Home |   Museums and Sites |   Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum |  Transcript

Pawnee Bill Ranch

Billy Lillie


Download audio

This podcast is produced by the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum. All rights are reserved. Please credit the Pawnee Bill Ranch and Museum Podcast if you use information from the podcast in any research or publication.

Music: Frog Leg Rag

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

Music: Jingle Bells

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, the Christmas season is fast approaching and while the mansion is beautifully decorated thanks to some local volunteers, this time of year is just always a little bittersweet for us. We talked last time about how the history of the Lillie family just sort of pulls you in and you really start to care for the people that lived here on the property. I think this is especially true when we talk about Billy Lillie, who was born on December 17th, 1916. His life is sadly overshadowed by the tragic way in which he died but he was incredibly bright and vibrant for someone so young.

Anna: We want to warn everyone to have some tissues handy because this is going to get a little intense. Billy's death is so well known and talked about and there are a lot of rumors and some misinformation that surround him. We've recently begun to change the way we educate the public about Billy because we believe that he is so much more than his death. Part of that has been in response to the amount of questions that we get about Billy on a regular basis. And Erin, I can't tell you the number of parents I've had on tour wanting me to tell their children how Billy died so that they don't make the same mistake. I think a much better way to think about it is tell your children about Billy's life so that he can be a role model because he was just such an amazing person. So, today's podcast will be focusing on the life and death of Billy Lillie.

Erin: Right, and since we've changed the way we educate about Billy, I think we've also had a lot of people take us aside and tell us that they appreciate that we don't just automatically tell about how he died.

Anna: Definitely.

Erin: So, there are two sides of that story. But right off the bat we are going to address one of the biggest tales surrounding Billy and that is whether or not he was involved with the Orphan Train. There is this persistent rumor that Billy was adopted by Pawnee Bill and May during an Orphan Train stop here in Pawnee. I mean, I've been here almost 14 years and when I first came here, that was what we were telling the public. That is even written in Pawnee Bill's official biography and it's just completely fabricated.

Anna: Yeah, it was one of the first things I heard when I started working here too.

Erin: Yeah! The Orphan Train, just to give you a little bit of context, was a child welfare program that was started in 1853 as a way to send children from crowded cities such as New York and Boston out across the nation in hopes of being adopted. It was a way of disbanding these street gangs of children that had become a problem in some of America's largest cities on the East Coast. It's estimated that nearly 250,000 children, that's a quarter of a million children, were relocated by the time the program ended in 1929.

Anna: Now the Orphan Train was not a pleasant experience. The conditions on the trains were described as being little more than cattle cars where children, ages 6 and up, would be watched in groups of 30 to 40 by an adult. At each stop these children would be lined up for prospective parents to look at and if they were lucky, they would be adopted. These children would do whatever it took to be adopted. They would sing, they would dance, and they would just try to charm these people into taking them home with them; basically begging these parents to give them a chance. Very often siblings were split up and they were not reunited for many years and some children were even used as indentured servants by the families that had taken them in. It's truly a tragic piece of American history that not many people know about.

Erin: Right. And we know that Billy was adopted when he was 4 weeks old by Pawnee Bill and May. Any child under the age of two did not make the grueling journey on orphan trains simply because they could not care for themselves. So, as far as Billy being a member of the Orphan Train, we can say definitively that this did not happen. However, Billy's birth happened in a place that by modern standards is kind of nearly as absurd to think about. Today births you know can happen anywhere, at a home or in a hospital, but Billy was born in what was known as a maternity sanitarium.

