Friday, 5 September 2008

Annie Oakley and Kaiser Wilheim

In the late 1800s, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was a dazzling display of horsemanship, gunplay and other cowboy skills. One of its acts involved the sharpshooting of the great Annie Oakley. Dubbed "Little Sure Shot," Oakley had an amazing routine - she would shoot out lit candles, for example, and the corks of wine bottles.

For her grand finale, she would shoot out the lit end of a cigarette held in a man's mouth at a certain distance. For this, she would ask for volunteers from the audience. As no one ever volunteered, she had her husband planted among the spectators. He would "volunteer" and they would complete the dangerous trick together.

Well, during one swing through Europe, Oakley was setting up her finale and she asked for volunteers. To her shock - and the surprise of everyone involved with the show - she got a real volunteer.

The proud young Prince (soon to be Kaiser) Wilhelm bravely stepped down from among the spectators, strode into the ring and stuck a lit cigarette in his mouth.

Reportedly out late the night before enjoying the local beer gardens, the unexpected appearance of this famous volunteer unnerved her. But the show must go on.

She took aim and fired… putting out the cigarette, much to Wilhelm's amusement.

Thus, she also created one of historians' favorite "what if" moments. What if her bullet went through the future Kaiser's left ear? Would World War I have happened? Would the lives of 9 million soldiers and 6.6 million civilians have been spared? Would Hitler have risen from the ashes of defeated Germany? All sorts of questions come to mind…

Scientists call these kinds of episodes "frozen accidents" - points in time when small changes would have led to dramatic consequences. Eric Beinhocker relates Oakley's tale in his new book The Origin of Wealth - which is, in part, a look at the unpredictable nature of markets.


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