Home / Up

The Codys: The King and the Queen (an ocean apart)

After his wife Maud Lee returned to America alone, Samuel F. Cody and his new soul mate, Elizabeth King, wasted no time retooling the sharpshooting act. Elizabeth, whom Samuel called �Lela,� replaced Maud as target holder and occasional rifle shot. Her sons Leon and Vivian, who had first been introduced to shooting by Maud, were also included in the act to display their marksmanship. By bringing the boys into the act, Cody was taking a page from his Oklahoma Wild West mentors, Adam Bogardus and Harry Hill, both of whom incorporated their sons into their demonstrations. Cody and Lela had posters printed to advertise �S. F. Cody and Family, the Champion Shooters of America.� 

It is not known why Lela�s real husband, tavern-owner Edward King, allowed his family to be hijacked by Cody. Likewise, in interviews, Cody fabricated an elaborate tale of how he had met Lela Davis years before, while training horses for her father; and how they had married and moved to Texas, where Leon and Vivian were born. Any acquaintances of the King or Davis family could have discredited this story, but kept silent. One logical assumption is that Lela had been victimized somehow by Edward King, and therefore he was in no position to expose her history without bringing unwanted attention to his own behavior. 

By the spring of 1892, the �Cody Family� was on the bill of a popular London music hall, the Westminster Royal Aquarium. British music halls were an outgrowth of eighteenth century coffee houses and taverns, where men gathered to share song and cheer (fueled by alcohol). These assemblies soon evolved into �Song and Supper� clubs of the upper class, and �harmonic meetings� in working class taverns. The Theatre Act of 1843 forced saloons to either become full fledged licensed theaters�without alcohol�or to retain drinking licenses without staging full dramatic productions. It only took a short time for tavern keepers to realize that the Theatre Act allowed them to present musical sketches and other entertainments in a variety format that stayed within the law. By the 1850s and 1860s, buildings were renovated or built specifically to stage live variety shows. Many of these new structures were called �Music Halls� by name. 

The Royal Aquarium had been built with higher ambitions. It had opened in 1876 as a place for highbrow intellectual entertainment and instruction, and featured a cast-iron-and-glass barrel roof (the Crystal Palace influence) supported by walls of Portland stone, with an ornate columned fa�ade and cupolas over the entrances. The glass roof allowed palm trees to survive inside the main hall, which also contained a sculpture garden, salt-water aquariums, an orchestra pit, an art gallery, reading rooms, dining rooms, smoking rooms, a roller skating rink, and a small theater. The facility was mismanaged almost from its inception, and proved a financial disaster. Over the years, the owners brought in more variety acts, and therefore by the 1890s most of the water tanks, palm trees, sculpture gardens, etc. were gone, and the Aquarium was known primarily as a music hall. The largest glass tank was preserved, not for exotic fish, but for exhibitions of young women swimming. 

In the 1890s, the differences between British Music Halls and American Vaudeville theaters were few. Many acts crossed the Atlantic to appear in both venues. Samuel Cody would have been familiar both with the music hall format (from his experience both in American and in Britain the previous year) and with the cavernous surroundings of the Royal Aquarium, which, after all, were not as impressive as the interior of Olympia. The �S. F. Cody and Family� appeared low in the billing at the Royal Aquarium and the other British music halls they played in 1892. They were successful enough to get stage time, but were not popular enough to headline an engagement. 

In early 1893, they crossed the channel and were booked to appear in one of the most famous Parisian music halls of La Belle Epoche, the Casino de Paris. The appeared during the height of the popularity of French music halls, at a time when they had been celebrated and immortalized by masters of modern painting: Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Renoir, Manet; as well as Picasso and Cassatt. Parisian audiences embraced the Codys, and from their success in Paris, they returned to London with an enhanced reputation. After another run at the Royal Aquarium in the early summer months of 1893, they returned to France in late summer to tour other French cities. 

While in Nice, S. F. Cody indulged in one of his small vices, the gambling table. As a marksman, Cody would have been well versed in the art of making bets, but should have been wiser than to approach casino games thinking he knew of a system that would beat the house odds. He lost heavily at Nice after putting his faith in such a system, most likely a variation of the Martingale system. A Martingale system advocated doubling the stake after a lost bet, since the odds are very high against a long string of losses on a basic binary bet (heads or tails, red or black). This system has two fallacies: first, roulette is not binary�the  green 0 and 00 give an advantage to the house; and second, the odds against a string of defeats is less than many people perceive, making it easy to spend an entire initial stake before reaching the needed winning bet. Many bettors mistakenly believe that odds on the next bet turn in their favor after a string of losses, which is also a logical fallacy. Modern casinos have bet limits that would make it difficult to execute a Martingale system. 

