Jerry Kuntz (Writer)

Exploring American History through Unique Individuals

Archive for the category “Samuel F. Cody”

The “Pair of Shootists” Parachutists

Maud Lee (stage name Lillian Cody) was one of the main subjects of my dual biography from 2010, A Pair of Shootists: The Wild West Story of S.F. Cody and Maud Lee. The title of the book was a reference to a bad pun made by a reviewer of the Codys’ May, 1891 show at the Half Moon grounds in Putney, London: “What is the difference between Professor Charles Baldwin and Captain Cody and his sister? Give up, eh? Well, one is a parachutist the others are a pair of shootists.”

The pun is in reference to a neighborhood fair where Samuel F. Cody and Maud Lee performed a sharpshooting act; on the same bill was parachutist Charles Baldwin, an imitator of American balloonist Tom Baldwin [similarly,¬† S. F. Cody’s adoption of the Cody surname was a trade on William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s fame].

Many years later, after Maud had a rocky, sad career as a solo act sharpshooter, her parents claimed she had suffered a debilitating injury performing a parachute jump while Cody was her husband. While researching my book, I never found a reference to Maud/Lillian doing a parachute jump. I did mention that she had performed at Putney on the same bill as Baldwin, but found no documentation that she tried parachute jumping at that event.

Now, four years after the publication of my book, some newly digitized newspapers from Indianapolis have cleared up this minor mystery. Several times during July, 1894, Maud (as “Miss Cody”) made parachute jumps from balloons, working with the local parachutist “Professor Love.” During one of those jumps, she landed in a tree and was slightly injured, but it did not appear to be serious–she was performing her sharpshooting act at the Indiana State Fair and Iowa State Fair just a month later, in August.

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Parachute jumping was a popular entertainment at found at nearly every fair and amusement park in the late 1880s and 1890s–at least until¬† the accidents started to occur. It was an extremely dangerous stunt–the balloons used to make the ascents were small, canvas bags inflated over pit fires. They lifted one person who dangled from a trapeze bar underneath; the parachute was lightly tied to a side of the balloon. When the rider jumped off the trapeze bar, the parachute would detach from the balloon. Newspapers of the 1890s are full of tragic parachuting deaths played out before large crowds. Very quickly, cities started banning parachute jumps.

An article two years later refers to Maud’s accident:

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Some of the information in this clipping must be qualified: Maud never “gunned after Indians”; she toured with S.F. Cody in his imitations of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, not with Buffalo Bill Cody himself. The information that she was a contortionist and trapeze artist is new, and fits with the fact that she trained with Forepaugh’s Circus before its tour of 1888.

Maud was a thrill-seeker, an adrenaline junkie–and that trait may have a connection to onset of her schizophrenia. In my book, I suggest the first onset episodes took place in 1891, while her marriage to Cody was eroding and her morphine addiction was gaining hold. Maud spent the last 40 years of her life institutionalized at the Norristown (Pa.) State Hospital.

This newly uncovered revelation that she was a parachute jumper just adds to the horrific sadness of her story. The possibility the she was injured while racing “Professor Love” to earth is just another wrenching allegoric touch to the downward trajectory that started when she met her soul-mate, S. F. Cody.

Moreover, Maud’s aerial adventures occurred years before S. F. Cody’s interest was sparked in aviation. In my book, I suggest that Cody’s interest was inspired by a friendship with balloonist Auguste Gaudron, a parachutist at Alexandra Park in London. I also suggest (without any proof) that Cody and Maud maintained a correspondence after their marriage broke up in 1892. If that is true, then Cody knew Maud was a parachutist before he met Gaudron–and therefore it may be that it was Maud Lee that inspired the man who went on to fly the first airplane in Great Britain.

It’s unlikely there would ever be a second edition of A Pair of Shootists, but that doesn’t mean I can let the story go. It’s the greatest contrast between soaring ambitions and emotional fragility that I’ve ever stumbled across. (Well, pending my current project…)

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