The Amazing Mabel Hackney Tompkins: Wild West Sensation and Oklahoma Connection

A sixteen-year-old boy in Franklin, Nebraska left home in 1893. He left with “an older companion,” leaving his parents and siblings upset and concerned. He was not heard from for years. His family moved to Montrose, Colorado by the turn of the century. The boy, as a grown man now known as Edgar Fay, was in Arkansas by 1917, where he married a much younger Miss Mellie Burns from Arkadelphia, and he registered for the World War I draft. Where was Edgar between 1893 and 1917? Edgar’s son Walter Dempsey Fay, who only had childhood memories of his father, later would tell his children the couple of facts that he knew knew about Edgar. One was that Edgar was born, “in Council Bluffs, Iowa.” The other was that Edgar had traveled with a circus or rodeo at some point before he married.

Soon I will write more about Edgar (aka Wooster A. Fay) and the search for him to locate his original family. Today I delve into the time between 1893 and 1917 and the world into which Edgar “Ed” might have stepped.

Why would a boy leave home in Nebraska in 1893? A Google search identified a very clear possibility: In 1893, Buffalo Bill regenerated his Wild West Show in order to perform during the Chicago World’s Fair! …and Buffalo Bill and his family had a home where they resided in Nebraska, just upstream on the Platte River, which passed not far north of Franklin.

I am not from Nebraska, so the presence of Buffalo Bill in Nebraska lexicon was news to me, and quite exciting. Edgar was a student at the Franklin Academy, which was a prestigious high school, the only one in Nebraska at the time, and the only one between Missouri and Denver. It was a boarding school, so students from many locations resided at the school. Ed was a day student, living nearby with his family, but would have known all the other students. Any of the older students or their family members may have had connections with Wild West recruiting. Ed, the oldest son of the family, lived on a farm at the edge of town, and we know that his father, whose career was listed as “farmer,” depended upon Ed’s hard work. Due to his work, age, and location, Ed would have been an accomplished rider and horseman. We also are told by descendants of his youngest brother Justin Brooks Fay that the boys were worked quite hard; there were lots of children, too many to fit into the house, and the boys lived in the barn. What if this teenage boy had an opportunity to join a Wild West show and to be paid for the work? How could that not be alluring?!

As additional information that could contribute to the allure, Ed Fay would have heard about , and might have attended, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’s inaugural performance in Omaha, Nebraska, May 19, 1883. That year, Ed, his family, and his grandparents were living across the river from Omaha in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and little Ed would have been about six years of age.

I confess that the first time I heard about the term “circus,” as the past work for Ed Fay, I thought of circuses that were prominent, touring the United States during the 1960’s – 1980’s. I initially did not know the identity of Ed’s family or where he grew up, other than the Iowa reference. I also never contemplated what a “circus” of his era might have been, even when I discovered his Nebraska/Colorado connection. As I researched Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, it became clear to me that several terms were used somewhat interchangeably, including “extravaganza,” “circus,” “amusement,” carnival,” and “Rough Riders.”

Mabel Hackney and Skyrocket Jumping a Table, from Mabel Tompkins Collection,
courtesy of Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

The name and photograph of Mabel Hackney appeared last week as a historical photo as I perused social media (Did you know there are great historical and genealogical finds on social media?!) In the photo, Mable was mesmerizing, side-saddled on a lovely horse jumping deftly, as Mabel showed grace and confidence. It happens that Mabel was a cowgirl who performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, then married cowboy and showman Charles Tompkins and retired in El Reno, Oklahoma. El Reno is about 30 miles west of Oklahoma City, a significant key to Ed Fay’s story. Ed’s future wire Mellie’s grandmother Lucy Jayne Harles Craig was a widow living in Oklahoma City by 1900, and Mellie was born in Indian Territory in 1890. Because of the potential for Oklahoma City to be the bridge between Ed Fay’s Nebraska and Mellie’s Arkansas location, it made sense to research Mabel and Charles.

There are several photos of Mable Hackney Tompkins online. The photos are from the Mabel Tompkins Collection at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I arranged to view the collection, giving me a view into the world of the Wild West shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mabel was a young woman who grew up in Kansas and became proficient in riding and horsemanship. She came to the attention of Buffalo Bill William Cody who offered her an opportunity to join his show in 1898, her first job! She continued to perform with the Wild West Show until she became injured and took time off to recover.

