Confounding Celebrity Crimes #3 – Annie Oakley


By mid-August 1903 a shocking and tragic fall from grace was being published in newspapers across the country. Annie Oakley had been arrested.

Annie Oakley – public domain image

 Here are some of the headlines:

Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star – Tue, Aug. 11, 1903
The Indianapolis News – Tue, Aug. 11, 1903
Courier Post, Camden, NJ – Tue, Aug. 11, 1903
The Topeka (Kansas) State Journal -Tue, Aug. 11, 1903
The Evening Journal – Wilmington, Delaware, Aug. 12, 1903

The New York Tribune played it a little safer:

New York Tribune – Tue, Aug. 11, 1903

If the general public was surprised to hear of this scandalous development, imagine how Annie Oakley felt. She wasn’t actually sitting in a Chicago jail cell when news of this story reached her; she was at the Atlantic Highland, New Jersey home she shared with her husband Frank Butler.

In fact, on the day of the arrest, Saturday, August 8, 1903, the real Annie Oakley was participating in a trap shooting contest at the Jackson Park Gun Club in Paterson, NJ.

Newspapers soon realized their mistake and printed corrections but the story was already out there and retractions rarely get the same amount of attention as the more sensational, if incorrect, stories.

Annie and Frank Butler were outraged at the potential damage this would do to Annie’s sterling reputation and they would spend the next six years filing lawsuits against the newspapers who had printed the initial story. Most papers cribbed the copy filed by George W. Pratt, one of William Randolph Hearst’s reporters.

It has been said that William Randolph Hearst tried to avoid paying the anticipated court judgments
of $20,000 (equivalent to $581,298.88 in today’s money) by sending an investigator
to Darke County, Ohio (Annie Oakley’s birthplace) to collect reputation-smearing
gossip from Oakley’s past. The investigator found nothing.

Annie Oakley won all but one of her 55 libel lawsuits. When all was said and done, the Butlers had collected
less in judgments than the total of their legal expenses but it wasn’t
about the money.

But what about the woman who was arrested. How had this case of mistaken identity come about? Did she really try to pass herself off as Annie Oakley?

On August 8, 1903, Chicago police officer John J. Mulcahy, of the Harrison Street Station, answered a complaint by a Charles Curtis. Mr. Curtis wanted to report the theft of his trousers by his  roommate. Curtis suspected the woman had stolen his pants with the intention of trading them for drug money. Mulcahy made the arrest. Whether or not the woman was guilty of theft was moot at that point because she was most certainly drunk or high and disorderly.

When booked, the woman identified herself as “Lillian Cody.” This wasn’t the name she was born with but that was her professional name. “Lillian Cody” was born Maud Marie Lee in Canada on February 22, 1872. She and her English-born parents eventually settled in Pennsylvania.

Maud began training with the Forepaugh Circus as a contortionist and trick rider at the age of seven. In March 1888, she served as a practice assistant to sharpshooter S.F. Cody.

S.F. Cody, 1909

S.F. Cody was born Samuel Franklin Cowdery, on March 6, 1867 in Davenport, Iowa. Samuel looked like a young Buffalo Bill Cody and, seeking to capitalize on that as he pursued a career in show business, Samuel changed his last name. S.F. would willingly claim a (bogus) familial connection to Buffalo Bill when it suited him but he was also known to deny it.

Although S.F. moved on to another town once the circus season
opened, he and Maud reconnected later, on October 7, 1888, in the town of Reading,

Maud had been living and working in Reading
for several months. No doubt, running away to join the circus sounded
pretty good to a 16-year-old girl who was a cleaner at boarding houses.
Off they went.

In February 1889, S.F. and Maud were performing at a dime museum in NYC. Dime museums were popular but not well-respected. Although, the lifestyle must have appealed to Maud because she stuck with it.

The couple toured the country, taking work where they could get it – including circuses, vaudeville and burlesque.