Despite his casino losses, S. F. Cody�s wagering pastime exposed him to another opportunity that proved much more lucrative: horse vs. bicycle races. Side bets in private exhibitions were part of a western sharpshooters income. During the 1880s, W. F. �Buffalo Bill� Cody did not forbid his employees from engaging in these exhibitions, creating opportunities that even Annie Oakley did not pass up. During the first visit of  Buffalo Bill�s Wild West show to Great Britain in 1887,  Cody even encouraged two of his cowboys, Broncho Charlie Miller and Marve Beardsley, to participate in a six-day endurance �horse vs. bicycle race� that took place inside the National Agricultural Hall at Islington (another cast-iron and glass exhibition hall building modeled after the Crystal Palace.) 

The idea of racing bicycles against horses is virtually as old as the bicycle itself (if you accept the addition of the foot pedal as the moment the bicycle evolved from the hobby-horse). In July of 1868, a Favre-built cycle raced against a horse and buggy along a 45 mile piece of road ending at Toulouse, France. Seven years later, British cyclist David Stanton raced his high-wheeler (�penny farthing�) against a horse and buggy along a 10-mile track at London�s Alexandria Palace, a popular amusement center. He lost by just 40 seconds. A few months later, in the fall of 1875, a 700 mile Paris-to-Vienna race pitted a high-wheel bicycle against a horse, and the bicycle triumphed by a margin of days. In the late 1870s, a popular bicycle racer named Ernestine Bernard from Paris. At a track in Toronto, Ontario, she won a three mile contest against a racehorse. Male spectators might have been attracted by Ernestine�s form-fitting cycling costume�an early example of how the popularization of the bicycle helped to break conventions in women�s dress, culminating in the athletic �bloomers� of the 1890s. 

By 1887, both the American and European public had been repeatedly exposed to horse against bicycle races. Buffalo Bill�s troupe added the extra interest of pitting expert frontier horsemen�both Charlie Miller and Marve Beardsley were veterans of the legendary Pony Express�against accomplished high-wheel racers. High-wheeled bicycles, also called �Ordinarys,� were favored by racers and sportsmen. They were difficult to mount and had poor weight distribution, often causing head-first tumbles. However, the high-wheel design was still the fastest ride, since power was applied directly to a large circumference wheel. 

Those not daring enough to risk riding Ordinarys, i.e. women, the elderly, and members of the upper class who felt the need to maintain decorum, chose to ride tricycle designs. It was on tricycles that the first chain drives were featured. The chain drive quickly led some inventors to rethink the design of the bicycle�by gearing-up the chain from the pedal to the wheel, it was possible to make a small wheel perform like a much larger wheel. The breakthrough design pinpointed by most bicycle historians is the Rover bicycle, first marketed in 1885. It was a low-mount, small wheel bicycle that moved the chain drive to the rear wheel. Compared to Ordinarys, it had better weight distribution and less wind resistance. However, it was heavier than a racing Ordinary, had a rougher ride, and was more expensive. So racers were not at first interested in the Rover �Safety� bike design, although they became very popular with the general public. 

Two critical improvements occurred just after 1887 that spelled doom for the high-wheeled Ordinarys: in 1888, John Dunlop introduced pneumatic tires, which made Safety bicycles about a third faster than without pneumatic tires; and in 1890, the strong diamond frame made the ride much smoother. Finally, bicycle racers started to adopt the safety bicycle in 1890. By 1893, Ordinarys were considered relics in the world of bike racing. Safety bikes took America and Europe by storm, and bike sales doubled from 1887-1890, and then doubled again in just one year, 1891. Cycling became a popular craze. During the 1890s, the American recreational journal, Sporting Life, had two major sections: baseball and bicycling. 

In the midst of this 1890s fad, S. F. Cody was reminded of the 1887 race made by Buffalo Bill�s men�or perhaps he had been told of the roller skater vs. bicycle races at Olympia in 1890�but at any rate he was astute enough to recognize an opportunity to use his horsemanship to entertain a crowd (and place some side bets.) In October of 1893, S. F. Cody arranged at the Paris trotting club to race against the racing cyclist, C. Meyer of Denmark. In the posters publicizing the race, Cody pronounced himself as �King of the Cowboys.� The 12 hour race took place on Oct. 29, 30 and 31, four hours each day. Cody was allowed to use four different mounts. Cody won Friday�s trial; Meyer won on Saturday; and Cody won again on Sunday, giving him a grand total of 217 miles to Meyer�s 206 miles. Cody�s triumph was met by cheers, and he took a victory lap around the course standing astride two horses (just as Adam Forepaugh, Jr. had done in the climatic act of Forepaugh�s circus.) 

