The Buckskin Cowboy and the ballerina – opposites attract?

Time Before Now, June 1880 Lucy Hays, wife of President Rutherford Hays, had banned wine and “spirits” at the White House, to the delight of temperance supporters.  Thomas Edison owned a shiny new patent for the incandescent light bulb (right) and the newly organized Salvation Army had begun doing good work in England.

June 28, 1880

On this day, “Texas Jack”  Omohundro died at the age of 33 in Leadville, Colorado, ending an unlikely love affair between the frontier legend and a famous ballet dancer, Giuseppina Morlacchi.

The pair met while appearing in a first-of-its-kind stage play entitled “Scouts of the Prairie.”  Dreamed up, written and produced by Ned Buntline, it starred Buntline’s dime novel creation, William F.“Buffalo Bill” Cody and Texas Jack. 

The 36-yaer-old ballerina (left) was on tour with her troupe when she was asked to join the cast of Buntline’s unique production.  Born in Milan, the Italian-American is credited with introducing the racy French Can-Can to this country and was perhaps the first ballerina to pirroette in moccasins.

For his part, Texas Jack also broke new ground.  He was reportedly the first American to perform rope trick on stage, winning over the critics and in 1873 “tying the knot” as they say, with Morlacchi  in Rochester, New York. 

By all appearances the couple could not have had less in common.  John Baker Omohundro was born on a farm near Palmyra, Virginia in 1846.  At age 17 he was finally allowed to enlists in the 5th Virginia Cavalry after two unsuccessful attempts.  He’d served as a courier for the Virginia Militia at the tender age of 15, earning his first nickname, “Boy Scout of the Confederacy.”

After the war he landed in Texas as a cowhand on the historic Taylor Ranch, founded by James Taylor White. (Right)  It’s where he earned the second nickname that stuck with him for life. 

The Chisholm Trail took him to Fort Hays, Kansas in 1869, where he crossed paths with its legendary lawman, Wild Bill Hickok, “California Joe” Milner, George Armstrong Custer’s guide to the Black Hills and the soon to be famous, Buffalo Bill Cody. Cody would  become Texas Jack’ s mentor and set his feet on the path to stardom.  

  Already a cavalry scout at Fort McPherson, Nebraska Territory, Cody, (left) got Omohundro his job as a trail guide, helping the Southerner sidestep the prohibition on hiring  ex-Confederates.  

 While still working for the Army, Omohundro moved to nearby Cottonwood Springs and established a lucrative sideline taking the rich and titled on hunting expeditions.  The most famous of them all was Russian Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich.  The lavish expedition included Cody, three generals, nearly a thousand soldiers, a brass band and a peaceful party of Lakota warriors to entertain the Grand Duke (right) with equestrian feats.

The Grand Duke’s news-making, eyebrow-raising, four month sojourn in America may have been an earlier event shared by Texas Jack and Morlacchi.  Touring in the Midwest at the time at the time of Alexei’s visit, Morlacchi  and her troupe reportedly performed for His Royal Highness, most likely in St. Louis.

The couple parted company with Cody in n 1877 and Omohundro formed his own company known as the “Texas Jack Combination.”  It starred, in addition to his wife, Arizona John Burke, (left) also a Cody associate, Donald McKay, (below) leader of the Warm Springs Scouts during the Modoc War and a female trick-shot  named Maud Oswald.

The company debuted “Texas Jack in the Black Hills” to rave reviews that same year and made Omohundro a popular hero in dime novels by Ned Buntline and Prentiss Ingraham.  But in 1900 a fictional Saturday Evening Post series, “On Wings of Occasions,” angered many readers.  It portrayed Texas Jack in a not-so-heroic plot to kidnap President Lincoln, associating him with Lincoln assassin, John Wilkes Booth.  

Omohundro and Morlacchi eventually settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, but continued to tour across the country.  In 1880, following appearances in the mountain West, the couple decided to linger in Leadville, Colorado, for a time, where Jack met “the Bonanza King of Leadville,” Horace Tabor.  Tabor and second wife, Baby Doe, (right)  had already scandalized the state.  He’d formed a local militia, Tabor’s Light Cavalry, and recruited Jack.  

Whether or not Jack’s militia activities were a contributing factor, he became ill with a cold that became pneumonia.  He died just weeks later at 33 and was laid to rest in a flag-draped coffin at Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Morlacchi returned to Lowell and never tour again.  Living quietly with her sister, she died of cancer just six years later and was buried at Lowell’s St. Patrick Cemetery.

As Texas Jack’s celebrity faded, his grave in Leadville was virtually forgotten until it was rediscovered by a group of actors on tour.  The troupe raised money for the grave’s maintenance and then in 1908, Texas Jack’s mentor and friend, Buffalo Bill Cody, commissioned a modest granite marker. (Right)  It was a nice gesture but, Cody got Jack’s age wrong, listing it as 39.

Oklahoma City’s  National Cowboy Hall of Fame, was more generous with Texas Jack’s legacy. He posthumously received the “Wrangler Award” and inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers.

The buckskin cowboy and the ballerina left no heirs.  A young orphan that Omohundro had rescued in Texas years earlier, however, took the name of Texas Jack, Jr. (Left)  A trick rider and sharp shooter, like his namesake, he became an international celebrity with “Texas Jack’s Wild West Show and Circus.”   

He died in South Africa in 1905 at just 45.  But not before, in 1902 a young job seeker applied to wrangle horses and pitch tents for the show.  Young Jack, instead asked if the applicant could do rope tricks.  Yes, the man said, yes he could, so Jack hired Will Rogers as an entertainer. 

The Hall of Great Western Performers is part of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 1700 WE 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Texas Jack is included with nearly 100 stars of film, television, radio and theatre like John Wayne, Gene Autry, Jimmy Stewart and Parnell Roberts, recognized for outstanding career performances.   Founded in 1955, the museum is one of the premier conservators of Western legend and lore.

Open 10 to 5, Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 Sunday. The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years.  The Museum Grill is open Monday through Saturday 11 to 1:30.   Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.75 students with ID, $5.75 for kids 6 to 12 and under 6, free.  Seniors, 62 and older, receive a $3 discount from 9 to 10 each morning, Monday through Friday.  For more information go to nationalcowboymuseum.org, call (405) 478-2250 or write 1700 NE 63rd St., Oklahoma, OK 73111.

The museum has resumed normal hours and includes a list of visitor safety    measures posted on the website above. 

 © Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain and fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.