The details of Samuel Franklin Cody’s early life from the age of thirteen, when it is known he was still attending school in Davenport, Iowa, until 1888 when, at the age of twenty one he was working and travelling with Adam Forepaugh’s Circus and Wild West show are, as yet, unknown. In that same year, during a visit to Norristown, Pennsylvania, he met the young brunette Maud Maria Lee. The pair kept in touch with each other after the show had moved on and when, in the spring of the following year, it returned Cody and Maud were married. By this time the Cowdery surname had been replaced by ‘Cody Jnr.’ and the profession stated on his wedding certificate was ‘sharp shooter and cowboy and pistol shot.’ Maud joined Cody in his act and together they toured America. In one newspaper article they were described as ‘The greatest living revolver shots. Breaking balls held in each others mouth and equally difficult shots, using 45 caliber revolvers.’ In June 1890 Cody sailed for England and Maud followed shortly after.
The first mention of Cody in England was at a theatre in St. Helens and shortly afterwards they both appeared in Glasgow advertised as ‘The Champion Pistol Shots of the World.’ During the next few years Cody and his wife found work in music halls both giving displays of trick shooting. Perhaps their most unusual performance was given at the Olympia Skating Rink in a ‘Burlesque of the Wild West,’ performed on roller skates. The couple were often billed as ‘Captain Cody, son of the great Buffalo Bill and his sister.’ Public Record Office documents describe how, in June 1891 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Company and William Frederick Cody took S. F. Cody’s agent to court to stop him using the terms ‘son of Buffalo Bill’ and ‘Wild West Show.’
During 1892 the double act grew into ‘S. F. Cody and Company’ and later to ‘S. F. Cody and Infant son and Company.’ Cody’s wife told her family back home in America that her husband had met an English woman with sons and she had taught them how to shoot. It is not known exactly when Maud was replaced by the English woman Elizabeth (Lela) King but it was Lela and her sons Edward, Leon and Vivian who, in 1893, accompanied Cody on his European tour. Subsequently Maud led a very sad life in America spending her last forty one years in the Norristown State Hospital.
The act, by this time had branched out into races between Cody, or occasionally another member of his new family, on horseback and the champion cyclists of the day. They toured Europe for several years and in most places Cody was mistaken either for his namesake Buffalo Bill Cody or for one of his relations. In 1896, when performing in Malta, Cody stood on the backs of two horses and raced a cyclist and also took on two men who were pitted against him in a wrestling bout. Cody needless to say, won both events.
By 1897 the family were back in England, still racing against cyclists, performing chariot races and acting out scenes from the Wild West. The family fortunes took a turn for the better when, in 1898, they ventured into the world of the legitimate theatre appearing in a ‘Wild West Melodrama,’ an entertainment very popular with the audiences of the day, and written by Cody himself. The play ‘The Klondyke Nugget’ (see image below) was first performed in its entirety on 5th December 1898 and this ‘sensational American drama’ toured the length and breadth of the country. The whole family were required to act and Cody usually played the villain – enjoying a very dramatic death at the close of the play. Other dramas followed Nevada, Viva A Woman at War, Calamity Jane but none achieved the same success as ‘The Klondyke Nugget’ (understandably so if you read them!).
Cody now had the financial security needed to fund his ever growing interest in kites and he gradually began to reduce the time he spent on theatre work while increasing that on kite experiments.