This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
The St. Louis World’s Fair may have been the first time Ad and Plinky Toepperwein performed in public as husband and wife, but the couple from the Lone Star State wowed the matinee audience on May 14, 1904 with their trick-shot artistry.
Born in Boerne during the post-Civil War occupation, Adolph Toepperwein was raised by immigrant parents at Leon Springs on the outskirts of San Antonio. With a gunsmith for a father, the boy became proficient with firearms at very early age.
Ad was just 13, when his dad’s sudden death made schooling a luxury his widowed mother could not afford. The lad found unskilled work at a pottery shop to help her keep a roof over their heads.
Later that year, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came through the Alamo City with Doc Carver, the celebrated marksman with the shoulder-length locks. Widely acknowledged as the greatest shot alive, he also was billed as “the most handsome man who ever held a gun.”
The dazzling deadeye inspired young Ad to take his shooting seriously, but practice meant shells and lots of them. To keep the bullets coming, he turned his ability to draw into a better paying job as a cartoonist for one of the daily newspapers in town.
George Walker recognized talent when he saw it, and the 20 year old triggerman he hired for his local theater in 1889 had it coming out his ears. Walker took Ad on an all-expenses-paid trip to New York, where he talked a vaudeville booking agent and a curious newspaper reporter into a live audition.
The headline in the next day’s edition of the New York World said it all: “The boy from Texas who put shooting galleries out of business at Coney Island.”
After two years of sharing the stage with everything from trained dogs to sword swallowers, Ad moved up to top gun with the Orin Brothers Circus. Eight years under the big top ended with the Winchester Repeating Arms Company signing him to a long-term contract as an exhibition shooter.
Ad spent most of his time on the road except for occasional visits to the Winchester plant in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1902 he met a cartridge assembler named Elizabeth Servaty and after a short courtship married the 18 year old redhead, also of German stock.
The last thing the new bride wanted to be was a stay-at-home wife. Even though she never had fired a weapon in her life, she sweet-talked her skeptical husband in teaching her to shoot.
Elizabeth was a natural. Within a month, she was shooting chalk and crayons out of Ad’s hands and mouth.
During target practice with tin cans, Elizabeth invented her own nickname by announcing, “I plinked it!” From that day on, it was Ad and Plinky though she always called him “Daddy” and he jokingly referred to her as “my current wife.”
Plinky had been pulling triggers for no more than a year, when Ad brought her along with him to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition better remembered as the St. Louis World’s Fair. Although Plinky performed for free, overnight she became the big attraction as fair-goers flocked to see the next Annie Oakley.
(Plinky and the original Oakley met only once. After watching the Toepperweins in action, Annie invited the Texan to her hotel room for a private conversation. Off the record she gushed, “I didn’t think it was possible for any woman to do shooting like you did!”)
During the six-month run of the St. Louis fair, the sharpshooting twosome amazed and delighted packed houses several times a day. Despite their busy schedule, Plinky found time to set her first world’s record for females by breaking with 967 of 1,000 clay disks tossed into the air at distance of 25 feet.
Ad was quite a record-setter in his own right. He was proudest of an incredible feat accomplished over ten cold and dreary days at the San Antonio fairgrounds in 1907.
Shooting seven hours a day with a lunch break, he fired 72,500 rounds from three different Winchester .22 caliber rifles at two-and-one-quarter-inch flying blocks of pine. He missed a grand total of nine, a momentous mark that still stands a century later.
As “The Famous Topperweins,” the first “e” was dropped to make their name look less foreign, the devoted duo toured North America for 42 years until Plinky’s death from a heart attack in 1945.
Ad survived his wife by 17 years and until his own passing at age 92 remained Plinky’s number-one fan. “I’ll tell you this,” he said late in his long life, “she could shoot smoke rings around Annie Oakley or any other woman marksman who ever lived.” He went on to stress that she was equally as adept with pistol, rifle and shotgun, the only member of her gender who could make that claim.
But Ad Toepperwein could do something neither his beloved Plinky nor anyone else has ever done. He “drew” with bullets. His Indian chiefs in war bonnets, created in a dozen minutes or less with 450 quick-fired shots, are prized collector’s items to this day.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549. And come on by www.twith.com for a visit!Email | Print