'Buck up and Never Say Die' - Letter from showman 'Buffalo Bill' fetches £1,400 at auction
08 Jun 2021
by Katy Rink

A curious note from the famous American showman Buffalo Bill sold for £1,400 at auction at Halls in Shrewsbury this week. 

The letter to 'Pony Bob' sheds light on Buffalo Bill's claims to have ridden for The Pony Express in the 1860s, perhaps suggesting the great entertainer really did carry mail across the frontier after all.

Letter from Buffalo Bill to Pony Bob

Bill signs the note with his real name 'Cody' on Buffalo Bill's Wild West notepaper, dated May 1908. He's writing from New York to his old friend 'Pony Bob' asking how he is: 'I want to keep in touch with the few left of the old pony riders', Cody says, adding, 'There is no use in allowing ourselves to feel we are growing old.' Buffalo Bill would have been 62-years-old when he wrote the note.

'Pony Bob', an Englishman named Robert Haslam, worked for the famous Pony Express and famously carried the inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln to the first Telegraph Station in 1860, riding 120 miles in eight hours and ten minutes. Buffalo Bill is believed to have worked for the same employers - Russell, Majors and Waddell - as a boy extra from the age of 11, running messages on horseback along wagon trains. Claims that he was a bona fide Pony Express rider, however, have been discredited - one version has it that Cody's publicity agent edited Majors' book Seventy Years on the Frontier, slipping in the untruth to boost his client's profile.

The Pony Express stories from the Wild West - of cowboys, Indians and sharpshooters, were the stuff of great entertainment and made Buffalo Bill the most famous man in America in his own time. How much he borrowed from his friend Pony Bob's tales will never be known.

pony express adverts

Adverts for The Pony Express from the period give an inkling of the hardships the youngsters endured: 'Wanted - Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen, must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred'. 

Bill's note to his old friend finishes with the rousing 'Buck up and never say die' - a reference to the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times (936), which reflects the showman's cowboy charisma. Buffalo Bill went on to fight in the American Civil War and as a scout for the US Army during the Indian Wars, receiving a Medal of Honour in 1872. His adventures were reenacted in his touring show Buffalo Bill's Wild West (1863), which would reach Britain and Europe over the next two decades and become the stuff of legends.He died aged 70 in Colorado in 1917, father to four children. 

Pony Bob also became a scout for the army and later, a clerk at the Hotel Congress - he died in 1912, in Chicago. It was widely reported that Buffalo Bill paid for Pony Bob's headstone, however this was later proved false.

Given the great romantic, swirling myths surrounding these men and their tales of derring-do in the old American West, obfuscated by time and showmanship, it is not surprising that such a scribble should command such a high sale price and the Halls Fine Art book sale on June 2.

Pony Bob rides out for the Pony Express

* Also featuring in this same auction was an autographed letter from nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) sent in the middle of the Crimean War from the Barracks Hospital, Scutari, 23 Sept 1855. She writes: "I am coming up to the Crimea in a day or two, as soon as I can settle some business here and shall hope not to be so troublesome to you as last time". Together with a copy of the Edinburgh Evening Courant, 14 October 1861, containing two letters by Nightingale, the lot sold for £1,900.

*Of Napoleonic period naval interest, a hand-coloured  Signal Book for the Ships of the Line, printed in 1794 , which made an outstanding £11,000. Of great historical interest and rare, it contained extensive manuscript notes, 76 hand-coloured flags and a 36 part-thumb index with hand written designations. It was given on board HMS Boyne (a 98-gun warship) at Guadeloupe on the 23rd April, 1794, to Capt. James Young, H.M.S. Reprisal, by command of Admiral George Purvis. HMS Boyne was the flagship leading a fleet to wrest control of Guadeloupe from the French. It was the following day that the French surrendered. So, this codebook of the time was actually used in action during one of the most famous theatres of war.

From the same era a holograph envelope signed 'Nelson & Bronte' and inscribed by Nelson 'Private. Sir Richard J Strachan, Bart. H M Ship Donnegal' achieved £1,650 (estimated at £500-800).

Although 11 volumes of the Botanical Magazine by William Curtis made an above estimate £5,400, it was largely 20th century autographs that stole the limelight. Two autograph albums, comprising pop and sports stars of the 1980s and 1990s, sold for £4,000, and A Queen album sleeve notes, well signed by all four members sold for the same sum. It was the Fab-four autographs on the back of a Parlophone Records postcard which trumped these results though. Accompanied by a ticket and programme for the concert held on the 26th of May 1963, at which time the card was signed, this lot made £6,000. Given this lot had been sold at Halls for £2,800 on the 8th of August 2008, the return was significant.

So, when you are sorting through the effects of a relative, consider books, letters and autographs as you might be reading a small fortune.

Letter from Florence Nightingale written during the Crimean War, sent from the Barracks Hospital, Scutari, 23 Sept 1855

Letter from Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War