My recent post on how a particularly obscene paragraph ended up on a local sports page inspired me to go back to a post I wrote in 2015, “When Shit Hits the Newspapers.” In it, I mentioned the enticing prospect that bullshit might have appeared in an American newspaper a few decades before that word started showing up in the writings of such luminaries as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter noted on the American Dialect Society mailing list back in 2008 that there is a mention of a stage-robber in Las Vegas, New Mexico, named John “Bull Shit Jack” Pierce in Doc Holliday: the Life and Legend by Gary L. Roberts. Roberts seems to cite an 1881 issue of the Las Vegas Daily Optic on this point. Now that the Optic from that year has been scanned and digitized, it’s possible to check. Sadly, there is no “Bull Shit Jack” to be found, but the expurgated versions that did appear in newspapers of the era leave little doubt as to what his nickname actually was.
The first mention of Mr. Pierce that I’ve been able to find is from another newspaper from Las Vegas, N.M., the Daily Gazette, in 1879.
Special Agent Adams came in from Denver yesterday and last night arrested B– S– Jack, Slap Jack Bill, both noted characters, and a man named Webb at a saloon on the east side on a charge of robbing the coach. The evidence is strong.
The following day, the same newspaper provided further details on the arrest.
The men bearing the euphonious titles of B.S. Jack and Slap Jack Bill, the pride of the Pan Handle, are gamblers who came from Otero some weeks ago. They are originally from Texas and are classed as t[h]ough citizens.
The Daily Gazette’s coverage of the arrest appeared in some other newspapers in the Southwest, with the nickname similarly expurgated.
The Las Vegas Gazette gives an account of the capture of three mail robbers called Webb, B.S. Jack and Slap Jack Bill. They have been taken to Santa Fe for trial.
—Arizona Sentinel (Yuma, Ariz.) Sep. 27, 1879, p. 2
The following year the Daily Gazette gave an update on the arrested men.
The mail robbers have been indicted and arraigned and all entered pleas of not guilty. They are John Pierce, alias B.S. Jack, William Nicholson alias Slap Jack Bill, Frank Cady and Jordan Webb.
—Daily Gazette (Las Vegas, N.M.), Feb. 10, 1880, p. 4
As for the Las Vegas Daily Optic (which began publication in 1880), the earliest mention I’ve found of Mr. Pierce is in a wonderful article from the Apr. 21, 1881 issue entitled, “The Fellows With Names.” A correspondent identified as “Cactus” recounts the various nicknames given to Wild West frontiersmen, starting with the most famous ones, “Wild Bill” Hickok and “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He moves on to such lesser-known figures as “Mysterious Dave,” “Fat Jack,” “Cock-Eyed Frank,” “Corn Hole Johnny,” “Slim Jim,” “Split Nose Red,” “Six-Shooter Bill,” “One-Armed Kelly,” “Alkali Charley,” “Hoodoo Brown,” “Buggy Jim,” “Stink Foot Jack,” and many more.
As for the Las Vegas stage-robbers, Cactus writes:
“Slap Jack Bill,” “Fly Speck Sam” and “Bull Shank Jack” all came to Las Vegas about the time the railroad got here, and were soon run in the quay on the charge of train and coach robbery.
This article was widely circulated in newspapers around the country in 1881. But whereas the earlier accounts had him as “B– S– Jack” or “B.S. Jack,” Cactus called him “Bull Shank Jack.” (Or perhaps an editor at the Daily Optic insisted on the euphemization.) Of course, if his nickname really was “Bull Shank Jack,” then there would have been no need to give him the “B– S–” treatment.
Back on the American Dialect Society mailing list, Jonathan Lighter compared the “B.S.” of 1879 with other initialized versions of swear words, such as “G.D.,” “S.O.B.,” “M.F.,” and the now-obsolete “D.F.” for ‘damned fool.’ He also observed, “If ‘bull shit’ had been a neologism, I’d expect the typesetters to have employed ‘Bull S—’ rather than letter-expurgating both words, printable ‘bull’ being contaminated by unprintable ‘shit.’” But the later appearance of his nickname as “Bull Shank,” and the work of historians such as Roberts, corroborates the fact that we’re dealing with “Bull Shit Jack.” (See also “The Dodge City Gang of Las Vegas, New Mexico” on the Legends of America site.)
While it might be enjoyable to imagine that T.S. Eliot invented bullshit in 1910, when he is purported to have written a poem called “The Triumph of Bullshit,” I find it far more believable that the word was alive and well on the American frontier more than thirty years before that.
“Corn Hole” Johnny?