Fury, Wild Horse Annie, and a Delayed History Lesson
By Ronnie Blair
TV watching can be educational––even 60 years after the fact.
My habit of watching the television show Fury on Saturday mornings in the 1960s led to my discovery six decades later of a minor, though fascinating, chapter in American history. This particular chapter involved polio, wild mustangs, government bureaucracy, greed, dog food, and a woman nicknamed Wild Horse Annie.
Without Fury, I might never have known about any of it. You might have known, though, especially if you enjoyed the books of Marguerite Henry as a kid.
But, for the moment, let’s get back to Fury. For the uninitiated, Fury was a Western TV series about a boy and a horse living on a ranch in modern-day California. The live-action Saturday morning show began in 1955 and ended its original run in 1960, but continued in reruns through September 1966. At that point, wall-to-wall cartoons began to take over Saturday mornings, replacing not only Fury, but also reruns of other 1950s TV series such as The Roy Rogers Show and Sky King. The Fury cast included Peter Graves, whose hair was not yet white and who was a few years away from landing his more famous role as Jim Phelps on Mission: Impossible. On Fury, Graves played ranch owner Jim Newton, the adoptive father of Joey (played by Bobby Diamond), the boy who was the only person who could tame the wild horse named Fury.
Fury, an equine version of Lassie or Rin Tin Tin, was a brilliant animal who aided the human stars in solving, in 30 minutes or less, whatever problem the scriptwriters set before them. For a few years, he was a staple of my early childhood TV-watching habit. Then he disappeared from my tiny screen and, as the years passed, faded more and more from memory.
Then one day a year or so ago I was in an antiquarian book store and came across a book by Albert G. Miller titled Fury and the Mustangs. Intrigued, I pulled it from the shelf, examined it, and paid the $4 required to make it mine. This Fury title was the second in a three-book series based on the TV show and published by Grosset and Dunlap.
The book’s copyright was 1960, the final year of the TV series. If you thought that 60 years ago children’s literature was all positive thoughts and rainbows, think again. Right away in chapter one the book reveals its grim plot––cruel men are chasing down wild mustangs, killing them, and selling them for pet food. Sometimes the men used an airplane to flush the horses into the open where they shot the animals from the air. At other times the men would lasso a horse from a moving jeep, tie a heavy tire to the end of the rope, and let the terrified animal drag the tire until the mustang exhausted itself and collapsed to the ground. These horrible events are all perfectly legal and the remorseless villain of the story expresses doubt that any lawmaker would dare change that.
Heroic rancher Jim Newton disagrees.
“Legislators in some states have already awakened to the plight of the mustangs,” he tells the villain. “A number of laws affording partial protection have been passed. There’s a wonderful woman in Nevada––the wife of a ranch owner––who’s been working for several years in the interest of mustang conservation. So far she’s achieved both county and state protection, and now she’s working for legislation on a national basis. In fact, this lady’s congressman has agreed to introduce a protective bill into the House of Representatives in Washington, DC.”
That’s quite a bit of bureaucratic detail for this fictional tale aimed at children, but that part of the novel is not fictional at all. There was such a woman doing what Jim said, and at the end of the book the author adds a note bringing good news to the young readers of 1960, who by now had no doubt come to care as much about the mustangs as Jim Newton. Federal protection was passed thanks to that Nevada woman, Velma B. Johnston, whose efforts to save the mustangs earned her the nickname Wild Horse Annie.
I had never heard of Wild Horse Annie or her crusade on behalf of the mustangs, but Google searches help with anything these days and it was simple to learn more. Then, sometime later, I discovered in my local library a 2010 book titled Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths, which told Johnston’s life story in detail, including a childhood battle with polio that left her face disfigured for life.
It was clear that author Albert Miller had followed the news closely because his descriptions of the mustang slaughter in Fury and the Mustangs matched exactly the way things played out in real life. Cruise and Griffiths even include in their book a series of photos, taken at a 1951 mustang hunt by photographer Gus Bundy, showing men lassoing a mustang using a rope with a tire tied to the end. As in the Fury book, the exhausted horse collapses and is loaded onto a truck.
As Velma Johnston lobbied on behalf of the mustangs, their plight became widely known and even schoolchildren became involved in a letter-writing campaign. By the 1960s, Johnston’s success had drawn the attention of children’s book author Marguerite Henry, who specialized in books about horses, including the 1949 Newbery Medal winner King of the Wind. Henry approached Johnston about telling her story and the result was the 1966 book Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West.
As it turned out, fighting on behalf of the mustangs was a never-ending battle for Johnston because people were always looking for loopholes in the laws that were passed, or were trying to amend those laws for questionable reasons. Even in the early 1970s she was helping get legislation passed, by then under the signature of President Richard Nixon. Johnston died in 1977 at age 65.
Hers was quite the story, but I never would have sought out and read Wild Horse Annie and the Last of the Mustangs if I hadn’t learned about her in that old children’s book Fury and the Mustangs. And I would not have bought Fury and the Mustangs if not for my memories of Saturday mornings watching that wonderful steed come to the rescue again and again on my black-and-white TV.
Fury and Peter Graves were still influencing and educating me 63 years after they filmed their show’s final episode.
Ronnie Blair is author of the memoir Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up On Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.