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Pawnee Bill Ranch

May Lillie's Pistol

2014-05-27

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Erin: Welcome to the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast. I'm Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch curator.

Anna: And I'm Anna Davis, Pawnee Bill Ranch Historical Interpreter.

Erin: Well, Anna, last month we talked about the different things that we do here at the Ranch and the Ranch today. One of the things that we did not mention was authenticating artifacts or providing people with information about their antique or their artifact. And surprisingly, it's something that comes up pretty often.

Anna: People come in all the time off the street with items.

Erin: Sure. Most of the time, the items that we authenticate are coming from private collectors that have purchased an item from another collector or an auction house. Items can appear on eBay or sometimes people inherit things when a relative passes away. We can go back in our archives and match up dates, names, and other events to hopefully provide an authentication. We would like to think that every Pawnee Bill item out there for sale is completely authentic and the real deal, but sadly, this isn't always the case.

Anna: Right. If you go back and listen to our very first podcast on historic firearms, we interviewed David Kennedy of the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center. In that podcast you'll find a section where we discussed with David about faking historic guns. It doesn't happen very often and we don't want to scare people away from collecting, but when you're dealing with historic artifacts, it's always best to be vigilant. Recently, we've gotten a lot of questions about artifacts that have appeared on a more national stage.  As the history of the Wild West becomes more popular, items start to appear on popular television shows. Of course, that always generates a lot of interest in Pawnee Bill. We see an increase in tourists and an increase in questions.

Erin: And that's always a good thing.

Anna: It is always a good thing. Always get interested in Pawnee Bill. We've had items appear recently on Antiques Roadshow on PBS, The Walking Dead on AMC, and on the History Channel. So, we thought that we would dedicate this podcast to an artifact that has caused some controversy. It appeared on a History Channel television show and unfortunately the artifact has a history that is too good to be true.

Erin: In late February of 2013, we started to get a lot of comments and emails from people about an episode of the History Channel show "Pawn Stars".  They were really excited to see a Pawnee Bill artifact on the show. It really got our interest because we had no idea that a Pawnee Bill artifact was going to appear on the show. No one had contacted us and that is always a red flag. Usually we are one of the first people a show calls before running information related to Pawnee Bill.  

Anna: It's called vetting information. You have to check your sources.

Erin: The episode was titled Lunch Larceny and during the episode, a gentleman presented the store with an 1838 Colt Paterson pistol that supposedly belonged to May Lillie's father. The pistol was presented in a red leather case that had an inscription that read: To Gordon William Lillie Pawnee Bill Interpreter of the Pawnee and May Manning Lillie from William F. Cody Buffalo Bill. We were very surprised when the expert on the show authenticated the entire story.

Anna: No hesitation. He just said that he believed the whole thing. There were, understandably, a lot of red flags with the story that was presented. There was no date was ever given as to when this gun was gifted to May Lillie from Buffalo Bill, and that, of course, you would assume would be very important. There was a very narrow time frame between when May's father died in 1903 and when the Wild West Show ended in 1913. The gun case itself does not look appropriate for the kind of presentation that was supposed to have happened. In fact, the gun when the case was opened was resting on bubble wrap. Wild West Show items are usually pretty ornate with display boxes made specifically for the occasion, like our silver tea service in the mansion. There are photographs that survive of the original presentation box. The gun case is not the original case the weapon would have come in. It's a red leather case that looks almost like a briefcase. The engraving on the gun looks too modern. In the world of artifacts, just because something has an engraving on it does not make the story behind it true.

Erin: Historians use the word provenance to describe the chronology of ownership, custody, or location of an object. It's the history behind an object. Unfortunately, this gun, and the story behind it, has no provenance. How this gun, which was alleged to be a gift to May Lillie, ended up on TV screens across the country on the popular show will probably forever remain a mystery. We have many firearms in our collection that belonged to Pawnee Bill and May and it seems odd that a special one like this, especially one alleged to be her father's, would have ever left our collection. It is also odd that we've never heard of it before.

Anna: Yeah, there are other museums that have Pawnee Bill guns in their collection. That's not rare but this is a pretty special kind of gun you would think.

Erin: Yeah and even if we don't own it, we usually have a knowledge of what is out there either in private collections or in another museum. So, we know what is out there in terms of authentic, important Pawnee Bill artifacts.   Quite simply, someone was probably trying to make a little more money off this weapon by adding the names of Pawnee Bill, Buffalo Bill, May Lillie, and a Col. Manning. While the history behind the gun might not be true, the gun itself is really rare.

Anna: Exactly. We contacted David Kennedy again and asked him a little bit about what he knows on Colt Paterson. The Colt Paterson was Samuel Colt's first attempt at creating a commercial repeating firearm. It used a revolving cylinder with chambers that would align with a stationary barrel. The weapon was deemed a failure and actually ruined Samuel Colt's business for many years after. Because of this, less than 3000 Colt Paterson's were manufactured and some experts guess that less than 200 survive to modern times. So it's a rare gun. The gun was used in limited circulation by the American military. It was believed that the gun was too fragile for military use. The main buyer of the weapon was the Republic of Texas for use in the Texas Rangers, the Texas Navy, and the Texas militias. The firearm also saw service during the Seminole Wars in Florida in the 1830s and 1840s as well as during the Mexican-American War from 1846 to 1848. At auction a Colt Paterson can bring in between $10,000 and $20,000 for a poor condition pistol like the one featured on the show. Paterson's in better condition have sold for as much as $1,000,000 at auction.