On their way to Kansas, the two stopped off in Norristown, PA to get
married. The wedding was on April 18, 1889. Maud was 17-years-old, S.F.
was 21-years-old.

Annie Oakley-public domain

Maud soon developed her own sharpshooting act. Maud even replicated the famous mirror trick-shot that Annie Oakley used in her act but with far less success.

It was on Saturday, March 10, 1890, in Stamford, Connecticut that Maud performed that particular trick for the last time.

The Washburn & Arlington Circus was in town and the venue was packed. Maud announced she would shoot a half-dollar coin while aiming at it’s reflection in a mirror.

Maud lifted the rifle to her shoulder and as she was readying herself, a strand of her long brown hair fell across her eyes. As Maud reached to move the hair out of her eye line, her finger brushed against the trigger and the rifle discharged. Twelve-year-old Mary King, seated 20 feet away, was shot. A .22 caliber bullet lodged in the girl’s chest, near her right armpit.

Medical attention was immediate but local doctors were unsure if they could remove the bullet. Mary’s condition was considered critical.

Maud was placed under house arrest at a hotel and an expert surgeon was called in. Fortunately, the bullet was extracted, Mary recovered and authorities deemed the whole incident a terrible accident, lacking in malice. Maud vowed to never touch a rifle again. She did not, however, promise to stay away from revolvers.

Washburn & Arlington released Mr. and Mrs. Cody from their contract.

S.F. thought they might have some success overseas and, in June 1890, S.F. sailed to London. One month later, Maud joined him. S.F. decided she should adopt the stage name Lillian Cody and that they would promote themselves as a brother/sister act.

The couple soon found work at various venues. In late 1890, they joined a “Wild West Burlesque on Skates” show that played at the Olympian Club in London. This show was a lampoon of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Shows and Maud was to appear as “Any O’ Klay.”

During their time in England, the Codys had made the acquaintance of Mrs. Elizabeth Mary King. Elizabeth was married and had four children, three boys and one girl. Maud took the time to teach the two younger boys to shoot.

On November 8, 1891, Maud boarded a boat headed for America. Maud was traveling alone and she would never see her husband again. She was 19-years-old.

Something had caused a rift between Samuel and Maud. Elizabeth took Maud’s place in the act and in Samuel’s bed.

Elizabeth divorced her husband, christened herself Lela Cody and on November 21, 1891, “S.F. Cody and Family, the Champion Shooters of America” made their first appearance on the stage. The “family” consisting of S.F., Elizabeth (now Lela) and Elizabeth’s two youngest sons, Leon and Vivian.

Nov. 1898 ad for the “The Klondyke Nugget” show

Maud returned to her parents’ home in Swedeland, Pennsylvania to nurse her wounds, both emotional and physical.

Performing in these Wild West shows was taxing and dangerous. Maud had her share of injuries, including an 1894 fall during a parachute jump from a balloon which landed her in a tree.

A common cure for pain back in those days was a dose of morphine. Is this how Maud first became addicted to drugs? As a treatment for on the job injuries? Morphine wasn’t illegal but it was highly addictive. There is no clear evidence to say when Maud starting using morphine but there’s no doubt that she used and abused it.

Maud ultimately returned to show business but as a solo act. I wasn’t able to find any notices to show that Maud performed during 1892 or 1893 but in 1894, she was once again very active.

It wasn’t uncommon to see Maud referred to in newspapers as Buffalo Bill’s niece. It isn’t true but it’s just marketing. Maud was also promoting herself a cowgirl who would ride any horse, broken or unbroken. This was true.

In advance of  Iowa’s 1894 State Fair, this item began appearing in local newspapers:

Estherville Daily News – Thurs, Aug. 23, 1894

From September 3-8, 1894 Maud performed at Iowa’s State Fair. Here’s a description of her act.

