History I Never Knew: The Remarkable Annie Oakley

Little Sure Shot

Little Sure Shot

In April 1898, three weeks before the Spanish-American War broke out, President William McKinley received the following letter:

“I feel confident that your good judgment will carry America safely through without war. But in case of such an event I am ready to place a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American, and as they will furnish their own Arms and Ammunition will be little if any expense to the government. “

–Annie Oakley

President McKinley never responded to the 37-year old Annie’s offer to help. Nor did Woodrow Wilson or his Secretary of War Newton Baker nineteen years later when Oakley wrote “I can guarantee a regiment of women for home protection, every one of whom can and will shoot if necessary.” But she still gave soldiers of World War I shooting lessons, and she helped raise money for Red Cross and other organizations.

Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, with her horse Target

Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, with her horse Target

Annie Oakley, born in 1860, was a remarkable woman. Her name is familiar to my generation. We all remember the TV show of the mid-1950s that starred the glamorous Gail Davis. Gail was also a sharpshooter and expert rider too, but the 81 episodes of the Annie Oakley Show had no resemblance to the life and accomplishments of “Little Sure Shot.”

We boomers have also sung “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” They’re from Annie Get Your Gun, the popular musical that debuted in 1946. Some of us even remember Barbara Stanwyck as Annie in the 1936 biopic.

So we can thank the showbiz acumen of people like Gail Davis’s mentor Gene Autry and composer Irving Berlin for keeping the name of Annie Oakley alive. That’s a good thing. But she deserves to be remembered for far more than most of us know about her.

Annie Oakley was not just an entertainer with a rifle slung over her shoulder. She was the first bona fide American female superstar. Her story is an inspirational tale of a child who rose from stark and abusive poverty, who never forgot her roots or those who faced similar hurdles, who did everything in her power to better the lives of girls and women, and who was a staunch patriot in deed as well as in word.

During her career, Oakley taught more than 15,000 women how to use a gun, both for the inherent discipline of marksmanship and for self-defense. She even taught ladies how to conceal their guns in umbrellas. She said, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle firearms as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”

Up from Poverty, Rifle in Hand

Annie in 1903

Annie in 1903

Phoebe Ann (Annie) Moses was born in a log cabin in rural northwest Ohio, the sixth of seven children of Jacob and Susan Moses. Jacob had fought in the War of 1812. He died of pneumonia in 1866, when Annie was five. Annie taught herself how to shoot, using her late father’s old 40-inch cap-and-ball Kentucky rifle.

At age eight, she began trapping and hunting small game to support her widowed mother and her siblings. She would kill the animals with a head shot, preserving as much edible meat as possible. She sold the game to Katzenberger’s Restaurant in Greenville, Ohio. The owner re-sold most of it to hotels and restaurants in Cincinnati, 80 miles away. Annie was so good that by age 15 she had earned enough to pay off her mother’s mortgage.

At age nine she was admitted to an infirmary in Darke County, Ohio along with her sister. The superintendent’s wife taught her how to sew and decorate. Annie was also “bound out” to a local family to help care for their infant son, on the false promise of fifty cents a week and an education. For two years she endured the couple’s mental and physical abuse. She would often have to do boys’ work. One time she was put out in the freezing cold, without shoes, to punish her for falling asleep over some darning. Annie referred to the family as “the wolves.” But in her autobiography, she did not reveal the couple’s real name.

Word of Annie’s prowess as a sharpshooter spread throughout the region. Her escape hatch from a grinding life of penury was that singular – but now forgotten – American institution, the traveling road show. On Thanksgiving Day, 1875, the Baughman and Butler shooting act was performing in Cincinnati. Traveling marksman and former dog trainer Frank Butler, an Irish immigrant, placed a $100 side bet – one worth more than $2500 today – with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost. The bet: that Butler could beat any local shooter.

Frost arranged a match between the 25-year-old Butler and Annie, saying, “The last opponent Butler expected was a five-foot-tall 15-year old girl.”

Butler missed on his 25th shot, losing both match and bet. But he eventually won big. He began courting Annie. They married in August 1876 and stayed together until their deaths 50 years later. They first lived in the Oakley district of Cincinnati, and Oakley became her stage name. Offstage, she always referred to herself as Mrs. Frank Butler.

Poster for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Annie began as Butler’s assistant in the traveling act. But soon he stepped back from the limelight and let his more talented spouse be the star. They joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show in 1885 and stayed with it for 17 years. Annie was the main attraction. Her most famous trick was repeatedly splitting a playing card, with the edge facing her, and putting several more holes in it before it could touch the ground. She did it from 90 feet away, using a .22 caliber rifle.

That feat prompted people in the theatre business to refer to complimentary tickets as “Annie Oakleys”. Such tickets traditionally have holes punched into them to prevent them from being resold. She could also hit a tossed-up dime from 90 feet, and one day she hit 4,472 of 5,000 glass balls tossed into midair.

How “Little Sure Shot” Got Her Nickname

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

In 1884, after a performance in St. Paul, Minnesota, Oakley befriended the fearsome Sitting Bull, chief of the Lakota Sioux. Eight years previously, in 1876, Sitting Bull had led the Indians in the rout of General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull fled to Canada, returned in 1881 and surrendered, and was still a political prisoner when he met Annie. Impressed by both her marksmanship and her self-assured demeanor, he gave her the Sioux name “Watanya Cicilla,“ which means “Little Sure Shot.”

