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MEMORIES IN FOCUS: The west proves a little too wild in 1900 years ago

KANSAS HISTORICAL SOCIETY PHOTO

Although reported to be a large crowd, not a lot of spectators seemed apparent on Main St. for the Oct. 16, 1900, arrival in Marion of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show. Telephone lines but no electric streetlights or paving are visible in the photo, which looks northeast from the roof of a building at the southwest corner of 3rd and Main Sts. Three of the buildings shown remain. At left, in the third of four identical storefronts, was Marion State Bank, now Barely Makin’ It antiques. The towering but now unoccupied Donaldson and Hosmer Building, most recently home to a law firm, is in the middle of the photo; at the time, it was home to a millinery shop. On the corner at right was a hardware and plumbing store that now is home to FamLee Bakery.

Just 30 years removed from being part of the Wild West itself, Marion excitedly looked forward to the arrival Oct. 16, 1900, of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, one of two main traveling extravaganzas — the other being Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where “Pawnee Bill” Lillie got his start.

Two weeks before the show’s arrival, the Marion Record festooned its front page with a glowing review from a newspaper in Pittsburg, Kansas, of a previous performance.

“All day the grounds were swarmed with eager spectators,” the review gushed. “Both afternoon and evening performances were largely attended, and all were thoroughly pleased with the exhibiting.”

The show was said to have depicted all phases of frontier life in a realistic and thrilling manner.

“For an exhibition of its kind, it is the best that ever visited here,” the Pittsburg Dispatch was quoted as saying. “The daring riding and feats of horsemanship exhibited by bands of Indians, cowboys, and Mexicans were of a high order and filled the hearts of all with admiration”

The Pittsburg paper offered special praise for an exhibition of boomerang throwing by “Australian bushmen” and concluded: “The entire performance, from start to finish, was excellent and held the closest attention of the large audiences.”

The Record also recounted the frontier claims to fame of “Pawnee Bill,” who supposedly had been a major in the cavalry, a “white chief of the Pawnees,” commanding a company of Pawnee scouts and a battalion of Indian police as “one of the noted characters of the West.”

In fact, Lillie, whose real first name was Gordon, had moved to Wellington, Kansas, from Bloomington, Illinois, in 1887 after his father’s flour mill in Illinois had burned.

He worked briefly for the government’s Indian agency in Oklahoma before signing on as a Pawnee language interpreter with the Buffalo Bill show.

Three years later, after marrying a young Quaker who had just graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, he set off to create his own show.

His diminutive new wife, May, was one of its stars, billed as “the champion girl horseback shot of the West,” a role portrayed in “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s show by the legendary Annie Oakley, who also hailed from Pennsylvania Quaker stock, stood only five feet tall, and had never been west of Ohio.

Publicity for the event in Marion was extensive, with advertisements extolling a military tournament, Indian village, Mexican hippodrome, 500 horses, imperial Russian Cossack riders, Flathead Indians, genuine Bedouin Arabs, and a herd of living buffaloes.

“Pawnee Bill” was heralded as “the acknowledged father of Oklahoma, the most famous scout, trapper, hunter, guide, and interpreter now living.”

“Miss May Lillie,” not identified as his wife, was termed “princess of the prairie, the greatest lady horseback rifle-shot of the world.”

Finally, the day arrived, and at 10 a.m., the show paraded west down Main St. drawing what the Record reported was the largest crowd in town for several years.

But editor E.W. Hoch quickly added, “The show was about the worst fake that has ever visited this city. The best part of the whole affair was that only one exhibition was given.”

A week later, Hoch was still writing about the show:

“The wild west show that exhibited here Tuesday of last week was about the most demoralizing, as far as the young boys are concerned, of any performance that has ever been given in Marion,” he wrote. “Nearly every little boy since the show imagines himself a rough cowboy, wild Indian, or a stage robber, and some of the tricks they perform in carrying out their imaginary characters are both dangerous and degrading.

“The other day one little fellow was lassoed by his playmate, and a lot of boys grabbed the rope and dragged him the full length of the school yard. Had the rope been around the boy’s neck instead of his waist, the fun would have gone on just the same.

“We have noticed several boys with badly scratched faces, the result of this kind of sport. Parents, you had better put a stop to this Wild West sport before your little boy is brought home strangled to death or maimed for life.”

Eight years later, “Pawnee Bill” and “Buffalo Bill” combined their shows in what was called “The Two Bills Show.” It was foreclosed upon while playing in Denver.

Fortunately for the Lillies, May had left the show and begun focusing on running the couple’s large and successful ranch in Oklahoma.

Her husband spent the rest of his life investing in banking, real estate, and oil, and in 1930 opened an Indian and Mexican craft store and rodeo that burned to the ground in 1940, four years after May had died in an automobile crash from which he never fully recovered. He died in 1942.

Last modified Feb. 15, 2019

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