March 28, 2019
By Joel J. Hutchcroft
By all accounts, Ben Lilly was an old coot who dressed like a mountain man, didn’t shave his beard from the time he was 17 years old until he died at the age of 80, and preferred the company of wild animals to that of humans. He was a legendary houndsman and a bear and lion hunter extraordinaire. And by lion, I mean mountain lion. One source has Lilly killing 500 mountain lions and 600 bears. Others say he killed thousands. Regardless of the actual number, he is thought to have killed more black bears, grizzlies, and mountain lions than anyone of his time.
Benjamin Vernon Lilly was born in Alabama in 1856. He grew up hunting, primarily for bears and mountain lions who preyed on his family’s livestock, and became an adept tracker. Eventually, Lilly inherited a farm, but he was not cut out for life on the farm.
Lilly was married twice and fathered several children, but neither marriage lasted. You might say he was struck with wanderlust, and over the years he traveled through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. He had some success trading cattle, finding and selling wild honey, and blacksmithing. In fact, he designed and handmade a special hunting knife similar to an Arkansas Toothpick with an 18-inch-long S-shaped blade that he carried throughout his lifetime.
Lilly also worked as a hunting guide, sometimes for notable and wealthy men, such as President Theodore Roosevelt and Oklahoma oilman W.H. McFadden. But he was happiest when he was hunting himself, and during the last 25 years of his life, he made a sufficient living as a professional hunter, sometimes using a pack of 20 hounds. Most of his earnings came from ranchers who hired him to exterminate predators, and he lived in the hills with his hounds, sleeping where he wanted and hunting where game was plentiful. He also shot and prepared specimens for the U.S. Biological Survey and the National Museum.
Lilly was well known for his minimalist lifestyle. He inhabited the forests and hills with just the clothes on his back, a canvas tarp, a wool blanket, his hunting knife, and a rifle or two.
His life spawned many myths and legends. One such was the time his first wife demanded that he dispatch a troublesome chicken hawk and he subsequently disappeared in chase not to return home for over a year. Or the one about him hunting every day except Sundays for 15 years straight. Or the one about him being attacked by a huge grizzly bear during which he shot the bear in the chest and under the eye and then finished him off with his trusty 18-inch-long knife. There are tales of his super-human stamina and reports of him preferring to sleep outdoors in the crook of a tree rather than in a house or hotel bedroom.
Books and articles have been written about his hunting exploits, but my favorite stories are the ones that illustrate his shooting skills.
As a boy, Lilly perfected his shooting skills on moving targets like buzzards and bats, darting bees, and flittering songbirds. Later in life, he preferred the Winchester Model 1886 in .33 Winchester for hunting bears and the Winchester Model 1894 or the Marlin Model 1893 in .30-30 for hunting mountain lions, but he also used .22 and .32 Rimfire rifles and was photographed with a Savage Model 1899 in .303 Savage.
Lilly is reported to have wingshot bumblebees and yellowjackets. Some said he could down mosquitos and shoot both antlers off a running deer and then drop the buck with a third shot. He could shoot a buzzard out of the sky and hit it again and again before it hit the ground. All with a rifle. Undoubtedly, some of those stories are exaggerated, but nevertheless, it is clear that he knew his way around a rifle.
Ironically, Ben Lilly died in bed in a farmhouse where he was rooming in 1936. He lived a legendary life, mostly in the outdoors. As one historian put it, his loyalty was to “the freedom of an unfettered life, with neither rules nor rent.”