The Mulhalls of Oklahoma

Will Rogers fans may know the name of influential Wild West showman Colonel Zack Mulhall (Zachariah P. Vanderveer, 1847-1923) — he’s the gent who gave Rogers his start in show business. He’s apparently no relation to silent movie star Jack Mulhall, who was from upstate New York.

Zack Mulhall was orphaned as a child and raised by a Catholic uncle and aunt in St. Louis, attending Catholic schools and (briefly) The University of Notre Dame. As a young man, he got a job transporting cattle for the railroads, which led to taking part in big cattle drives through Kansa, Texas and the Indian Territory (prior to its statehood as Oklahoma). In 1875 he married his adopted sister Mary Agnes Mulhall, which must have raised a few eyebrows, as must his nickname for her, which was “Mother”. Mulhall took part in the Oklahoma land rush in 1889, staking out 160 acres for himself. At its largest extent, Mulhall’s ranch would encompass 80,000 acres. The area (not far from Oklahoma City) became the town on Mulhall, Oklahoma.

Not long after setting there, Mulhall (who was friends of the Miller Brothers of the 101 Ranch in nearby Ponca City) began staging riding and roping contest, the star of which rapidly became his daughter Lucille Mulhall (1880-1941).

Along with Annie Oakley, Lucille is widely regarded as the first cowgirl (a term coined on her behalf by Will Rogers), as she was so skilled that she could beat most men in rodeo competitions. Teddy Roosevelt became a fan when he saw her in action at a Rough Riders Reunion in the year 1900. Lucille performed not only for her father, but also with the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West show. As we have mentioned, Will Rogers got his start with Mulhall, as would Tom Mix, later to become one of the first movie cowboys.

In 1904 Zack brought his show to the Louisiana Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair). He hired 750 Native Americans (including Geronimo) to perform at this exhibition. But his run only lasted six weeks. Angry at a man in a dispute about horses, Mulhall opened fire on him, wounding him and two additional passers-by. None of the men died, and Mulhall only did a little time in jail over the incident, but needless to say, Mulhall was barred from the fair, one of history’s most spectacular, which lasted six months. He paid some large fines (and probably some large bribes), left the show business, and continued ranching and remained a local bigwig in Oklahoma for his remaining years.

Meanwhile, Lucille continued performing the Wild West circuit as well as vaudeville. In 1905 she was in two short films produced by Edison. In 1907 she made the cover of Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly as the world champion lariat thrower. In 1913 she started her own Wild West show, and 1916 her own rodeo, Lucille Mulhall’s Roundup. For a time her opening act was a cowboy singer named Martin Van Bergen, whom she married in 1907 and had a child with. The pair were divorced in 1914. She later married a Texas cattle baron named Thomas Burnett, though the pair separated within a year. She retired from full time performing circa 1922, although she emerged occasionally after that. In 1925 she was in film called The Cherokee Strip produced by the Miller Bothers. She still made the occasional personal appearance through the 1930s. She died in 1940 in a car accident. She was taken to her final resting place in a horse drawn hearse.

In 1999, 80% of the town of Mulhall was destroyed in a tornado. For many years Lucille’s Restaurant was a local attraction in the town. It survived until 2018.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.