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Wild Women of the West: Mollie Moses

May 25, 2017

Mollie Moses, a disheveled woman in her mid-forties, sat alone in her run-down Kentucky home, crying. She wiped her eyes with the hem of her tattered black dress and glanced up at a portrait of William Cody hanging over a cold fireplace. On the dusty coffee table in front of her lay a number of letters carefully bound together with faded ribbon. The woman’s feeble fingers loosened the tie and slowly unfolded one of the correspondences. Tears slid down her cheeks as she read aloud:  “My Dear Little Favorite . . . I know if I had a dear little someone whom you can guess, to play and sing for me it would drive away the blues who knows but what someday I may have her eh! . . . I am not very well, have a very bad cold and I have ever so much to do. With love and kiss to my little girl—From her big boy, Bill.”

Mollie closed her eyes and pressed the letter to her chest, remembering. From the moment she first saw Buffalo Bill Cody at a Wild West performance, she had been captivated by him. He was fascinating—a scout, hunter, soldier, showman, and rancher. Mollie was swept away by his accomplishments, reputation, and physical stature. In September 1885, the enamored young woman from Morganfield, Kentucky, set about to win the heart of the most colorful figure of the era.

William was receptive to Molly’s pursuit. His all-too-frequent absences from home continued to add to the trouble he had with his wife. Louisa was critical of his actions and demanding of his time. The more she complained about the escalation in his drinking as well as his inability to manage their finances, the more distance he sought to put between them. The deaths of two of their four children, Kit in 1876 and Orra in 1883, had further strained their relationship. Louisa resented William for not being around more to help care for their children, and William was offended that she was using the funds he sent home to support his family for buying property in North Platte solely in her name.

William contemplated divorce in September 1883, but reconsidered the severe act after Orra died the following month. The Codys were cordial to each other, but the marriage was void of romance. William was preoccupied with the development of the Wild West show, which he hoped to take on a multicity tour in late 1885. The undertaking was hugely expensive, and Louisa was concerned about the debts they were amassing. William predicted that the show, which would feature Annie Oakley and the famous Indian scout Sitting Bull, would leave them financially sound. The outlook on his relationship with Louisa wasn’t as hopeful.

Buffalo Bill was hundreds of miles from home and emotionally vulnerable when he met Mollie Moses in November 1885. She had attended one of the opening performances of the Wild West show in Shawnee Town, Illinois, and introduced herself to the star. She was an attractive widow, intelligent and sophisticated. Their encounter left a lasting impression on William, and they made arrangements to meet the following evening. Time and propriety kept them from seeing each other again before he left the area. Mollie sent William a letter expressing her delight in having made his acquaintance.

The letter she wrote to William in early November 1885 reflected her maturity and sincere interest in him. Her correspondence read like that of an experienced woman, not a love-struck girl. The death of her husband and only child many years prior had transformed the once impetuous girl into a driven, determined woman. Mollie was educated and well-read as well as an accomplished artist and seamstress.

William found those aspects of her character appealing. On November 11, 1885, he responded to her letter, forwarding his itinerary to her as well as his hope that they could meet in the future.

“Your kind letter received. Also the beautiful little flag which I will keep and carry as my mascot, and every day I wave it to my audiences I will think of the fair donor. I tried to find you after the performances yesterday for I really wished to see you again. . . . It is impossible for me to visit you at your home much as I would like to have done so. Many thanks for the very kind invitation. I really hope we’ll meet again. Do you anticipate visiting the World’s Fair at New Orleans if you do will you please let me know when you are there. . . . Enclosed please find my route. I remain yours.”

As the romance between Mollie and William blossomed, she expressed concerns about Louisa. In one of William’s letters to Mollie, he tried to put her mind at ease on the subject. “My Dear Little Favorite . . . Now don’t fear about my better half. I will tell you a secret. My better half and I have separated. Someday I will tell you all about it. Now do you think any the less of me? I wish I had time to write you a long letter to answer all your questions and tell you of myself, but I have not the time and perhaps it might not interest you. . . . With love and a kiss to my little girl from her big boy.”

Hero worship and love flared into a twin flame in Mollie’s heart. She ached to be with William, and when she wasn’t able to be with him at various stops on the tour, she extended invitations for him to visit her at her home. Managing the Wild West show demanded a lot of his time, and he was unable to get away as often as Mollie hoped. “My Dear . . . You say you are not my little favorite or I would take the time to come to see you. My dear don’t you know that it is impossible for me to leave my show. My expenses are $1,000 a day and I can’t. I would come if it was possible and I can’t say when I can come either but I hope to someday.”

William could not break free from his business, but Mollie persisted. She requested that some of his personal mementos be sent in his stead. “If you cannot be, I must have something of you near me,” she wrote him. In April 1886 he answered her letter: “My Dear Little Favorite . . . Don’t fear I will send a locket and picture soon. Little Pet, it’s impossible for me to write from every place. I have so much to do, but will think of you from every place. Will that do? With Fond Love . . . Will.”

In spite of his constant reassuring, Mollie was not convinced that William and his wife were destined for divorce. When it became clear to her that William could not or would not fully commit to her, she requested a spot in his show. She reasoned that this was the only way she would be able to be with him all the time. Mollie was not without talent. She was a fine horsewoman and that, along with her romantic involvement with William, helped persuade him to invite her to join his troupe.

Mollie and Buffalo Bill were to meet in St. Louis, a scheduled stop for the show. She was to come on board as a performer at that time. In an effort to make her feel welcome and show his affection, William purchased his lover a horse. The act endeared him to her even more.

“My Dear Mollie . . . I presume you are getting about ready to come to St. Louis. Wish you would start from home in time to arrive in St. Louis about the 2nd or 3rd of May. Go to the St. James Hotel if I ain’t there to meet you. I will be there any how by the 3rd. I have got you the white horse and a fine silver saddle. Suppose you have your habit. Will be glad to see you. With love, W.F.C.

Mollie’s days with the Wild West show were difficult. Adapting to the rigorous traveling schedule was hard to get used to, and riding her horse day after day left her stiff and sore. Eventually Mollie lost interest in the famous program and tired of trying to win over the heart of its general manager. One of the last letters she ever received from the famous scout convinced her that the timing wasn’t right for a permanent romance.

“I have two little girls living and have lost a little boy. My wife and I have separated but are not divorced yet. That’s what I meant by saying I am not yet a single man. No, dear, I’m not afraid to trust you with my secrets. You know all my family affairs. Little Pet, don’t think I’ve forgotten you if I don’t write oftener. I will write you whenever I can. With fond love, Will.

Mollie Moses returned to her home in Kentucky, where she fell into a life of poverty. She was forced to sell many of the mementos William gave her and live off the generosity of strangers in order to buy food. The two souvenirs she would never part with were the silver saddle and William’s picture. Historians speculate that the demise of her relationship with Buffalo Bill left her despondent and without a will to live.

Within a few years after parting with William, Mollie’s financial situation plummeted, and she was living in squalor-like conditions. Rodents shared her house with her—rats she called her pets. One evening her “pets” bit her severely, causing her to become ill. She eventually died of complications from the bites. She was forty-three years old.

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