That time Buffalo Bill’s niece tried to take his body from Colorado

On the centenary of Buffalo Bill’s death, the Buffalo Bill Museum has a new exhibit featuring original research into the fight over his final resting place.

Buffalo Bill Cody on horseback in a show in England. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/NS-495)
Buffalo Bill Cody on horseback in a show in England. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/NS-495)
Buffalo Bill Cody on horseback in a show in England. (Denver Public Library/Western History Collection/NS-495)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Buffalo Bill Cody’s death and burial on Lookout Mountain, but there are folks in Cody, Wyoming, who claim he’s not buried here at all, that his body was stolen in 1917 from a Denver mortuary and brought to the site they believe is his rightful resting place in, yes, Cody.

Steve Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Museum, doesn’t buy that for a minute.

In honor on the centenary of Buffalo Bill’s death, the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave has a new exhibit that features original research by Friesen into the fight over the Wild West showman’s final resting place.

The exhibit is titled “A Better Place Could Hardly Have Been Chosen” because that’s what Buffalo Bill’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, said in 1920 when she visited his grave on Lookout Mountain. But later Allen had a disagreement — Friesen calls it a “spat” — with Buffalo Bill’s widow, Louisa Cody, and started a legal and otherwise battle to move the body to the town he founded in Wyoming.

Buffalo Bill’s original will did, in fact, call for him to be buried on Cedar Mountain in Cody, but Friesen said he later changed his mind and gave his wife the authority to decide. Friesen sees no reason to think Buffalo Bill would be unhappy with her choice.

“To be buried near a major metropolitan area like Denver would have been important for a showman like Buffalo Bill,” he said. “And to be somewhere like Lookout Mountain with views of the mountain and plains would have been important.”

The battle over the body stretched over decades. In 1948, people in Cody offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who would steal the body, and American Legion volunteers in Denver sat guard over the tomb.

And then a new story emerged in the 1990s, with people in Cody claiming a delegation from the town stole Buffalo Bill’s body from Olinger’s Mortuary back in 1917 and he’s been up in Cody all along, Friesen said. That’s highly unlikely.

First of all, there was an open casket at the funeral, even though Cody was buried nearly six months after he died. (Friesen assures me the embalming was very good.)

“There was no imposter. His friends and family would have noticed if it was someone different,” Friesen said.

And second of all: “The other reason is that if he were buried up there all along, why have they been whining this whole time?”

Why indeed?

And why has this fight dragged on long after anyone who could possibly have a personal stake in it has died? Well, there’s another Buffalo Bill museum, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, in Cody, and, “it’s good PR to have a little conflict,” Friesen said.


The Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave has free admission this Sunday, Feb. 26,  to mark Buffalo Bill’s 171st birthday and the opening of the new exhibit. There’s a party with singing, cake and children’s activities from noon to 4 p.m. 

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.