Anna: Now I know what we're all thinking and we are not about to have a visit from our old friend tuberculosis. There is actually a difference between the words sanatorium and sanitarium. They are both used to describe places where people with long term illnesses could go, but a sanitarium usually refers to a place that was kind of like a health spa. So, it had your spas and your saunas and places to relax; while a sanatorium was generally the term used for places where people with mental illness or a physical illness would be treated. Erin: Okay, so we're going to kind of set a little scene here. It's 1916 and you are a 15 year old girl. You've recently found that you are pregnant and you are unwed. What in the world do you do? There was at the time a number of cure all medications that proclaimed to cure. And I'm going to put these words in air quotes because although they don't come right out and say it they allude to the termination of a pregnancy. Okay, so these medicines would claim to be able to fix, and I'm putting these in air quotes too, "irregularities" and "obstructions" as well as help these women who were "temporarily indisposed", but these so called medications contained some extremely dangerous ingredients like pennyroyal and tansy and paste of lead. In fact pennyroyal was extremely toxic and led to many deaths from women who had taken it to induce a miscarriage and ended up bleeding to death as a result.

Anna: Now Erin, we love podcasts.

Erin: Oh, yeah.

Anna: We love listening to them and we love recommending them to each other too. And there is a wonderful podcast out there called Sawbones which explores the weird and wonderful world of medical history. I would highly recommend giving it a listen if you are interested at all in the history of medicine. It's fascinating. They have a saying over at Sawbones and they say when it comes to these cure all drugs from the turn of the century. If the item claims that it cures everything, it probably cures nothing.

Erin: Right and does some damage as well. There were other options out there for unwed mothers too. We're going to put up just a disclaimer right now. We are going to talk very, very briefly about the sensitive subject of abortion. We're not giving our opinions; these are simply historical facts and we think it is important to know the history behind abortion because it tells us a lot about women's history and medical history, as well as changing cultural and social norms.

Anna: Now abortion has a long history. It goes pretty much back to the beginning of time. When you start looking into the topic they usually start around Ancient Rome and Greece. But for our purposes we focus on the early part of the 20th Century. In America at that time, abortion was highly illegal and not to mention incredibly dangerous. That's not to say that you couldn't find a good doctor for the right amount of money, but for most women the practice was incredibly traumatizing. Before 1930 abortion practices were probably more dangerous than actually giving birth to the child. Most of these people who were performing abortions were not licensed. They probably weren't doctors. They were just doing this to make some money. It was estimate that of the 150,000 abortions that occurred between 1900 and 1930, about 1 in 6 of those women died as a result.

Erin: Let's just let that sink in for a minute. 1 in 6 women who attempted to have an abortion died. That is an extremely frightening statistic. And it speaks to the incredible desperation felt by many women at the time. Now on the other hand, what happened in other circumstances was that the unwed mother carried the child to term and gave birth. They might keep the child but for those mothers that could not support the child nor had any support of their own, they would often times give the child up for adoption. There were any number of ways to do this but the one that is more important to our story are maternity sanitariums. You know you've always heard those stories about in the olden days women being sent off to tend to their elderly aunt for approximately 9 months and then they would return home looking maybe a little worse for wear but as crazy as that might sound, it's actually the kind of secrecy in how these places operated.

Anna: Right and Billy wasn't born in just any regular maternity sanitarium. He was born at the Willows Home at 2929 Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri. This place would see between 25,000 and 35,000 births and adoptions during its operation and it was referred to as the Ritz or Waldorf Astoria of maternity homes. If you found yourself residing there, your family could be expected to pay upwards of $1000 towards your room and board. Now that's not a lot of money by today's standards, but what cost $1000 in 1916 would cost $20,800 today. It was elite, it was comfortable, and most importantly, this place could keep a secret. Privacy for these young women was so important that when the home finally closed in the 1960s, every record of births and adoptions was taken from the facility and burned by staff members.

Erin: Good grief. So much history lost right there too. But let's think about that money. That is almost $21,000 today. Can you imagine just how badly a family would want to hide a pregnancy to spend that kind of money?

