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Pawnee Bill Ranch

May Lillie's Fingers


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Anna: Thank you for downloading the Pawnee Bill Ranch Podcast, brought to you by the staff of the Pawnee Bill Ranch.

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: Anna, because last month was Black History Month we decided to devote our podcast to one of Oklahoma's trailblazing cowboys, Bill Pickett, otherwise known as the father of bulldogging. We mentioned in that podcast that his story was one that was shared by the many minorities working in the American West. The same could be said for women in the West as well. When you study the history of the American West, you learn that some historians of the time painted women in these very intentionally pretty or feminine terms. They were the "prairie Madonnas"; and the "wilting violets"; but the truth was that many of them were doing the exact same job as their male counterparts, often times with the same dangerous consequences. Because March is Women's History Month, we decided to once again turn our attention to one of our favorite cowgirls to tell a story that shows just how dangerous life on the Wild West Show circuit could be. Of course, we're talking about May Lillie.

Anna: Yes, now we have already done a podcast on May in March 2013. It is the perfect time of year to focus on May because in addition to Women's History Month, it's also her birth month. She was born March 12, 1869 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That first podcast focused more on the biographical information on her life, but today's podcast is going to be a little bit different. Now, there are so many different parts to May Lillie's life that we could, and we usually do, talk for hours about her. Now, during that first podcast we didn't touch one of the major events of her life. It was an accident that would actually change the course of May's professional career. It's a story that we tell in our museum and people always have a wide array of reactions. Some cringe. Some laugh. Some are just straight-up stunned and we affectionately refer to it as the story of May Lillie's fingers. It's one of those strange little tidbits of history that's pretty often over looked.

Erin: Exactly. May Lillie's fingers take center stage in this episode as we bring you the story of a tragedy that occurred in the lives of Pawnee Bill and May in 1889 in Haverstraw, New York. One of the most advertised acts in Pawnee Bill's Show was the joint shooting act that Pawnee Bill and May starred in. Since the development of the show, Pawnee Bill and May had been partners in life and love. She stood by him and all the decisions he made and vice versa. One of May's most famous quotes was "I was determined that Pawnee Bill would never find May Lillie downtrodden, and he never did."; I think it's safe to say that May was Pawnee Bill's biggest fan and most ardent supporter. May wanted the show and her husband to be successful because she had a vested interest in both. It's important to note that she was a woman who was not born a cowgirl. She was not initially familiar with the west or the western lifestyle and she was this lady who basically, through sheer will, fashioned a persona for herself. I think that's one of the things I find most endearing about May. Now, this persona scandalized her family who were living in back in Philadelphia, but May wouldn't have had it any other way. We talk a lot about Pawnee Bill being a self-made man, but May is definitely an example of a self-made woman. She made things happen for herself and for Pawnee Bill.

Anna: Right! And there is this wonderful quote from Pawnee Bill near the end of his life when he says "There would have been no Pawnee Bill if it hadn't been for May Lillie."; So, I think, you know, that statement is really true. They had a partnership in the very truest sense of the word. We have all kinds of photographs showing the couple touching each other tenderly, they're laughing with one another, they're smiling, or they're just enjoying the company that each had to share. They truly brought out the best in each other. Up until Pawnee Bill defied May by partnering with Buffalo Bill in 1908, everything they had done, they had actually done together. I think that it's really telling that one of the publicity pamphlets that they made for their ranch emphasizes on the front page that Pawnee Bill and May Lillie were "Equal Partners"; in their buffalo ranch. Of course, this is the time when women didn't have a whole lot of rights to a whole lot of things, but they bill themselves as equal partners. They had a lovely life together here at the ranch, but as we know all too well their lives were riddled with tragedy and the story that we will tell you today is just one example of a hardship they struggled to overcome.

Erin: One of the biggest reasons that the joint shooting act of Pawnee Bill and May was so popular was because of the inherent risk involved. It's no secret that audiences love the threat of danger. It was exciting to go to the Wild West Show exactly because it was so unpredictable at times. You never knew what was going to happen. Obviously, we would hope that no one wanted someone, you know, a cast member or an animal to get seriously injured, but it was kind of like going to see someone dance with the devil. You know what they say, you do it enough times, you're going to get burned. It's still true today for our modern Wild West Show, but in a lesser sense. We have all sorts of safety regulations in place, but you still don't know what's going to happen. People break bones, they get thrown from saddles, stage coaches and wagons have overturned. Things haven't changed a whole lot in a hundred years.

