O is for Annie Oakley

This is my contribution to ABC Wednesday and for Round Ten I am focusing on people from the past, some famous, others less so.

You may not know the name Phoebe Ann Moses, but you will recognise her by her stage name – Annie Oakley, sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Her name is synonymous with the world’s view of life in the American West, but she is also the subject of one of the more intriguing ‘what ifs’ of history.

What if she had drunk more whisky the night before? What if she hadn’t been quite the sharpshooter she was? What if she had been blessed with foresight? If she had, then millions of lives might have been saved and the world might have been spared a great deal of grief.

It happened like this. In 1889, Oakley toured Europe to great acclaim, performing for the likes of Queen Victoria, King Umberto of Italy and the president of France.

On a cold November afternoon, Buffalo Bill’s circus had arrived at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Race Course and among the crowd was the young Kaiser Wilhelm II who had been on the German throne for little more than a year.

As usual, Oakley announced that she would attempt to shoot the ashes from a cigarette held by a man or woman from the audience and asked for a volunteer.

This was just for laughs as she didn’t expect anyone to put themselves forward. It was almost always her husband, Frank Butler, who offered himself as the human cigarette holder.

But on this occasion, it was Kaiser Wilhelm who leapt out of the royal box, stepped into the arena, and took a cigarette from his gold case which he lit with a flourish.

Several policemen tried to intervene but were waved away by the Kaiser. Oakley was horrified, but couldn’t go back on the dare. Sweating under her buckskin, Oakley raised her Colt .45 in a shaking hand and blew away the ashes of the cigarette to her great relief and tremendous applause.

If her aim hadn’t been quite so true, or her shakiness made worse by the whisky she drank the night before, then Wilhelm’s reign would have ended that day and history would not have recorded the events set in train by this ambitious, volatile and bellicose ruler.

Oakley herself came to regret the opportunity she had missed and at the outbreak of WWI, she wrote to the Kaiser asking for another shot. Wilhelm did not reply.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

10 comments… Add yours
  • Spotted Dick Pudding 25th April 2012

    As usual, most interesting. I do like the way you enlighten your readership about pretty obscure celebrities and put your own personal slant on the facts. Even though her cowboy hat was about four sizes too small (see first photo) Annie Oakley was quite a looker in her youth and I wouldn’t have minded taking a shot at her!

  • Roger Green 25th April 2012

    Oh, Spotted Dick – Annie Oakley was definitely NOT an obscure celeb in the States. This particular tale was, but everyone I grew up with knew Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley from various books and movies.

  • rhymeswithplague 25th April 2012

    I am no stranger to Annie Oakley, but I had never heard this particular story before!

    You are to be commended, Sir Ian of Parrots, for bringing this to everyone’s attention.
    Of course, you could have written about Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe.

  • Elizabeth 25th April 2012

    Thank you, Ian. Another reminder of what flimsy premises our world history swings on.

    When I learned to use a gun, my instructor quoted me Annie Oakley as saying, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle a gun as naturally as they know how to handle babies”. You’ll be pleased to know, I fared better with the latter.

    I am sorry to hear of honourable Pudding’s medical complaint. The result of too much shooting in out of the way places? Perhaps it is a good job that he never got the opportunity to meet Annie; one false move and he would most likely be minus both the spots and the pudding. I always find that a good cream helps a spotted dick slip down much more easily…


  • Trevor Rowley 25th April 2012

    I prefer hot custard on my spotted dick. My family are always horrified when I study the desserts menu as they know full well what I’m going to be asking the unsuspecting waitress about. In defence of unsuspecting waitresses, they do usually emit a little chuckle as they take the order.

  • Elizabeth 25th April 2012

    Trouble with hot fluids on a troubled spotted dick, Trevor, is that it can all end up in an a bit of an Eton mess … then, before you know it, you’re well and truly semolina-ed.

  • Mr Parrot 26th April 2012

    Thanks all for you comments. We have been out and about visiting some of America’s sights, so I just catching up with them.

    I first read this story about Annie and the Kaiser a couple of years ago in a book of historical ‘what-ifs’ and wondered if it was apocryphal, but then you also find it on Wikipedia so it must be true!

  • Mr Parrot 26th April 2012

    Oh, and YP, I agree with you that Annie was a handsome woman and that first photograph looks uncannily like my grandmother in her youth. Minus the hat, of course.

  • Carver 26th April 2012

    What a great story. I didn’t know about that and am glad you featured her for O. Carver, ABC-Wed. Team

  • Ann 26th April 2012

    Oh I really enjoyed your O post. We love Annie Oakley stories here in Kansas–a real cowgirl state. Great pics of her and Wilhem was quite a looker too!!


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