Following this success, Cody arranged another race in Paris on Nov. 12, 1893 against tandem cyclists, Fournier and Gaby. This time Cody was allowed six different mounts, and the race was divided into two days of two hours the first day, and four hours the second. This race took place at a velodrome, and the cyclists benefited from a much smoother, banked track. Cody, on the other hand, had difficulty negotiating the sharp turns with his ornery mounts, and was even thrown down to the ground once. The grand total of the two days found the tandem duo the victors, 178 kilometers to 173 for Cody. 

For his next race on Dec. 23, 1893, Cody moved the venue to Bordeaux, and found sponsors for a cash prize of 2500 francs. His opponent was the famous cyclist Henri Loste. The format was once again 12 hours of racing over three days, four hours each day. Presumably, Cody took more attention in selecting the mounts and the track conditions, and negotiated the use of ten different mounts. With the variables in his favor, Cody emerged the victor. 

The Bordeaux race cemented Cody�s fame throughout Europe. He, Lela, and the boys put together a new tour of France in the spring of 1894 that featured horse against bicycle races. Since he negotiated with different opponents at each stop on the tour, Cody had the advantage of knowing when the odds were in his favor. By this time, he also traveled with his own stable of horses specially trained by Cody for fast mount changes. In August of 1894, Cody�s tour took him to Munich, Germany, to meet the famous cyclist Josef Fischer in a three-day series of races. In addition to the popular hype Cody received for moving his challenge to Germany, a great deal of interest in this race was shown by German army officials, who were studying the possibility of military applications of the safety bicycle.

For roughly twenty-five years�the period between the advent of the safety bicycle in the early 1890s and the end of World War I�modern military powers experimented with the use of bicycles in war. Compared to horses, bicycles were light-weight, compact, needed no food, were easily and quickly mended, and needed no housing. Even after motorized vehicles became reliable, bicycles had the advantage of not needing fuel, or wide paved roads, and ran silently. Some armies tried folding models that could be carried by infantrymen or (after World War I) paratroopers. Many armies were quick to introduce bicycles, at least for scouting and messenger duties, if not in fighting units. 

When alerted to the German military�s interest in bicycles, S. F. Cody no doubt filed away the fact that even technology developed for sport and entertainment might interest generously-funded military engineers. It was a lesson that would play a large factor in the rest of his career. The cyclist Fischer beat Cody in the Munich match, which likely only impressed Cody further that the world was changing, and new frontiers were opening in mechanics� workshops, not wild prairies. 

                   *                                               *                                               * 

It is not known how long it took Maud Lee to recover from her broken marriage and the worried mental state she exhibited on her return from England in late 1891. Most schizophrenics recover after their first onset incident, but have another episode within five to seven years. In whatever manner Maud�s illness was recognized by her family, one reassuring fact was merely that she had returned to her family to recuperate�attentive family care is now recognized as a significant factor in the treatment of first-onset schizophrenia. No documentation has surfaced on Maud�s whereabouts in the years 1892 and 1893. In 1894, she resumed her show career in the Midwest, performing a shooting and riding act at local and state fairs. The pre-event publicity for one of those fairs claimed that Lillian Cody (Maud�s stage name) had been with Buffalo Bill�s Wild West at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893�but it would be difficult to conceive that W. F. Cody would willingly hire a performer who had taken liberties with his family name. 

Agricultural fairs offered another venue for wild west performers, when salaried jobs in touring shows and vaudeville circuits could not be found. Annie Oakley herself made several appearances at fairs�which also provided opportunities for shooters to make money on side bets by facing local marksmen. Lillian Cody publicized her own challenge: for $100, she would ride the wildest horse brought before her. It was a boast that even a horse trainer born in the saddle would hesitate to make, but evidentially she had been a quick student of S. F. Cody�s horse-handling skills. In August, 1894, Lillian Cody appeared at the three-day Shenandoah Athletic Tournament in Shenandoah, Iowa. Other events at that festival included foot races, tug of war, baseball, tennis, and bicycle races. At the end of the month, she made her way to Des Moines for the biggest billing of her solo act: the Iowa State Fair. 

