A Spanish Bullfight in America

The tragic bullfight in Spain that left Matador Victor Barrio gored to death marks the first time in decades that any bullfighter has been killed by a bull. This sad event made me recall reading about the only authentic Spanish bullfight ever held in the United States. And it happened right in our backyard.

It was July of 1895. Joe Wolfe, owner of the Broken Box Ranch (where Bob Womack got his start in Cripple Creek), and his friend Charlie Meadows decided to stage a real Wild West show with all sorts of acts using wild animals. Charlie wanted to bring fighting bulls from Mexico, along with real Spanish bullfighters. They got some Cripple Creek merchants to advance them the money, and Bert Carlton agreed to supply the hay, so everything started to fall into place.

One thing they lacked was a venue until Charlie Tutt and Speck Penrose lent their race track at Gillett, just four miles from Cripple Creek. Charlie Meadows held press conferences announcing the bull fights while Joe hired the entire staff for the event, which was to take place on August 24-26. When everything was ready, they headed for Chihuahua to find some bulls. Those press conferences did the trick, because combined with posters plastered everywhere all over Colorado Springs and Cripple Creek, everyone anticipated this landmark event. Nothing of its kind had ever been staged in America.

Bring on the protesters! The Secretary of the Colorado Humane Society, Francis Hill, was really fired up about the senseless killing of bulls. He wrote a scathing editorial to The Gazette on August 8 denouncing it, followed by a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury who replied that no bullfight would take place anywhere in America. This news had no effect on Wolfe, who went around town wearing a black cape that was so long and loose that he had to take giant steps to keep from tripping on it. Calling himself “José,” he adopted a Spanish accent as he told everyone that Charlie Meadows had the bulls, and if they wanted to see an amazing show, tickets were $2, $3, and $5. Builders swarmed over the racetrack at Gillett, converting it into a 5,000-seat amphitheater. Hourly warnings from Francis Hill about their imminent arrest went unheeded; Joe and Charlie had the support of the rich elite of Colorado Springs, so nothing would stop this bullfight.

When the matadors arrived on August 23, Joe paraded them down Bennett Avenue in Cripple Creek. The parade featured the legendary José Marrero as well as his wife, “the only lady bullfighter in the world,” and four others besides Charlie and his brother, Kid Meadows. The bullfighters were supposed to bring ten bulls with them from Mexico, but they got stopped at the border and the Secretary of Agriculture wouldn’t let the animals through. Joe had found out about this before the parade, but things had gone too far for him to back out. He sent his brother Alonso and Charlie Meadows to local ranches where they rounded up a few mean bulls and arranged for their transfer to the Gillett arena.

The next day, all the roads were so jammed with people on their way to Gillett that the bullfighters and promoters had to take a special train to get there. Concessions, saloons, and gambling halls were set up around the outside of the amphitheater, where miners were fleeced of their ticket money before they got to purchase one. Three thousand people filed into the arena. Joe Wolfe, calling himself “El Presidenté” and sporting a green velvet suit with silver buttons, black sombrero and patent leather shoes, nodded to a bugler to bring the bullfight to order.


Matador Marrero fights the bull, while Charlie Meadows looks on from the far left. (Credit: Denver Public Library Western History Collection)

Joe gave the signal to the matador, and the first bull came charging out. The bull was pretty mad because he hadn’t had anything to eat since the day before—Carlton had refused at the last minute to deliver hay on credit. The bullfight proceeded according to Spanish tradition, with the Matadors plunging their spears into its neck with every pass. These bulls had not been trained in classic Spanish bullfighting, so the matadors spent more time arguing about it than fighting the bull. They managed to spur the bull into a state of “real professional anger,” and then the audience fell silent as the matador struck a final pose. On cue, Joe Wolfe blew a whistle, Marrero received his rapier from Kid Meadows, and the bull fell, fatally speared through the heart. The audience erupted in cheers, and Wolfe turned around to find Sheriff Bowers placing him under arrest.

The bullfight in Gillett. (Credit: Denver Public Library Western History Collection)

The bullfight in Gillett. (Credit: Denver Public Library Western History Collection)

All the bullfighters were under arrest for cruelty to animals, on the complaint of Francis Hill and the Humane Society. They went to trial immediately where the judge acquitted Wolfe and assigned $5 fines to the Mexican fighters and the Meadows brothers, a total of $30. Joe thought the Saturday performance was a huge success and he expected another huge crowd on Sunday, but fewer than 300 people showed up. It was just as well, because three of the bulls refused to fight, and the others charged a couple of times and were killed by the matadors in a “lackadaisical manner.” Sunday’s take was way short of his goals, so Joe cancelled the Monday show.

Again they were arrested, but this time they spent a night in jail. Joe and the Meadows boys raised bail and were released; Hill was satisfied that justice had been done. The next day he saw an ad for the “Arizona Charlie Meadows Wild West Show” to be held September 13 and 14, the proceeds of which would be used to pay the bail of the remaining matadors. Hill’s protests went unheeded; the show was a rousing success.

Joe Wolfe won immortality by staging the only legitimate Spanish bullfights ever to be held in the United States. This icon of history did nothing to quell the debate on what exactly constituted “cruelty,” but Cripple Creek pioneer assayer N. B. Guyot said, “Cruel to kill those bulls? Hell, yes! But there was a greater cruelty still, my friends. That cruelty was committed by Mr. Bert Carlton, the dastard hay merchant who refused to feed the starving animals on credit.”

I wonder what the animal activists will have to say about the latest happenings with Spanish bulls.


Credit: Marshall Sprague’s Money Mountain

Photo By: Denver Public Library Western History Collection