Anna: I can't even imagine my parents sending me away if I was expecting and some of these women were, you know, my age, 27 and 28 years old. It's really just a sign of times that these women were living in. Erin: Yeah. The Willows Home was built in 1905 and it was a pretty unassuming white Victorian home. It was sponsored by the Catholic Church and it was run by a man named Dr. John W. Kephner, who was the chief obstetrician. Beneath him was a veritable army of nurses, maintenance men, assistants, secretaries and superintendents that kept the enormous operation running smoothly. The Willows Home would take in girls of all ages from all around the country. They did have woman as young as twelve and as old as 27 as patients, but most of the young women there were between the ages of 15 to 19.

Anna: Now when a woman was sent to the Willows Home, she would arrive at Union Station in Kansas City, which was just a short walk away from the maternity home. These women would usually arrive in the very early days of their pregnancy, before they were beginning to show in any way, and they would stay there until about three months after they had given birth so there would be no signs of the pregnancy they had just gone through. If you could not make the short walk to the Willows from Union Station, a limousine would be sent to pick you up. Once you were a patient at the home, however, you were not allowed to leave and you would have very little contact with the outside world. Usually the only time these women would leave the facility was if their families came to Kansas City for a visit. And this was all in an effort to hide the fact that these unwed women were pregnant.

Erin: Despite the isolation, the Willows Home was very luxurious. The doctors encouraged patients to have daily massages to help with the aches and pains of pregnancies, regular exercise was a must to keep their bodies in shape, and there were also steam saunas and private rooms. I'm kind of thinking I wish I was at the Willows Homes during my pregnancies. During its heyday, the Willows housed 100 mothers and 150 babies at a time and demand to stay there got so high that the nurses worked to create an outdoor nursery where children would sleep in cribs under a canvas tent. Anna: Yeah, there's still pictures that survive of that today and it's really amazing to see.Erin: And since there was a full team of doctors at the home, many women would also give birth there. If there was a medical emergency during delivery, the women were sent to a local hospital, usually St. Anthony's, where they would care for the mothers in a larger facility. Anna: And it's important to remind people listening to this that these children were not orphans. They had parents and were placed up for adoption. Unlike most facilities, the Willows had a reputation of placing their children in homes before they turned one year of age. Their method was extremely simple…during the holidays they would send out postcards to prospective parents which would advertise the number of children that they had up for adoption. The Willows also took extraordinary lengths to ensure that the adoptive parents were "matched" to their children. So, to explain this…Erin, you know the holiday season is coming up and you and your husband have decided that three is not enough, we're going to have our fourth.

Erin: Ahh!

Anna: So you hop on the train, you go to Kansas City; you go to the Willow's Home. You go into their front parlor and the nurses there have picked out three children for you to view. They would show you the children one at a time and these children would be matched to your physical characteristics. So, the first child might have your blonde hair and your husband's brown eyes. The next child might have his dark hair and his dark eyes. And the last child might look more like you. And of those three you were expected to pick which one you wanted, so as the child grew up, it was feasible that it could have been your biological child.

Erin: No one ever had to know.

Anna: No one ever had to know. Usually when the nurses presented you with these three choices, it was the first one you picked. The first child that they showed you was the first one that was usually picked. Interestingly enough, little girls with blonde hair and blue eyes were usually the most widely requested adoptees.

Erin: On January 11, 1917, the Pawnee Courier Dispatch reported that Pawnee Bill and May had left Pawnee for a brief holiday in Kansas City. Now, let's look at that date there. January 11. It's very feasible to assume that the Lillie's received one of these postcards from the Willow's Home during the holidays.

Anna: A baby would make a great Christmas present. Erin: A baby would make a great Christmas present. The very next week an article appeared in the January 18th, 1917 edition which said "Major and Mrs. Lillie Adopt a Son." The article stated "Major and Mrs. Lillie made a trip to Kansas City last week and returned with a bright eyed baby boy. They went to the Willows Home and adopted the little fellow who is just four weeks old. This will be a splendid home for this little one and we hope that he may ever be strong and well and a source of great pleasure to his new parents." Surprise! The Lillies had kind of fooled everyone with their brief vacation and adopted a baby son.

