By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Anyone in their 80s or 90s (or older) seems to recognize my unusual first name
, “Annie Laurie.” No one younger seems to. As I like to explain to those who keep trying to shorten my name to “Annie”: It’s a double first name, like Mary Jo, only less religious.
In fact, the real-life woman the poem was based on was called only “Annie.” “Laurie” was her good Scottish surname. The song was based on a poem to the daughter of Sir Robert Laurie, the first baronet of the Maxwellton family. The verses were written in in the 1600s by William Douglas, and begin:
Maxwellton’s braes are bonnie,
Where early fa’s the dew,
And ’twas there that Annie Laurie
Gave me her promise true.
Despite the love poem, fickle Annie married another. Lady John Scott revised the poem in the 1800s, adding a third verse, and setting it to music, or so most sources say. It became very popular during the Crimean War.
My parents, who were born in 1926, were from the generation still familiar with the ballad. I was envious when my parents and grandmother toured the house of Annie Laurie in the 1980s. Many years later, Dan and I tried to replicate their trip, finding the manor in disrepair, no longer open to the public, but in an exquisite setting. In a charmed moment looking out over those soft green “brays” (hillside), I could understand what inspired the poem.
My mother always told me that it was reading the autobiography of Mark Twain when she was pregnant that reminded her of the name and song. According to Mom, Samuel Clemens fashioned Becky Thatcher after his own childhood sweetheart, whose name was “Annie Laurie.”
I adored this idea, but cannot corroborate the story, having muscled my way through Twain’s behemoth of a rambling autobiography. I tried to read every line, and it’s not in the index. However, different versions of Twain’s bio are floating out there, so if anyone can find a reference in any version, please let me know.
While disappointed not to have this freethinking literary connection, I’ve informally collected references to other Annie Lauries. It’s a lonely business. I’ve never met another person who goes by Annie Laurie, only hearing of them, usually to next be told inexplicably, “But she goes by (another, unrelated name).” The one official Annie Laurie I’ve met — believe it or not a little girl (now grown up) living on the same block we moved to in 1991 in Madison, Wis. — doesn’t quite count because she just goes by “Annie.”
“Annie Laurie” was the favorite song of Francie’s tenor Irish father in the novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In the book, Francie’s little sister is named for the song, after her father’s premature death. “Annie Laurie” was the nom de plume of Winifred Sweet, a famous “sob sister” reporter.
On the more sinister side, I caught the name during the Claus von Bulow murder trial. Annie Laurie von Auersperg was the daughter by a prior marriage of Sunny von Bulow, the American heiress and socialite left in a coma after von Bulow allegedly poisoned her with insulin in 1980.
Reluctantly having given up the Twain angle, it gave me a thrill, when researching my anthology of women freethinkers, Women Without Superstition: No Gods – No Masters, to discover a freethought connection. Anarchist and freethinker Albert Parsons was one of four martyrs to hang in 1887 on trumped-up charges for the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. On the way to the gallows, he sang his favorite song, “Annie Laurie.” Afterward, for more than a decade, both anarchist and freethinking groups in Chicago and around the country would often open gatherings in his memory with a rendition of the song I’m named for. A poster of his remarkable wife, Lucy Parsons, has hung at FFRF’s offices for more than 30 years.
I owe it to FFRF State Rep. Margaret Downey for learning that one of my favorite figures in freethought history, Robert G. Ingersoll, knew and loved the song “Annie Laurie.” In later years, Ingersoll was famously abstemious, but perhaps not so much in his younger days. It was indeed a more innocent era, when a band of carousing young men could disturb the piece by singing this gentle love ballad.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-founder and co-president of FFRF.