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The Fabulous Topperweins, Part 1

During the early years of the 20th century, a woman born in Germany was the best lady shooter in America. In the heyday of baseball's Ty Cobb and horse racing's Man O' War, folks came to watch her shoot cigarettes from her husband's mouth with a handgun or perform other amazing acts of marksmanship. Back when men wore knickers with brightly colored stockings and it was illegal to shoot on Sundays, thousands gathered on Saturdays to watch her perform.

Annie Oakley's shooting stories have been told countless times through books, movies and Broadway, but this redheaded woman was head and shoulders better than Annie. History will never forget Annie Oakley, nor will it likely remember Elizabeth Servaty, later known as Plinky Topperwein.

She was the first woman ever allowed to shoot in the Grand American, and the first lady to break 100 straight—a feat which she accomplished more than 200 times. She broke 200 straight 14 times before the days of registered shooting.

Her story, marriage and some 40 years of professional shooting for Winchester are as romantic and interesting as anything Hollywood has ever produced.

Recently, new information about Plinky and her equally famous husband, Ad, has come to light, thanks to a San Antonio collector who has some 700 pieces of Topperwein memorabilia, including Ad's memoirs recorded when he was in his eighties. On a sad note, this fabulous collection is currently for sale at slightly under $250,000. Most likely, the Topperwein heirlooms will be '-sold to someone who will resell individual pieces of the collection for a tidy profit, scattering the collection into obscurity.

The collection belongs in a museum such as ours for everyone to enjoy, but unfortunately the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum is in no position to come up with such a sum. Hopefully, someone reading about the Topperweins will find it in his heart to buy the collection for us.

All of the information in this article came directly from Ad Topperweins memoirs. There is certainly enough material for a book, and a good one, too. [Author's note: this month's Road to Yesterday couldn't possibly cover everything that needs to be told, so I'll continue the story next time.]

In 1880 at the age of 11, Adolph Topperwein of San Antonio, Texas, watched Doc Carver shoot aerial targets with a rifle. The 6'4" Carver weighed some 200 pounds, and long red hair fell in well-combed ringlets over his massive shoulders. Historians often referred to him as the most handsome man who ever held a gun. Carver initiated firing at aerial targets using a rifle and at one time held most of the endurance and accuracy records for hand-thrown rifle targets. After watching him perform, young Ad Topperwein knew what he wanted to do the rest of his life. He wanted to do what Carver did.

null By the time he was 16, Ad could duplicate everything Doc did. He had no coaching and learned by constant practicing; he invented new shots no one had done before. To supplement his income as a cartoonist for the local newspaper, he began performing trick-shooting exhibitions around San Antonio.

George Walker, an opera house and vaudeville manager from San Antonio, saw Ad shoot and was impressed. In the days before motion pictures, vaudeville troupes kept America entertained. Trained dogs, leaping frogs, "talking cats," and ventriloquists kept folks laughing. Walker convinced Topperwein that his shooting act would be very different and popular. Walker went to New York every summer to book attractions for the coming season, and in 1898 he convinced Ad to go with him.

Gentleman Jim Corbett was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world and a friend of Walker's. The champion owned a resort on 42nd Street, where Walker introduced Adolph Topperwein to theatrical agents, sportswriters and professional people. "The Texas Triggerman," as Walker called him, was "the best shot the world has ever seen." His exaggeration of Ad's skill embarrassed the modest Texan.

A reporter from the New York World suggested they go to Coney Island, where Topperwein could show what he could do with the rifle at the park's many shooting galleries. Targets consisted of small plaster birds, stars and pipes of clay. In the center was a three-quarter-inch bullseye about 30 feet away with a sign that said, "You get a ten cent cigar every time you ring me." Topperwein picked up a Winchester Model 1890 .22 rifle and preceded to ring the bell consistently. The gallery operator began giving him cigars, and since Ad didn't smoke, he gave them to the crowd and reporters who were watching his performance. By now, all the others had quit shooting and were watching Ad break the clay pipes and plaster birds. The crowd whooped and hollered as Topperwein finished breaking the last object in the gallery. When it came time to settle up with the operator, the poor fellow was so excited and confused he had forgotten to keep track of the number of shots. Mr. Walker gave him $5 and they went on to the next gallery, with the crowd and reporters following. Here Ad did the same thing, destroying everything in sight. But this operator kept track of the shots, and it cost Mr. Walker $8 and change.

The next morning in the World, there was a four-column story about "the boy from Texas who put shooting galleries out of business at Coney Island." It was all he needed to break into vaudeville, and he was hired by the Keith Circuit for $70 a week.

One day while Ad sat in the station waiting for the train, he noticed the backs of the benches were perforated with holes forming the Texas Star and the name of the railroad. The holes suggested bullet holes to him. Having an artistic temperament, he began shooting five cornered stars, circles, triangles, and his initials with a .22 rifle. He'd set up a piece of blank paper at about 25 feet and, sitting on the ground, sketch nearly any picture he wanted with bullet holes. One day he shot a picture of an Indian head, and this is what separated him from other vaudeville shooting acts—no one could sketch an Indian with a lead pencil, let alone with rifle shots.

He shot three times a day, six days a week. The audience loved those Indian heads. After two years, Orrin Brothers Circus of Mexico saw his act and offered Ad 100 pesos a week plus expenses. They were referred to as "The Ringling Brothers of Mexico," were well financed, and owned their own auditorium in Mexico City. He joined them in April of 1900 for a nine-month engagement.

