Portraits of Old West Gunfighters by Lea McCarty

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Kaya Fellcheck

Portraits of Old West Gunfighters by Lea McCarty

It is simply outrageous how assumptions can sink a project almost before it floats. Let me explain. I have a special interest in the history of the old American west, but not because I’m a history buff. It is because many of the famous personalities were old west gunfighters and many have been the subject of movies. When the set of cards featured in this essay were discovered, I gathered them, thinking that someday I would write about the actors who played the roles of these men (except for Martha Cannary) and it would make a good story. But first, it was important to learn about the artist who created the nearly life-size portraits featured on the cards. Sure, I found the artist’s name in several places but my searches, one-after-another failed. Finally, I emailed Postcard History’s editor, Ray Hahn and asked for help. Here is how Ray helped. I had searched for an artist named Lea Franklin McCarty. I was curious about the name Lea, for the usual spelling is with an “h” – Leah. I was sure I had read a review of a book, published in the late 1950s which bespoke of the author as she. My assumption was that Lea McCarty was a very accomplished but mostly unknown, female artist who was using a “brush-name” or perhaps a maiden name. When I told Ray that my contribution would be without bio-data on the artist, he put on his genealogist’s hat and found that Lea Franklin McCarty was not an unknown female, but a much accomplished male artist who was born to Del McCarty and his wife, Dorothy Lea Davenport on April 9, 1905. Lea McCarty was a resident of Santa Rosa, California and when he died from a heart attack at age 54 in 1960, he had already completed more than 100 oil paintings of famous old west characters. McCarty’s primary sources were old photographs and tin-types. McCarty’s last portrait was of Lily Langtry. The year before his death, McCarty participated in the preparation of a book entitled, Gunfighters of the Old West. The contents included twenty-two illustrated stories of famous gunfighters such as Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Joaquin Murrietta, Bill Longley, Ben Thompson, King Fisher, Jim Courtright, John Wesley Hardin, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Luke Short, Clay Allison, Old Man Clanton, John Ringo, Billy the Kid, Curly Bill Brocius, Dave Mather, Calamity Jane, Pat Garrett, and the lads who mixed it up at the OK Corral. The book became a best-seller. Twelve of the personalities above were chosen as subjects of a postcard set published by Mike Roberts of Berkeley, California. Early in Robert’s career he earned a sterling reputation for his high quality Natural Color printing. Under the guise of the lady first, this checklist is provided for your convenience. The entries preceded by an asterisk are accompanied by an illustration that follows: * Martha Jane Cannary (May 1, 1852 – August 1, 1903), better known as Calamity Jane. Other portraits in the set are: Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847 – April 3, 1882), * John Henry “Doc” Holliday (August 14, 1851 – November 8, 1887), “Doc” was a dentist, * James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (May 27, 1837 – August 2, 1876), Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (March 19, 1848 – January 13, 1929), Bartholemew William Barclay BatMasterson (November 26, 1853 – October 25, 1921).
Calamity Jane. Born in Missouri, she was at one time an Army scout in the Black Hills country.
Doc Holliday. In the post-Civil War years, Doc Holliday traveled the west and died young.
Wild Bill Hickok. This famous lawman became a colorful figure. He was shot in the back at Deadwood, South Dakota.
*John Wesley Hardin (May 26, 1853 – August 19, 1895), Henry “Billy the Kid” McCarty (September 17 or November 23, 1859 – July 14, 1881), it is unlikely that Henry was one of the artist’s ancestors, * Patrick Floyd Jarvis Garrett (June 5, 1850 – February 29, 1908), John Peters Ringo (May 3, 1850 – July 13, 1882), William Preston Longley (October 6, 1851 – October 11, 1878). * Luke L. Short (January 22, 1854 – September 8, 1893).
John Wesley Hardin. Born the son of a preacher but died an outlaw. By the age of 21 he killed 40 men.
Pat Garrett. A lawman, bartender, and customs agent who became famous for killing Billy the Kid.
Luke L. Short. Gunfighter and saloon owner. He owned the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, one of Marshall Matt Dillon’s hangouts.
Realizing that the dates and data embedded in this article are over sixty years old, it may be interesting if our California, mid-west, or west coast readers could discover if Lea McCarty’s paintings are still on display where they were commissioned. Namely the Apple Valley Inn, Knotts Berry Farm, the city hall in Elko, Nevada, the city hall in Dodge City, Kansas, and the Tombstone (Arizona) Reclamation Commission headquarters. Comments are welcome!
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This article rings my chimes. As a youngster I read a book called “The Blue Bandits” about kids using their imaginations in northern CA where one girl lived in a house reputed to have been a hideaway for
Murrietta. The author was Lucile Morrison. I was able to borrow a copy from the Sacramento public library. Anyhow I won’t bore you with more but just say this was very interesting to see the artwork and imagine some of those things myself.

I remember a commercial for a Time-Life Books series on the Old West in which the narrator informed viewers that John Wesley Hardin was “so mean he once shot a man just for snoring too loud.”

Dime novels and postcards like these helped to glamorize a history that is often violent and cruel to Native Americans. I would not collect these.

Love the historical sketch portraits.

What a pleasant surprise to see your description of my father.Lea McCarty. I am the youngest of his 2 sons – Michael (73) and Willard (76t). I remember traveling through the West with my Dad and Mom (Dale) every year, my father searching for history and clues, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. He was a gifted “gabber”, charming, educated, and a musicin as well. He was hard to resist and that was a magic ticket to selling his Gunfighter series of paintings. $15,000 to $20,000 was the asking price, and that is what the paintings sold… Read more »

Did your dad paint small versions of these paintings? As I have two – Ben Thompson and Harry Longley —

Hi Michael, so good to find you! I have a painting of your father’s, it’s been in my family since the 1950s. My family is also from Santa Rosa, CA. I’d love to find out more about your Dad and his works. And anything about the painting that I have.

I have a number of Lea McCarty’s original paintings. I would like to sell.

Judy I have an original oil of his as well. Did you ever sell any of yours?

I just came across some autographed gunslinger prints if anybody is interested. I’m about have them appraised. hynickfam@gmail.com.

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