Old Letters Confirm The Showman’s Courtship With Molly Moses
By George T. Wilson
When the widow Molly Moses died in Morganfield, Union County, Kentucky, she left behind a trunk full of memories and a heart full of bitter-sweet sorrow, all because she chose to follow the star-spangled trail of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
For years after the haughty Mrs. Moses returned to a rude Morganfield shack, she spent many hours alone with rats, squalor, and dirt, but her mind many times danced with the memories.
Instead of the rags which clothed her, she envisioned bright costumes of silk and leather. Instead of the filth about her, she saw polished furniture, white napery, shining glass, and silver.
Instead of the prosaic streets of Morganfield, she saw broad boulevards of far-flung cities. Instead of a wrinkled old lady, she saw herself as a dashing Kentucky beauty riding hell-bent for leather down those boulevards, moving gracefully in those drawing rooms, wearing those bedazzling costumes.
Molly Moses, once the favored darling of the renowned Col. William F. Cody, had known better days.
Mrs. Penbroke Pinckney of Collierville, Tennessee, sold four letters for $250 each that the legendary scout and showman wrote
Mrs. Moses. They were the last trace of the star-crossed romance. Mrs. Pinckney lived in Morganfield as a girl (she was Kate Waggner then) and inherited the letters from her parents, who knew and befriended the one- time Wild West Show rider. She remembers stories about Molly Moses that were told and retold by friends and members of her family.
It was in 1885 that the fabled army scout, who nine years earlier had met the famous Cheyenne warrior Yellow Hand in hand-to-hand combat and in the Indians’ own custom, scalped him, met, and had his first exchange of letters with the Morganfield widow.
Not yet 40, William Cody looked back on a life as an army scout (his distinguished service won him the Congressional Medal of Honor), Pony Express rider, hunter, Indian fighter, and circus showman. He inevitably became known as Buffalo Bill after his smoking Winchester downed 4,280 bison in 18 months to supply meat for the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
Bill Cody had been a scout under General Philip Sheridan, one of three Union officers in the Civil War, to subsequently reach the rank of general. Among his close friends and Wild Bill Hickok, stage driver, United States marshal and famed “mankiller” of the plains. A decade earlier he formed the nucleus of his Wild West Show, and he was now reaping the fruits of his gallant and colorful life.
The fame of Buffalo Bill, thanks to his biographer, Ned Buntline, had spread beyond the shores of the United States. Crowned heads on the continent turned when the name of the handsome, dashing showman was mentioned.
It was no small wonder that this man among men saw the admiration of the beautiful widow from Morganfield, especially when it is considered that Molly Moses was an accomplished horsewoman and adventurous in the extreme. Certainly other captivated young women must have met and written love notes to Colonel Cody, but apparently none intrigued him more than the Western Kentucky belle.
Letters written by Colonel Cody and stories told by Molly’s lifelong friend, Mrs. Lily Wright, reveal that the love affair between the two began in 1885 when the Wild West Show performed at the old Uniontown Fairgrounds. In a letter dated November 18th of that year from Shawneetown, Illinois (only 16 miles away, but across the Ohio River), the Colonel thanked Molly for a picture she had drawn of him (she was a skillful artist) and a flag she had given him.
The Colonel regretted he could not have thanked her in person. He expressed hopes of hearing from her again and enclosed the route of the Wild West Show which was to wind up for the winter on December 20, 1885, in New Orleans, where an earlier World’s Fair was in progress.
The Morganfield widow was thrilled with such an answer and excited about seeing the circus showman again. Probably from the beginning, hero worship and love flared two twin flames in her heart. In any event, the correspondence continued and the Colonel’s interest in the Kentucky widow matched her infatuation with the glamorous showman.
Molly Moses was not just a love-struck girl but a mature woman—experienced, intelligent, and sophisticated. She had acquired the name Moses from her first husband, a Sedalia, Montana, businessman. Following his death, she returned to Morganfield and married a man named Ash, but their union was of short duration.
Her only child, a daughter by her first husband, died at an early age. Many have speculated that it was the poignant grief of a deprived mother that warped Molly Moses’ soul, that fired her to reckless deeds, and sent her, sour and sullen, to a pauper’s grave.
With her hawkish features and imperial air, Molly was a striking character. She was well-educated and had completed a course at nearby St. Vincent’s Academy for girls. In addition to her talents in artistic ways, she was a student of literature and an omnivorous reader.