Anna: No, it's like when people go to sporting events to see a car wreck happen or a boxing match or they watch people on a tightrope. It's kind of that same thing. Now, there were acts that were more dangerous than others in the Wild West Show and performers were not separated by race, as we discussed in the last podcast. They were separated by sex, however. Females performed in their own acts, but the danger for both was still the same. Everybody participated in the same equally dangerous routines. We have records of a knife throwing act being done where one day the woman that stood against the board and had knives thrown at her refused to perform any longer because of the danger.

Erin: And let's clarify there that was a mixed act because it was her husband...

Anna: Her husband [Laughs] throwing knives at her!

Erin: …throwing knives at her. A little family drama there.

Anna: Exactly! There were chariot races where men and women would race both horses and bison at breakneck speeds. Sometimes the chariots would flip and they would throw the rider into the crowd and arena. You know, we have stories where horses would break loose and go stampeding through the arena into the audience. It was pretty dangerous. Like Erin said, you never knew what you would see when you went to a Wild West Show, but that's what added to the excitement! We still get excited when our modern Wild West Show comes around because we just never know what's going to happen.

Erin: Right. Of course, the hallmarks of Wild West Shows were the shooting acts. Who doesn't know the name Annie Oakley? She was really what helped to shape what Wild West Shows were during the late 1800s. The rivalry between Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith, one of our former podcast topics, made international headlines. May Lillie was talked about in newspapers all over the world. During the Victorian and Edwardian era, a woman who could shoot was something, you know, just a little exotic, very much unusual, and maybe even a little taboo. A woman's face on a poster would draw a crowd – especially if that woman was portrayed as looking especially feminine or pretty and the promoters of the Wild West Shows knew that. Their husbands were usually a part of the act too. It wasn't unusual to see Frank Butler at Annie Oakley's side or Lillie Smith's husband at that particular time participating in the act. May Lillie and Pawnee Bill shot in tandem and their act was spectacular.

Anna: So what exactly happened in New York on July 22, 1889 that would change the course of May Lillie's career? May had only been shooting in the Wild West Shows since the previous year. It's been well documented that she was a natural shot. Again, she had never handled a gun before she met Pawnee Bill and had actually won awards for her sharpshooting abilities. We talked about in the Lillian Smith podcast that shooters normally had a preference in the weapon that they used. Lillian Smith used a shotgun and Annie Oakley used a rifle. May typically used a rifle in her shooting acts. The act started as it had many times before. May and Pawnee Bill would take turns holding targets for one another in the arena while the other would shoot the target out of their hand. It doesn't sound like something I would do, but…

Erin: No. Couldn't pay me!

Anna: No. Sharpshooting targets at the time were typically glass balls that were filled with feathers or some sort of other powdery material. That way, when the bullet struck the target and the glass ball shattered, it would dramatically release the insides to signify that the person had managed to shoot the target.

Erin: So, that evening May had on her beautifully beaded gauntlets. She had these gorgeous, beautiful show gauntlets, which is a glove, and she held a glass ball outstretched in her right hand. She stood at one end of the arena while Pawnee Bill stood at the other with his rifle at the ready. When the crowd was sufficiently quieted and she was ready, she would smile at Pawnee Bill and nod. And so he was dressed all in his buckskin. He was very striking looking. He had this long hair at the time. So, when she nodded he shot his rifle like they had practiced thousands of times before and for reasons that will probably never be realized, the bullet sheared through the tips of two of her fingers. Pawnee Bill had managed to, literally, shoot his wife's fingers off.

Anna: Her glove exploded with the shot. You can imagine how horrific this is. This is in front of a large crowd, a live audience. So, her glove explodes. The blood starts pouring out the end of her gauntlet and was trickling down her arm. The Nyack Evening Star reported that she screamed and "considerable excitement"; ensued. That was probably a huge understatement. This event happened, again, in full view of a Wild West Show audience, so the people that were witness to the accident were understandably concerned. Now, what happened next is up for debate because May relayed the story much later in her life to a writer from Tulsa and that is where much of our information comes from. But as with virtually all things related to Wild West Show happenings, sometimes those facts get blurred and elaborated a little bit. This woman had just been shot in front of an audience of probably hundreds of people. While most of us probably would have run screaming from the arena, May Lillie, of course, handled things a little differently.