This ad appeared in the Detroit Free Press on September 2, 1894 and it encouraged locals to bring their wild horses to the fairgrounds during the upcoming State Fair, promising that Lillian Cody would tame them-

Sixteen days later, there was this ad for the Michigan State Fair and it contained a clear indication that Maud was coming off an injury to perform.

Maud found employment but perhaps struggled personally. While Maud had worked multiple times during 1894, there’s little evidence that she worked in 1895.

Then on October 24, 1896, Maud was arrested in Indianapolis, Indiana for attempting to steal a $23 fur collar from the Boyd, Besten & Langen Store. At her trial, Maud testified that the fur collar had accidentally stuck to the lining of her coat and that she hadn’t intended to steal it.

Judge McCray found Maud to be guilty of larceny but took pity on her and released Maud on her own recognizance. It was felt that Maud was clearly suffering from morphine addiction and it was considered she wasn’t responsible for her actions. In fact, Maud was sick in the courtroom while awaiting sentencing and could barely leave the courtroom under her own power. Maud’s friends promised to take her to a sanatorium where she could receive treatment.

Maud eventually was able to return to work but tragedy struck again.

On January 7, 1897, Lillian was attempting to reduce her operating
expenses by manufacturing for herself the target balls that she used in
her act.

Maud was boiling a mixture of coal tar and sulphur over a flame in
the backstage area at the Casino Theater in Anderson, Indiana when a theater employee dashed by Maud with a bucket of
water. The other woman stumbled and water splashed into Maud’s pan of
boiling tar. There was an immediate eruption and Maud was burned on her
arms, face and under her jaw. Dr. Willson made her as comfortable as her could – no doubt with some morphine.

Four months later, an article entitled “Kentuckians Go Home,” printed in the May 26, 1897 edition of The Tennessean, mentions Lillian Cody’s participation in the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

The 1900 US Census lists Maud as living in Pennsylvania with her parents and her profession is “champion expert shooter.”

I cannot find any newspaper accounts, dated after her appearance at 1897 Expo to indicate that Maud was gainfully employed until she pops up again in 1902. Unfortunately, again the news isn’t good.

May 1, 1902 ad

Sept. 5, 1902 ad

On May 16, 1902, while performing in Buckskin Bill’s Wild West show in Russellville, Kentucky, Maud was thrown from a horse and badly injured.

Newspapers reported her condition as critical. She escaped with a dislocated right hip and multiple bruises. It can be supposed that she was prescribed morphine for the pain.

Interestingly, the “V.F. Cody” whose name headlines the event on the left is a man named Victor Anderson. He adopted the moniker Vic Cody after pairing up with Maud in 1896 to perform in a Wild West Show held at Cincinnati, Ohio’s Zoological Gardens. It seems that Maud had some leftover posters from her “Cody and Sister” years with S.F. and Victor had no problem assuming that name.

Dislocated hip or not, if Maud didn’t perform, she didn’t get paid so with a real “the show must go on” attitude she joined the “Great Buffalo and Wild West Shows United” and was back in the saddle early by July 1902 rather than taking the time to properly recuperate from her hip injury.

One year later, Maud was sharing an apartment with a man named Charles Curtis in a particularly run-down section of Chicago. He was a friend when she needed one but Maud had pushed him a little too far when she stole his trousers.

As luck would have it, several reporters were hanging around the police
station looking for a good story when Maud was brought in. Three reporters gained permission to
interview Maud between the hours of 2 and 4 AM, Sunday morning.

As far as I can tell, the prisoner never identified herself as Annie
Oakley but there were enough similarities between the professional lives of the two women that
assumptions were made and reporters drew their own conclusions after hearing portions of the rambling, incoherent statements which Maud had made during her initial incarceration.

Lockup keeper sitting outside jail cells in the Harrison Street police station in 1907

Police matron Anna Murphy was on duty during that time and apparently heard Maud saying that she had been married to Sam Cody, who was Buffalo Bill’s son. Maud claimed to have been a sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before another woman took over her role as “Annie Oakley.” Maud claimed to have performed in Europe and that she had a son named Vivian. The prisoner admitted to being a morphine addict. These were all things Anna Murphy would testify to in an October 25, 1905 deposition, used during Annie Oakley’s later legal proceedings.

