Pawnee Bill Ranch
March 2013 - May Lillie
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: So, Anna, do you know what special event took place on March 12, 1869?
Anna: I certainly do. Miss Mary Emma Manning was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Erin: You’re so right! And since March is May’s birthday month and March is also women’s history month, we thought it would be the perfect podcast to devote to May. She was our favorite cowgirl and she had a truly amazing life. She went from the big city of Philadelphia to the small town of Pawnee here on prairie; she met the man of her dreams, she dazzled crowds all over the world with her shooting abilities, and championed the preservation of the American Bison. It’s quite a lot from such a small lady.
Anna: I know she’s your hero and mine as well. Though to talk about this amazing woman it’s probably best if we talk a little bit about the world in which she grew up.
Erin: The Philadelphia that May knew was one of extreme industrial growth. Since the early 1700s, Philadelphia has been an important trading center and major American port. Back then it had a very diverse population of people from England, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, and people of African descent. The city’s founding pledge of religious tolerance attracted many different religions in its early days. Quakers, Mennonites, Anglicans, Catholics, and Jews moved to the city but the Quakers far outnumbered any other religion in the city.
Anna: Acting as the United States’ first capital, the city was modernized in the 1750s with the addition of paved streets and gas lights but like many of the nation’s largest cities, Philadelphia dealt with constant overcrowding. Perhaps one of the largest hurdles it had to contend with was the constant threat of war.
Erin: Staring with Queen Anne’s War, the city would be the center points of battles and diplomatic actions. Philadelphia would become a place for refuge for those displaced by Pontiac’s Rebellion during the French and Indian War. The Revolutionary War would see the Continental Congress using Liberty Hall to write and sign the Declaration of Independence. The American Civil War would see the city used as a major receiving place of wounded soldiers with more than 157,000 people treated within the city.
Anna: That is a lot of history taking place in just one city. By the late 1860s, a period of relative calm had finally come to the city. A population boom by 1870 had placed the citizens of Philadelphia numbering about 674,000 people. It is estimated that by 1870, 27% of the population of Philadelphia had been born outside of the United States. All of this growth had forced the population to settle north of the city and also along the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. There was also an exodus of the upper class to the suburbs which lead to a large growth of the city’s industrial center as well as the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Erin: The largest industry that Philadelphia boasted was the creation of textiles. Cotton was a large commodity that came through its ports and the industry employed nearly 35% of the city’s population. Industries like iron and steel manufacturing, cigars, sugar and oil were also strong. With all of the growth, Philadelphia would host the first World’s Fair on American soil in 1876. It is estimated that nearly 9 million people visited the city to see inventions like Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and the Corliss Steam Engine.
Anna: Now can you imagine being an 8 year old girl and going to a World’s Fair to see the first telephone? Or even the exhibits being powered by steam engines? It must have been an incredibly exciting experience and time.
Erin: If May attended this World’s Fair it would become one of many that she saw through her life. She would perform at the 1894 World’s Fair in Antwerp, Belgium and attend the 1933 World Exhibition in Chicago. But back to our story...
Anna: In the middle of all this development, a family was also growing. May’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Peak, was born in Philadelphia on August 12, 1835, one of 13 children born to Samuel and Elizabeth Peak. Not much is known about Mary’s early life in Philadelphia but from all sources it seems that she enjoyed a very comfortable middle class life. By 1853, Mary had married Theodore Eager, a saw maker and ship builder from Philadelphia. This marriage would produce four sons: Samuel, Elbert, Edward, and Albert. Sadly, by October of 1860 Mary was a widow having lost two sons, Elbert and Albert, as well as her husband to pneumonia.
Erin: While that would be a very sad ending to our story, a mysterious man stepped into the young widow’s life. There’s really nothing known for certain about William Richard Manning except that he was born in New York City on April 24, 1825. The U.S. Census places him as a blacksmith by trade living in the Fishguard section of Philadelphia at the time he met Mary Peak and by 1865 the two were married. Their first child was a girl named Elmira born in 1865. She was followed by a little sister, Mary Emma, our May, born March 12, 1869. Elizabeth would follow in 1872 and little brother William would be the last born in 1876.
Anna: The amazing thing is, is that after all this time, we actually know where the Manning family lived in Philadelphia. The family lived in a row house at 2507 E. York Street, a few blocks from the Delaware River and a stone’s throw from Camden, New Jersey. A working class neighborhood, Fishguard was notable for having a large German population of ship builders and blacksmiths. William apprenticed both of his step-sons in his blacksmith’s shop and this would later lead to both Samuel and Edward being employed by the large shipping steamers in Philadelphia.
