On the silver screen and the wide-open southern Arizona ranges, Sid Wilson was one of the last authentic 19th century cowboys. His genuine, hard-working, real cowboy lifestyle provided authenticity to the characters he played in Hollywood movies and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
On his 100th birthday in Tombstone in 1979, he said, “I never turn down a drink of whiskey, and I never chase women unless they are going downhill.”
Born in Texas in 1879, Wilson could not remember the time he first got on a horse. He did, however, ride some of the wildest broncs in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, sharing the arena with icons such as sharp-shooter Annie Oakley and Sioux Chief Sitting Bull.
He traveled with the show to Spain, shattering his knee during a performance in Madrid when the bronc he was riding crashed to the ground. Wilson, who rode in a command performance before Britain’s Queen Victoria shortly before she died in 1901, claimed to have crossed the “whale pasture” (Atlantic Ocean) seven times for these performances. He stayed with the show until it went into bankruptcy.
Wilson was also the stunt double for Hollywood’s first cowboy star, “Bronco Billy” Anderson, who was born Max Aronson in 1880. Aronson directed, produced and starred in more than 300 short Westerns produced by his studio, Essanay. Essanay Studio is best known for producing the popular Charlie Chaplin comedies in 1915. Aronson also acted three parts in the first box office bonanza Western, Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 “The Great Train Robbery.” Wilson broke both heels during filming, after a dangerous jump during a stunt.
After his acting days, Wilson returned to Tombstone to settle at his ranch, although his time there would prove to be no retirement.
He helped restore Boothill Cemetery, the famous OK Corral and the old courthouse after World War II, while also running his own ranch, the Pick-em-up.
He was elected mayor of Tombstone in 1957 at the age of 79. He claimed he had to learn to write so he could sign his name on “all those cussed checks.” He also inherited a deficit of $25,000 and had to wrench money out of delinquent taxpayers. He also got the town streets paved and said, “Hell is paved with good intentions, and I did three of the streets.” During his term as mayor, Tombstone got a city park, resurfaced streets, trees and a new roof on the jailhouse. When his term was up, there was $36.80 in the town treasury. The school needed a new set of swings, which cost $47.99. Wilson came up with the difference.
Wilson also had the distinction of driving the last stagecoach into Tombstone. Although the railroad had come to Tombstone and was hauling passengers, the stage still carried the mail contract, which had two years to run. Wilson was operating the freight line at the time and bought the failing stage line with the mail contract.
Wilson’s birthday became an official Tombstone event by mayoral proclamation in 1977. On his 97th birthday, having outlived his first wife, he remarried.
Up till the end, he rolled his own cigarettes (in the photo he is holding onto his tobacco bag with his teeth.) In October 1981, Wilson died at the age of 102 of pneumonia. A memorial service was held beneath a gnarled old mesquite tree at his ranch, and his ashes were scattered to the wind.
A true cowboy, Wilson was asked in a 1980 interview how the West had changed since his youth.
He replied: “The West has changed in every way that’s imaginable. The sun and moon comes up the same – and that’s about it.”
- Sources: Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Daily Citizen, Arizona Historical Society Ephemera files. Photo courtesy the Elliott family.
- Jane Eppinga