The Early Years
Anyone who enjoys reading action-packed western novels and stories owes a debt of gratitude to Ned Buntline, the man famous for writing in the late 1800s numerous lurid Wild West tales known as dime novels.
Born Edward Zane Carroll Judson in 1823 in Harpersfield, New York, Buntline started life not too far from Stamford, Connecticut, infamous for Salem-like 1692 witch trials, with the storied Catskills as a backdrop landscape. In 1826, he moved with his parents to Bethany, Pennsylvania and then to Philadelphia in 1834, receiving a somewhat sparse formal education. Buntline's father, Levi Judson, wished for him to study for the clergy, so in 1834, he ran away from home and signed on as cabin boy aboard a U.S. Naval ship.
Thus began a life as adventurous as those led by any of the real or fictional characters Buntline and other writers of the day contrived to place between the covers of these dime novel paperbacks.
The Mature Years
When, in 1845, another publishing venture, something called the Western Literary Journal and Monthly Magazine, went belly up, Buntline fled Ohio and his creditors. While in Kentucky, he captured two men wanted for murder and received a $600 reward for doing so. This money he promptly invested in yet another magazine that he named Ned Buntline's Own. This happened about the time of the cuckolding, shooting and lynching episode in Tennessee. To forestall any further reprisals from that event, Buntline moved his new enterprise to New York City.
Buntline's writings at this time generated an annual income of about $20,000. In today's dollars, that would have amounted close to $600,000. Writers in those days, with a sufficient output and a high level of frugality, could expect to enjoy a fairly comfortable lifestyle.
Buntline also considered himself a reformer and frequently lectured against human vices, especially drunkenness. He often followed his Temperance lectures, however, by quenching his thirst in local bars and taverns. It was on one of his lecture tours that he met William F. Cody whom he dubbed "Buffalo Bill" and whose adventures on the western plains he featured in a series of dime novels.
The Busy Years
In short succession as a fledgling seaman, Buntline rescued the crew of a sinking boat on New York's East River, advanced to midshipman status at age 15, served on three United States vessels, the Levant, the Constellation and the Boston and participated in the Seminole Wars in Florida. Four years at sea proving more than sufficient, Buntline resigned his commission to pursue other interests. These included seeking his fortune in the Northwest fur trade, helping to organize the Know Nothing Party and starting up several newspapers only to see them fall into insolvency.
When the Civil War broke out, he served in the 1st New York Mounted Rifles, rose to the rank of sergeant, and through habitual drunkenness, earned a dishonorable discharge. More than a bit of a womanizer, Buntline participated in a duel with a wronged husband, whom he killed, and subsequently barely escaped death by lynching when friends cut him down.
In the meantime, in 1838, Buntline had launched his writing career with a story published in The Knickerbocker, a New York literary magazine. He adopted the now famous pen name of Ned Buntline in 1844, reaching back to his years at sea for the name, a buntline being a rope found at the bottom of a square sail. Writing for money became Buntline's primary goal in life.
The Writing Years
Even a superficial assessment of Ned Buntline's extraordinary life points to an inescapable fact. Above all, he was a writer. He wrote for newspapers and magazines and populated his own publications with a multitude of works of fiction of various lengths and a diversity of plots. He learned that the more lurid and outrageous the tale, the more readership his stories generated.
Almost single-handedly, Buntline invented the dime novel. These paperback publications did not extend to the lengths of many of today's hefty volumes, but within their pages ran exciting tales of high adventure, dangerous confrontations between good guys and bad guys and an ample serving of romance.
Concurrent with his association with "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Buntline's novels began to feature a western background. His "Scout of the Plains," a highly embelished reiteration of Cody's exploits, brought the little known former scout and pony express rider to the attention of readers nationwide. Buntline continued churning out dime novel after dime novel. More than any other writer of his time, he managed to create a fictionally misleading way of life in the so-called Wild West.
Before his death in 1886 at age 63, Ned Buntline had written and sold over 400 of these ten cent adventures, thereby earning him the title "King of the Dime Novel."