“Let any normally healthy woman 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 theatre party or ballroom dance every yielded.” May Lillie – 1908
A bespectacled photographer emerged from under a black curtain draped over a massive camera and tripod. In his right hand he held an instrument that when pressed would take a picture. In his left hand he held a flash attachment to illuminate his subject. “On the count of three, Mrs. Lillie,” he warned.
May Manning Lillie stared directly into the lens. Her cowboy hat cocked on her head, a red kerchief tied around the neck of her white peasant blouse, a black split skirt was belted around her waist, and leather gauntlets covered her hands. She wore a serious expression as the photographer began counting. Before he got to two she raised a six shooter and pointed it at the camera. One eye was closed and the other looked down the barrel of the gun.
Ka-Poof! The flash attachment fired and smoke wafted into the air. “Perfect,” the photographer said smiling, and it was. The black and white image of cowgirl Lillie demonstrating her skill as a marksman became one of the most widely publicized Wild West posters in the early 1900s.
Born in 1871, May’s life with the Wild West Show was far from the setting where she grew up. She was raised in Philadelphia as a Quaker. Her father was a prominent physician and her mother was his aide and a housewife. It was their hope that their daughter would grow to be a doting mother and demur wife. May’s decision to become a bronco rider came as a surprise to her parents.
While attending Smith College in 1886, May Manning met Gordon Lillie. He was better known at the time as Pawnee Bill. Gordon was a twenty-six year old Pawnee Indian interpreter working with his hero Buffalo Bill. The Wild West Show was in Philadelphia when Gordon first laid eyes on the fifteen year old May. She passed by the fairgrounds on her way home from school. The pair exchanged a glance and a smile. It was love at first sight for Gordon.
Convinced that May was the only girl for him, Gordon inundated her with letters expressing his admirable intentions. He made several appeals to her parents for May’s hand in marriage, but they objected.
May, however, was quite taken with Gordon’s persistence and admitted to her parents that she had deep feelings for him. She promised them that she would marry him after she graduated from college. It wasn’t until Gordon proved to the Mannings that he could provide for their daughter with the earnings he made from his Kansas cattle ranch, that they reconsidered their position.
Gordon and May exchanged vows on August 31, 1866. Not long after the ceremony the couple was off to begin their life together in Kansas.
May kept up the cattle ranch and worked as the vice president of the Arkansas Valley bank while Gordon traveled with Cody’s Wild West Show. She was alone when she gave birth to their first child. By the time Lillie had made it home their son had taken ill. The baby suffered and died after six weeks. May was devastated. The surgical procedure she underwent after her son was born left her unable to have any more children and further added to her unhappiness. Gordon was at a loss as to how to comfort his distraught wife.
Oddly enough it was Lillie’s profession that helped May through her grief. Inspired by Gordon’s horsemanship she began riding and roping. The more time she spent on horseback the better she felt. She also took up shooting to help further ease her pain. After only a few months she became an excellent marksman and equestrian and began pursuing a career as a Wild West performer.
In the spring of 1888, Gordon organized his own Wild West program and made his wife one of the stars of the show. May was well received by audiences and newspaper reviews of her performance called the feisty equestrian the “Princess of the Prairie.” Her proficiency with a rifle earned her the additional title of the “New Rifle Queen.”
The Lillies toured the United States and Europe for twenty years. Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show was a success in every respect, especially financially. With May’s exceptional business and money management skills the couple were able to invest in many profitable ventures including a two thousand acre buffalo sanctuary southwest of Oklahoma.
Gordon and May did not agree on every investment, particularly one Gordon made on his own in 1908. Gordon purchased James Bailey’s (of Barnum and Bailey fame) interest in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Gordon and Cody then decided to merge their popular programs and rename the western exhibition, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East. May was against the merger. She felt Buffalo Bill was a poor businessman and that his reputation for drinking and womanizing would be the shows undoing.
May was unable to talk her husband out of the union and after several heated discussions she decided to leave the show. She returned to their Oklahoma home and turned her attention to overseeing the buffalo ranch and helping to develop the town of Pawnee. In spite of her protests, May was never completely removed from the “Two Bills” program. Photographs of her graced playbills and posters exhibited throughout the West.
In 1916, May and Gordon decided to adopt a child, a baby boy they named Billy. Tragedy struck the Lillies shortly after their son turned nine when Billy was accidentally killed in a ranch accident.
The world famous Princess of the Prairie and Pawnee Bill were married for more than fifty years. Their life together ended abruptly in September of 1936 when May died from injuries she sustained in a car accident. Gordon lived another six years after his wife’s passing. He was 82 at the time of his death.
May Lillie’s memory lives on in the popular photograph she posed for when she was best known as the New Rifle Queen. The picture represents the strength and courage of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show cowgirls.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.