Anna: Now it wasn't a surprise to anyone though that May had pined for motherhood. She had a child about one year after she and Pawnee Bill were married, but all we really know about this baby was that it was a boy and he died when he was about 6 weeks old. We believe he is probably buried somewhere in Kansas, either in the town of Caldwell or the town of Wellington. The baby was reportedly very large and May later stated that she had to undergo "a surgery" that made it impossible for her to carry any more children. Now, we have always assumed this surgery was a hysterectomy and it happened when she was still fairly young.

Erin: Yeah, like nineteen.

Anna: Yeah. May had filled her life with the excitement of show business and of running the Ranch, but she really longed for a baby. So, imagine how happy she was to have this beautiful baby boy that was now hers to raise as her son.

Erin: Yeah and his given name was Gordon William Lillie Jr., but he was always called Billy. Pawnee Bill and May truly loved Billy as if he were their own. They loved him so much! All you have to do is tour the mansion and see the toy room to see that Billy was adored. There are so many photographs that survive of Billy and he probably had every kind of toy and game and book he could have wanted. We are so fortunate to have so many of Billy's drawings and his notes and homework as well. It was really obvious that the Ranch captured his imagination. From everything we have seen Billy was a normal, funny, smart, little boy who loved to play and spend time with his friends. He was well known to his father's show business friends who referred to him as Pawnee Bill Jr. or the Lieutenant.

Anna: I love that. Pawnee Bill was the Major and Billy was his Lieutenant. One of my favorite Billy items is a poem that he wrote for penmanship class when he was in the first grade. We found it recently tucked inside of a Bible in the mansion and I think it shows just how much he loved his parents. It says, "I am thankful for each little bird, for every flower that blooms, for summer with its sunshine, for winter with its snow. I am thankful for my mother dear."

Erin: Very sweet. It's incredible how much love was in that house hold. Through photos we can see that he had a special bond with his mother. They are always looking at one another, holding hands, and just enjoying each other's company. With his father he always looks so handsome and grown up in his suit and bowtie. We have photographs of Billy playing dress up, pretending to be Sherlock Holmes while on vacation. They took him to Coney Island and Philadelphia and showed him parts of the world that even some adults never saw in their lifetime. He got to meet governors, well known artists, and Wild West show stars. He had a pet alligator, bison, horses, dogs, a black bear, chickens, and coyotes. It must have been so exciting to grow up on this Ranch with everything that Billy had and experienced.

Anna: Now one of the neatest things that we have had happen recently is a visit from one of Billy's childhood friends, Don Stolz. Mr. Stolz now lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and is the creator and owner of the longest-running dinner theater in the United States, the Old Log Theater. His father was a Methodist minister and Mr. Stolz's actually oversaw the United Methodist Church which is here still today in Pawnee. The Stolzes only lived in Pawnee a few years before his father was reassigned, but Don had fond memories of living in Pawnee. You actually recorded an oral history with him when he visited the Ranch back in June of 2011.

Erin: Yes, I love Mr. Stolz. It was a great thrill to talk to him. Just a little backstory, his children were taking him through this pilgramie of his boyhood. His sons were driving to everywhere he had lived where his father had been a minister. And I was really inspired by his pilgrimage through the memories of his boyhood at the age of 90 and wanted to interview him as he was the only person still alive that I know of that played with Billy in the mansion. One thing that really stuck with me from that interview was his recollections of Pawnee Bill and May and Billy as a family. We often describe the Lillie's in terms of what they did rather than who they were, and to hear them described as this loving family unit was very moving for me. Don remembers family dinners, and this cracked me up, because he was really insistent that every time he visited they served him creamed carrots and he hated creamed carrots! But he ate with the family a lot of Pawnee Bill would pick him up at the parsonage and drive him to the Ranch in his big car and it made an impression on him that stuck with him his whole life. He remembers, and this again meant a lot to me, that the Lillies were a happy family. Don loved the wild freedom that came with having a friend live at the Ranch. They just ran all around – they played in the barn – Don remembers specifically playing with the electric train. He loved that train so much.

