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 May demonstrating her skill as a marksman became one of the most widely publicized Wild West posters in the early 1900s.
May’s life as a trick rider and shooter in Wild West shows was far from the lifestyle in which she was raised. Born in March 1869 in Philadelphia to Dr. William R. Manning, a prominent physician, and his wife and aide Mary, May and her family were Quakers. They were quiet, unassuming people, reluctant to draw attention to themselves. If not for a chance meeting with frontiersman and performer Gordon William Lillie at a Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West show in Philadelphia in 1885, May might have married a modest man from her faith, never venturing far from her birthplace. Lillie, better known as Pawnee Bill, was a twenty-six-year-old Pawnee Indian interpreter who was smitten with May the moment he saw her.
“I was standing on the show grounds in front of the main tent when May came by,” Lillie later recalled in his memoirs. “She was a schoolgirl then and carried her books under her arm. I thought I noticed her smile, and I turned and tipped my hat. She thought I was funny with my long hair, sombrero, and buckskin clothes, and just laughed out loud.”
May was a student at Smith College who was home visiting her family for the summer. She attended Cody’s Wild West show with her sister. Lillie sent a note to May letting her know he’d like to meet her. The two formally introduced themselves to one another after the program concluded. Lillie learned seventeen-year old May was studying to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, and May learned Lillie was a former teacher and Commissioner of Indian Affairs. “It was love at first sight and I knew she was the girl for me,” Lillie noted in his memoirs.
Although May was charmed by Lillie, her parents were immune, at least at first. He had walked May home the night they met, and it was only after they arrived at the Mannings’ house that he realized the doctor and his wife were hosting a dinner party. May’s mother and father were not pleased their daughter had brought a cowboy home. Lillie tried to fit in and spent time talking with the guests about the West. Most had the impression that Native Americans were wandering the frontier massacring white settlers. Lillie gently explained they were wrong and briefly shared what he knew of the Indians’ plight. He forgot to exercise good manners during the exchange and spit on the floor. May’s father and mother were mortified by his behavior and urged her to see Lillie out of their house.
May returned to college and Lillie to the Wild West show. The two wrote one another often. A year after their first meeting, Lillie confessed his love for her and proposed. May graduated college in the spring of 1886, and she and Lille married on August 31 of that same year. Lillie had assured Dr. Manning he would be providing for his daughter with the earnings he made performing in the Wild West shows and from his cattle ranch in Kansas. Despite Lillie’s long hair and strange buckskin fringed clothing, which was another source of concern for the Mannings, the doctor and Mary gave the union their blessing. The Mannings arranged the ceremony that was attended by numerous friends and family. The September 1, 1886, edition of the Evening Telegram reported that “a Quaker girl in pigtails was given in marriage, at Siloam Church to Gordon W. Lillie, of the plains country.”
Not long after the ceremony, the Lillies boarded a train bound for his ranch in Wellington, Kansas. May was apprehensive about the move at first. She’d never been West and worried she’d have a hard time adjusting to her new home. Sensing her concern, Lillie telegraphed his friends when to expect them and to make their arrival something special for his bride. According to Lillie’s memoirs, “Fifty or sixty gentlemen and ladies turned out with a band to receive us and gave us a serenade.” Lillie’s sister held a reception for the newlyweds to celebrate their marriage and introduce May to the family and townspeople.
May was happy to be married to Lillie, and, although everyone went out of their way to make her feel welcome, she didn’t feel she belonged on a ranch. Lillie traveled a great deal with the Wild West show, and she was left alone. She found work at the local bank and kept herself busy decorating their home, but it didn’t stop her from being homesick. In October 1886, she learned she was going to have a baby. Planning for the new arrival helped alleviate the loneliness, but the tragic event that would change her life was not far off.
“In the natural course of events, a baby boy came to us in June 1887,” May wrote in her journal. “Gordon was away. Babies were important only to the immediate parties most concerned in those days, so a country midwife was the only hope and consolation at the blessed event.
“I was proud of my ten-and-a-half-pound son, and, when Gordon rushed home to see us three days after his birth, I foolishly arose from my bed to greet the proud father. The consequences of that rash act were terrible. To add to my suffering, our son lived only six weeks.