When Ad returned to the United States on the last day of December 1900, there was a letter waiting for him from the Winchester Repeating Arms Co. Several years before, he had made the acquaintance of Jim Hildreth, Winchester's representative in the Southern states. Hildreth knew what Topperwein could do with guns and the fact that he preferred Winchester firearms and ammunition. The letter said they would like to talk to him in New Haven, Conn.

Topperwein arrived at the Winchester plant in January 1901. He had never seen snow before, and there was three feet of it in New Haven. Very enthusiastically, he met with Mr. Bennett, the president, who offered him a job to take charge of their exhibit at the much-heralded and anticipated Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N. Y. It seems that John Cameron, their representative at Buffalo, would not be able to attend the entire time (it was to run from May to November that year), and when he wasn't there, Ad was to be in charge.

Topperwein was extremely disappointed. For sure, it was a foot in the door, but not what he expected. He wanted to shoot, and there was to be no shooting at the Exposition. While in New Haven, he was given a free run of the factory—he could go where he wanted, ask questions about the products, and learn how to take guns apart and put them back together. At night, back in his hotel, he studied the company catalog until he could recite what was on every page.

One day as he was going though the pistol-loading room, he stopped in front of a machine that loaded cartridges so quickly it fascinated him. He stood watching it for some time and didn't notice the operator.

When he did, he looked right into a pair of laughing brown eyes. The young woman called him by name, and he quickly withdrew. He went over to the foreman he knew well and said he'd like to meet that girl. But it was against company rules to talk to operators. Ad insisted, and the foreman led him back to the young woman. The foreman said, "Now don't talk to this girl; this is Mr. Topperwein, this is Miss Elizabeth Servaty; now come, let's go!" Ad didn't know it at the time, but he had just met his future wife.

After New Haven, he went to the Exposition at Buffalo. Mr. Cameron would visit once a week to check on things, but the Winchester exhibit was Topperweins responsibility. He remembered the day President William McKinley was shot (Sept. 6, while in a greeting line at the Expo; he died of infection eight days later) and even heard the shot fired by his anarchist assassin. In all, Ad stayed in Buffalo for six months, until the Exposition closed. It was the only time in his life that he didn't fire a shot for a six-month period. It was very hard for him.

nullWhile in Buffalo, he was in regular correspondence with Elizabeth. When he came back to New Haven, he saw her again, met her people, and went back home to Texas as an exhibition shooter for Winchester, the job he had always wanted.

In January 1903, he went back to New Haven and married Elizabeth on Jan. 11. She had never been out of New Haven, and things in San Antonio were strange and new to her.

His folks took a liking to his new wife, and the couple lived with his mother and sister. Shortly after settling down, Elizabeth expressed her interest in shooting. She didn't want to stay home while Ad was away giving shooting exhibitions. He started her with a little .22 and was amazed at how quickly she mastered things.

The most trouble she had was with the way to hold a gun. New shooters are often awkward, and it took some time to get the right poise and foot position, but after she mastered it, things commenced to go easily. He started her by letting her shoot a bullet hole into a blank piece of paper at about 30 feet. She would then shoot 10 shots at this bullet hole to see how small a group she could make. All of this was offhand shooting. Her first groups were large, but gradually they became smaller and smaller, and soon all of them could be covered with a nickel. About a month after she began this kind of practice, she started shooting chalk and crayons out of his hands and lips, much to the horror of his mother and sister. It was a dangerous stunt, but Ad knew she could hold that rifle steady as a rock.

After she accomplished her skill at stationary targets, he started her on aerial shooting, beginning with large tin cans and then progressively smaller ones. The sound of the bullet hitting tin cans made what she described as a "plinking" sound. Ad picked up on this and started calling her "Plinky." For the remainder of her life she was known as Plinky Topperwein. Eventually the word was so commonly used in rifle shooting that it was listed in Webster's dictionary.

During the time Ad was on the road, sometimes for up to two months, Plinky would practice shooting everyday on a shooting range in their backyard. Each time he returned, she would have many targets to show him and tales of success and failures.

Plinky started her shotgun shooting with a little 20-gauge gun at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Alec Mermond was operating the DuPont Shooting Club and persuaded her to shoot a hundred targets with a gun that didn't fit her. She broke 83 of the first hundred she ever shot at.

When traveling in Texas, Ad took her with him and paid her expenses, which, according to Ad, kept the Topperwein family broke most of the time. Ad often entered her in trapshooting events as an amateur, shooting for targets only. This got expensive, and for a while she stopped.

At the World's Fair in 1904, Plinky established her first world record for aerial targets by a woman. Using the new Winchester Model 03 .22-caliber autoloading rifle, she broke 967 of 1,000 clay disks thrown into the air at 25 feet from where she stood. It took her one hour and 30 minutes to accomplish the feat. Ad paid for all her expenses during the six months they were at the World's Fair so they wouldn't be apart for so long, though they could ill afford it.

As a result of her record shooting at St. Louis and other cities where she performed with Ad, Winchester arranged with the Dead Shot Powder Co. for Plinky to shoot their powder, making her a professional. This certainly helped financially, and Plinky now accompanied Ad on all his tours. For 42 years they traveled the entire United States, Canada, and Mexico, giving exhibitions of aerial rifle shooting and trapshooting. The arrangement with the Dead Shot Powder Co. changed to make her an employee of Winchester, shooting exhibitions with Ad.

Next time The Road to Yesterday will continue with stories about Plinky's one and only meeting with Annie Oakley, shooting in front of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, rats in hotels, trapshooting endurance records, and the postponement of a murder trial so townsfolk could watch the Topperweins perform.

Last Updated on Thursday, 27 May 2010 12:14