Mabel’s riding included expert jumping, later developing an act in which she would jump a horse over a table at which a group of gentlemen were leisurely enjoying their beverages. Her horses also were trained to race chariots, cakewalk, dance, and engage in tight maneuvers and tricks, like knocking down chairs and setting them back into place. Mabel won many awards for her horsemanship.

Charles Tompkins from the Mabel Tompkins Collection,
courtesy of Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Meanwhile, Charles Tompkins was a young man from Texas who began working with cattle as a pre-adolescent and joined a couple of the major cattle drives to Montana. Charles learned to break and train horses, and he became a skilled bucking bronco rider and roper.

Through Buffalo Bill, Charles met Mabel while she was rehabilitating from her injury, and they married about a year later in 1904. As a couple, they started their own Wild West shows. They formed different iterations of their shows across the years. In most cases, Mabel and Charles were the premier solo acts. They also hired other acts to round out the offerings, going from one town to another during their touring season. On a couple of occasions, they joined other shows, and they toured in Europe extensively. In 1918 the couple moved to El Reno and retired from their traveling shows.

Mabel Hackney and Darmon, from the Mabel Tompkins Collection,
courtesy of Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Newspaper clippings show consistent work across the years. The shows traversed the United States, including the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York, Cincinnati, and Florida. Most cities were met with return engagements in subsequent years.

Mabel and “Dorman” in Maine, 1908, from Mabel Tompkins Collection,
courtesy of Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Some of the touring acts they assembled, especially the early shows, focused upon western bronco riding, lasso and lariat tricks, knife throwing, and sharp shooting. The Wild West show included native Americans with reenactments of Indian/white conflicts. There were some shows that included riders from Europe and Russia performing riding and tricks from their traditions. On at least one occasion, Charles and Mabel were involved in projects Charles directed that combined four different shows, with hundreds of horses and many riders and entertainers.

While the riding and western skills were a large component of these shows, the term “circus” often was used, and that what later came to be considered more common circus acts were included more and more as well. Exotic animals, exotic people, trapeze, and knife throwing were included in some of these shows.

from the Helen Tompkins Collection,
courtesy of Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

On at least one occasion, they traveled to Europe for extended tours. There is an interesting account of Charles’ getting his Indian participants to the location they were supposed to perform.

There were mishaps. Injuries and falls were common. The shows met with some crooks and foul weather. There was an instance of a show having to close in Europe when the impresario went bankrupt, leaving performers stranded.

Charles must have been a master entrepreneur, skilled in management and organization, as well as marketing and promotion. He and Mabel had clear rules for their employees. Their contracts were quite specific. They communicated well with those venues where they performed. Their were heavily involved in the advance work, and they managed the travel from location to location and getting their people from one event tot he next. To be fair, from the materials left by Charles and Mabel, it is not entirely clear which of the two was responsible for which managerial work. There is one document from their first show that is attributed to Mabel, with her list of the acts employed for that season. She is described as being very sensitive to the employees and concerned for them as individuals and for their well-being. There clearly is writing we can attribute to Charles, including letters and historical summaries that he signed. By the way, his excellent written, and presumably spoken, communication skills are a boon to us today, since we have such lovely summaries and documentation of the Tompkins’ lives.

Mabel and Charles maintained good connections with the people they met… and oh, the people they met! Will Rogers worked for their show in their early years. Mabel performed in the Buffalo Bill show with cowgirls Annie Oakley and Lucille Mulhall. With many of the people they met and with whom they worked, even from the days Mabel worked with Buffalo Bill, the Tompkins maintained firm and fast connections and friendships.

Christmas Card and Note from horsewoman Lucille Mulhall, from Mabel Tompkins Collection,
courtesy of Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

We must highlight Gordon William Lillie (1860-1942), otherwise known as Pawnee Bill, and his wife May Manning Lillie who as an equestrian and sharpshooter. Pawnee Bill worked as Pawnee Indian interpreter for the Buffalo Bill show. May Manning Lillie was a Philadelphia Quaker student at Smith College. Lillie met May by happenstance when she was 15 and the show was touring in Philadelphia. The couple married a couple of years later, following an intense effort by Bill to earn her parents’ approval, and upon May’s graduation from school. May embraced the western way of life, and her business acumen added greatly to their partnership. In 1888 the Lillies started their wild west show, with May the star. Their shows evolved to include acts from other continents. After some mis-steps, their shows had very successful European tours, and they became a major competitor for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows.

Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill joined forces in 1908 and established “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Great Far East,” also known as “The Two Bill’s.” The show was quite an extravaganza, but heartily opposed by May, who was concerned that William Cody’s poor financial management and his wild ways would be the downfall of the venture. Evidently she was correct. The show went bankrupt and ended in Denver, Colorado in 1913. The couple went on to do shows and showcases on their 5000 acre ranch in Pawnee, Oklahoma, and they were very involved in promotion of Oklahoma, conservation of buffalo, and other civic endeavors.

The Tompkins’ retirement to El Reno provided opportunities for continued connection and friendship with the Lillies. Charles became a businessman, owning an automobile dealership, and he and Mabel continued involvement in the Oklahoma State Fair and establishment and support of rodeos. Charles and G. W. Lillie both were involved in improvements of Route 66/64. Charles became a regional W. P. A. supervisor during the Great Depression. The Tompkins and Lillies had much in common. It is easy to imagine a visit between Mabel and May; how much in common they shared in skills, experiences, and as trail blazers; and how much potential mutual support and camaraderie they might have enjoyed.

Newspaper clipping of European tour of Wild West show, featuring Mabel Hackney “Queen of the Prairie” and Charles Tompkins “King of the Texas Cowboys,” from Mabel Tompkins Collection,
courtesy of Oklahoma History Center, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

In reading the articles about the Tompkins’ shows as they toured to towns across the United States, the excitement of the events is palpable. While some of the news articles included staple advance material regarding the acts, most were written by local reporters who gushed about the impending excitement in the town as they anticipated the event. Also evident were the reporters’ and audience reaction to the expertise, and I daresay the showmanship, of the riders and performers. It is hard to find a modern equivalent to the western riders engaged in masterful feats, showcasing prize horses and expert horsemanship with cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians in all their allure and magnificence.

It is hard to read now, today, some of the accounts, laying bare the minimization of the Indian plight and misrepresentation of events like Wounded Knee. Our mission here, though, today is to look at what might have led a boy to leave home and school What might have captured his heart and attention. In addition to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, there were many other touring shows, including those of the Tompkins and Pawnee Bill. Across the period of several decades, the various acts and performers seemed to join with the various shows, depending upon schedule, opportunity, and probably the pay. Promoters, especially into the early 1900’s, also developed movies and plays that employed ensembles of skilled and trick riders and ropers.

Will we ever locate Ed Fay during this era? So far, we have not. Buffalo Bill’s employee records are sparse. Among the papers of Mabel Hackney and Charles Tompkins, there are no formal employee records. I saw the one early list of names of some of the riders the Tompkins employed in one early show. Newspaper articles occasionally list principal riders, then indicate “cowboys,” without naming them. In addition, one would think that there were other unnamed employees who helped train and break horses, transport and care for the animals, do advance work, set up and take down living quarters, drive wagons, or engage in any number of functions. These workers would not normally be listed in any newspaper article. It is daunting to think of tracking down every show to see if there are any surviving records, much less any lists of employees.

Thanks so much to the lovely Mabel Hackney for bringing the world of cowgirls and cowboys to light, showing me that a kid growing up in the late 1800’s in the Midwest might see heroes in a world that showcased skills that could be learned in the course of rural life. Without a doubt, the timing, location, and allure of the Wild West Show for a teenage boy in Nebraska in 1893 make Buffalo Bill and appealing hero in the year of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair– a dream to pursue!

Acknowledgements: Thank you to the Oklahoma History Center, their archivist, and their staff. The article would not be possible without access to the 1988.007 Mabel Tompkins Collection. All photos are from the Mabel Tompkins Collection.

Thank you, also, to Angie Blank and the Franklin County (Nebraska) Museum which provided great resources and support in locating documents about and from the Franklin Academy, and for facilitating contact with the First Congregational Church of Franklin and location of land and other supporting documents. Their insights into western shows and local legends also helped contextualize our research.

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