Anna: And that's kind of where he then segwayed into a conversation that we both really enjoyed because of its tenderness and really its fondness. Don told you that Pawnee Bill and May never let Billy plug the train in because they were concerned for his safety. And he remembered being fascinated by the idea of electricity and the potential awesomeness of having the train run on its own around the track, but the little boys were mindful of the Lillies and they obeyed their wishes. We both thought it was just so poignant that they were so protective of Billy and his little friends. Even today looking at that train it's still so easy to imagine little boys crowded around tracks, playing with them and pushing those trains around them. I think it's very obvious from the condition of the little trains that they were very well loved and played with a lot.

Erin: For sure. That's really a bittersweet memory because we all know what happened to Billy and his accident. Don Stolz was still living in Pawnee when Billy died and he also had vivid memories of attending his funeral and sitting in the living room of the mansion, lined up with the other little members of their 3rd grade class, but we will talk more about that tragedy in a minute. One reason that we felt really strongly that we wanted to do this podcast, Anna, is because we feel that Billy in the past has been reduced to simply a death story. Just this tragic tale. We feel like that really cheats Billy and it is a disservice to Pawnee Bill and May and their family. He was a little boy who lived life fully and was loved abundantly. He had friends, he loved to draw pictures of the mansion and the buffalo, and he loved to dress like a cowboy and ride his pony, named Ribbon. He liked to pretend to write checks on his dad's old "Two Bills" era Wild West Show checks. Every night he slept with a rag doll he had named Brownie. He was kind of a little corker. He loved his parents and he was from everything we've seen, beautiful inside and out. We can learn a lot from Billy about life, and not just death.

Anna: Now, Billy was extremely bright and he loved to act. There are multiple retellings in the newspapers about Billy being in plays both at school and at church and he always had the starring role. It seemed that he was gearing up to follow in his father's footsteps. He liked the spotlight and it seemed that he was very friendly and personable with everyone in town. Billy's life was such that his birthdays were reported in the newspapers. An article in the courier times and dispatch reports on the occasion of Billy's 8th birthday: "Billy Lillie entertained some of his little friends at his home on Blue Hawk Peak last Saturday...The afternoon was made merry with various games, featured with a number of cowboy stunts, and daring acts of the Wild West. Refreshments were served and favors given and all had a jolly good time. The guests were Donald Stolz, Frederick Stolz, Orville Hornbaker, Jack Cash, A.J. Wilkerson, Gertrude Wilkerson, and Mary Barrera."

Erin: Awe! That's so sweet. But I think it's pretty common knowledge for people who are familiar with the Pawnee Bill Ranch what happens to Billy just three months after his 8th birthday. The Pawnee newspaper describes the tragedy as follows: "The people of Pawnee were shocked and dumfounded last Tuesday afternoon when the words that announced the shocking and accidental death of little Billy Lillie were heard on the streets. How little we know of the things that are in life's pathway just ahead of us. Only a few hours before the untimely death of our friend Billy, he was in our office on his way home from school, his bright little face reflecting the happiness of both his home and school life."

Anna: Ugh, it's just so sad. There are a lot of rumors that surround his passing, but I think it's important that we need to set the record straight. About 5:00 on the evening of March 31, Billy was playing with a rope on the windmill tower. He had grown up seeing rope tricks and Wild West Show acts, and no doubt had probably played "cowboy" his whole life, as little boys usually do. The newspaper reports that he tied one end of the rope around his neck and the other end to the windmill tower near the ground. Some people speculated that he was playing like he was a calf or a horse tethered to a fence. But, eventually he climbed up to the first cross beam of the tower, which was above his head only a few feet and fell on the opposite side of the cross beam, from which the other end of the rope was fastened. Now, it's possible he believed that the rope was long enough for him to reach the ground, because it was just short a few inches, but whether he fell or accidentally jumped thinking he had enough rope, his neck snapped. The housekeeper in the mansion discovered Billy a short time later and called the doctor, but it was too late. Dr. Haddox reported that his death had been instantaneous.