“A serious operation was necessary for me to correct complications which caused recurring illness.”
The surgical procedure May underwent left her unable to have anymore children. She was devastated and, for several weeks, was too despondent to leave the house. From her bedroom window, she sat and watched the daily activities at the ranch. Oddly enough, it eventually provided her with the inspiration to move beyond the sorrow and find a reason to go on.
When May finally felt well enough to leave her home, she made her way to the paddock to visit with the cowboys breaking the horses on her husband’s ranch. Lillie and the ranch hands taught May how to ride and to shoot. “She cultivated a taste for the rifle,” Lillie wrote in his memoirs, “and at her first shooting match carried off the laurels by missing the object not a single time.” May practiced her newfound talent constantly. By the fall of 1887, she had joined Lillie on the road and become part of the Wild West show. The September 16, 1887, edition of the Peabody Weekly Republican reported on one of May’s first performances. “Pawnee Bill and his famous Indian scouts and cowboys were, undoubtedly, the drawing cards this season,” the article began. “Mr. G. William Lillie, is the United States of Pawnee Bill’s name, and the daring lady equestrienne rifle shot and heroine of the plains – May Lillie – was introduced to us as his wife. We found her to be all that is advertised on the bills and a perfect lady besides, educated and refined.”
May charmed crowds and the press in every city she appeared. An article in the December 10, 1887, edition of the Boston Journal expressed the depth of feeling for the budding equestrienne and performer. “She took to them [cattle and horses] as most girls gravitate to ballrooms and pink teas. When her classmates were debutantes, entering upon the social whirl of conventional life, she was learning the tricks of the lariat. While they were making conquests of city hearts, she was roping steers and studying the art of remaining comfortable on the hurricane deck of a bucking mustang. Her recitals and soirees became target matches with the rifle and six-shooter. She brought the entire culture of the East into the cow camps of the West, and she exchanged her beneficent influence for the skill of her new companions.”
The Pawnee Indians who lived near the Lillies’ ranch were also impressed with May’s riding ability. To show their admirations for her skill and kindness to them, they gifted her with a colt she named Hunter. Hunter and May were inseparable. She rode him at an exhibition at the Pennsylvania State Rifle Range on November 12, 1887. In addition to demonstrating how well Hunter could perform various tricks, May participated in the shooting competition. The months of practice she put in paid off in a big way. Shooting at two hundred yards, she scored twenty-four points out of a possible twenty-five. It was the best score ever made by a woman at that distance. May was presented with a gold medal inscribed, “Presented to May Lillie Champion Girl Shot of the West.”
In the spring of 1888, Lillie organized his own Wild West program and made May one of the stars of the show. She continued to be well received by audiences and newspaper reviews of her performances called the feisty equestrienne the “Princess of the Prairie.” Her proficiency with a rifle earned her the additional title of the “New Rifle Queen.” People who flocked to Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West show to see May were never disappointed. “Her work with the rifle is extraordinary,” an article in the August 7, 1889, edition of the Ashland Weekly News read. “She is the only woman in the world able to break targets thrown in the air while riding at full speed on her mustang.”
The Lillies toured the United States and Europe for more than twenty years performing for audiences of all types, including politicians and royalty. “It is remarkable that May Manning Lillie, bride, learned the show business, became an expert rifle shot, and was known as a champion horseback rider and marksman, one of the features of the show,” an article in the January 15, 1928, edition of the Oakland Tribune read. “…She is known throughout America for her skill as an expert shot and was one of the chief attractions with her husband’s show, and later the combined shows of Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill. When not on the road, the Lillies make their home at Blue Hawk Peak, near the town of Pawnee, Oklahoma.”
Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show was a triumph in every respect, especially financially. May was not only responsible for the success of the show as a performer, but also contributed to its success behind the scenes as well. With May’s exceptional business and money management skills, the couple was able to invest in many profitable ventures, including a two-thousand-acre buffalo sanctuary in southwest Oklahoma. Lillie and May didn’t agree on every investment, particularly one he made on his own in 1908. Lillie purchased James Bailey’s [of Barnum and Bailey fame] interest in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Lillie and Cody then decided to merge their popular programs and renamed the western exhibition Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East. May was against the merger. She believed Cody to be a poor businessman. She felt he overspent on everything for his shows.
