The Legendary Life of Bee Ho Gray is a new biography about one of the most versatile and interesting figures in the history of Western performance. After years of genealogical sleuthing, the author discovered long-lost suitcases full of personal scrapbooks, memorabilia, and diaries. These documents, along with interviews with the few remaining old-timers who knew Bee Ho, are used to weave together the amazing story of this once-famous American legend. Bee Ho Gray played a key role in shaping the worldwide conception of the Wild West. Born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1885, he was named by Quanah Parker, last chief of the Comanche, and used his experiences there as a springboard to a fifty-year career. Bee Ho performed in many Wild West shows including the famous Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. His daily companions were legends like Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, Tom Mix, Bill Pickett, Iron Tail and many others who defined the legacy of the American West. The amazing life of this World-Champion Trick and Fancy Roper, trick rider, knife thrower, whip artist, banjoist, actor and comedian might have been lost forever. But in this biography, history is lovingly and precisely revealed.
Books by the Author
Bee Ho Starts Performing
When Louis came home to the flat
He hung up his coat and his hat,
He gazed all around, but no wifey he found
So he said, ‘Where can Flossie be at?’
He read it just once, then he cried.
It ran, ‘Louis, dear, it’s too slow for me here,
So I think I will go for a ride.
Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the fair.’
— Opening verse of “Meet Me in St. Louis”
In 1902, the canvasmen for Pawnee Bill’s Wild West set up their tent in Chickasha, Oklahoma, for a two-day stand. Bee Ho and Weaver, who were about 17 and 10 years old, had heard about the show, and they knew about the amazing performers who could make their ropes move in ways that seemed like some sort of black magic. That was all they wanted to see, the amazing trick and fancy ropers. They rode double on their horse for two days to make the 60-mile journey to see the show, camping along the way. An article in True West magazine described what happened:
They didn’t have a nickel to their names but they were determined to get inside the tent, and made it without being caught. After Weaver and Bee Ho saw Pawnee Bill’s trick and fancy roper perform, both wanted a rope. And to get that rope they cut down the first clothesline they saw. Then they got on their old mare bareback and rode home.
There was no work after they saw that roping exhibition. They were determined to be just like that roper, and they began to practice. Without any instruction at all…they had to learn the tricks the hard way.
One weekend they got on their old mare and rode into Lawton. Both were barefooted, wearing cut-off homemade pants and old straw “Katy” hats. When the boys arrived in Lawton they went to the livery barn. That was a place of action. Weaver and Bee Ho sat around and admired the fine boots and hats the cowboys wore, then went into town and put on a trick-roping exhibition on the street. They took up a collection, and got just a small amount, but “show business” sure beat the hell out of chopping cotton. Back to the livery barn they went. Weaver rode a bucking horse in the street while Bee Ho passed the hat. They got enough money to buy each a new rope. They were two happy boys (10).
By 1903, at age 18, Bee Ho had started performing rope tricks regularly on the streets of Lawton. One family story describes his stepping up to the front of a passing Fourth of July parade and then leading the procession with an impromptu roping performance, to the delight of the cheering spectators who by this time knew his name and reputation as a local trick roper.
Within a year he had left the streets of Lawton behind and was seeing the world with his first Wild West show. It was a dramatic goodbye to Bee Ho’s youth as he entered the magical world of Wild West exhibitions and show business.
Wild West shows at the turn of the century were already well established by the time Bee Ho joined the Colonel Cummins’ Wild West Indian Congress and Rough Riders of the World. Colonel Frederick T. Cummins is best known for assembling the greatest-ever gathering of American Indians by organizing the Indian Congress that met at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. He later took his Wild West show to Europe from 1907 to 1911; he was a successful showman who had the backing of the Indian Bureau.
St. Louis, the fourth largest city in the United States at the time, hosted “The Greatest of Expositions” for seven months. By far the largest of several Victorian-era world’s fairs, it occupied more than 1,200 acres at the western edge of St. Louis. Officially known as the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition,” the fair commemorated the 1803 purchase of the territory that had more than doubled the size of the United States.
The main goal of the great fair was to serve an educational role. Once visitors paid the 50-cents admission fee they could roam the huge palaces and most other exhibits without additional charge.
Along the north side of the area but outside the actual fair grounds was the nearly mile-long “Pike,” where a variety of sideshows entertained, each charging its own admission fee. These shows included everything from performing animals to dancing girls from Spain and Ireland. About halfway down the Pike was the five-acre Colonel Cummins Wild West show. Many fair visitors actually spent more time on the Pike than they did at the fair itself.
From April 30 to December 1, 1904, the fair displayed the art, science and cultures of the world. President Theodore Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key from the East Room of the White House to dedicate the event on opening day. He attended the fair in person on November 26, five days before it closed. Nearly 20 million visitors toured the exhibits from more than 60 countries, 43 of the then 45 states and several U.S. territories. Hundreds of manufacturers and companies gathered to put on an unsurpassed display of civilization, history and culture.
