Britons wild about American West From Buffalo Bill's circus to now, cowboy items hot

March 29, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- If Annie Oakley had been even a little off that night back at the turn of the century when she shot the cigarette from the mouth of a German prince, the world might have been spared the agonies of the Great War and everything that flowed from it.

That brave but unscathed young volunteer at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show grew up to be Kaiser Wilhelm II.

But Annie never missed, as everybody knows, even here where her fame continues 67 years after her death. The memories of her are strong enough that not everyone was entirely surprised when the gun she gave to W. R. Crawford Clarke of Shropshire in 1891 was sold last week by his great grandson at Christie's auction house for over $124,000, or about five times more than it was thought it would go for.

Buffalo Bill's Western Circus first arrived in Britain in 1887 and pleased just about everybody who saw it. Even Queen Victoria was impressed by the cowboys, Indians and real live buffalo. She was especially taken with Annie herself.

"You are a very, very clever little girl," she said to Annie and then issued a royal command for a performance in honor of her Golden Jubilee.

The romance of the American West continues its hold over the imagination of the people of Britain today. Christie's frequently sells Western memorabilia -- saddles of the famous and so on, but especially weapons -- and other houses do well in this line.

"There is a great deal of affection for this sort of stuff in this country," said Susan Adams, a representative of Christie's.

"We've just had a show in London's West End called 'Annie Get Your Gun,' " said Victoria Coode, also of Christie's. "But I think the popularity for things from the American West is just general through the population."

Why?

"I don't know, maybe it has to do with all the Western films we have seen. People just know so much about it, and there is a great interest in the romance of it."

Annie Oakley's gun, a .44-40 Winchester, was unlike others of its kind. According to Alistair McAlpine, a professional reviewer of shows and offerings in London's auction houses, this helps explain the uncanny accuracy with a firearm of Cincinnati's most famous daughter.

As part of her act with Buffalo Bill's circus, the winsome Annie Oakley would ride around the ring at London's Earl's Court amphitheater and blast small round bottles filled with colored powder tossed into the air by her husband, sharpshooter Frank E. Butler, who when he found he couldn't shoot as straight as she, retired and became her manager.

To do this with a rifle, and from horseback, was considered virtually impossible.

But Annie's Winchester was not really a rifle. The bore had been smoothed. It fired cartridges holding very fine shot, which once they left the muzzle, expanded as they drew nearer their target.

The gun, bought by an U.S. gun collector named Greg Martin, is, according to Mr. McAlpine, really a shotgun disguised as a rifle.

Ms. Adams of Christie's did agree that the Winchester was not, in fact, a rifle. "But she used it for safety reasons," she explained. "So she wouldn't shoot members of the audience."

Another auction house, Wallis & Wallis of Lewes, Sussex, will be putting an object up for auction next month that should draw even more attention than Annie Oakley's gun.

Roy Butler, the senior partner at Wallis & Wallis says he thinks he might get up to $150,000 for the .44 Smith & Wesson revolver (Serial Number 3766) used to kill Jesse James, on April 3, 1882.

Bob Ford's gun is being offered by an anonymous U.S. vendor. It is verified by Carl W. Breihan, a biographer of Jesse James, as the gun owned by that dirty, rotten coward, Bob Ford.

On it is an engraving, put there by one of its owners, E. Stanley Gary, of Baltimore. It reads: "Bob Ford killed Jesse James with this revolver at St. Joseph, Mo. 1882."

Mr. Butler's firm also deals frequently in memorabilia from the American West. "We've had a lot, and a lot of people here are interested in collecting it," he said.

Ten years ago he sold Tom Mix's saddle, and about seven years ago, Buffalo Bill's. He also sold Buffalo Bill's watch.

"It came with a pawn broker's ticket, he said. "It stated on the ticket that the watch was in payment of some money owed by Buffalo Bill."

Ms. Adams believes the affection for nostalgic references to the West in Britain began with that initial visit by Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. "Buffalo Bill's circus was the first time the Wild West was presented to the world," she said. "After that, Hollywood took over."

And this affection continues today. Cowboy and Western music is increasingly popular, even cowboy dress.

Recently there was a report in one of the newspapers here about a group of would-be cowboys out in Mid Glamorgan, Wales. They're not really cowboys, of course. The cattle of the Welsh valleys are not so plentiful that they require professional buckaroos with lariats to round them up. They are, in fact, greatly outnumbered by the sheep.

If the Welshman Dai James and his pardners Bob Lewis and George Edmunds are not true sons of the Golden West, it is not for want of spirit. The three of them get dressed up about once a week in their cowboy gear as a way to fend off the unending boredom that is an integral part of their lives, lived over a decade without gainful employment.

When they are in the saddle, that is, their jeans and chaps, they refer to themselves as "Dusty" James (no relation to the late Jesse), "Rustler" Edmunds and "The Big Fellow."

Mrs. James cooperates in this enduring fantasy by stitching lamp-shade fringe onto ordinary shirts to transform them into cowboy attire.

Every Saturday the whole crew repairs to the pub. They've been doing this so long nobody bothers to laugh at them any longer.

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