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Booger Red

It’s a cinch: Tall tales and all, this pint-sized cowboy could ride any bronc

Tourists visiting Fort Worth’s historic district have long quenched their thirst at Booger Red’s, an Old West-themed saloon where you can sit on saddle bar stools and shoot the bull while drinking Buffalo Butt beer.

Most of the patrons have no idea there once was a real Booger Red, a pint-sized Texan and nearly forgotten legendary cowboy who overcame a childhood accident that disfigured his face to win widespread acclaim as a rodeo pioneer and “the man who was never thrown by a horse.”

But separating fact from the tall tales about Booger Red can be as messy as walking across a livestock corral without getting your boots dirty. It is possible, but you have to watch where you step.

Several sources agree that Booger Red earned his nickname on Christmas Day in 1877, according to one of the most often-told stories of his life. As a teenager, the redheaded Samuel Thomas Privett—his real name—and a friend filled a hollow tree stump with gunpowder to celebrate the holiday. But the gunpowder ignited prematurely, killing Privett’s friend and seriously burning Privett’s face. Doctors had to cut open his eyelids and nostrils as the tissue healed. A child who saw Privett after the accident said, “Gee, but Red sure is a booger now, ain’t he?” Privett’s siblings began calling their brother “Booger Red,” and Privett liked the nickname. He went by Booger Red for the rest of his life and often made fun of his scarred face.

While sources differ on the year and location of his birth, the Handbook of Texas states that Privett was born in Williamson County in 1864. As a youngster, he moved with his family to Erath County, and he spent most of his adult life in the San Angelo area, where he specialized in breaking horses and running a traveling Wild West show with the help of his wife and their six children. Privett later sold his show and went on the road with Buffalo Bill’s extravaganza. He retired to a ranch in Oklahoma where he died of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, in 1924 (again, sources differ on the year).

One of the most famous stories of his life is “Booger Red’s Last Ride,” which was retold in Reader’s Digest in June 1946. The story recounts how he traveled to the 1924 Fort Worth Fat Stock Show (now the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo) as an anonymous spectator.

A rider was thrown from a particularly unruly horse, and a man in the audience began a chant, calling for “Booger Red.” A woman sitting nearby spotted Booger Red, and the aging bronc buster agreed to ride the horse. Men carried him on their shoulders down to the arena floor, where officials agreed to let Privett ride the outlaw horse that was still foaming and viciously kicking.

Five minutes, 15 minutes, or half an hour? No one could say how long the exhibition lasted. As the story goes, Booger Red rode that horse until it was whipped, then dismounted as the crowd went wild and spectators poured into the arena trying to get near him. But he slipped away and returned home to Oklahoma, only to die a few weeks later.

“He rode the horse to the finish, and many people said it was the prettiest riding they ever saw,” said Privett’s widow, Mollie Webb Privett, when interviewed in 1938 as part of the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project.

Alas, the story might be fake. According to one essayist, Booger Red did ride a bronco at the Fort Worth rodeo in early 1924 and died soon after. But beyond those facts, the story appears to be mostly fictional.

J. Boyd Trolinger’s essay titled “Rodeo Cowboy: ‘Booger Red’ Privett and the Origins of Rodeo” appears in the book The Cowboy Way: An Exploration of History and Culture (Texas Tech University Press, 2006). In the essay, Trolinger notes that the Fort Worth Record newspaper announced Booger Red’s ride a day in advance, and Privett rode a “flea-bitten” bronco that had been one of the stars of his old Wild West show.

The tales—and questions—go on and on: Did Booger Red also discover Bill Pickett, the black cowboy credited with inventing bulldogging? Did Booger Red break an estimated 40,000 horses during his career? Did he ride a horse for 40 days and 40 nights—and then after taming the horse take a six-hour bath with him?

This last bit is part of the repertoire of Jerry Young, a professional storyteller from Mesquite who has recorded the tale of Booger Red on a CD, a transcript of which is on file at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

In an e-mail, Young admits that his Booger Red story “is fact and tall tale meshed together. Much of the factual material was gleaned from Mrs. Mollie Privett’s oral history interview. And yep, the 40 days and 40 nights is stretching the case. He may have rode only 35 days.”

Even without the embellishments, Booger Red’s official history is worth remembering. All sources seem to agree that this little man could ride virtually anything on four legs, earning the reputation as one of the world’s best tamers of wild horses and a natural showman during rodeo’s early years.

“For more than a quarter of a century, Booger Red was regarded as the greatest bronc rider in the world,” wrote rodeo announcer Foghorn Clancy, who got his start in the business at Booger Red’s Wild West show.

His three-paragraph biography at the cowboy museum in Oklahoma City, which inducted Privett into its Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1975, paints the picture of one tough cowboy:

“With fans screaming themselves hoarse, five-foot-four, bowlegged Booger Red would stick to the back of a bronc like a tick to a longhorn. After winning prizes in all the regular Texas rodeos, in 1901 he started his own exhibition as Booger Red’s Wild West and Vaudeville Shows. He offered a $500 prize to anyone who could bring him a bronc that he couldn’t ride. He never had to pay off.”

Charles Boisseau, a former associate editor of Texas Co-op Power, is a freelance writer living in Austin.