Molly Moses had a feeling for the dramatic, a flare for the spectacular. She was a conspicuous figure everywhere she went.
It required an unusual woman to attract the famous Indian fighter and world traveler who probably could have called women with a crook of his finger to wherever his circus tents were staked down.
In this letter from Birmingham, Alabama (letters came from scattered areas of the nation, as might be expected of a showman), Colonel Cody expressed his continued interest in their trails coming together again:
“My Dear: Yours of the 11th received. You say you are not my little favorite or I would take the time to come and see you. My dear, you know that it is impossible for me to leave my show. I have 150 people and my expenses are $1,000 a day. I can’t leave them surely. I would come if it were possible, and I can’t say when I can come either, but I hope to some day. Yes, dear, if I get near your home so that you can come, I want you to be sure to do so.”
Still later from the fairgrounds in New Orleans, the ex- Indian fighter showed even greater interest in Molly and took her deeper into his confidence:
“…I am still having rain weather and losing lots of money. But will make it up when I get North. Don’t fear, I will send the locket and the picture soon, Little Pet. It is impossible for me to write from every place, but will think of you from every place.
I have two little girls and have lost a little boy. My wife and I have been separated but are not divorced yet. That’s what I meant by saying I am not yet a single man. No, dear, I am not afraid to trust you with my secrets. You know, now, all about my family affairs. Little Pet, don’t think I’ve forgotten you if I don’t write oftener. I will write you whenever I can. With fond love, Will.”
Still another letter came from Buffalo Bill while he was in New Orleans. From it he had become even more enamored with the belle from Western Kentucky. In his flowing handwriting, he expressed these sentiments:
“…I will send you the locket and picture. I know if I had a dear little someone, you can guess whom, to play and sing for me, it would drive away the blues. Who knows but what some day I may have her, eh?
“I can’t say yet for certain if I will go to Europe this spring or not—will keep you posted. Now, as you have asked from my picture, I want to do the same, so please send me yours and without delay, won’t you?
“With love and a kiss to my little girl from her big boy, W. F. Cody.”
The reference to Europe was a foretaste of the triumphant tour of the continent the following year, 1887. The plainsman’s legendary experiences (covered in his book, “The Life of Hon. William F. Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, an autobiography,” published eight years earlier) had established him as a folk hero there, and he was greeted with enthusiastic applause wherever his Wild West Show appeared.
Piecing together the sequence of the letters left behind, it is evident that their interest in each other heightened until in April of the next year, Colonel Cody wrote Molly Moses to meet him at the St. James Hotel in St. Louis on May 3rd when his show was to open an engagement.
It is apparent that she had described her horsemanship, had asked to be permitted to join the show, and be always at his side. In all probability she told him of her talents as pianist, singer, and artist, for she was an exceedingly clever woman.
In the final letter in the chain, the frontiersman wrote: “Go to the St. James Hotel, and if I am not there to meet you, I will be there anyhow by the 3rd. I have got you the white horse, and fine saddle. Suppose you will have your habit. With love, W. F. C.”
Molly Moses, who had been Molly Payne, member of a wealthy old Morganfield family, must have been on cloud nine. True to her willful character, she was ready to wrench herself from the rigid environment of her hometown and ride into circus stardom.
Very little news of Molly’s travels with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show drifted back to Morganfield. But Mrs. Wright did have some humorous stories of Molly adjusting to the rigors of circus life. One was that the cowboys sat her on a bronco the first day and unthinkingly let her ride for countless miles in the pre-show parade. Molly went into her first performance sore and stiff, with her pride intact.
There followed the adventurous life of a road show in the late 1880s. No one knows exactly what Molly went through during those years, and the townspeople of Morganfield had nearly ceased to speculate about her when she reappeared.
One thing seems certain. There were no more letters from the gallant scout, and there was no one with enough audacity to question what crushed the flowering romance. It may be that Colonel Cody responded to the strong ties binding him to his family, which he loved exceedingly. At the least, the flame had burned out.
What followed was the spectacle of a gentlewoman’s decay. Molly no longer galloped a handsome thoroughbred haughtily down the streets, exhibiting magnificent horsemanship. She began to hide herself away. Her hiding place was a little house provided by a kindly resident of Morganfield, a house filled with gifts from the illustrious scout and curios collected from the far corners of the nation.
At first, when she returned, she had been a heroine to the neighboring children. They visited her in gangs to listen to her circus tales and inspect the odds and ends she kept: firearms, daggers, twirling ropes, curious shells and stones, and some of her own drawings.