Erin: What is the truth in this matter? It is the case of two William R. Mannings, one who owned the gun and one who didn't. And it appears as though the expert on Pawn Stars just morphed the two William R. Mannings into one person. May Lillie, herself, stated in interviews throughout her life that before she met her husband, she knew nothing about guns and that he was the one that taught her everything. Growing up in the household of a magnetic physician in the middle of Philadelphia, it's very unlikely that May had any contact with firearms. In fact, she stated she didn't. Her father, Dr. William Richard Manning, was a man with no military record and no political aspirations. He led a very quiet life before his daughter became an international star and a very quiet life until his death in 1903. It is not likely that this gun ever belonged to him, nor is it likely that Buffalo Bill presented it to his daughter, May Lillie, after his death.

Anna: Colonel William R. Manning is actually a real person and he was the probable owner of the gun. We did a little bit of genealogical research on his side of the family and came up with some pretty interesting things that kind of made the puzzle fit for us. Colonel Manning came from a very long line of military men. His grandfather, Lt. Col. Laurence Manning, Sr., served under General Henry Lee during the American Revolutionary War. His father, Laurence Manning Jr., was also a Lieutenant Colonel for the United States Army. He served in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Col. Manning was most notably the commander of the 50th Georgia Volunteer Infantry for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. It is very likely that he saw service during the Seminole Wars, which is where he would have come into contact with a Colt Paterson. So, there he is with the gun in question. He had 10 children, one of which was named Mary Manning. Of course, May's real name is Mary Manning but he passed away in 1871, which is when May would have been about 2 years old. We know that she had a brother and a sister after she was born, so this man, of course, not related to her. He is buried in Georgia with the rest of his family. These two William R. Mannings never knew each other and were not related. It's really just a case of mistaken identity.

Erin: We have tried to contact "Pawn Stars" to get more information on this situation and to explain what we know about the two William R. Mannings, but we have not received a reply back. We do not know where the gun is today. We would like this to serve as reminder that you should always be vigilant when you're buying an antique or historic artifact. If there are ever any questions about the history of an item, please consult an expert. This is most definitely a case of "Buyer Beware." In this instance, the Colt Paterson is real, but the story is fake. The gun never belonged to May Lillie's father.

Anna: So, what can you do to save yourself from buying a fake? It is important to ask questions when coming into contact with any historic item, be it a gun or a simple antique. It is so easy to engrave a name on an item and suddenly something that might be worth $200 is suddenly worth $2000. We see it a lot, especially with rifles. You take a really cheap rifle that would have been about the time period of Pawnee Bill, you put his name on it, and suddenly it's selling for $20,000 at auction. We see faked items, not just guns, all the time in on-line auction houses, in private collections, and in antique stores. Do not trust an inscription alone.

Erin: Exactly. We can't stress how important it is to get a second opinion. There are experts in museums all around the United States that can offer their expertise on any given subject. A little bit of research goes a long way. Say that you had a piece of luggage that says on the outside that it belonged to Pawnee Bill. Do some research on the type of luggage it is. Find out how and when it was used. Compare dates to events that would have taken place in the person's life time. Most of all, trust your instincts…if you have a bad feeling about the item, it is probably best to pass it up then to be stuck with a very expensive lemon. Also, when it comes to appraisals, be aware that museums will not place a monetary value on an artifact. It's against our code of ethics.  You will have to go to an official appraiser. It is also one of my pet peeves, and probably a lot of curators across this country, to be approached by someone who is "seeking more information about an artifact they have" and they're under the guise of wanting to do research and gaining more knowledge. And then I turn around and see that same artifact turn up in an on-line auction house with the tagline "authenticated by Curator of Pawnee Bill Ranch." Please don't do that. It's really rude. I don't want to unknowingly help you sell an artifact. We are in the business of preserving history, not selling.

Anna: Yeah, of course, we would like all the items come to us because we want to preserve them. We hate to see them go up for auction. And also, another thing is, don't try to make puzzle pieces fit that shouldn't fit together. If you have a bunch of similar information, there's some coincidences in there, just keep going with your research. It's better to have the whole picture then just part of the picture that's mismatched. That about ends this month's topic. We've got some really interesting topics lined up for the summer. We've recently begun talking to other archives around the United States and some of the things that we've found we thought would make really good podcast topics.

Erin: Right. In June we'll be talking about a series of letters we found in the University of Wyoming archive. They are from May Lillie and she wrote them while in Europe with the Wild West Shows. She sent them to her good friend, Annie Ostendorff, and we have learned a lot not only about the show in Europe, but also we've learned about the interesting Ostendorffs. And in July and August we will begin a two parts series on the run of the Two Bill's Show. The beginning will even be told in Pawnee Bill's own words taken straight from a document found on one of our recent research trips to the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Until next time, I'm Erin Brown.

Anna: And I'm Anna Davis. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.