild Bunch member Kid Curry. He’d been shot and fled to the 2B Ranch on Bridger Creek.

“David Picard was horrified,” Dorothy said. “He knew exactly who that was, and that he was an outlaw.”

Picard moved Curry to a winter camp as soon as he could. But first, Dorothy said, they kidnapped a doctor from old Thermopolis, blindfolding him so they could take him to help Curry.

“That gives you an idea of David Picard,” Dorothy said. “And what they claim in Hot Springs County is that Picard pulled a little prank at a dance one time.”

Down On The Gooseberry Ranch

The dance was held at the Gooseberry Ranch, Dorothy said, and the story that the Picard family tells about that dance is almost identical to the famous prank in Wister’s book.

To understand how such a prank was even possible, it helps to understand how things were back in those times.

It was a different era. A more trusting era. Parties were often a ya’ll come event, held in a large community facility such as a one-room schoolhouse, made over for just that night into a dance hall.

“They would take all the furniture out to make room for the party,” she said. “And that continued in our area probably into the 30s.”

There would be a fiddle player, as well as someone who could dictate time, and a caller.

“You didn’t have babysitters in those days,” Dorothy said. “So, they’d bring the children in, and you’d end up with a pile of children. They’d put them under benches, in corners, in a coat closet — wherever they could — and all the babies would be sleeping together while the adults and the children who could scamper around were at the dance.”

So, as the Picard family’s story goes, there were the usual pile of babies sleeping unattended at the Gooseberry Ranch during the party, when along came a somewhat mischievous cowboy named Dave Picard.

Maybe he’d had one whiskey too many, who knows? Cowboys of the time not only worked hard, they played hard, too, Dorothy said.

“And the story goes that the parents came in and they just didn’t recognize that their baby, they just grabbed the kid who was in the right clothes,” she said. “We’re not sure how far they got, or what happened exactly, but they say (Picard) did swap the children’s clothing.”

Because of that, people in Hot Springs County claim the Virginian’s prank is not only a true story, but they all agree it was done by one cowboy, and that was Dave Picard.

  • This screenshot shows the confusion caused by a baby-switch in the 1929 movie "The Virginian" starring Gary Cooper.
    This screenshot shows the confusion caused by a baby-switch in the 1929 movie "The Virginian" starring Gary Cooper. (YouTube)
  • Gary Cooper as The Viginian in 1929.
    Gary Cooper as The Viginian in 1929. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)
  • Owen Wister as a younger man sits for a portrait.
    Owen Wister as a younger man sits for a portrait. (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

The Camp Cure

One thing to know about Wister, Dorothy added, was that he was not just idly writing things down willy nilly while in Wyoming. He was writing absolutely everything down as part of a prescription then known as the “Camp Cure.”

“Wister had a nervous breakdown,” Dorothy said. “And what led to his anxiety, his poor health, was that his dad wanted him to be a banker, and he wanted to be an artist. So, he ended up here in Wyoming.”

Wister started his Wyoming adventures in the Andersonville and Old Thermopolis area, where his family had connections. There he would meet Elizabeth Short, who had immigrated from England, arriving in Rawlins by stagecoach, and then subsequently landed at a hotel near Fort Washakie, where she worked for a time, before marrying a former hotelier named Leonard Short.

“During this time, you have to understand that the Fort was full of calvary soldiers,” Dorothy said. “And they had elegant hotels, officer homes and a lot of officer balls. So, it makes sense that when Wister arrived, this is where he spent his time before he went out into the mountains to hunt and fish.”

Elizabeth would introduce Wister to George West, who became Wister’s main Wyoming guide and a lifelong friend.

Wister has always said the Virginian was a composite cowboy representing the ideal, not any one particular person. But many people, Dorothy among them, believe that at least part of the Virginian is based on Wister’s friend, West.

Elizabeth is also notable for helping found the Embar Ranch with her husband Leonard, who had big plans for the area. He believed that Old Thermopolis was going to become a tourism Mecca, and his dream was to build a hotel on the Owl Creek, near where present-day Anchor Dam is.

“Their dream didn’t quite pan out,” Dorothy said. “But within a few years, they were running the post office, and they became ranchers.”

Elizabeth, among the first to receive Wister’s novel when it was completed, saw herself in the pages of “The Virginian.”

“There was a character who was a young inn keeper’s daughter, and she knew that was based on herself,” Dorothy said.

Preserving Wyoming History

Owen Wister would make 15 visits to Wyoming in a 15-year period, writing about Wyoming — long after his “Camp Cure” days.

Dorothy believes the reason Wister kept writing about Wyoming can be found in his journals and letters, housed at the American Heritage Center in Laramie.

“One day, he was sitting with a friend and he said, ‘It’s a pity no one is preserving the history of Wyoming,’” Dorothy said. “Already, Wister saw the changing tides. And his friend looked at him and said, ‘I think I know who this person is. And it’s you Owen.’ Wister said, ‘I agree,’ and that was the night he wrote his first short story based on Wyoming.”

The rest is, as they say is history.

A particular history that is Wyoming’s. And one that helped shape the future of the state. Wister’s work inspired many others to come to Wyoming, to become this noble cowboy that Wister had so beautifully written about in “The Virginian.”

“He put Wyoming on the map,” Dorothy said. “He preserved our history, and a whole new generation of people read his books, those dime-store novels, and were inspired to come this way.”

That included a young man named Tim McCoy, who landed in the Thermopolis area and went on to become a very popular Hollywood actor. McCoy would, in his own right, help preserve more of Wyoming’s history, while making some if it himself.

McCoy was among the first great stars of early American Westerns, but he was also a Wyoming politician, and an expert on Native American folklore. He later moved to Pennsylvania, but never lost his love for Wyoming and the Wind River country he’d once called home.

“So, our history has been preserved,” Dorothy said. “And I can’t stress enough how rich and vibrant that history is and how intertwined it is.”

Through her research, Dorothy has followed Wister’s footsteps across Wyoming, from that first summer in the Old Thermopolis and Andersonville area, to the next summer at Fort Washakie, on through the later years including the two weeks he spent at Medicine Lodge, which inspired the opening scene of “The Virginian.”

“Wyoming is truly a small town,” Dorothy said. “And all of us have stories that can tie into Wister. I mean, Medicine Lodge, he spent two whole weeks there and described it in his journal, almost verbatim to what ends up in ‘The Virginian.’”

That makes study of “The Virginian,” at heart, a study of Wyoming itself.

“We can really glean a lot about who we are as a people (from the book), and what makes Wyoming the Cowboy State,” Dorothy said. “We can see what was preserved and know that it was not really that tall of a tale.”

Contact Renee Jean at renee@cowboystatedaily.com

Renée Jean can be reached at renee@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Renée Jean

Business and Tourism Reporter