Well, Maud was a sharpshooter in several Wild West Shows and she had performed in Europe. Maud had been married to Samuel Cody (a man who at times claimed to be related to Buffalo Bill). Elizabeth King, the woman who had assumed Maud’s role as “Any O’Kay” in the act, had a son named Vivian. Maud was a morphine addict. The press had even gotten that fact wrong though by claiming Annie Oakley was hooked on cocaine.

Anna Murphy described the prisoner as being 29 or 30 years old, with dark hair and dark eyes. Her clothes were unclean, she was pale and haggard but Maud had made some effort to look presentable. Maud had no visible skin sores but she had wrapped a cloth around her neck, under her jaw. This might have been done to cover up any scars left from her 1897 coal tar mishap.

Charles Curtis visited Maud in prison on Sunday, August 9, 1903, the
morning after her arrest, he even brought her a sandwich and some
coffee. There’s a chance Charles no longer wanted to
bring charges against his friend for the theft of the trousers, which
she said she would return to him, but Maud was still facing charges of
public intoxication and disturbing the peace.

On Monday, August 10, 1903, Maud appeared before Police Magistrate John R. Cavelry. Her name given at the time of her arrest, “Lillian Cody,” was announced and Maud stepped forward.

Officer Mulcahy presented the charges to the magistrate and said “This woman claims to be Annie Oakley, the famous rifle shot. She is full of disease and morphine and has been living with a colored man, Charles Curtis, on Sherman Street, I think. She is accused by him of stealing a pair of trousers.”

Charles Curtis had not appeared in court to press the charge of theft so it would be dropped but Maud clearly was not looking her best and there was the other charge of disorderly conduct. Maud was fined $25 and seeing as she couldn’t pay that, she was to spend time in Bridewell Prison and essentially dry out.

Chicago’s Bridewell Prison, circa 1903

Reporters, looking for someone to blame for their own errors, turned
their attention on Maud and they weren’t kind. Maud was described as
“badly diseased,” an “imposter,” “a physical wreck,” “a toothless hag,”
etc. Much was made of Maud performing in burlesque, a very low form of entertainment. Even vaudeville players looked down on burlesque performers.

In her own deposition, taken on October 30, 1905, the answers Maud gave to questions asked went a long to explaining how her personal history could be mistaken for that of Annie Oakley’s but the Butlers weren’t prepared to let the newspapers off they hook and they continued to seek justice for the false reporting.

Interestingly, although Annie Oakley might not have remembered it, Maud recalled and testified to the fact that she had actually met Miss Oakley in early 1889 while Annie was performing in “Deadwood Dick” with fellow cast member S.F. Cody.

Sadly, as time passed, Maud’s behavior was becoming more erratic. Whether it was long term effects of the morphine use or, as some have proposed, schizophrenia, we can’t truly know.

In early November of 1904, Maud was arrested for stealing coal from Pennsylvania’s Reading Railway coal cars. She admitted her guilt in open court and on December 7th was sentenced to 30 days in prison.

Upon her January 1905 release, Maud went to live with her parents again.

Three months later, in April 1905, Maud married a young, illiterate Italian immigrant named Gaetano Fontenelli. The union, illegal anyway since she and Samuel Cody were still married, didn’t last.

In early 1906, Maud’s family had her committed to Pennsylvania’s Norristown State Hospital for the Insane.

Female Convalescent Building, built between 1907-1909

While the inmates of the Norristown State Hospital weren’t being purposely mistreated, the facility, which opened in 1880, ultimately became over-crowded and under-funded. Patients were sleeping in the hallways, there were insufficient facilities for the patients, etc. A state grant made expansion possible and, between 1907 and 1909, five new buildings were added, including the Female Convalescent Building.

