Annie Oakley: August 13, 1860–November 3, 1926


Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Mosey) was a world famous American sharpshooter who performed and starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Oakley developed hunting skills as a child to help provide for her impoverished family in western Ohio. At age 15, she won a shooting contest against an experienced marksman, Frank E. Butler, whom she later married in 1876. The pair joined Buffalo Bill in 1885, performing in Europe before royalty and other heads of state. Audiences were astounded to see her shooting out a cigar from her husband’s hand or splitting a playing-card edge-on at 30 paces. She earned more than anyone else in the show except Buffalo Bill himself.

After a bad rail accident in 1901, Oakley was forced to settle for a less taxing routine, touring in a play written about her career. She also instructed women in marksmanship, believing strongly in female self-defense. Her stage acts were filmed for one of Thomas Edison’s earliest Kinetoscopes in 1894. Since her death, her story has been adapted for numerous stage musicals and films; including Annie Get Your Gun.

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann (Annie) Mosey on August 13, 1860 in a log cabin less than two miles northwest of Woodland, now Willowdell, in Darke County, Ohio, a rural county along the state’s border with Indiana and about five miles east of North Star. There is a stone-mounted plaque in the vicinity of the site, which was placed by the Annie Oakley Committee in 1981, 121 years after her birth.

Annie’s parents were Quakers of English descent from Hollidaysburg, Blair County, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Susan Wise, was born 1830. Her father was Jacob Mosey, who was born 1799 & married in 1848. Sometime around 1855, they moved to a rented farm (later purchased with a mortgage) in Patterson Township, Darke County, Ohio.

Born in 1860, Annie was the sixth of Jacob and Susan’s nine children and the fifth of the seven which survived.

Annie’s father, who fought in the War of 1812, was 61 years old at the time of Annie’s birth and became an invalid from hypothermia during a blizzard in late 1865. He died of pneumonia in early 1866 at the age of 66. Her mother later remarried Daniel Brumbaugh and had another daughter, Emily (1868–1937) before being widowed once again.

Because of poverty following her father’s death, Annie did not regularly attend school as a child, although she did attend later in childhood and in adulthood. On March 15, 1870, at age nine, she was admitted to the Darke County Infirmary along with her sister Sarah Ellen. According to her autobiography, she was put in the care of the infirmary’s superintendent, Samuel Crawford Edington, and his wife Nancy, who taught her to sew and decorate. Beginning in the spring of 1870, she was “bound out” to a local family to help care for their infant son, on the false promise of fifty cents per week (equivalent to $12 in 2022) and an education. The couple had originally wanted someone bigger who could pump water and cook. She spent about two years in near slavery to them, enduring mental and physical abuse. One time, the wife put Annie out in the freezing cold without shoes, as a punishment because she had fallen asleep over some darning. Annie referred to them as “the wolves.”

Around the spring of 1872, Annie ran away from “the wolves.” According to biographer Shirl Kasper, it was only at this point that Annie met and lived with the Edingtons, returning to her mother’s home around the age of 15.

Annie began trapping before age 7; shooting and hunting by age 8 to support her siblings and her widowed mother. She sold hunted game to the locals in Greenville, such as shopkeepers Charles and G. Anthony Katzenberger, who shipped it to hotels in Cincinnati and other cities. She also sold the game to restaurants and hotels in northern Ohio. Her skill paid off the mortgage on her mother’s farm when Annie was 15.

Biographers, such as Shirl Kasper, repeat Oakley’s own story about her very first shot at the age of eight. “I saw a squirrel run down over the grass in front of the house, through the orchard and stop on a fence to get a hickory nut.” Taking a rifle from the house, she fired at the squirrel, writing later that, “It was a wonderful shot, going right through the head from side to side”

Annie soon became well known throughout the region. On Thanksgiving Day 1875, the Baughman & Butler shooting act was being performed in Cincinnati. Traveling show marksman and former dog trainer Frank E. Butler (1847–1926), an Irish immigrant, placed a $100 bet per side (equivalent to $2,700 in 2022) with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost that Butler could beat any local fancy shooter. The hotelier arranged a shooting match between Butler and the 15-year-old Annie, saying, “The last opponent Butler expected was a five-foot-tall 15-year-old girl named Annie.” He soon began courting Annie and they later married.

A marriage certificate on file with the Archives of Ontario, Registration Number 49594, reports that Butler and Oakley were wed on June 20, 1882, in Windsor, Ontario. However, many sources say the marriage actually took place on August 23, 1876, in Cincinnati, but no recorded certificate validates that date. Throughout Oakley’s show-business career, the public was often led to believe that she was five to six years younger than she was. The later marriage date would have better supported her fictional age. They never had any children.

