Buffalo Bill’s Mortician: Joseph E. Bona

Buffalo Bill
Buffalo Bill funeral notice. Kyle Hier collection.

Most Westerners know about frontiersman William F. Cody—Buffalo Bill—known for his life as a buffalo hunter, Army scout, Pony Express rider, and Wild-West-show creator. His death holds a certain fascination for people, and this year, 2017, is the 100-year anniversary of his death.

Considerable attention has been paid to the feud between Denver and Cody, Wyoming over the right to his burial location. In fact, the Buffalo Bill Museum, located next to his gravesite on Lookout Mountain just west of Denver, has a special exhibit entitled “A Better Place Could Hardly Have Been Chosen” which commemorates his death and controversial burial.

One person connected with Buffalo Bill’s death is, much like Bill himself, very interesting and colorful. That man is Joseph E. Bona—Buffalo Bill’s mortician.

Olinger Mortuary advertisement featuring Joseph Bona. Rocky Mountain News, May 10, 1914.

Having studied at a college of anatomy and embalming in Chicago, Bona came to Denver by train in 1910. He was armed with a new kind of embalming equipment and was advised by the porter on the train to seek employment at Brown’s Funeral Home on the northeast corner of Colfax and Broadway. He was given a job and a place to sleep at the mortuary. His skill at embalming caught the attention of a manager at Olinger Mortuary, and Bona was invited to become an employee, and, later, a member of the firm. He became vice-president and general manager of the Olinger Mortuary Association and held those titles for many years.

Embalming Buffalo Bill
Joe Bona was only 29 years old when he embalmed Buffalo Bill in 1917. Cody’s funeral was held at 11 a.m. on January 14 at Denver Lodge No. 17, B.P.O. Elks, then located at 14th and California Streets. The eulogy was given by John W. Springer, a Lodge member and a man who owned the 12,000 acres south of Denver that would become Highlands Ranch. Because the road to Lookout Mountain was impassable in winter, the burial was not held until June 3.  (The Feb. 9, 1978 Rocky Mountain News claims the reason for the delay was because they expected European royalty that he had met with his Wild West show to attend.)  Cody’s body was stored at Olinger Mortuary for almost six months.

Movie Star Friends
In Detroit in 1919, Bona married the beautiful Margaret Gessing, who modeled fashions at Denver’s Daniels and Fisher store. Bona and his wife were known for the many parties they hosted. According to the 1978 newspaper article, “He had friends around the world and was a friend and companion to a number of celebrities including Bing Crosby and his family, Fred MacMurray, June Allyson and Dave Chasen, owner of Chasen’s Hollywood restaurant, all of whom visited him in Colorado.”

Bona Vista with original wood cladding, Indian Hills CO.

Entertaining the Rich and Famous
Much of the entertaining of celebrities and friends was done at their home
in Indian Hills. Located southwest of Morrison at Parmalee Gulch, Indian Hills was platted in the early 1920s as a summer-home community by George W. Olinger, head of the mortuary. Olinger had conceived of the idea of attracting city dwellers to seasonal homes. Joe Bona acquired a lot high on the ridge looking into Turkey Creek and the turnoff area to Parmalee Gulch. He built a large rustic lodge in this prime spot and named it Bona Vista. Having a stone foundation, the lodge had a unique exterior of bark-covered wood slabs laid in herringbone and other patterns. The film folk came in to stay with the Bonas in the summer. Today, the house on Santa Clara Road still stands, but the exterior has been covered with stucco.

Bona Vista high on the ridge.

The Bonas also hosted parties for their wealthy friends at the various country clubs they belonged to:  Mount Vernon Country Club, Denver Country Club, Aviation Country Club, and Cherry Hills Country Club. The Palm Springs Desert Sun of August 4, 1966 reported that Marge and Joe Bona were hosting a party at the Cherry Hills Country Club for friends Mr. and Mrs. Joseph K. Dennis of Chicago and Palm Springs. Mr. Dennis owned a company in Chicago that provided insurance to the entire nation’s music industry. Indicative of the wealth Bona’s friends had, the Dennises’ Palm Springs home not only was a 7000-square-foot, glass-walled round structure, but it also had a 24-ft diameter, glass-walled round game room (an architectural duplicate of the main house) in the middle of the swimming pool.

Additional Bona Abodes
A second mountain home where he hosted parties was Black Lake, a cabin near Kremmling. Some of the time from 1926 to 1931 he and his wife lived at The Norman Apartments at 99 S. Downing Street (Units 408 and 504). Built in 1924 as a luxury building with nine-foot ceilings and mahogany doors, The Norman is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In the application to place The Norman in the National Register, J. E. Bona is proudly listed as an early resident.

The last apartment he lived in was Unit 10B in the 888 Logan Street
highrise, from 1959 until his death in 1978. That building was also constructed as a residence for the crème de la crème of society. As an example of Bona’s flamboyance, in his 888 apartment he had wool carpet throughout—even on his enclosed balcony—and a white grand piano in his living room.

Bona tombstone, Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Find A Grave.

He was a Catholic and first-generation American of parents from Genoa,
Italy. Living until age 90, Joseph Bona is interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge.

Judith Stalnaker, Ph.D. is a retired Civil Engineering professor who is interested in Denver and Colorado History.  She is the author of the 2015 five-part History Colorado blog series entitled 888 Logan Street: Home to the Prominent.

References:

Bresser’s Cross-Index Directory of Greater Denver (householders’ directory), 1963-64.

“Buffalo Bill’s Mortician, J.E. Bona, Dies at 90,” Rocky Mountain News, February 9, 1978, p. 27.

“Cloak Model Beauty Weds Joseph E. Bona,” Denver Post, February 11, 1919.

Cutsforth, Kellen, “Is Buffalo Bill Really Buried on Lookout Mountain?” Denver Public Library blog, October 4, 2016, https://history.denverlibrary.org/news/buffalo-bill-cody-really-buried-lookout-mountain

“Dennises’ Party,” Desert Sun, Palm Springs, CA, August 4, 1966.

Denver city directories, various publishers, 1915, 1920, 1924, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1931, and 1933.

“History of the Denver Elks,” Denver Elks Lodge #17, http://www.denverelks.org/history.cfm.

Indian Hills Community Plan, Jefferson County Planning Dept., Golden, CO, December 1997, p. 7.

Kreck, Dick, Murder at the Brown Palace: A True Story of Seduction and Betrayal, Fulcrum Publishing,
Golden CO, 2003, p. 85 (Buffalo Bill eulogy).

“Norman Apartments,” National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form, December 9,
1983, https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset?assetID=0b2cae4f-db85-4e60-82e9-bec0c3ccc16a.

Palm Springs Life, Palm Springs, CA, September 1971 (Joseph K. Dennis home on cover).

Perilli, Giovanni, Colorado and the Italians in Colorado, (with photo), 1922, p. 200.

Rocky Mountain News, May 10, 1914, p. 3 (Olinger Mortuary ad featuring Bona).

“Sked MOA National Insurance Program Drive for August 1,” Billboard, Nielsen Business Media, Inc., August 6, 1955, p. 102 (Joseph K. Dennis).