May was born “Mary” on March 12, 1869 in Philadelphia. Her parents were William and Mary Manning. May had two sisters, Elmira and Elizabeth Manning and a younger brother, William Manning Jr. May also had two half brothers, Samuel and Edward. She married Gordon William Lillie (who became famous as Pawnee Bill) in 1886. In 1887 May gave birth to a child who died in infancy.
Gordon Lillie's wedding gift to his bride had been a pony and a Marlin .22 target rifle. A natural shot, May traveled the country as the “Champion Girl Horseback Shot of the West.” Lillie starred his petite wife in his Wild West shows as a sharpshooter and expert “lady” rider. She was one of the first women to perform as an equestrian and shooter in American Wild West Shows. While on tour in 1907, May gave a speech to women in Chicago, she said: “Let any normally healthy woman who is ordinarily strong screw up her courage and tackle a bucking bronco, and she will find the most fascinating pastime in the field of feminine athletic endeavor. There is nothing to compare, to increase the joy of living, and once accomplished, she’ll have more real fun than any pink tea or theater party or ballroom ever yielded.”
Eventually May and Gordon settled in Pawnee, Oklahoma on Blue Hawk Peak. They built a cabin, established a buffalo herd, and, in 1910, completed work on their Arts and Crafts style home. In 1916 May and Gordon adopted a son whom they named Billy. Tragically, he died in an accident at the ranch in 1925. While her husband was on tour, May was the hands-on manager of the Lillie buffalo ranch. She believed in the buffalo’s importance to the heritage of the American West and to Plains Indian culture. May was active in the Women’s Relief Corp and was a member of the Eastern Star. She starred in “May Lillie, Queen of the Buffalo Ranch,” a film produced at the ranch. In 1936 she and her husband celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in Taos, New Mexico. In September of that year they attended a local celebration in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While driving back to their ranch that night Gordon lost control of their vehicle. May died on September 17, 1936 as a result of injuries sustained in the accident.
Tintle, Rhonda. "Pawnee Bill Lives!" Seminar research paper. University of Oklahoma, 2007
Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma, Lillie, Gordon William. Gordon William Lillie, 1860-1942