White Carnations

 by G. Murphy Donovan (May 2012)

 “With women the heart argues, not the mind.” – Mathew Arnold

Mother’s Day is a lovely idea, but like many good notions, a kind of cultural decay often sets in and the institution becomes the enemy of the idea. The original Mother’s Day in America seems to have been proclaimed in the wake of the Civil War by Julia Ward Howe in 1870, as a day to think about disarmament; a way to honor sons fallen in battle. Ward’s idea never had much national traction. The modern incarnation had to wait for Anna Jarvis to lobby Woodrow Wilson who proclaimed Mother’s day a national holiday in 1914. Entrepreneurs readily saw the commercial possibilities and the second Sunday in May became a cash cow for card makers, confectioners, flower vendors, and telephone companies. It’s more than a little sad to believe that children would now need a holiday to inspire a call to their mothers.

Nonetheless, Mother’s Day is still a noble institution; an opportunity to think about mothers, all modern women, and some of those historical gals who set high marks for we lesser mortals. Lincoln told us that he “owed every thing to his mother.” Indeed, the apple never falls far from the tree.

In another era, carnations were the flowers used to celebrate mothers; a bouquet of colors for living moms and white blossoms or boutonnières for the deceased. Today, we could do worse than celebrate the lives of lesser known, yet remarkable carnations, two women of the American west; Phoebe Ann Moses and Fawn McKay.

Phoebe and Fawn were products of a traditional ethos that, like common sense, may have been abused to the point of extinction today. Both women embraced pioneer or cowgirl values; independence, integrity, hard work, and personal courage. Miss Moses and Miss McKay viscerally understood the secret of all success and often happiness. Indeed, they knew the secret of life – finding that one thing that you love and doing that thing well.

Phoebe Ann Moses (1860-1926)

Phoebe Moses was born in a cabin to an impoverished family living on a mortgaged farm in western Ohio. She was the sixth of eight children. Her father died from exposure when Phoebe was six. Her mother gave her and her sister up to the county “infirmary,” a 19th Century euphemism for poor house. Eventually, as was the custom in those days, Phoebe was bound out to a more prosperous family. The arrangement was similar to modern foster care, with a singular difference. It was the child who was supposed to get paid in the old days. Phoebe was neither cared for nor paid. As she was sewing one day, she fell asleep, and was thrown out into the snow without shoes.

Phoebe Ann Moses fled the horrors of bondage and the poor house at the age of nine. She picked up her dead father’s gun and became a “shootist.” In an era before poultry farms, a good wing shot could make a living as a market hunter, selling ducks, grouse, and pheasant to restaurants and hotels. By the age of 15, Miss Moses had paid the mortgage on her mother’s farm. Phoebe Ann never had the opportunity to go to school.

The 19th Century was replete with gunmen; professional marksmen traveling across the country, challenging locals to matches for cash prizes.  In the spring of 1881, Frances E. Butler (1852-1926), an Irish crack shot from back east, put up $100 ($2,000 today) with a Cincinnati hotel owner and advertised that he could outshoot any man in the county. The town of Greenville, Ohio, sent a five foot, 100 pound girl to the match and a legend was born.

After a couple dozen glass balls where blasted from the air, Butler missed and Miss Moses didn’t. Frank Butler was humble enough to recognize his betters and married 16 year old Phoebe Ann a year later. They went on the road as a shooting act; Oakley and Butler. Legend has it that the petit Phoebe Ann took the stage name “Oakley” to honor a friend who lent her train fare for an earlier match. Annie Oakley never forgot a kindness or an insult.

The insult came from newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst; twice a Democratic congressman, known to his peers as “the wizard of ooze” for his cultivation of “yellow journalism.” In 1903, after Annie Oakley had left a successful run with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show; two Hearst newspapers printed a story which alleged that Oakley had “stolen trousers from a negro” in order to purchase cocaine. The implausible story was carried by 55 other newspapers nationwide.

Annie and Frank put their lives on hold and spent the next seven years on the road suing every journal that had carried the libelous story. Other than Frank and shooting, Annie’s reputation was her singular passion. In the end, she prevailed in 54 of 55 defamation cases with the largest judgment ($27, 500) against Hearst. The lord of San Simeon was true to himself throughout; he hired detectives to dig up dirt from Annie’s past. Nothing could be found.