Erin: In the article titled "Just May,"; which appeared in the Tulsa daily newspaper shortly before her death, May tells the writer that she ran to the side of the arena out of the view of the crowd and one of her cowgirl friends took the handkerchief from around her neck and gave it to May. She used that handkerchief to wrap up her hand to stop the blood flow. The Nyack Evening Star reported that after her fingers were shot, she was attended to by two doctors and it was found necessary to amputate the two fingers below the first joint. And we know that's accurate. Her two fingers were amputated at that point. You know really for the most part though, May took care to hide her hand in gloves or away from any photographers. So, we don't really have photographs that show her injury. But because the crowd wouldn't leave because they were so concerned about her, she went back into the arena to finish the act on her horse, George. She just loved that horse. She had just got shot, had her fingers amputated, and she finished the act. Ok. [Laughs]

Anna: A lot of people ask what caused the accident. You know, that's a natural question—how did this act go so very wrong? It was a trick that they had performed dozens of times and this was really the first time that something had gone wrong. Was Pawnee Bill to blame? Well, according to May, she reported that someone must have knocked the front site out of line and that is why the .38 Pawnee Bill shot tore her fingers off. She trusted her husband completely and May held Pawnee Bill totally blameless and therefore felt comfortable enough to come out, to finish the act because you know what they say, the show must go on! We don't know if that actually happened because it wasn't reported in that local New York newspaper at the time, but May did include it years later in kind of this "official"; story of hers that she did finish the event.

Erin: There are a few people here in the town of Pawnee who related that story to us as well. One, the late and wonderful Stella Lyon who knew both Pawnee Bill and May personally. She used to say that May would tell people that after the events of that night, "she quit him cold"; and never held targets for her husband again. So, again, that's a little bit in conflict with what May reported to the Tulsa World. Of course, you never know what you're trying to say to a reporter versus what you might tell a girlfriend.
Anna: Honestly, would you have blamed her?

Erin: No! I would've been like, "You can go find you another assistant.' Someone else can hold those glass balls. But of course what she told the reporter was "Of course I trusted my husband. Someone, you know, knocked his sight out of line. It wasn't his fault at all."; She told Stella Lyon, "Never again would I hold a hold a glass ball!"; It definitely changed the way she handled her shooting act as well. If you can imagine, it would be difficult to use any firearm in the same manner as you had with a fully functional hand, let alone one that was missing digits. She most definitely would have had to adapt her acts to better suit her new needs.

Anna: Now, I once had a man on tour one day whose parents use to play bridge with Pawnee Bill and May during their later years at the Ranch. You know, a lot of people don't know, but they loved to play cards. The Lillies used to host huge card parties at the mansion for their friends and he was very small at the time, but he very vividly remembered coming while his parents were playing bridge with them. And since he was young at the time he didn't remember a whole lot, but he always remembered that when it came time to shuffle the decks of cards, Pawnee Bill would always make May do it. The reason for that was because—it's kind of cruel—she had difficulty doing it correctly because she was missing fingers.

Erin: I can't even do it with all ten of my fingers!

Anna: So, I guess he made her shuffle the cards because she looked funny doing it. So, they would laugh, have a good time with it and, you know, she held no ill will toward her husband, which is something you would learn to do after fifty years together.

Erin: Better laugh than cry! May had an incredible ability as an entertainer, so what we believe is that if it was at all possible for May to return to the arena she would have. She was a consummate showwoman and understood the importance of saving face and putting on this charismatic persona for the audience. In no way would she have ever questioned the ability of her husband or made anyone believe that her injury was debilitating or even overly painful because you know what? May had grit. She was truly tough as nails. But we do know that this injury certainly put an end to that joint shooting act. They didn't do it again. We do know that May never again did target shooting with a rifle. She did continue to perform in a variety of different ways including exhibition riding on her much loved horse, George. She also was very involved in the Pawnee community and was a female bison ranch manager. Missing those two fingers didn't really get May down.

Anna: It never slowed her down.

Erin: It never slowed her down, no.

Anna: Well, that about ends the topic of May's fingers. We are cooking up some good topics for April and May. We'll probably be taking another break this summer because we become busier in the summer months. We do have a fun announcement to make though. We have joined Twitter! So, if you would like to join us on Twitter, you can find us @pawneebillranch. We are also on Instagram! So, we've charged forward into the twenty-first century! On Instagram, we are also @pawneebillranch and we post all sorts of fun pictures throughout the week, as well as having our Facebook feed as well.

Erin: Yes, so we thank you so much for listening and we hope you will join us next time. Until then, I'm Erin Brown.

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