Officially listed as Colonel Cummins’ Wild West Indian Congress and Rough Riders of the World, Cummins’ show performed in an arena designed for an audience of 15,000 people, each paying 20 cents for regular seating or 50 cents for a box seat (11).
Bee Ho was 19 years old when he started performing with Colonel Cummins’ show. He had handled ropes most of his life, but he didn’t start attempting rope tricks until after he saw the Pawnee Bill Wild West show when he was about 17 years old. It’s amazing to think that he had managed to find a significant position as a trick roper within two years, but the articles available indicate this was the case.
Bee Ho had dedicated himself to becoming a trick roper and performer. Perhaps he felt the call of destiny. Or perhaps he simply felt the call of greater opportunities than he could find on the ranches surrounding the Wichita Mountains. Boredom coupled with dreams of seeing the big cities of America likely created the ambition required to become a proficient roper in so short a time. Beyond that, it would soon be clear that Bee Ho also had unusual and rare abilities to perform the exact Western skills needed for the entertainment industry at that time in America’s history.
Stepping off of the plains of central Oklahoma and into the massive arenas of the fair, Bee Ho must have felt like the whole world was watching him. To stand among experienced trick ropers and famous performers in America’s fourth largest city must surely have unleashed a rush of adrenaline for a boy who had until then never ventured more than a hundred miles from home.
At the same time, Bee Ho found himself at home in some ways. He was among Indians and he could speak Comanche and use the sign language of the Plains Indians. In fact, he was among a living pantheon of Indian legends. It was a rare moment in American history that allowed such a gathering of Indian leaders to be assembled. Some of the famous Indian chiefs who took part in the show included Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Red Cloud, Red Shirt, American Horse, Blue Horse, Painted Horse, Flat Iron, Standing Bear, Rocky Bear, Black Heart, Black Bird, Yellow Shirt, Hollow Horn Bear, Ptopoto-lik, Little Bear, Oliver Living Bear, Henry Standing Bear, Stephen Medicine Cloud, Rain-in-the-Face, Crazy Head, Gall, Crow King, Spotted Tail and Seven Rabbits.
Each had a place in frontier history and nearly all the chiefs had fought in fierce, bloody battles with white men. It was a bizarre scene. Imagine if after World War II, the major generals of defeated Germany were paraded around in a public exhibition as an entertainment spectacle.
One chief of the Creeks, Crazy Snake, arrived in shackles because he and a band of warriors had recently been sentenced to eight years in prison for attacks on settlers in Indian Territory. A promotional booklet for the Colonel Cummins Indian Congress states:
Almost direct from the war path comes that noted War Chief of the Creek Indians, Chitto Harjo or Crazy Snake, with his band of fighting braves, who as late as February of the present year were on the war path, terrorizing the white population of the Indian Territory and causing the U.S. Troops and deputy marshals untold trouble and toil.
Crazy Snake and his warriors were finally captured by a band of deputy marshals under the leadership of Leo Bennett who is himself a fine specimen of the “Bad Man of the West.” Crazy Snake is a most wily Indian and is one of the very few remaining chiefs who is still unreconciled to the encroachments of the whites. He is probably the most cruel and rapacious Indian alive today unless we except old chief Geronimo who was considered in his day the worst Indian the world had ever seen, and who today, despite his extreme age, is feared by the U.S. Government and kept a prisoner of war.
Great trouble was experienced by manager Cummins in securing this chief and his band as he had been sentenced to eight years imprisonment, and the U.S. Government was reluctant to grant permission for him to appear (12).
Geronimo, the most feared Apache chief, also appeared with Cummins’ show, crafting and selling souvenir bows and arrows and posing for photographs with spectators.
Geronimo had fought off the U.S. Army Cavalry for years, and at the fair, he saw for the first time many of the modern marvels of the new world.
Fifty-one Indian tribes were represented, and altogether there were 800 cowboys and Indians. Keep in mind that at the turn of the 20th century, showmen didn’t have the liberty to simply hire Indians from Indian Territory. The hiring process involved government contracts that ensured fair compensation, food and clothing, travel and incidental expenses, medical attention and everything else that was requisite for their health, comfort and welfare. Managers of a Wild West show put up bonds of thousands of dollars (13).
Some of the show’s spectacles included riding demonstrations, target and trick shooting, rope tricks, re-enactments of Indian attacks on settlers’ cabins, bullfights and chariot races. Bee Ho’s experiences with Cummins’ venture were mentioned in The Lincoln [Nebraska] Sunday Star of February 10, 1918.
When Cummings [sic] Indian congress was organized for the St. Louis World’s fair, Bee Ho was among the cowboys chosen to make up the organization. He was with this outfit for two years, where he became so proficient in riding and roping that he won the title of world’s champion (14).
