The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He made ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody the world’s first reality star. But he died a pauper buried in an unmarked grave.

Major John M. Burke was the promotional genius behind Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a 19th century extravaganza seen by more than 50 million people worldwide. (Courtesy of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West)

Major John M. “Arizona John” Burke would have been a fine presidential advance man. The 19th century promoter (who was never in the military and didn’t come from Arizona) was a master of media manipulation before the media went mega, a spinmeister in a Stetson.

Burke’s life’s work was to create, refine and boost the brand of one of the first great American celebrities, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the real-life frontier scout who went on to tour the world with his eponymous “Wild West” show. Even Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII saw the Buffalo Bill extravaganza.

But ultimately, Burke’s promotional skill failed his most important client—himself. While 25,000 people attended Cody’s funeral and his grave outside of Denver remains a tourist attraction, Burke died a pauper just months later in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 1917. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Olivet Cemetery, a great attention-getter who spent a century without even the attention of his name on a tombstone.

“We are here to right a historical wrong,” said Joe Dobrow to the crowd of spectators and cameras he had generated around Burke’s resting place Wednesday, the 100th anniversary of his death. Dobrow is no slouch as a story-planter himself: The career marketing expert who counted Whole Foods among his clients has taken on Burke’s forgotten legacy as a cause.

“For better or worse, this world of spin and promotion that are totally immersed in today has its roots in that grave over there,” Dobrow said.

Between 1883 and the early 20th century, Burke would travel ahead of the band, arriving in the next city and filling the ears of local reporters with an ever-growing litany of legend about his boss. By the time Cody and company arrived a few week later, the papers would be full of breathless coverage, and crowds would be primed to line up and buy tickets for the outdoor extravaganza of cowboys and Indians, trick riders and sharpshooters. Burke himself—who grew more western, mustached and big-bellied as the years passed—became the model of the glad-handing flack, beloved by writers for his good humor and good copy. A “hot air and kind words dispenser,” is how one reporter described him.

Burke’s success as a pitchman was such that Buffalo Bill remains a household name a century later, and his techniques—including the press release, licensing deals, endorsements and planted news stories—were all seeds of today’s overgrown media habitat. He was among the first hawkers of nostalgia, the increasingly powerful idea that the best of times are those that somehow slipped away.

Burke borrowed some of the ideas from P.T. Barnum and other circus promoters and supercharged them. He created extravagant flyers and mobile billboards, filling the streets of Berlin with towering posters mounted on wagons and building the show into an international phenomenon seen by more than 50 million viewers. In the days before photocopiers or faxes, Burke found a way to get dozens of copies of a fan letter written to Cody by Mark Twain into the hands of editors all along the upcoming route of the show.

Essentially, by turning Cody’s life experience into mass entertainment, Burke created the first reality show star, said Michelle Delaney, a cultural historian at the Smithsonian Institution. The pair created a stylized—and sterilized—narrative that defined the popular perception of the American West for generations.

“They took advertising and pushed it to the next level,” Delaney said.

In researching a book on the forerunners of modern public relations, Dobrow discovered Burke’s innovations and was appalled that a master had disappeared from the pantheon of P.R. greats. Even worse, he found early 20th century profiles of Burke in which he pined to be buried on a peak of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains “where the stars and the eagles would be his only companions,” Dobrow said.

So he forked out $3,100 for a headstone (epitaph: HOT AIR AND KIND WORDS DISPENSER), tracked down a handful of Burke’s descendants from Wilmington, Del., and beseeched (repeatedly) reporters to come see Western scholars and a Catholic deacon pay homage to this forgotten Svengali. The whole thing was livestreamed on Facebook. “Burke would have loved that,” said Delaney, standing to one side of the crowd.

In the spring sun, with car alarms from Bladensburg Road echoing off the gravestones, Dobrow and historians from Colorado and Wyoming reintroduced Burke to the modern world he helped to shape. Dobrow gleefully embraced the day as a “promotional stunt,” a cowboy-hat tip to the man who practically invented them.

Read more Retropolis:

Hunting down runaway slaves: The cruel ads of Andrew Jackson and ‘the master class’

Hitler refused to use sarin gas during WWII. The mystery is why.

The fake news that haunted George Washington

Dead presidents are mouthing off on Twitter. Nixon won’t shut up.