Arizona Charlie Meadows, Famed Showman of the West

Arizona Charlie Meadows

c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article first appeared in the Colorado Gambler magazine.

What a presence! The sight of this six-foot-six, long-haired, mustachioed man from the wild west must have been startling to the citizens of Cripple Creek, Colorado in 1895, but one thing was for sure: Arizona Charlie Meadows would make an indelible mark in the history of the Cripple Creek District.

Born on March 10, 1860 in California, Abraham Henson “Charlie” Meadows was the sixth of twelve children. His parents, John and Margaret Meadows, lived near what is now Visalia, California. The family moved, first to a cattle ranch near Payson, Arizona in 1877 and later to Diamond Valley some 80 miles from Prescott, where Charlie began developing his skills as a marksman and roper (his younger brother, Mobley “Kid” Meadows, later became an expert trick rider).

In July 1882, the family ranch was attacked by Apache Indians who had already caused much havoc in the area. Altogether over 40 people were killed, including Charlie’s father and brother. Another brother was seriously wounded. Charlie, who was some 16 miles away at the time, arrived home to find his family devastated with over 40 horses and 60 cows missing, and the family crops destroyed. Charlie’s own account of the incident was published in local newspapers.

Margaret Meadows took her surviving children to Phoenix, and Charlie found himself on his own. For the next several years he roamed the west and became known for his shooting and roping talents. He was named “King of the Cowboys” at the Territorial Fair in Phoenix in 1888 after roping a steer in just 50 seconds. He also participated in Prescott’s very first annual rodeo that same year.

At one show, Charlie’s skills were spotted by none other than Buffalo Bill, who immediately hired the showman for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For the next several years, Meadows toured with the show through Europe and even performed for the Queen of England. Later, Charlie joined the Wirth Brothers Wild West Show and traveled through Australia, New Zealand and the far East before forming his own show in 1893. The troupe toured all over, including California, before going broke. Undaunted, Meadows next joined up with another wild west show until the show’s circus also went broke.

In 1895, Charlie Meadows next landed in Gillette, Colorado, located four miles from Cripple Creek. Along with Joe Wolfe of Cripple Creek’s Palace Hotel, Meadows decided to stage the first “legal” bullfight ever officially recorded in the United States. The pair borrowed $5,000, built a 5,000 seat amphitheater at Tutt & Penrose’s racetrack for the event, and called their endeavor the Joe Wolfe Grand National Spanish Bull Fight Company. They even imported matadors from Mexico.

About 3,000 people attended the first day of the fights, despite the Colorado Springs Gazette’s article which labeled the event as inhumane: “If it be illegal to import bulls for fighting at the Atlanta Exposition, surely it must be illegal to import them across the border for fighting at the Gillette Exposition.” In the end, the bulls that were supposed to be imported from Mexico were prevented from entering the U.S. at the Texas border. Wolfe and Meadows ended up using local bulls, whose complacent natures were hardly conducive to those of their feistier Mexican counterparts. What was intended to be an exciting event turned into a slow and cruel death for the animals.

Americans didn’t care for the grisly killings; less than 300 people showed for the fight on the second day. Wolfe and Meadows were arrested after canceling the fight for the third day. The one saving grace was that meat from the slaughtered bulls was distributed among the city’s poor. In the wake of the fray, Meadows disappeared from sight, never to be seen in Cripple Creek again.

So what happened to him?

Turns out that Charlie beat his hasty retreat back to Arizona. Before long, he chose Alaska for his next scene of conquer. By the time he arrived there in 1897, he had secured a portable bar, restaurant and gambling equipment. With him was his “wife”, a showgirl named Mae McKamish Melbourne. Described as having “a peach-like complexion and a marvelous figure”, Mae was the perfect match for Charlie.

In 1898, Mae and her magnificent paramour narrowly escaped a flood on their way to the Klondike. “Charlie said if he had a Kadac [Kodak photograph] of me as I was running from the Sheep’s Camp flood,” Mae later said, “there would not any use of going to the Klondike, as that would be a gold mine in itself.”

The couple lost most of the equipment for their new business endeavor, but began again in Dawson. There, Mae wisely invested in mining claims, which soon amounted to $100,000. Charlie, meanwhile, earned ample money by selling provisions to miners. On April 1, 1898, he also printed the first edition of a souvenir paper called the Klondike News. Like almost everything else he put his hand to, Charlie did well with his newspaper; gold king Antone Stander even paid the entrepreneur to print a story about him in that first issue, about Stander’s engagement to Miss Violet Raymond.

By 1899, Arizona Charlie was ready to embark on yet another new career as a theater promoter. He hired a San Francisco architect to design a new theater, the Palace Grand, at Dawson, Alaska. Construction took six months, and much of the material was said to be wood from retired stern wheelers boats. Upon its opening in July, Charlie and Mae took up lodging on the top floor.

The Palace could seat up to 2,200 and featured anything from plays and musicals to trick shooting displays. Charlie himself often bolted across the stage on his horse, guns blazing. In 1900, the industrious man even attempted to jump a horse 14 feet into an eight-foot-deep tank of water built into the stage. The feat nearly spelled disaster when Meadows landed under the horse as it struggled out of the tank.

It is said that Charlie and Mae lived happily for many years, despite Charlie’s occasional wandering eye. He allegedly carried on regularly with “Diamond Tooth” Gertie Lovejoy, a local performer who had a sizable diamond installed between her two front teeth and was all the rage at the Palace. He also gave actress Kate Rockwell the Star’s Suite, lavishly decorated in red and gold, as a condition of hiring her. Together, “Klondike Kate” and Meadows worked to choreograph the “Flame Dance”, wherein Kate floated about the stage trailing 200 yards of chiffon. Kate made $200 per week for her performance, but claimed she easily made another $500 entertaining her admirers following the show.

Arizona Charlie also made several friends of the male species. In the late 1890’s, Alexander Pantages offered to stand in for a prize fighter who failed to show at Charlie’s place. Pantages worked as a waiter at the time, but his offer to fight, as well as his experience as a San Francisco welterweight, secured his employment as Charlie’s stage manager.

By 1901, the Klondike boom was fading. Meadows thought of moving the Palace Grand in its entirety to Nome on a barge, but wisely decided not to. Instead, he sold the theater at a loss for $17,000 and headed back to Arizona with Mae. In Yuma, a plan to take over the an island off the coast of Mexico was thwarted by the Mexican government when Charlie revealed plans to do away with a native tribe of Seri Indians (said to be cannibals) in the process.

Charlie died in December 1932 and was buried in Yuma. He left behind at least one daughter, Marion, who passed away in 1944. In the time since there have been a few books and several articles written about him. As early as the 1950’s, the Palace was restored to its original grandeur. Plays and shows still take there during the summer months, many of them centered around the amazing adventures of the theater’s builder. In Las Vegas, Nevada, Arizona Charlie’s Hotel & Casino was named for him.

In the Cripple Creek District, nothing remains of Gillette, nor its infamous bullring. And although Arizona Charlie has been memorialized by historians and writers in the region, his embarrassing incident at Gillette is rarely mentioned in his biographies.

Read more about Arizona Charlie in the summer edition of the Frontier Gazette, available now in Yavapai County and Prescott, Arizona.

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