Mexican Joe Shelley 

Image Courtesy of Heritage Auctions
Mexican Joe, otherwise ‘Colonel’ Joe Shelley, the self-styled ‘Red Eagle of the Sierras’, was a contemporary of Buffalo Bill’s whose publicity materials generally sought to create the impression that his Wild West show was actually better than Cody’s. Whether anyone who had enjoyed the opportunity to draw a comparison ever agreed with this optimistic self-assessment is not known. Objective accounts of Mexican Joe’s outfit routinely stress the fact that it was on a considerably smaller scale than Buffalo Bill’s. His principal strategy for sustaining the illusion was to stay one step ahead of his more famous competitor. In fairness, however, Mexican Joe did on occasion blaze a trail for Cody, notably preceding him to the Neuilly arena in Paris, in the summer of 1888. Scotland is another case in point; Mexican Joe twice preceded Buffalo Bill before the latter’s first arrival there at the end of October 1891.

The name of Mexican Joe is most frequently encountered in connection with an often-repeated story, first recounted in the seminal autobiography, Black Elk Speaks.

Black Elk was one of a party of Lakota Indian men who unwisely allowed themselves to become detached from the rest of Buffalo Bill’s entourage in Salford, just before the company departed for Hull, whence they set sail for the United States at the end of the 1887-88 season in England. In consequence, they found themselves stranded. The Indians resolved their predicament by travelling to London, where they hoped to raise the money for their fares home. There they found salvation in the improbable form of Mexican Joe and enlisted as performers.

Don Russell, in relating this episode at p. 37 of The Wild West, refers to Mexican Joe’s outfit as ‘a show that left little other trace’ but, personally, I have to take that as a challenge.

Whilst the compilation of a comprehensive list of Mexican Joe’s engagements is likely to remain an unattainable goal, it is known that he first brought his show to Great Britain in August 1887, hot on the heels of Buffalo Bill, and was one a headlining attraction at the Liverpool Royal Jubilee Exhibition of that year. He continued to tour on a more or less continuous basis for the next seven years and undertook lengthy stands at both Paris and the Belgian capital of Brussels throughout the summer of 1888. Statements attributed to Black Elk indicate a return to Paris during the spring or summer of 1889 but Mexican Joe’s movements are well-documented during this period and there are no vacant dates leaving any opportunity for a second French venture.

Mexican Joe’s first Scottish appearances were in Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow during the spring and summer of 1889. His return to Glasgow during the summer of 1891 was immediately followed by an engagement at the time of the annual Fair holidays in Paisley. Unlike Buffalo Bill, Mexican Joe made it to Ireland, appearing in Belfast, Dublin and Cork in the autumn, winter and spring of 1892 - 1893, preceded by a season on the Isle of Man during the summer of 1892. Surprisingly, however, I have thus far been unable to identify any Welsh venues.

Mexican Joe had a limited currency as a showman in North America, prior to spending the greater part of his career in Great Britain. There is no serious suggestion, least of all on the part of Mexican Joe himself, that he was actually Mexican; according to census information, as well as statements made in press interviews, he was a native of Georgia, in the USA. Both in his own time and in ours, he is sometimes conflated with Mexican Joe Barrera, one of Buffalo Bill’s performers, but this is certainly erroneous. His extravagent claims concerning his alleged career on the frontier are a fabric of transparent falsehoods, as, in the vast majority of cases, are his statements concerning the provenances and personal histories of his Indians.

Mexican Joe’s Wild West again appeared in Glasgow, at the same time as Buffalo Bill, fulfilling an engagement at the New Olympia, on the New City Road, Cowcaddens, from 19th December 1891 until 27th February 1892.

By this time, foreshadowing the general direction which would shortly be followed by Buffalo Bill, Mexican Joe’s show had ceased to be a Wild West pure and simple and assumed a number of extraneous elements. (See advert, Glasgow Evening News, 1st February 1892, supra.)

On Tuesday, 12th January 1892, one of Mexican Joe’s Indians, Charles Jefferson, otherwise known as Running Wolf, was convicted in Glasgow’s Northern Police Court of having perpetrated an assault upon a female assistant in a shop on the New City Road, to the effusion of blood. This was just one of a number of occasions on which Jefferson was brought before the courts on charges involving petty assault. On each occasion, the precise motive for his violent outbursts was left unclear. Drink was clearly a significant factor.
Fifteen days later, on Wednesday, 27th, Running Wolf’s wife presented him with a daughter, whose birth was registered in Glasgow under the name of Hasonega Olympia Jefferson.

The child was promptly placed on public exhibition, and this fact was advertised in the local press. (See advert, supra.)

Mexican Joe billed ‘Running Wolf’ and his family as Apaches but clear and irrefutable evidence exists that this tribal identification was fraudulent.

Mexican Joe is known to have returned to Glasgow on at least one further occasion, in the spring of 1892, and apparently also in 1893 as well.

Montana Bill stated in his manuscript that Mexican Joe continued to tour until overtaken by commercial failure at Barnsley, Yorkshire, during March 1894; for which clear corroborating evidence exists.

Part of the line drawing
from the Quiz Supplement,
19th February 1892

Review of Mexican Joe’s opening night in Edinburgh, taken from the Edinburgh Evening News, Tuesday, 21st May 1889

Interview with Mexican Joe, taken from the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, Tuesday, 4th June 1889

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