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World’s Champion Roper, America’s Greatest Horsewoman, Queen of the Range, and the first woman whoever roped steers competitively with men, Lucille Mulhall held the top spot in contests and vaudeville for twenty years. Cowboy, actor, and humorist Will Rogers, Lucille’s friend and teacher, called her the world’s greatest rider.
“Born in the saddle,” her family claimed, Lucille was the spirited daughter of Colonel Zach Mulhall, an Oklahoma ranch owner. When she was only seven Colonel Mulhall offered her all the yearlings she could rope and brand herself on the large Mulhall ranch. It was not long before he withdrew his bargain, however. Too many calves, including twenty of the wildest steers on the ranch were wearing the initials “L H” – the Lucille’s personal brand. Extremely feminine, soft-spoken and well educated, she seemed a paradox, for she was so steel-muscled she could break a bronco and shoot a coyote at five hundred yards.
Lucille’s show career began in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1899. Born in October 1885, she was fourteen-years old and participated in a myriad of roping and riding contests at a rodeo in which her father sponsored. Not only did her career begin that day but it was the direct start of what has since come to be known as the cowgirl.
Lucille became an expert roper and was the first woman that could rope and tie a steer. She never dressed like the cowgirls of the 40s and 50s – she did wear loud colors, short leather skirts, or great big hats. Her skirts were divided and extended over her patent leather boot tops. The skirts were whipcord grey and grey broadcloth, and she always wore a small, stiff brim hat and a white silk shirt. She could have been a society belle, but she loved the rough, dangerous life and cowboying was in her blood.
At the age of sixteen, Lucille met Theodore Roosevelt when she appeared as a roper and rider in a Wild West Show staged in Oklahoma City for the first annual rough rider’s reunion. She won a bet with Roosevelt at that time by running down a lobo wolf, roping it from the saddle, and killing it with a stirrup iron.
Lucille captured audiences across the globe with her feats of skill with horse, gun, and lariat. In 1905, Colonel Mulhall handpicked a group of the finest rodeo riders in the country to perform at Madison Square Garden. Lucille was one of the top performers at the venue. She went on to play before kings and queens in Europe at command performances. Her name was blazed across more papers than most of her male counterparts.
Lucille was married twice. Her first husband was Martin VanBergen, a noted baritone. They had one child, a son, Logan. Her second husband was Tom Burnett, a wealthy Texas rancher and oil man. Lucille retired from the stage in 1917, after divorcing Burnett.
On December 21, 1940, Lucille was killed in a car accident a short distance from her ranch home in Mulhall, a town named for her father. The “original cowgirl” was fifty-five when she passed away.