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Wild Women: Trickshooter Plinky Topperwein and Millie Bailey, Circus Queen of the Southwest

by Louie Bond

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.” – Maya Angelou


TAKING HER BEST SHOT

In the days before television, movies and computers, entertainment came to small towns in Texas by boot or hoof, wagon or train. The tedium of long days of toil and endless summer heat would be broken by the sounds of excitement and gunshots when The Tops — the husband-and-wife team of Ad and Plinky Topperwein — brought their traveling Winchester trick-shooting show to town.

“In those days, hunting and recreational shooting were everyday activities,” John Stein, Buckhorn Museum curator, reminds us. “Outdoors was where all life was spent, and trap and sporting-clay shooting were big.”

For 40 years they toured North America, making audiences gasp at their antics. She would shoot shotgun shells from his hands or things dangling from his lips. He’d shoot glass marbles off her palm. They’d ask the tallest man in the audience to toss objects high into the air — cans, cards, coins, eggs, marbles and more — and then hit each one. They won every shooting contest around and were featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not several times.

They met in that old-movie-setup kind of way. Adolph, born in Boerne, was a sales representative for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, and Elisabeth, 20, ran a cartridge-making machine for the company. Ad, the son of a gunsmith, had become enchanted with the Wild West shows and taught himself all the shooting tricks he had seen. Though he’d found some renown as a shooting star, Winchester kept him away from his passion and more involved with business. On a trip to New Haven, Connecticut, the pair met and wed a year later, in 1903. Elisabeth called her new husband “Daddy.”

Soon, Winchester relented and allowed Ad to travel around as an exhibition shooter, promoting their products to enthusiastic crowds. When Elisabeth grew bored at home, Ad taught her to shoot, discovering she had a real knack for the sport.

“I plinked it!” she proclaimed proudly when she hit her first can, and her famed nickname was born. She was known as Plinky for the rest of her life.

Photo courtesty of the TSHA

Ad was amazed at his new wife’s talent and took her out on the road. At first, Winchester didn’t pay Plinky’s expenses, and money was tight, but they persevered, and the company eventually hired her, too. Their big debut as a show couple came at a six-month stint at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, just after their only child was born. First known as the Famous Topperweins or the Wonderful Topperweins, they eventually became known as The Tops.

The couple toured extensively; it was a rough, grueling life. They traveled on trains nearly every day, performed in the harshest of weather and then stayed in modest hotels, gaining some local notoriety when they shot a rat at one. Their young son was raised by his grandmother and aunt while they toured.

Plinky scored a lot of firsts during her career. She was the first U.S. woman to qualify as a national marksman using a military rifle. She was the only female member of a national championship team. She set individual records for both men and women, some of which still stand today. She also held the world endurance trap-shooting record of 1,952 of 2,000 targets in five hours and 20 minutes. Plinky was the first woman to break 100 straight trap-shooting targets; she accomplished this feat more than 200 times.

She was so talented that even the most famous female sharpshooter of the day was a fan.

“Mrs. Top, you’re the greatest shot I’ve ever seen,” Annie Oakley once told her.

Perfection can get boring, this entertaining couple learned, so they spiced up the act a bit for the audience. They occasionally missed on purpose, to heighten suspense. To everyone’s delight, Ad would stop and kiss Plinky every time he missed. But it was all an act — the skilled couple never suffered an accident in their decades of performing.

During World War II, the Topperweins took their act to many military installations; it would be their final tour together. In 1945 Plinky died at home in San Antonio after a heart attack. Ad never remarried and kept touring for Winchester until 1951. There’s a display of Topperwein memorabilia at the Buckhorn Saloon and Museum in San Antonio.


SEND IN THE CLOWNS

Born in the middle of the 19th century, “Aunt” Mollie Bailey brought lively entertainment to small towns across the country in the form of a traveling circus. Not content to merely be an extraordinary entrepreneur, Mollie’s also remembered as a Civil War nurse and spy, mother of nine and, perhaps unintentionally, a land conservationist.

Born in Alabama, strong-willed Mollie was an actress from a young age, staging shows with her sisters, but also liked to follow her father around and watch him manage their plantation. Hoping she’d outgrow her tomboy ways, her parents sent her off to boarding school. But while home on school vacation in 1858 at age 14, Mollie met Gus Bailey, the son of a circus owner, and asked for permission to marry him. The young couple eloped, and Mollie’s father never forgave her.

While traveling with Gus’ father’s show, Mollie convinced Gus that they needed their own show, and she snuck home to the family plantation to “borrow” a few horses and wagons they needed. Their subsequent vaudeville show, the Bailey Family Troupe, featuring the couple and their sister and brother, was short-lived.

In 1861, Gus enlisted in the Civil War and was transferred to a regiment in Hood’s Texas Brigade, performing with Hood’s Minstrels, a group of musicians, singers and actors. Mollie, who had volunteered as a nurse, and her sister Fannie joined the minstrels to entertain the troops. During this time, though she never spoke of it later, Mollie acted as a spy. She hid packets of badly needed quinine in her large pompadour hairdo and smuggled them back to the soldiers. Another time, she disguised herself as an old woman and infiltrated the enemy camp to get information while handing out cookies.

After the war, the Baileys settled in Arkansas and started a tent show with trapeze, singing/dancing, contortionist and orchestra. The couple’s talented sons and daughters all performed. Mollie was 32, and since Gus was in poor health, she ran the show. They longed to move to Texas after hearing about the land and opportunities there, and in 1885, they bought a home in Dallas and lived there for 30 years. The new tent show they formed there had three bona-fide rings — a real circus, “A Texas Show for Texas People.”

This show played only in small towns, so there would be no competition and no advertising expense. Folks in those towns stopped everything when the circus came parading into town: Mollie in the lead, daughter Birda on a black horse with long skirt sweeping, a painted wagon filled with trained birds, one son’s trained dogs and another’s trained horses, followed by clowns and a menagerie of animals.

Gus had to return home, and the show became the Mollie A. Bailey Show and was extremely popular. Mollie paid everyone from her big black purse and came up with a brilliant idea that made her quite the land conservationist, perhaps unintentionally. Instead of paying steep rent, Mollie bought town sites for the show, then let the communities use the land the rest of the year for baseball games and camp meetings. Everywhere Mollie Bailey traveled, she preserved parkland. She died in 1918.

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