While much of the U.S. is sitting around lamenting the fact that we don’t get the next season of “Downton Abbey” until January, I thought it would be fun to explore the life of a different sort of lady. These days, Nan Aspinwall and her horse, Lady Ellen, may not be as familiar to most people as the Dowager Countess and her granddaughter, Lady Edith, but believe you me, Nan’s story doesn’t disappoint!
Nan Jeanne Aspinwall was born in Nebraska in 1880, but she was not your typical female of the day (or any day, for that matter). She was not a gal to be satisfied working on her quilt squares or doing other “proper” womanly things. Instead, she honed her skills as a sharpshooter, archer, trick roper, stunt rider and bull rider. But that’s not all…
Her Name was Nan. She was a Showgirl.
Did I mention that Nan became a showgirl? I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill hurdy-gurdy girl. Nope. Nan was a bona fide, la-di-da, “Oriental dancer,” who went by the stage name, Princess Omene. It was 1899 and the lovely Nan had surely gotten in on the bottom floor of Nebraska’s burgeoning belly dancing industry!
In life, one thing tends to lead to another. It certainly did for Nan. East met West and, by around 1905, Nan’s performing background collided with her Western skills. She hung up her harem pants and hip scarves and picked up a gun and a rope. She began appearing under the name, “Montana Girl,” and showcasing her skills as a sharpshooter, horse woman and roper. In 1906, she began appearing with her first husband, Frank Gable, as a “Lariat Expert.” They performed with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Troupe. She must have been worth seeing, because, Nan eventually became the highest paid performer with the troupe.
Redefining “Woman’s Work”
We can’t be surprised to learn that Nan was never one to back away from a challenge. Buffalo Bill and Pawnee Bill must have known that when, in 1909, they suggested that she take a little horseback ride. Well, maybe they didn’t suggest it as much as they dared her to do it. And maybe it wasn’t just a little horseback ride. Maybe it was a solo, cross-country horseback ride.
If a woman riding a horse across country doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, remember that no woman had ever done it. Ever. They weren’t exactly daring her to see the U.S.A. in her Chevrolet! They might as well have dared her to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean! (Fortunately, her story has a happier ending than Amelia Earhart’s would, almost thirty years later.)
By 1910, Nan was ready to accept the challenge and tackle a ride from San Francisco to New York City. She knew she would need a Thoroughbred horse. She found her travelling partner in pretty mare named Lady Ellen. Nan and Lady Ellen set off in September of 1910. They were carrying basic supplies and a letter from San Francisco’s Mayor McCarthy addressed to New York’s Mayor Gaynor.
Along the way, Nan refused to let anyone else tend to Lady Ellen. She reported that she even shoed the horse fourteen times, during the journey. Theirs was not a one-sided relationship, though.
Lady Ellen was credited with saving Nan’s life, when the duo became lost on the mountains of Utah. Nan’s attempt to take a short cut had backfired, as short cuts so often do. The pair roamed aimlessly until nightfall, without food or water. The following morning, Nan tied Lady Ellen and climbed a peak in an attempt to get her bearings.
Nan’s attempt failed. She also failed to find the spot where she had tied Lady Ellen. While Nan wandered around the mountainside, Lady Ellen neighed with impatience. It was the sound of those neighs that guided Nan to her horse. The pair spent another day trying to get off the mountain. Finally, Nan left everything up to the horse. Lady Ellen led and Nan followed. They went up a peak and down a slope that was so steep they slid much of the way. The bottom of that slope found them in a railroad camp, where the railroad men cared for them for about a week.
There were other adventures along the way. Nan told stories of shooting up a couple of inhospitable towns. People should have known better than to mess with Two-Gun Nan!
Are We There Yet?
All told, the two traveled for 180 days and covered 4,496 miles. On July 9, 1911, the New York Times reported, “A travel-stained woman attired in a red shirt and divided skirt and seated on a bay horse drew a crowd to City Hall yesterday afternoon.” Nan was a celebrity! With celebrity flair and the showmanship that had so defined her life, it is reported that she ended the trek by riding Lady Ellen into the freight elevator of a 12-story building and taking it to the top floor!
Newspaper reports also mention that Nan was awarded a diamond medal for endurance by Richard K. Fox, the publisher of The National Police Gazette. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Frank Hopkins took that part of Nan’s story and “made it his own.” It was featured in the movie “Hidalgo,” even though there are no substantiating reports to indicate that Frank Hopkins received such a medal.
Into the Sunset
Following the ride, Nan and her husband started their own Wild West Show. Frank Gable died in 1929 and Nan’s show biz career ended. She married again, in the 1930s to Al Lambell. Little is known about her life, during that time.
Nan’s story was recounted in 1942, on a radio broadcast of “Death Valley Days.” In 1958, the infamous ride of Two-Gun Nan was the subject of an episode of the “Judge Roy Bean” television show. And, in 1960, Nan served as technical advisor for a television episode of “Death Valley Days,” which focused on her history-making ride.
In 1964, Nan Jeanne Aspinwall Gable Lambell died at the age of 84, in San Bernardino, California. Her death certificate listed her occupation as a life-long housewife. Yep, she spent the last thirty years of her life doing “womanly things” and blending into the crowd. I still wish that death certificate had listed her occupation as a “sharpshooting, bull-riding, trick roping, stunt-riding, belly dancing, dare taking, split skirt wearing, adventure seeking, trail blazer turned housewife.” Take that, “Downton Abbey”!
Happy trails, y’all!