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This 19th-century Adirondack author may have been more colorful than his characters

I don’t necessarily envy Julia Bricklin the task of tracking down the facts on one Edward Zane Carroll Judson (1821-1886). No details come easy, even his birthdate, and certainly his multiple marriages. But she was able to put together a fascinating portrait of his very unusual life in her biography, “The Notorious Life of Ned Buntline: A Tale of Murder, Betrayal, and the Creation of Buffalo Bill.”

The title itself offers a clue to the chameleon-like figure. Ned Buntline was his pseudonym, one under which he became perhaps the most popular writer of what the 19th century called “dime novels.” He wrote under other pen names, too, it turns out. That proved to be good way to make extra money even after signing exclusive contracts with publishers as Buntline.

Usually I’m proud to proclaim the exploits of upstate New Yorkers. In this case, I’m a little less certain. Nonetheless, he was born in the Delaware County town of Stamford, and he died there, too, though there weren’t many other places in the country he didn’t stay in between.

I learned about his Adirondack days soon after I moved to the region. He owned a camp on Eagle Lake that he named Eagle’s Nest, the same moniker he gave his final and much more lavish residence in Stamford. Though living a hermit-like existence in the Adirondacks, he did cross swords (as did many others) with famed guide Alvah Dunning.

The man had a taste for adventure and for controversy. I suppose those are guaranteed methods for coming up with book topics, but he often carried it to extremes. Thus, we learn he fought in the Seminole Wars in Florida, then in the Civil War. He boasted of heroic exploits in both, though the main testimonies of such heroics tended to be his own. Depending on whose word one chooses to believe, he may have been in the Mexican War, too.

His swaggering personality brought him to politics, where he sought to be a leader in the Know-Nothing Party. Officially this was called the American Party, though few seemed to call it that. Anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and seemingly anti-a-lot-more, the movement did manage to elect a few governors and congressmen during the 1850s. Former President Millard Fillmore (alas, another upstate New Yorker) sought to be its candidate for the White House in 1856.

Judson enlisted no less a personage than William (“Buffalo Bill”) Cody to co-star with him in a traveling series of stage plays. Though historians like to argue whether Judson truly discovered the frontiersman, it does appear he jump-started what became a very successful career for the Westerner. Again, I’m glad I didn’t have to forage through the conflicting claims.

Let’s see. I’ve forgotten to mention the major riots he instigated in New York City and St. Louis. He may have been (or perhaps not) in multiple duels. And oh, yes, his marriages. There were at least eight, some simultaneously, all tumultuous, though only a couple of well-documented divorces. Plus those dime novels, of which he may (or may not) have written 400, and the magazines he published for periods of time. Remember, it’s hard to pin down someone who uses multiple aliases.

On occasion, the author shows a tendency to repeat herself. There was occasional backtracking in what is generally a chronological story, giving me difficulty at times sorting out wives and other characters. Those are small complaints. The author’s research appears to have been comprehensive, and she provides extensive documentation. Fortunately her writing shows a precision and clarity that excerpts of Judson-Buntline’s own work shows he lacked. Judson offered her a character likely as colorful as any he conjured up himself.

As I write this review, I’m realizing how much I enjoyed this book. Judson is not a person I’d want to have as a neighbor or a business partner, but as the subject of a rollicking biography, he’s great. This true story may have made a better tale than much of the man’s fiction.

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