Gordon William Lillie, better known as Pawnee Bill, began his entertainment career in “Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show” serving as the interpreter and coordinator for the Pawnee Indians. While on tour in Philadelphia, Gordon met May Manning, whom he married two years later, and May’s parents convinced Gordon to venture out with his own western show. His first attempt in 1888, “Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show,” proved to be a financial failure. His second attempt in 1899, however, “Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West, Indian Museum, and Encampment,” found greater success.
The Historic Wild West Comes to Town
On May 15, 1899, Pawnee Bill’s Historical Wild West was set to perform in Princeton. Leading up to the event, the Daily Princetonian ran several advertisements highlighting the coming extravaganza. An illustrated advertisement on May 6 mentions a reorganized, rearranged, improved, and augmented show presenting 1,000 men, women, horses, Indians, and soldiers with performances to be held at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., as well as a Grand Street Display (a parade on Nassau Street) at 10:00 a.m. A May 9 advertisement describing an earlier performance in Charleston, South Carolina, provides a glimpse of the action to come (including a mention of May’s shooting):
The combined shows of Pawnee Bill which exhibited here [Charleston] yesterday is first-class in every respect: as a life-like portrayal of savage modes, it has no equals …. The performances of the trained animals were excellent, and equal to any every exhibited in this city. May Lillie’s shooting is wonderful, and the riding and driving of 35 wild mustangs are all grand features. The wild buffaloes and long-horned Texas steers, the grand Mexican Hippodrome races, by senors and senoritas, are most wonderful and exciting.
A Bloody Riot on Nassau Street
While various newspaper accounts of the activities on May 15 differ slightly, all report that the Grand Street Display did not go well. According to an article that ran the following day in the New York Times, “Princeton Students Riot, Attack Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Combination,” the town had an unwritten law which forbid touring parades from proceeding on the streets of Princeton, and “it had been a matter of common knowledge in the [touring] profession that the students would enforce the unwritten law.” With the Grand Street Display set to go forward as advertised, a large group of students, reported as 600-700, had gathered on Nassau Street that morning to meet the parade, and several of the students welcomed the performers by slinging mud, eggs, potatoes, and firecrackers. The firecrackers startled the horses which caused a brief run-away wagon until one of the lead horses fell. The procession continued down Nassau Street, but unfortunately, the parade route was a loop, and on the second trip through the gauntlet of flying produce, the cowboys and Indians began to “use their whips freely” and the stung students replaced their harmless projectiles with stones. The scene soon escalated into a full and deadly skirmish:
Then the cowboys and Indians retaliated. Some of them drew their revolvers and began to fire, but they either used blank cartridges or fired over the heads of the crowd. Others, however, unslung their lassoes and used them as whips. Some of the Mexican or South American cowboys unslung their bolas and used these with great effect, the leaden-covered ends being exceeding effective. The cowboys charged the crowd several times and rode down those who could not get out of the way. In this manner Elwood Dillon, a colored man, was knocked down, kicked in the head by a pony and his skull fractured.
As the fighting continued, the wagons were driven rapidly down Nassau Street to safety. The horses of a speeding stage-coach, “Fort Sill,” can be seen entering the frame of the following photograph, appropriately titled “Fort Sill Stage-Coach Runs Away.”
Along with Elwood Dillon, several students and performers were injured and bruised in the pitched battle on Nassau Street, and the unfortunate seriousness of the event required action from the university:
The students were preparing for a lively time to-night when this afternoon President Patton summoned every member of the university to attend a mass meeting. He forbade them to go to the circus to-night, and said that if any student disobeyed him it would be at the student’s peril. Major Lilli [sic], owner of the show, was present and made a speech, which aided in pouring oil on troubled waters.
Pawnee Bills Wild West Show lives on today in annual reenactments on the last three Saturdays of June at the historic Pawnee Bill Ranch in Oklahoma: Pawnee Bill Ranch.
The photographs of Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show on Nassau Street are part of the Western Americana Photography Collection, which houses more than 10,000 photographs pertaining to the American West. Nearly 7,000 images in the collection are available online in the Princeton University Digital Library. Below is a gallery of related Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill photographs from the collection.
Brown, Erin Glanville. “Pawnee Bill (Gordon William Lillie, 1860-1942).” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia (accessed June 27, 2013).
“Pawnee Bill’s Historic Wild West.” Daily Princetonian. May 6 and May 9, 1899. http://theprince.princeton.edu (accessed June 27, 2013).
“Princeton Students Riot. They Attack Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Combination.” New York Times. May 16, 1899. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F60D17F6345911738DDDAF0994DD405B8985F0D3 (accessed June 27, 2013).