Erin: Pawnee Bill and May were understandably heartbroken and May later said in a newspaper interview, "I don't know why it's so easy for me to win the applause of multitudes but so hard just for me to be a mother." She had wanted him so much and of course, we know, they didn't have any other children. Billy's service was held in the home, with Don Stolz's father Fred officiated along with Rev Rudy Ziegler and he was interred at Pawnee's Highland Cemetery. His 3rd grade class led the funeral procession from the home all the way out to the cemetery.

Anna: That thought just gives me chills. Erin: Yeah.

Anna: Now, it's just such a difficult thing to talk about and to think about. No one really wants to think that an 8 year old can passed away in such a tragic way. It's also very hard for the staff to talk about sometimes because Billy isn't just a little boy who died nearly 90 years ago. Inside that mansion, it still feels like Billy is there. Playing on that windmill tower was something that he had probably done a hundred times in his life and in one moment everything changed. People have such an emotional response to this story. I think it's the emotion behind it that almost does Billy a disservice because we want to make this event so much bigger than it was and in reality it is simply about a little boy who was using his imagination and playing…and the unthinkable happened.

Erin: Right. The following Christmas, the Lillie's bought a mausoleum for Billy's present. The previous year, his present had been a train that had come all the way from Philadelphia and in 1925, they were building him a mausoleum. There is a quote from Pawnee Bill that always gets to me and he is explaining why they decided to build the mausoleum, "That was all we could give Billy this year. I think he didn't mind lying on the hill all summer, but we could not leave him out there when the weather was cold and all the flowers were dead. And, after all, he had to have a Christmas present."

Anna: Apparently, being without their boy that first Christmas was too much for the Lillies to bear and they packed up and headed south to San Antonio where they wouldn't be reminded of the cold and they could take some time to themselves to continue healing. But, they eventually returned to Blue Hawk Peak, and you have to think that their home was never truly the same again. There were happy times in the years after Billy's passing, but when you look at all of Billy's items that the Lillies preserved its apparent that he was never far from their thoughts.

Erin: Yeah and it's kind of like we're taking care of him still. I mean, we clean his toys; we file and document his papers. We set out, like right now at Christmas, we set out his Christmas drawings with little fake cookies for Santa from him. I like to smile when I think about Billy and the precocious little boy that he was. And most importantly, Anna, we remember Billy. I think we remember him as he and Pawnee Bill and May would want him remembered. As a beautiful boy who lived fully and died tragically, who was adored in life and cared for and loved even after his death.

Anna: I like to play a little game with history where I ask myself what if. What if a certain event had turned out differently? How would that have impacted history? I know when we were preparing for the Mexican Joe podcast we talked about what we thought Billy would have been when he grew up. And we pretty much agreed that he would have been a star. He would have been a man just like his father and who knows how he could have changed the world with all of his youth and energy and imagination. But I think the most lasting tribute to Billy is the one that his parents left him. Tucked inside that Bible in the mansion, along with his poem written about his mother, were two other items. One was a postcard picture of the bison grazing on the hill at Pawnee Bill's Ranch. The other was a newspaper clipping, yellowed but it was still in pristine condition. It simply says…"In Memoriam, of our dear little son Billy Lillie, who left us March 31, 1925. How we miss you every day. Mr. and Mrs. G.W. Lillie."

Erin: We hope that this podcast makes you think about Billy and the Lillie family a little differently. We hope that it also reminds you to hold those you love just a little tighter. We want to wish you a Merry Christmas from the Pawnee Bill Ranch. I'm Erin Brown.

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

Music: 1920s Christmas Medley (First Noel/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/Auld Lang Sine) Music: Frog Leg Rag

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.