The shows were wild spectacles in themselves, but sometimes the events were unplanned and potentially dangerous. A near-riot occurred on August 14 when Humane Society officials tried to arrest some of the cowboys for inhumane treatment of the steers used in the roping exhibition. Detectives from the Humane Society actually entered the arena during a show to arrest the cowboys who had just roped a steer by the horns and leg and were demonstrating the way to throw the bovine for branding. As the detectives approached the cowboys, calls of “Look out, rube!” spread through the arena, a warning to let other performers know that a showman was in distress. That was followed by cries of “Anock e nee o tou!,” the equivalent in one of the Indian languages.
Before Humane Society detectives could do anything, they were surrounded by cowboys and Indians, several of whom had drawn their pistols. The performers attacked the officers, and the crowd piled onto the field to protest the cancellation of the show. Colonel Cummins was arrested (15).
On September 15, the performers re-enacted Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Bighorn with Colonel Cummins playing the role of Custer. As the smoke and dust cleared after the mock battle, the crowd must have realized that the Indians who had fought in the actual battle 25 years earlier had just re-enacted one of the proudest moments in their lives. As the applause of the massive audience echoed through the grandstands, it must have been a strange and humbling experience to take a bow while standing next to some of the most revered, respected, hated and feared figures of American history, depending on one’s perspective.
Among the large numbers of cowboys were both Bee Ho and another unknown roper from Indian Territory named Will Rogers. Rogers had just returned from South Africa where he had started with his first Wild West show, Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus; he had been billed as “The Cherokee Kid.” Because both Bee Ho and Rogers were trick ropers, they naturally became friends. Their paths crossed throughout their careers, each learning from and respecting the other’s talents.
Colonel Cummins’ show ran into a string of calamities and obstacles throughout the year, partly due to the obstinacy of Cummins himself.
He was kicked by a horse and suffered two broken ribs, but this was a minor event compared to the evening a disturbance erupted in the Indian Village. Two patrolmen arrived at 9:30 p.m. and found the wife of one of the Indian chiefs, Mrs. Iron Horse, lying among the teepees in a pool of blood. She was almost unconscious and had multiple gashes to her head. She spoke Chief Painted Horse’s name and then showed with signs that he had beaten her with a revolver. The police arrested Chief Painted Horse, who had a black eye, and locked him in the World’s Fair Police Station.
In another violent incident, one of the show’s partners, Zach Mulhall, shot three people as they exited from the Wild West arena. Mulhall was the father of the famous “first cowgirl,” Lucille “Bossie” Mulhall. He was also a livestock agent for the Frisco Railroad and the owner of ranches and cattle operations in Indian Territory.
Earlier that week, Mulhall had been arguing with Frank Reed, the boss hostler, who was in charge of the horses and cowboys. A few days later the argument resurfaced, causing both men to pull their revolvers. Mulhall had Reed arrested, and he had to pay a $50 fine. Worried about his safety, Reed asked Colonel Cummins to allow him to wear his weapon at all times. The official rule was that no employee of the show could do so except during performances, when blanks were used. Cummins told him not to worry. He would see to it that Mulhall did not bother him.
On the evening of June 18, Reed was standing in front of the exit chatting with several cowboys. When the final performance for the evening ended, it was almost 10 p.m. and spectators were exiting through the gates. The sound of gunfire could be heard all day and night in the area since the Wild West show and shooting gallery were right next to each other, and it was not unusual to hear gunpowder explosions.
When Mulhall exited with his son, Charles, and daughter, Lucille, he spotted Reed. He reached into his pocket and turned fast with his revolver in hand. He aimed it at Reed, who was unarmed, and said, “You’ve said you would shoot me. Now try it.”
“I’m not armed,” Reed said.” If you want to shoot, shoot. I haven’t got but one time to die anyhow.”
Mulhall lowered the revolver slightly, so Reed took his chance to spring onto him and try to take the gun. When people realized what was happening, they crushed and crowded to get out of the line of fire. John Murray, one of the cowboys Reed had been talking to, tried to break up the conflict. He tried to wrest the gun away from the struggling men but there was a flash and a shot. Murray stumbled away, hit in the abdomen. Mulhall pushed Reed off and took aim. He shot him through the arm. He fired again, hitting him in the neck. At that very second, an 18-year-old boy named Ernest Morgan was exiting the arena. The bullet passed through Reed’s neck and lodged in the boy’s abdomen. Two more shots were fired, but they hit nothing. Mulhall was the only one left standing. Three men lay on the ground writhing in pain. When he realized what he had done, he ran through an alley and away from the scene with his gun in his hand. Witnesses rushed to the aid of the wounded men and called for the police. By the time the horse-drawn patrol wagon arrived, Mulhall had returned to the scene without his revolver. His son and daughter were with him as he surrendered to the police. He was held without bail while the condition of his victims was assessed.
