A pair of large, mean steers burst out of the gate and raced onto the parade field. Eighteen-year-old Lucille Mulhall bolted after the beasts atop her trained horse, Governor. The beautiful blond with petite features and blue-gray eyes quickly tossed the lasso she was twirling and snagged one of the animals around its neck. The steer jerked to a stop as Governor planted his feet firmly on the ground. Lucille leapt at the steer with another rope and began to tie its feet together. In thirty seconds she had completed the task, breaking the steer-roping record at the rodeo grounds in Denison, Texas.
On a hot September day in 1903, Lucille won the Grayson County Fair’s roping contest, beating out two of the top cowboys in the county in the process. She was awarded a pendant of gold with a raised star in which was imbedded a diamond. In the center of the pendant was a steer-roping scene set in blue enamel. It was a prize she wore with pride for the rest of her career.
Lucille Mulhall was destined to be a cowgirl. Her father, Zack Mulhall, had her on the back of a horse before she could walk. She was born on October 21, 1885, and raised on her family’s 80,000-acre ranch near Guthrie, Oklahoma. At an early age she showed a talent for horse riding. She was a natural in the saddle, at training horses, roping, branding cattle, and all the other chores associated with ranch hands. History records that she was extremely bright and could have gone on to be a teacher, but she preferred cowboying, and with her father’s help, she made it her life’s work.
After a successful roping-and-riding contest in 1899, Zack decided this form of entertainment had massive monetary potential. He put together a group of horseback performers and called them Mulhall’s Congress of Rough Riders and Ropers. Lucille was a part of the group and began her career at a riding exhibition in Oklahoma City. She was fourteen years old. Lucille and her horse captivated audiences with their speed and precision. In less than a year, she was the best-known cowgirl performer in the West.
In 1902 Lucille had an accident that would have caused any professional rider to give up the sport. It happened during a relay race in St. Louis when she was dismounting a bronco. She was struck by the pony of one of the other cowboys in the show and the muscles and tendons of her ankle were torn away and the limb badly bruised. She finished the tour with her leg in a cast.
Throughout the course of her lifetime Lucille had many suitors, but her allegiance was to her father and the rodeo show first. Zack often ran interference between his daughter and the young men interested in courting her. He was protective of Lucille and didn’t want her settling down too soon.
Her busy schedule kept her mind off matters of the heart. She performed at such prestigious venues as Madison Square Garden, the World’s Fair in St. Louis, and in Washington, D.C.. Among the celebrated people she rode with were movie star Tom Mix and Apache Indian Chief Geronimo.
In 1906 Mulhall’s Congress of Rough Riders and Ropers disbanded. Lucille returned to the family ranch for awhile, but she was soon lured back into show business by her father when an offer came for her to join a vaudeville review. Her new show was billed as “Lucille Mulhall and Her Ranch Boys.” Theatres had to be adapted to accommodate the show. A unique portable fence designed to hang from the fly loft and fasten between the stage and the orchestra pit was installed at each venue. Several inches of dirt had to be spread out over the stage floor.
Lucille’s rodeo career spanned more than 30 years. The loss of her parents in 1932, her declining health, and the depletion of the resources of the family ranch due to the Great Depression, forced her into retirement.
Brokenhearted and living in poverty, she turned to alcohol for solace. By the spring of 1935, she had pulled herself together and accepted an offer from her hometown of Guthrie, Oklahoma, to lead its annual Frontier Celebration Day parade. Encouraged by the crowd’s response to her parade appearance, Lucille agreed to join her brother’s Wild West show. Now fifty years old, she participated only in special acts and didn’t take part in the rodeos as a contestant.
On December 21, 1940, Lucille was on her way back to the family ranch when a truck broadsided the car she was riding in, killing her instantly. She was laid to rest alongside her parents in Guthrie.
Will Rogers was among the talent that initially performed with Mulhall’s Congress of Rough Riders. He and Lucille became good friends and he was quite taken with her horseback-riding ability. “Lucille was just a kid when we began working together,” he wrote. “She was riding her pony all over the place…it was the direct start of what has since come to be known as the Cowgirl.”
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.