Little was heard about Maud after her entry into the asylum until S.F. Cody died in an August 7, 1913 plane accident.

Man-lifter War Kite designed by S.F.

S.F. had been openly pursuing his passion for flying since 1901, first with manned kites and then planes that he would design and pilot himself. S.F. Cody was successful and respected in the field.

William Evans

On August 7, 1913, S.F. was test-flying his latest design, the Cody Floatplane at a location in Aldershot, England.

Thirty-year-old Cricketeer William Evans was S.F.’s passenger. Leon King, Elizabeth’s son had given up his place on the flight to make room for Evans.

The plane experienced structural problems at 200 feet. Neither S.F. or Evans were strapped in. As the plane broke apart, they plummeted to the ground and were killed instantly, S.F.’s neck was broken.

Wreckage site – August 7, 1913

Maud had been telling people for years that her husband was dead and there’s a possibility she actually believed that. In Maud’s 1905 deposition, she stated that Sam had drowned while trying to reach the North Pole.

There was quite a bit of press coverage, both overseas and in America, when S.F. Cody actually died and this drew the attention of Maud’s family back in  Camden, New Jersey.

As far as they knew, S.F. Cody had never filed for a divorce from Maud nor had Maud sought one from him. Maud was S.F.’s widow not Lela Cody and as such was entitled to a portion of his estate.

Maud’s father Joseph and her stepmother (*) Elizabeth indicated that they would filed a claim on S.F. Cody’s estate with Maud as a beneficiary.

(*) Maud’s mother Phoebe had died on February 3, 1910. Cause of death was “chronic nefritis.”

According to the second Mrs. Lee, who was also Phoebe’s sister and thus Maud’s aunt, they had tried to several times over the years to contact S. F. and asked him for help with Maud’s health care issues but they had heard nothing in response.

Maud was declared incompetent in 1914 so that her family could go forward with their claim. Maud testified in court that she understood this pronouncement was in her best interest.

Seven years later, the court ruled in Maud’s favor. She received one
thousand pounds. I believe that’s roughly $14,000, in today’s money.

When Maud’s father Joseph filed paperwork requesting a guardianship for his daughter, the October 13, 1914 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported: “Later the couple engaged in balloon ascensions and parachute leaps. In one of these Mrs. Cody was injured so that her mind was affected and for about nine years she has been a patient in the asylum here.”

Maud was never released from the Norristown State Hospital. She died on March 20, 1947 from heart failure with dementia praecox as a contributing factor. Maud was 75-years-old and had spent the last 41 years of her life in the psychiatric hospital. Maud’s death certificate, filed under the last name “Fontenelli,” lists her usual occupation as “circus rider.” She’s buried in an unmarked grave at the Norris City Cemetery. The Cemetery sits on what was once Norristown State Hospital grounds.

photo from Norris City Cemetery’s website

So, while Maud Lee, aka Lillian Cody, will forever be remembered for NOT being Annie Oakley, I think it’s only fair that we accurately remember Maud for who she was and what she achieved in her own career before mental illness and morphine addiction took hold.

Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Mosey, died on November 2, 1926, at the age of 66. Cause of death was pernicious anemia. A heartbroken Frank Butler died 18 days later. Her ashes and his body are buried in Brock Cemetery in Versailles, Ohio.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time searching for a photo, promo poster or line drawing of Maud Lee aka Lillian Cody but I have come up empty. It’s disappointing but I’ll keep looking – because that’s what I do. However, I don’t wish to hold up this blog post in the meanwhile, especially as it’s very likely there is no surviving photo.

Clearly, my main focus here is Maud but there’s an excellent dual biography of S.F. Cody and Maud Lee that I’m strongly recommending to anyone with an interest in these two individuals. S.F. had his own brushes with the law and he enjoyed a very varied career. So, for additional reading, pick up “A Pair of Shootists” written by Jerry Kurtz and published in 2010.


Source link

Leave a Comment