Erin: Early in May’s childhood, her father made the transition from blacksmithing to medicine. How William Manning became a physician isn’t entirely clear, but from 1870 until his death in 1903, he was referred to as a magnetic physician and carried the title of M.D. This use of magnetics in medicine was extremely popular during this time period. Now is the time for our pseudo-science part of the podcast. Take it away, Anna!
Anna: As crazy as it sounds, the use of magnets and electricity was commonly used in the treatment of hysteria and internal illness. The idea was popularized by the German physician Franz Mesmer in the 1700s. Now, if that last name sounds familiar, we get the modern word mesmerize from his work.
Erin: Now this sounds kind of crazy, but what they would do is a magnetic physician would use magnets and electricity to better the flow of energy and fluids in a patient’s body. It was believed that any animate being was filled with an ethereal fluid that could become blocked and required the help of a doctor to promote wellness.
Anna: And as odd as all of this sounds to us today, the practice was extremely popular at the time. Practitioners of mesmerism would branch out into hypnotism, spiritualism, and parapsychology and it’s actually still being practiced in areas of the world today, especially in Eastern Europe. There’s really no way to know how May’s father’s profession affected her childhood. It seems that she had a normal life and a very loving home.
Erin: Right! She did later say that she inherited her father’s wild, adventurous streak and I’m sure seeing her father doing this kind of weird and unconventional work influenced her, and probably paved the way for her to feel that she could live an unconventional life too. But May’s life changed in a monumental way in 1884 when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came through Philadelphia for the second time. You can imagine being 15 years old and seeing this impressive parade come through town. She is quoted as saying that she loved everything about that first experience of seeing the show: the colors of the flags, the stars of the shows like Johnny Baker, the noise of the calliope, the band, the beautiful elephant with, in her words, “equally beautiful men” on their backs, horses, and Indians, but she says, “The cowgirls were my favorite, sitting side saddle with their colorful bandanas and their bright sashes.” I read this great interview here lately where she says that she silently implored each one of those women, “Who are you, how did you manage this.” And I think that she meant in her eyes and imagination this life of adventure and romance – a life lived out of the ordinary. She says even that she even loved the grittiness of the show too and the Wild West show was not only pageantry but there was kind of gritty, seedy element to it and she loved that too, crew folks, the animals, the train, everything...
Anna: And it was in this world that she first saw our Pawnee Bill. She is recorded as saying that when he rode by in the parade, he looked at her. Not just a glance, but a stare. She said, in typical May fashion, that she saw him staring at her and purposefully threw a smile at him – but not exactly at him, but at the Indian behind him. Pawnee Bill pulled his bay horse over to her and she said right then, she knew, that “she could change the course of her life with a well-directed smile.” Pawnee Bill said for the rest of his life, that the first time he saw May, he was instantly in love.
Erin: That’s right. I love that story and I think that’s such a great beginning to a great romance. And it’s so true to May’s personality. She could always say “you know I wasn’t smiling at you; I was smiling at that Indian guy behind you.” She was funny and from all evidence that we have, May was an effusive personality and an exuberant person. We’ve got these great early home movies of Pawnee Bill and May out in the back yard of the mansion and Pawnee Bill is standing there staring at the camera – just standing there – and May, I don’t know if it was the first time she was given chewing gum or what, but she was smacking gum and doing a jig and acting crazy for the camera, but I think that really captures her personality in a nut shell. She was joyous and kind of a corker.
Anna: And surprisingly enough it was a story that worked for them. They courted for two years and were married on August 31, 1886 in the Old Siloam Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. May famously said that Pawnee bill’s wedding gift to her was a Marlin .22 target rifle and a pony...neither of which she could actually use.
Erin: But one of the things that I love about May was her indomitable spirit. She was one of a kind and she did have that wild, adventurous side that said, you know what, I don’t care what’s socially acceptable for a woman, I don’t care what’s lady-like, I’m going to live my life and nothing’s going to get me down.
Anna: Now while all of this kind of sounds like a fairy tale, she did experience several tragedies in her life, beginning with the death of an infant son while she and Pawnee Bill were living in Kansas. He lived to about 6 weeks of age and he passed away shortly after. Unfortunately we don’t know much about this child. We don’t know his name and we don’t know when he was born, but this did take place when May was about 18 years old. After this, she was unable to have any more biological children. But shortly after the devastating loss of her child, May threw herself into learning the ways of the horse and how to handle a rifle, skills which she actually honed to perfection.