Agricultural fairs in the United States developed from the tradition of Old World harvest fairs, but introduced an educational element meant to teach landowners new scientific methods of production. Many new settlers had only a rudimentary understanding of crop and livestock management, and the American soil, weather, and other variations of the native ecology challenged their European-based skills. By the mid 1800s, state-wide fairs were being held in northeastern states. Competitive exhibits to show off produce and farm animals also began to encompass arts and crafts. The entertainments offered by these agricultural fairs began modestly, usually with equestrian events (horses races were popular but controversial, since they inevitably attracted gambling�a mixed blessing to promoters also trying to attract morally-sensitive fairgoers). Female equestrian events were an early drawing card in state fairs, especially to male crowds who may have been judging the women�s forms as much as their horsemanship. 

Dating from the 1850s, over the decades the Iowa State Fair grew to be one of the largest fairs in the country, and eventually became the penultimate American state fair, immortalized in Phil Strong�s 1931 novel, State Fair (in which the temptations of the fair�s side entertainments provided a dark theme) and in the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the same name. However, in 1894 the Iowa State Fair was struggling to bounce back from a disastrous previous season. In 1893, attendance had dropped severely due to a national economic depression and the loss of patrons to the extravagant Chicago Columbian Exposition. 

To combat the drop in attendance, the Fair producers placed increasing emphasis on its amusements, licensing dozens of food caterers,  sideshows, balloon ascensions, daredevil acts, horse races, and other grandstand shows�such as the riding and shooting of Lillian Cody. It is interesting to note that the Fair�s program boasted illustration of neither agricultural images nor the sensational entertainment offered�but instead proudly displayed ink drawings of the huge permanent fair buildings that had been built in the late 1880s. Largest of these was the great Exposition Hall, a 10,000 square foot vaulted roof structure based on London�s Crystal Palace. Though based on a cast-iron and glass design, the Exposition Hall used wooden boards in place of cast-iron, making it cheaper to build and keeping it in character with material used in ordinary barn construction. It was yet another example of late 19th century society�s fascination with huge enclosed spaces. 

Lillian Cody, who had performed in London�s Olympia Hall three years earlier, was likely not overawed by Iowa State Fair�s proud structures. She was billed as the �Queen of the Lady Rough Riders� (in this pre-Spanish-American War period, the term �rough rider� meant any rider of unbroken horses). She performed her riding and shooting act at the Fair�s Amphitheatre, in front of large, appreciative audiences. Whether she made good her bet to ride any wild horse brought before her is not known. At the same time, August 1894, her estranged husband S. F. Cody, hailed as the �King of the Cowboys,� was racing against the cyclist, Josef Fischer. They had both achieved their once-shared ambitions, and the applause of the crowds, in that summer of 1894, must have made their hearts swell. They were the �king� and the �queen�, oblivious to each other�s achievements, and separated by an ocean and thousands of miles, and the even larger barrier of failed love.

For S. F. Cody, the success of his shooting act and horse racing events drew him closer to Lela and her sons, his new family; and allowed him to realize further ambitions. For Maud, her brief taste of show business fame did not last. In the fall of 1894, she had been scheduled to appear at the Texas State Fair, which rivaled Iowa as a top annual agricultural fair. However, as the Texas State Fair opening in mid-October neared, no announcements concerning the appearance of Lillian Cody were found. Instead, the pre-Fair publicity announced the exhibition of shooting by Doc Carver, the �Evil Spirit of the Plains.� 

After the Iowa State Fair, Maud M. Lee, aka Lillian Cody, disappeared for many months into obscurity. Perhaps a less dire explanation of her whereabouts during that time will come to light; but lacking that evidence, the traces of her public life coincide with the episodic pathology of the condition now known as schizophrenia. She was not well and getting worse; but her public career was not yet finished, either.















The Royal Aquarium (image courtesy of Matthew Lloyd)

Music Hall by Jean-Louis Forain


Broncho Charlie Miller's race at the Agricultural Hall, Islington. Miller and Beardsley rode several of their mounts to collapse and death, an inhumane practice abhorred by contemporary long-distance horse riders.


The "Ordinary," the high-performance high-wheeled bicycle of the 1880s. Also known as the "Penny Farthing," a reference to the similar difference in dimensions between two English coins.


The revolutionary Rover "Safety" biycle. Yet to come were the diamond frame and the pneumatic tire.

John Dunlop's pneumatic tire crowned the superiority of the safety bicycle over the ordinary bicycle.

S. F. Cody's race against Fournier and Gaby: pre-race publicity and an after-the-fact illustration.

Josef Fischer, Cody's Munich opponent.

The black "Buffalo Soldiers" infantry regiment of the U.S. Army took part in several epic journeys across rough country with bicycles.


Program of the 1894 Iowa State Fair, whose structures were a drawing card

The entrace and main cupola of the Iowa State Fair's enormous Exposition Hall.

Jerry Kuntz � 1997-2006 | All Rights Reserved | Contact