Over the course of the next 48 hours, Mulhall received more than 200 visitors, many of whom were quite powerful and wealthy, including influential politicians and lawyers. The police afforded him several unprecedented favors, including allowing him to remain in the corridors of the police station instead of in a jail cell. He was even escorted to a local barber shop so that he could receive a shave.
Morgan, the teenager who had been shot, was in the worst condition of all the victims. The bullet had passed through his intestines twice and remained lodged in his pelvis. After repeatedly denying bond, the judge suddenly had a change of heart. In spite of police department recommendations, Mulhall was released on $20,000 bail. There were rumors of bribery.
Eventually, it became clear that all three wounded men would survive the attack. Mulhall was no longer permitted to appear on the World’s Fair grounds. He separated his show from Cummins and moved it to the Delmar Race Track where he continued to operate it until the fair closed in December 1904 (16).
In January 1905, Mulhall was found guilty in a St. Louis courtroom of assault with intent to kill. He was sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary. He successfully appealed, but lost a suit brought by the family of Morgan, the boy who almost died, and was required to pay $20,000 in damages.
Cummins was still not in the clear with his legal problems at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Like all concession owners, Cummins had signed a contract with the fair’s board of directors that banned performances on Sunday. The stipulation about Sunday performances had been set forth by Congress as part of the rules for the fair.
Cummins decided that he wanted to hold performances on Sunday and requested permission from the exposition authorities. The request was denied, but Cummins rebutted, noting that his show was some distance from the Pike and therefore not actually within the fairgrounds or the jurisdiction of the board of directors. He proceeded to have an entrance built on the opposite end of his arena so that spectators could enter without having to go through the Pike. Other concession owners began to wonder why they had not thought up the scheme. Against the wishes of the board, Cummins advertised the performances heavily in the St. Louis newspapers and soon his Wild West show was being performed seven days a week. The news of the Sunday shows and the controversy over the way Cummins had snubbed the fair executives filled the papers. It didn’t take long until the matter was taken to court. Cummins lost and the show was sold by court order.
In what seemed like an impossible turn of events, Cummins had suddenly lost the show he had worked to build up for many years. It was taken over by Joseph S. McIntyre and was to be managed by Colonel Hugh Harrison, a former manager with the Walter Mains Circus. This prompted an immediate uproar among the cowboys. Most of them announced they were going out on strike unless they were allowed to work under the direction of Cummins. McIntyre summoned the cowboys the next morning and paid them for their last four days of work. As he handed each man his pay, he offered him the opportunity to continue working under new management. It is said that each and every man turned him down, saying that they would work for none other than Colonel Cummins. At this, McIntyre fired them on the spot and began arranging for new cowboys to be hired. The cowboys were so angered by this that they entered the arena through the rear entrance and shot up the kitchen and other buildings in the area, causing a stampede of people in the vicinity.
The Indians who had been hired and led by Cummins had not yet received their pay for the final four days of performances, and they had not made any statements regarding their feelings about the new management.
Finally, Sioux Chief Red Shirt, who was chosen to represent the Indians, had his turn speaking with McIntyre. He stood before him wearing a huge silver medal that had been presented to him by General Ulysses S. Grant in 1871. Speaking through an interpreter, he explained the Indians’ high regard for Cummins and stated that none of the Indians would perform except under his direction. He also expressed their grievances about not receiving their final pay, but asserted that payment would not change their decision. McIntyre allowed them to have breakfast and asked them to think over their decision, but he told them they would be required to vacate the World’s Fair grounds if they did not choose to perform under his direction.
After breakfast, about 240 cowboys and 170 Indians moved their quarters to Handlan’s Park where they made a camp. Soon after the story of the unemployed performers reached the citizens of St. Louis, they held a benefit to help raise funds so the cowboys and Indians could make their way back to their homes and reservations.
McIntyre filled some vacancies with cavalrymen and ran ads in area newspapers and soon filled all the cowboy positions. It was clear to the striking cowboys that there was no shortage of replacements. Instead of making their way back to their homes, most of the cowboys and Indians conceded defeat and returned to their old positions under the new management (17). Bee Ho was one of the cowboys who returned to his job.
When the St. Louis World’s Fair came to an end, Bee Ho and the rest of the troupe of Western performers boarded trains to return to their homes and families to await the 1905 season.
Frederick T. Cummins managed to regain control of his show in 1905, when it opened the season simply as “Cummins’ Wild West.” Four elephants, one camel and seven cages of wild animals were added to the show when it opened the new season on June 1, 1906, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Bee Ho remained with Colonel Cummins’ show through the 1906 season, cutting his teeth as an entertainer and preparing for the opportunities that would open up for him in the years ahead (18).