Steve Friesen knows he can count on three things in life: death, taxes and the fact that William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody is buried here, high atop Lookout Mountain with commanding views of the Rocky Mountain foothills and vast Western plains that stretch toward the sunrise.
Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, is a Cody biographer who’s done his research. He’s consulted the records and examined photographs of the day the famous Indian scout, hunter and dapper showman was laid to rest in 1917 amid public grieving and fanfare.
But nearly a century later, doubters remain.
About 500 miles away, in Cody, Wyo., conspiracy theorists insist the body of this frontier celebrity is buried somewhere atop Cedar Mountain, outside the town he founded.
Even though Buffalo Bill always wanted to be buried in Wyoming, they say, Denver officials bribed relatives, finagling to host the burial. That’s when a band of Wyoming faithful pulled off a caper straight out of Hollywood: They sneaked into the funeral home and replaced the body with a local vagrant, a look-alike impostor, spiriting the real Cody back home to the Cowboy State.
At least that’s how the story goes. Friesen isn’t buying it.
“People in Cody have too much time on their hands. I’m glad they have cable TV up there,” says Friesen, a cheerful man with graying hair and round glasses. “I don’t want to burn any bridges, at least not all at the same time.”
The Buffalo Bill war of words rankles residents in the neighbor state, where they scratch their heads over the other’s stubbornness for doubting the body is in their hands. Then there’s a contingent of Wyoming residents who acknowledge that Cody is buried outside Denver. But they say they want him back.
“Buffalo Bill is a favorite son here — he put the American West on the map,” says Bruce Eldredge, executive director of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. “Wyoming residents want him here, the same way Denver wants him there.”
Born in 1846 on a farm in Iowa, William Frederick Cody went on to achieve worldwide fame as a buffalo hunter, U.S. Army scout during the Indian Wars and host of a touring Wild West show that lent the mustachioed Cody an Elvis-like following. He died of kidney failure on Jan. 10, 1917, while visiting his sister in Denver.
“Cody captured the fascination about the Wild West the same way King Arthur did with the medieval knights,” Friesen says. “People wanted myths and legends about the West. And Cody was there at the right time — to seize hold of the American mass media.”
In dispute is whether Cody ever wanted to be buried here.
A 1906 will declared that he wanted to be buried on Cedar Mountain, but in a subsequent will Cody left the decision up to his wife, Friesen says.
“The only real controversy here is whether Cody wanted to be buried in Colorado,” he says. “But the fact that some people still say he’s not even here sticks in my craw.”
The June funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, and Friesen says numerous photographs were taken of close friends and family filing past the open casket. “If it wasn’t Cody, don’t you think that somebody would have said the emperor has no clothes, that there’s a fake in there?”
Friesen stands at the grave site, its quartz headstone adorned with markers. A wrought iron fence was built to discourage visitors from tossing coins for good luck, but the site is littered with nickels.
Reminded of the claim that Cody was hijacked, Friesen smirks: “That’s what the Great American bison laid behind them on the Plains — so much B.S.”
He blames the controversy on Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, who after the death of Louisa Cody claimed that Denver officials had conspired to have Buffalo Bill buried there.
The rumors so inflamed both sides that Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, reburied the Codys under tons of concrete as security against theft. He told the Denver Post in 1925: “I think the whole thing was started by people who had nothing else to talk about.”
Succeeding decades deepened the controversy.
In 1948, the Colorado National Guard stationed troops around the grave site after American Legion post members in Cody offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could steal Cody’s body. In 2006, Wyoming legislators jokingly debated waging a “clandestine” effort to retrieve Buffalo Bill.
“Good luck — he’s encased in concrete,” quips Friesen, 62, museum director here for 20 years. “They’re going to have to make a heck of a lot of noise. And we’ll be here to take care of them.”
The museum 30 miles west of downtown Denver contains numerous Wild West artifacts, including Friesen’s book “Buffalo Bill: Scout, Showman, Visionary.” Many of the half a million annual visitors bring up the burial debate. “People come in here and say, ‘I stopped up in Cody, and boy are they upset. They want their body back,’” says gift shop worker Roxanna Clover.
Nearby, Friesen is approached by a tourist who had just bought his book — and then questions whether Cody is really here.
“He is here,” Friesen assures him. “I’ve done the research, doggone it.”
Standing on a hilltop next to the grave, Michigan resident Dennis Cargill asks: “Does it really matter where he’s buried?” He pauses. “So, is he here?”
Even Eldredge is politic on the Cody question: “I would hope he’s on Cedar Mountain.”
The feud is good for museum business — and the source of endless ribbing.
Saying goodbye, Friesen relays a message to Eldredge: “Tell him I said hi and that, by the way, we still have the body.”