But poverty began to clutch her in its iron grasp. One by one she sold the gifts: spurs, bridles, and things like that. But Molly clung desperately to a large photograph of Colonel Cody and the saddle he had given her, beautifully carved and decorated with silver. These and the letters were the only souvenirs she had of that wild, free interlude in her life.
Mrs. Pinckney, daughter of a Morganfield grocer who provided Molly with baskets of groceries, remembered Molly as “a curiosity in our town.”
“I have always heard of rusty black clothes, but she is the only woman I ever saw wearing them,” Mrs. Pinckney recalled. “A veil always covered her face. I passed her one day with my father and he said, “Good morning, Miss Molly.” She turned and answered, “Willis, why don’t you say Cousin Molly?” She apparently believed that we were distantly related.”
Ninety-five-year-old Polk L. Markham said that Colonel Cody met Mrs. Moses at the Uniontown Fairgrounds, but doesn’t know the circumstances. He remembered that after her return to Morganfield that she “enclosed herself in her little house and would not be seen for days. When she exited her house, it was at night when most people were retired. If her neighbors had not placed food on her porch, she probably would have starved to death.”
District Judge Tom D. Harris of Morganfield said he “vaguely” remembered Mrs. Moses living “at the corner of Court and McElroy,” although he has no recollection of ever seeing her and thinks he was about seven when she died.
“My aunt (Mrs. Wright) would leave food on Mrs. Moses’ porch which would be retrieved after dark. After her death, my aunt apparently was in charge of settling her estate and took me through the home with her. Mrs. Moses lived in the midst of rooms of junk, and her only company were the rats.”
Mrs. Lillie Tapp in Benton, Marshall County, Kentucky, recalled that Mrs. Moses used to visit her grandmother in Morganfield. “I don’t remember much because I was young and was usually sent out to play.
“I did have a piano and Mrs. Moses could play very well. To me she was just an older woman. Later after grandmother died, it seemed all of us children were afraid to even meet Mrs. Moses on the street. She wore long black dresses, and we heard reports that she carried a dagger in an old black umbrella that she used as a cane for her walks.”
More and more as the years rolled on, Molly Moses became a recluse. Feebleness or indifference caused her to ignore the dirt which overwhelmed her living quarters. Shame or pride caused her to refuse admittance to anyone except her old friend, Mrs. Wright.
Then a tragedy struck like summer lightening, climaxing the dramatic incidents that market her life. Her brother was killed, and Molly Moses called it murder. Standing on the fresh mound of his newly-closed grave, she theatrically vowed: “My brother, your murder shall be avenged! If not by the court, then by my own right hand, so help me God!”
The court exonerated the man of his plea of self defense, and the unsatisfied desire for revenge further embittered the remainder of her life.
From then on she withdrew still more within herself. The mourning veil constantly hid her face. Until her eyesight became dim, she would read into the small hours of the morning and sleep in the daytime.
Townsfolk were afraid of this odd, warped character. Most were glad enough to leave her alone. But kind-hearted little boys brought her kindling and stove wood during the bitter winters, and her constant friend, Mrs. Wright, got her a coal oil stove. Food mysteriously appeared from time to time on her window sill.
Rats found a natural abode among the filth and debris, and it was gossiped about that the lonely old woman made pets of some of them.
Then came a day when she “got down and her splendid isolation was splendid no more. Her friend Mrs. Wright was still the only visitor permitted beyond the locked doors, and it took her three days to persuade the ill former Wild West Show rider to go to the county home where she could be cared for medically and nutritionally.
On one of those three nights, while she was alone, the rats took advantage of her feebleness and bit her severely. Mrs. Pinckney remembered the year Molly Moses died. She recalls that it was 1927 (a decade after Colonel Cody died at 73) and that she was 11. “I remember the day they took her to the poor house. People talked about how
many bars of soap it took to clean her up.”
But it was too late for either cleanliness or medical attention to matter greatly. In the infirmary, blood poisoning from the rat bites set in and within a week Molly Moses, who rode with Buffalo Bill, was dead, demanding an unusual way to die as he had demanded unusual ways to live.
George Wilson, 1733 Union Avenue, Apt. 601, Memphis, TN 38104, shares this article with our readers. At the time this article was written in 1984, Mr. Wilson had copies of the letters that the old buffalo hunter went to Molly.
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