A Pair of Shootists; The Wild West Story of S. F Cody & Maud Lee, Jerry Kuntz, University of Oklahoma Press, (405‑325‑3200) $29.95, Hardcover. Photos, Notes to the Chapters, Index.
This carefully researched book brings to light the story of S. F. Cody, a Wild West performer who was in no way related to the famous Buffalo Bill Cody. Included in this book is background information regarding many of the Wild West performers and the numerous shows that featured cowboys, Indians, acrobats, wild horse stampedes and the carnival atmosphere surrounding the entertainment of long ago. Beginning around 1888, these shows became popular and grew in number. Touring every state in the Union, they hauled horses, cattle, equipment, Indians, trick riders and shootists who dazzled audiences with their derring‑do.
The forerunner of the Wild West shows actually began around 1883 when various sharpshooters held public contests to see who could out‑shoot the other using moving targets. In the beginning live birds were used, but eventually the sport graduated to glass‑ball targets. Soon these shooting contests added wild horse races, stagecoach holdups, and circus acts.
In this book, Samuel F. Cowdery is the central figure. Born in Davenport, Iowa in the 1870s, he traveled Out West seeking adventure and became an experienced buffalo hunter, horse trainer, cowboy and miner. In the late 1880s he joined the Forepaugh’s Wild West Show. His name was shortened to S. F. Cody by show promoters who were not bashful about fooling people into thinking Cowdery was either Buffalo Bill himself, or, at least Bill’s son.
There was no question that S. F. Cody could ride hard and shoot straight. He even looked like Buffalo Bill with his long hair, distinctive moustache and fringed buckskin garb. Next came Maud Maria Lee, a sixteen year old girl in 1888 who hailed from Norristown, Pennsylvania. Maude was the same size and shape as the famous Annie Oakley. An attractive brunette, Maud had some gymnastic training, loved the circus life, rode horses and was a crack shot. Also a member of the Forepaugh Wild West Show, it did not take long for Maud to meet Cody, and it did not take long for the Forepaugh promoters to seize upon the opportunity to make audiences believe that Maud Maria Lee was Annie Oakley.
The story tells of the pair’s travels with various touring groups, their trip to Europe with the Wild West extravaganza complete with advertising posters done in England bragging that S. F. Cody was the son of Buffalo Bill.
Long travel, harsh weather conditions, serious injuries, and the vagaries of salary payment took their toll. Maud began using narcotics to ease her pain and she gradually slid into mental instability. Maud returned to her parents in America while Cody took up with a new lady partner for his shooting act as well as in real life. While still in England, Cody developed an interest in the early airplane experiments. Certain the airplane would be invaluable for war, he even worked for a time for the British government. Cody was killed in 1913 in a crash with his biplane, and is buried in the military service cemetery at Thorn Hill.
After drug use, arrests, lawsuits, and brushes with the law, Maud was committed by her parents to the Norristown State Hospital, a mental institution where she died in 1947 from heart failure at age seventy‑five.
The story of S. F. Cody & Maud Lee is not a happy one. Their best years together were those few when they first met, when the world was young, when they were the center of attention. Crowds cheered, the horses were fast, the shooting was usually straight, but they were never really Buffalo Bill or Annie Oakley. They had to settle for second best, and until now have been mostly forgotten.
A haunting story, this book is filled with good information heretofore overlooked.
Editor’s Note: The reviewer, Phyllis Morreale‑de la Garza is the author of numerous books including the novel Silk and Sagebrush; Women of the Old West, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 700, Unionville, New York 10988‑0700.