Erin: Right. By all accounts, she was a natural shot and a natural horsewoman. Having grown up in the city of Philadelphia it would have been a foreign lifestyle, but she adapted, inspired by her desire to be a part of the Wild West Show. She encouraged Pawnee Bill to start his own show and she starred in it as the “Champion Girl Shot of the West.” She thrilled crowds with exhibitions of her medal winning skill with a rifle combined with marvelous feats as a horsewoman. She was, seemingly, fearless!
Anna: And one of our favorite quotes by May Lillie really sums up her attitude. In 1907 on a show tour, May Lillie told Chicago women “Let any normally healthy women who is ordinarily strong screw up her courage and tackle a bucking bronco, and she will find the most fascinating pastime in the field of feminine athletic endeavor. There is nothing to compare, to increase the joy of living, and once accomplished, she’ll have more real fun than any pink tea or theater party or ballroom ever yielded.”
Erin: Yea, I love that quote. It’s pretty widely repeated as an iconic cowgirl quotation. It really typifies who she was. As a female performer, May Lillie challenged stereotypes of women around the turn of the century. She thrilled and amazed audiences with her portrayal of a Western woman – independent, tough, daring, and thoroughly talented.
Anna: And it’s our belief that there was nothing more important than the Wild West Show in creating our modern image of the West. As a star in one of the largest Wild West Shows in the world, it can be safely assumed that May directly influenced the way audiences around the world perceived the American West. That perception is still paramount in the minds of multitudes of people.
Erin: She was definitely a gifted Western entertainer, paving the way for cowgirl entertainers in both rodeo and motion pictures. In fact, she starred in her very own movie produced by Buffalo Ranch Motion Pictures, “May Lillie, Queen of the Buffalo Ranch.”
Anna: Yeah, and May was also extremely smart and had incredible business sense. She advised her husband on important financial matters and made decisions regarding the Buffalo Ranch on her own. She knew animals and became the first female bison ranch manager. While Pawnee Bill traveled the country with Buffalo Bill from 1908-1913, May took over Ranch operations and employed ranch hands who reported directly to her. Both Pawnee Bill and May believed in the bison’s importance to American West and to Plains Indian culture. She dedicated herself to conservation and promoting bison in the United States.
Erin: She really was Queen of the Buffalo Ranch here. But her life was defiantly not without tragedy or sadness. After the death of their first child, the Lillie’s waited a really long time to adopt. They did so in 1917 when they adopted a little boy from Kansas City. He was adopted from a maternity home. The infant would be named Gordon, Jr., but they always called him Billy. They loved being parents and they suffered a profound loss when Billy died in 1925. He accidentally hung himself while playing on the wind mill tower when he was 8 years old. May was, understandably, devastated.
Anna: And there is an extremely poignant quote from the end of May Lillie’s life where she said that she wondered “Why it is so easy to win the applause of multitudes and so hard just to be a mother.”
Erin: She stoically put on a smile for the public though and continued to be a prominent figure in local affairs long after her career as a professional entertainer was over.
Anna: And sadly, May’s own life ended in a pretty tragic way. On September 17, 1936, May Lillie passed away as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. The accident had occurred three weeks after celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary with Pawnee Bill.
Erin: Right and it’s just such a sad ending to her otherwise wonderful life, but Pawnee Bill was quoted as saying “She was everything to me. There wouldn’t have been any Pawnee Bill if it had not been for her. I did everything for May, now I know that it was her approval which kept me going. We had 50 years of married life and that is much more my share. I’ll just try to keep busy now.”
Anna: Aww, so sad and sweet at the same time!
Erin: And they had such a great love story.
Anna: We interpret her life to thousands of tourists annually and we stress the profound importance of May’s legacy of grace, spirit, adventure, independence, and cowgirl tenacity to Pawnee, to Oklahoma, to the West, and to the hearts and minds of anyone who appreciates groundbreaking entertainers.
Erin: That’s so true, Anna. In 2011 we were thrilled to have May inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame – where she’s getting the recognition she deserves. And we thank all of you for listening, for caring about history, and for letting us share the unique and important story of May Manning Lillie with you.
Anna: And that’s about it for this month’s podcast. My name is Anna Davis, Historical Interpreter for the Pawnee Bill Ranch.
Erin: And I’m Erin Brown, Pawnee Bill Ranch curator. We’ll see you next time!
Anna: The Pawnee Bill Ranch is owned and operated by the Oklahoma Historical Society. For more information, go to www.pawneebillranch.com. Or find us on Facebook under Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum.