Buffalo Bill's Wild West tours Europe
In 1887 he took the show to Britain in celebration of the Jubilee year of Queen Victoria.
The show was staged in London before going on to Birmingham and then Salford near Manchester, where it stayed for five months. In 1889 the show toured Europe. In 1890 he met Pope Leo XIII.
This master impresario, who had first encouraged Cody to shift his attention from the stage to outdoor entertainment, was as interested in lining up a European tour for Buffalo Bill’s show as a way of giving it greater legitimacy in the eyes of the American public as the promoters of the American Exhibition were interested in reclaiming credibility in the eyes of the British public for their shaky enterprise. Over dinner and drinks, they struck a deal that gave the Wild West star billing in the American Exhibition. The results were simply incredible. Not since P. T. Barnum had paraded General Tom Thumb around the sitting rooms of British aristocracy had there been a comparable American production in England.
The scale of Cody’s undertaking amazed the press on both shores of the Atlantic. When the show’s company boarded the State of Nebraska steamship for London, its entourage included “83 saloon passengers, 38 steerage passengers, 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10 elk, 5 Texan steers, 4 donkeys, and 2 deer.” As the ship steamed across the ocean, Major John Burke (one of the show’s managers) and an advance party plastered London with posters and drummed up anticipation in the press. As one London newspaper described the scene:
I may walk it, or bus it, or hansom it: still
I am faced by the features of Buffalo Bill.
Every hoarding is plastered, from East-end to West,
With his hat, coat, and countenance,
lovelocks and vest.
Despite a recent hoof-and-mouth outbreak, British officials turned a blind eye to the government’s quarantine regulations and, after the ship docked at Gravesend, allowed the troupe to board three trains and head immediately to the arena that was part of the twenty-three-acre American Exhibition site that would serve as the staging ground for the show.
Several weeks prior to the show’s opening, Buffalo Bill’s encampment became a veritable Mecca for England’s upper crust. Among the many notables to visit the site was the former prime minister, William Gladstone, who toured the grounds in the company of the American consul general and, amidst great fanfare, met the Indian chief Red Shirt. Over lunch, Gladstone lifted a glass to the future of Anglo-American relations. Then, on May 5, just four days before the show opened to the public, the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII and a notable rake, accepted an invitation from Cody to bring his wife and daughters to attend a special preview of the Wild West performance. Afterwards, he met all of the performers, including Annie Oakley, who, in an episode widely reported in the press, ignored proper etiquette and shook hands with the Princess of Wales, whom she later described as “wonderful little girl.” Neither the prince nor princess took offense; to the contrary, the prince made a point of telling his mother, Queen Victoria, about the performance and urged her to attend one. With remarkable speed, proper arrangements were made for a command performance of the Wild West on May 11, and, for the first time since her husband’s death a quarter of a century before, Queen Victoria appeared in person at a public performance.
Her attendance at the Wild West show was news everywhere in the English-speaking world, and the fact that she made her appearance in the context of the celebrations that marked the Jubilee Year of her reign only added more weight to the occasion. And what an occasion it was. When the show began and a rider entered the arena carrying the American flag, Queen Victoria stood and bowed. The rest of the audience followed suit, while British soldiers and officers saluted. As Cody described the moment
All present were constrained to feel that here was an outward and visible sign of the extinction of that mutual prejudice, amounting sometimes almost to race hatred, that had severed two nations from the times of Washington and George the Third to the present day. We felt that the hatchet was buried at last and the Wild West had been at the funeral.
Over the course of the next century, it would become fairly routine practice for American mass cultural exports to serve as weapons for accomplishing specific U.S. foreign policy objectives. In the Victorian era, this use of mass culture was still being nurtured and the Wild West was one of the key incubators.
That the Wild West also held enormous potential for domestic politics was equally clear, especially when Queen Victoria asked for another command performance of the Wild West show on the eve of her Jubilee Day festivities. For this occasion, the kings of Belgium, Greece, Saxony, and Denmark, as well as an assortment of Europe’s princes and princesses, including the future German kaiser William II, joined England’s royal family to take in the Wild West performance and show their subjects that they too could delight in ordinary pleasures. The highlight of the show came when several monarchs, including the Prince of Wales and the kings of Denmark, Greece, Belgium, and Saxony, hopped aboard the Deadwood Stage with Buffalo Bill in the driver’s seat and rode around the arena while the assembled Indians engaged in a mock attack.. As they left the stagecoach, the prince, renowned for his love of poker, which American diplomats had introduced to English aristocracy only a decade before, supposedly said to Cody: “Colonel, you never held four kings like these.” To this, Cody retorted: “I’ve held four kings, but four kings and the Prince of Wales makes a royal flush such as no man has ever held before.” In another version of Cody’s reply, Buffalo Bill allegedly said that he held “four kings and a royal joker.” Whatever the truth, in both accounts it is the leveling effects of American mass entertainment that shine through the repartee.
The show spent ten of its thirty years in Europe. In 1887 Buffalo Bill was a feature attraction at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. At the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, only Egypt's gyrations rivalled the Wild West as the talk of Chicago. By the turn of the century, Buffalo Bill was probably the most famous and most recognizable man in the world.