Later that year Sitting Bull was allowed to join Cody’s entourage as a show Indian. He earned about $50 a week for riding once around the arena, and he became a popular attraction. But Sitting Bull stayed with the show for just four months. The poverty of the white men’s cities and their patronizing attitude disgusted him.

Sitting Bull was an admirable leader of his people, a superb military tactician, and a good guy. He gave speeches about education for the young and reconciling relations between the Sioux and whites. He earned a small fortune by charging for his autograph and picture, and he often gave his money away to the homeless and beggars. He said that Indian culture would take care of its sick and elderly, and was appalled that white society did not do the same for its own. But Sitting Bull loved Annie Oakley.

Fame, and Fortune Generously Shared

In 1887, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West toured England to join in the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Annie received a great deal of press coverage, and by the time Cody and his show returned to Europe in 1889, Annie had become a seasoned performer and earned star billing. The troupe stayed in Paris for a six-month exhibition, and then traveled around France, Italy, and Spain. Oakley was especially popular with women. Buffalo Bill made the most of her fame to demonstrate that shooting was neither detrimental nor too intense for women and children.

Annie and Frank Butler with Dave, the "Red Cross Dog" of World War I.

Annie and Frank Butler with Dave, the “Red Cross Dog” of World War I.

In Europe, Annie also performed for King Umberto I of Italy and Marie François Sadi Carnot, president of France. Shooting the ashes off a cigarette held in Frank’s mouth was a big part of the act. She was so good that the newly-crowned German Kaiser Wilhelm II asked her to shoot the ash off his cigarette. She did so, but had him hold the butt in his hand. After World War I began, she wrote him a letter requesting a second shot.

Annie earned $700 a week while on tour in Europe. But she remembered the poverty of childhood and lived frugally. She sent money home to her mother and family, and gave money to orphans, widows and young women who wanted to further their education. Records show she provided funding and professional training for at least 20 young women.

She often said, “Aim at the high mark and you will hit it. No, not the first time, not the second time and maybe not the third. But keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect. Finally you’ll hit the bull’s-eye of success.”

Though she had no formal education, Annie instinctively knew all about cultivating her feminine image – today we’d call it brand management. Annie projected womanly allure and sex appeal without being sexy – the perfect little lady. She wore her hair unpinned, like a young girl. She made all of her own clothes, which she styled to hug and display her pleasing curves. But she never showed any skin, covering her legs with long stockings and wearing long sleeves and high collars.

In that uptight, repressed Victorian era, Annie Oakley was breaking barriers at the same time while helping to create an image of American womanhood – proper, attractive, and practical. The woman Annie represented didn’t need protection; she could protect herself.

Setbacks and Hardships

It wasn’t all glory and fame for Annie Oakley and Frank Butler. She left Cody’s show for a year when a younger rival shooter named Lillian Smith joined up and got higher billing. In 1901, she lost a shooting match to a nine-year-old girl, Ethel Nice. Shortly after that, Annie was in a train wreck, was temporarily paralyzed, and had five spinal operations.

She left Buffalo Bill’s show in 1902 and began an acting career. She was on the stage as Nancy Berry, The Western Girl, who got the better of the bad guys by using pistol, rifle, and lariat.

Annie had previously appeared in one of the earliest movies ever produced, “The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West.” A Kinetoscope film shot in 1894 by inventor Thomas Edison, it was the 11th movie made after commercial showings began in April of that year. In the film, Annie performed an exhibition of shooting at glass balls.

In 1904, the odious William Randolph Hearst published a scurrilous story that Annie had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. A coke-snorting stripper from Chicago had been nabbed by police, and she gave her name as “Annie Oakley.” That “evidence” was apparently enough for the scandal-mongering Hearst.

It took the real Annie six years and 55 libel lawsuits against newspapers to get back her reputation. She won 54 of those suits, but the judgments she collected didn’t even pay her legal bills. Hearst even sent punks from his papers to Ohio to try and dig up dirt about her, but they came back with nothing.

Annie in 1922

Annie in 1922

Following Annie’s change of career and despite her injury, her shooting prowess continued to improve until she was well into her sixties. In a 1922 contest, Annie hit 100 clay targets in a row from 16 yards away. She was 62 at the time.

Later that year, she and Frank were in a car accident that forced her to wear a steel brace on her right leg. But she recovered and set more records in 1924.

Annie’s health declined in 1925. She succumbed to pernicious anemia in Greenville, Ohio and died at age 66 in November 1926. Frank Butler was so disconsolate at her passing that he stopped eating and died just 18 days later.

After Annie’s death, her incomplete autobiography was given to a friend, the stage comedian Fred Stone. Soon it was discovered that her entire fortune had been spent on her family and on her charities.

Her Legacy

So how should we remember Annie Oakley? As one of America’s best. Ever.

Annie Oakley was a model for the Greatest Generation that followed her, and for all generations to come. She overcame poverty, mistreatment and physical injury with her determination and strength of character. She broke barriers for women with her talent and accomplishments in her sport. She loved her country and proved it with many good and patriotic works. She showed compassion and generosity to orphans, widows and other young women. She was a devoted and faithful wife.

Annie Oakley excelled in a man’s world by doing what she loved – winning fame and fortune as the little lady from Ohio who never missed a shot.

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