Throughout the many years May performed with the Wild West shows, the public remained fascinated with her daring accomplishments. Women wanted to know about her upbringing, her life as an equestrienne celebrity, and what advice she might have for those with a desire to be a trick rider and shooter. May addressed all those queries in an interview with the Joliet News on June 16, 1907. “Miss Lillie was born in the East but, when still a child, went West with her parents and remained there until budding womanhood, when she returned East to complete her education,” the article read. “While her European experience in school served to polish off the rough edges of Western life, it did not remove the self-reliance and confidence acquired in her Western home. Her early love for horses and horseback riding remained. The time that other women give to household and social affairs, Miss Lillie devoted to her horse, and her happiest hours were spent in the saddle. She never was happier than when off for a twenty-mile dash across the prairie or assisting in a roundup of cattle. She has roped and broke horses that men of greater experience would hesitate to approach.
“She adds to her native talent, courage, determination and love of her art, and endows her public performances with charming grace and finish of manner, movement and method. Her equestrienne accomplishments range from simple to complex and from artistic and polite to intrepidly rough. No equine spirit is too wild or purpose too savage for her to quench and rule. She is an equestrienne empress whose throne is in her saddle and whose four-footed subjects are her devoted pride.
“The apotheosis of high school revelations is seen in Miss Lillie’s quartet of prize-winning steeds. Guided solely by the voice and gesture of their fair trainer, they executed a multiplicity of exacting feats that illustrate the extreme possibilities in equine expositions. Beyond this extraordinary performance it is impossible to go.”
According to May, “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 every yielded.”
May retired from Lillie’s Wild West show with Cody in the mid-1910s. She decided then to shift her focus from performing to growing the buffalo ranch she and Lillie had purchased on Blue Hawk Peak in Pawnee, Oklahoma. Despite her protest, May was never completely removed from the “Two Bills” program. Photographs of her graced playbills and posters exhibited throughout the West. In addition to overseeing the daily operations at the ranch, May became active in church and community services, including the National Women’s Relief Corp and Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic.
In December 1916, May and Lillie traveled to Kansas City to adopt a four-year-old boy they named Billy. Sadly, the boy died in a tragic accident at the ranch in 1925. May fought through the devastating loss by caring for the buffalos and other livestock.
On August 31, 1936, May and Lillie celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. To commemorate the special event, the couple decided to renew their vows. The special event was held in Taos, New Mexico. More than five hundred guests and spectators attended the ceremony.
“Pawnee Bill, the Indian scout and showman, wore the same buckskin suit he wore at the first marriage, but his wife dressed in an Alice blue gown of lace, with turban to match and silver slippers,” the August 31, 1936, edition of the El Reno Daily Tribune read. “Preceding the ceremony on the plaza of old Taos, a tribe of Indians from a nearby reservation, twelve flower girls in Spanish attire, and scores of tourists assembled. Lillie recalled his long and nearly frustrated romance with the daughter of stern Quaker parents in Pennsylvania.
“They met on a sidewalk in front of a theatre in Philadelphia where Pawnee Bill was appearing in the Wild West show headed by William F. Buffalo Bill Cody. Their first reaction, Lillie said, was that each looked twice. ‘I thought she was the prettiest girl I ever saw, and I haven’t changed my thought,’ the white-haired Indian fighter said. ‘My first thought when I saw Pawnee Bill,’ Mrs. Lillie remarked, ‘was what a funny man.’ Lillie coughed and glowered at his aged wife, then said he was ‘sorry I taught May so much about shooting irons.’”
Less than two weeks after the golden wedding anniversary celebration, Lillie and May were driving back to their home in Oklahoma when they were involved in a head-on collision. They were both seriously injured. May’s injuries proved fatal.
May Manning Lillie was laid to rest at the Highland Cemetery in the Pawnee Indian hills of Pawnee, Oklahoma. She was sixty-seven years old. Her memory lives on in the popular photograph she posed for when she was best known as the New Rifle Queen.