“Diamond Dick” Tanner

The life of Richard J. “Diamond Dick” Tanner (1869-1943) encompassed a noteworthy long-distance horseback ride, circus stardom as a crack shot, a medical career in Norfolk, and finally a reappearance as “the original Diamond Dick,” when his claim to the title was challenged. For a complete account, see “The Variegated Life of Norfolk’s Diamond Dick,” by L. Boyd Finch in the Winter 2003 issue of Nebraska History.

It is difficult to pinpoint Tanner’s activities as a youth until his long-distance horseback ride from Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City and then back across country in 1893. Profiting from the publicity generated by his feat, Tanner by 1894-95 was appearing in frontier shows as Denver Dick, a crack marksman. As Diamond Dick he performed in circuses from 1895 until 1905. He formed his own traveling show. His shooting act was impressive, but solid evidence that Tanner performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (as Tanner later claimed) is missing.

In 1905 Tanner entered Cotner College (then including Lincoln Medical College) and Nebraska Wesleyan University. He received the M.D. degree in 1909 and ceased using the name Diamond Dick. In 1910 he opened a medical practice in Norfolk and began promoting his medical lectures and herbal medications.

Dr. Tanner’s new career was successful, but by the early 1920s he was longing to return to show business. His reemergence as Diamond Dick at the August 28, 1925, Pioneer Days Celebration in Norfolk was a publicity success. But Tanner’s claim to the title was challenged, especially by the adherents of George B. McClellan, a Kansas medicine showman who had also used the name from the 1880s to 1911.

The publicity generated by these events (as well as the ongoing popularity of Diamond Dick dime novels) allowed Tanner to build his celebrity. He invited a number of old frontier figures, including W. F. “Doc” Carver and Luther H. North, to appear with him in a Norfolk parade in mid-June 1927. The successful gathering was a validation of Tanner’s identity as Diamond Dick. By the time of his death in 1943, Tanner was widely (if somewhat inaccurately) portrayed as a relic of the frontier.

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