Annie Oakley spent her autumn years hunting, writing, teaching, and giving shooting exhibitions. She was generous to a fault all of her life, contributing unknown sums to charity. A complimentary ticket to shows of any sort became known as an “Annie Oakley.” At one point she had her trophies and medals melted down for the needy. Eventually Annie returned to Greenville, Ohio in poor health after an accident.

Mrs. Phoebe Ann Butler died on 3 November 1926. Her beloved Frank stopped eating and lived two weeks longer. They were buried a stones throw from the “infirmary” of Phoebe Ann’s youth. William Randolph Hearst lived long enough to become a California icon and an early supporter of Adolph Hitler and National Socialism.

Fawn McKay (1916-1981)

While Annie was a girl of the plains, Fawn McKay was a product of the mountains. Born to a poor, but prominent Mormon family, Miss McKay was raised in the remote Huntsville Valley of northern Utah. She attended a Latter Day Saints (LDS) community college for two years, graduated at the age of 15, and went on to get a degree in English from the University of Utah. After a brief stint as a teacher at her old community college, Fawn McKay left the cloister of Utah for a larger world of graduate studies in Chicago. There she took another degree in English and married a fellow student, Bernard Brodie. Only Fawn’s mother attended the wedding. Neither family approved of the match.

Fawn McKay Brodie’s literary passion was biography, mostly larger than life figures; Joseph Smith, Thaddeus Stevens, Richard Burton, Thomas Jefferson, and finally, Richard Nixon. What made Brodie’s work unique was her psychological approach to paternal icons, a tall order as Fawn did not have the usual credentials of a psychologist or a historian.

Her two most controversial subjects were Joseph Smith and Thomas Jefferson. In Smith’s case, Brodie single handedly demolished the myth of American religious moral equivalence. Indeed, Mrs. Brodie’s research underlined Reynolds vs. United States (1878) which held that religious freedom protected beliefs – not actions or illegal practices.

With limited access to church records, Brodie exposed the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) as a self-described fraud, polygamist, bigamist, and fugitive from the law in almost every state he passed through. Though Smith is to this day held up as a martyr, a victim of religious persecution; he was in fact an outlaw in almost every state where he attempted to establish, by his own definition, “theodemocracy,” a kind of Zion where male church elders were free to justify otherwise illegal practices, such as polygamy, under the guise of religious freedom. Fawn Brodie’s first book was a great success, but she was excommunicated by church elders for her candor.

With Thomas Jefferson, Brodie’s approach was different; although the subtext, patriarchal hypocrisy, was the same. Through the agency of Sarah (Sally) Hemings, at once slave and Jefferson’s concubine, Brodie established that Jefferson was both a figurative founding father and a literal father of slaves. Miscegenation had been illegal in Virginia since 1691 and remained so in Jefferson’s time. Jefferson gave his mixed race children freedom as adults. Sally Hemings remained a slave during Jefferson’s lifetime.

Like the Smith history, the Thomas Jefferson biography was attacked by Jefferson “experts” as shabby scholarship. DNA evidence eventually vindicated Fawn Brodie’s original analysis (based on Monticello farm records). Indeed, Jefferson’s black and white descendents now hold reunions at Monticello. Long before feminists picked up the thread, Fawn Brodie established a modern cultural marker: the personal is political.


Phoebe and Fawn are unique women, not because they challenged assumptions about men, but because they demolished, by example, stereotypes about women. Moses, stepped into the macho world of pistols, rifles, and shotguns and bested all comers, Bill Cody and William Randolph Hearst included. Yet, Phoebe Ann Moses Butler was no suffragette; she believed that the sordid world of politics was best left to men.

And Fawn McKay Brodie was a loyal wife and mother who walked on eggshells midst her literary and academic peers. She was not without controversy; yet, she still became one of the first women to be granted tenure at UCLA.

So what is the legacy of these women? Phoebe may have taught us that journalism is not the first draft of history so much as it might be the last draft of truth. And Fawn reminds us that great men, many of whom believe themselves beyond convention and law, do not escape the judgments of honest history. White carnations, indeed!


G. Murphy Donovan writes frequently about national security and politics. Like Phoebe Ann Moses, he was bound “in” to an east Bronx “infirmary” as a child, the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. School and Home for Children.


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