Annie and Frank Butler lived in Cincinnati for a time. Oakley, the stage name she adopted when she and Frank began performing together, is believed to have been taken from the city’s neighborhood of Oakley, where they resided.

They joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1885. At five feet tall, Oakley was given the nickname of “Watanya Cicilla” by fellow performer Sitting Bull, rendered “Little Sure Shot” in the public advertisements.

Oakley and Sitting Bull purportedly met and bonded while working together on a Buffalo Bill show in Minnesota. Sitting Bull joined with Buffalo Bill after being paroled, having led the last major Indian uprising against the federal government; his status as a great warrior and leader was already legendary worldwide by the time he and Oakley met. The former Indian Chief was so impressed with Oakley’s skills that he offered $65 (equal to $2,117 today) for a photograph of him and her together. According to Oakley, the admiration and respect was mutual and only increased as they spent more time together. Sitting Bull felt Oakley must be “gifted” by supernatural means, in order to shoot so accurately with both hands. As a result of his esteem, Sitting Bull symbolically “adopted” Oakley as his daughter in 1884, naming her “Little Sure Shot” – a title that Oakley went on to use throughout her career.

During her first engagement with the Buffalo Bill Show, Oakley experienced a tense professional rivalry with rifle sharpshooter Lillian Smith. Smith was eleven years younger than Oakley, 15 years old at the time she joined the show in 1886.

Oakley never failed to delight her audiences, and her feats of marksmanship were truly incredible. At 30 paces she could split a playing card held edge-on, she hit dimes tossed into the air, she shot cigarettes from her husband’s lips, and, a playing card being thrown into the air, she riddled it before it touched the ground

Oakley temporarily left the Buffalo Bill show but returned two years later, after Smith departed, in time for the Paris Exposition of 1889.This three-year tour only cemented Oakley as America’s first female star. She earned more than any other performer in the show, except Buffalo Bill himself. She also performed in many shows on the side for extra income. During her lifetime, the theater business began referring to complimentary tickets as “Annie Oakleys.” Such tickets traditionally had holes punched into them (to prevent them from being resold), reminiscent of the playing cards Oakley shot through during her sharpshooting act.

In Europe, she performed for Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, King Umberto I of Italy, President Marie François Sadi Carnot of France and other crowned heads of state. Oakley supposedly shot the ashes off a cigarette held by the newly crowned German Kaiser Wilhelm II at his request.

Oakley promoted the service of women in combat operations for the United States armed forces. She wrote a letter to President William McKinley on April 5, 1898, “offering the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain.”

The Spanish–American War did occur, but Oakley’s offer was not accepted. Theodore Roosevelt, did, however, name his volunteer cavalry the “Rough Riders” after the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” where Oakley was the major star.

Oakley shot her way to stardom, in no small part because of her carefully curated image. As Oakley biographer Glenda Riley argues in Montana, the Magazine of Western History, her distinctly Victorian sensibility “made Annie acceptable and appealing to everyone in her audience, young or old, male or female, old-fashioned or modern.”

This appeal was reflected in Oakley’s wardrobe (always long skirts, never trousers), as well as the way she rode her horse (sidesaddle, even when she was performing tricks). Oakley also maintained this demeanor outside the arena. “She furnished her tent/dressing room with a Brussels carpet, a rocking chair, and a parlor table,” Riley writes. “Between appearances, Annie sat in the chair, her guns lining the walls, and did fancy embroidery. After shows, Annie often entertained guests with punch, tea, cakes, and ices.”

In 1901 (the same year as McKinley’s assassination), Oakley was badly injured in a train accident but recovered after temporary paralysis and five spinal operations. She left the Buffalo Bill show and in 1902 began a less taxing acting career in a stage play written especially for her, The Western Girl.

Throughout her career, it is believed that Oakley taught more than 15,000 women how to use a gun. Oakley believed strongly that it was crucial for women to learn how to use a gun, as not only a form of physical and mental exercise, but also to defend themselves. She said: “I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns, as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”

Buffalo Bill was friends with Thomas Edison, and Edison built the world’s largest electrical power plant at the time for the Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill and 15 of his show Indians appeared in two Kinetoscopes filmed September 24, 1894.

▶️ 21 Seconds

In 1894, Oakley and Butler performed in Edison’s Kinetoscope film Annie Oakley, also known as “Little Sure Shot” of the “Wild West,” an exhibition of rifle shooting at stationary and moving objects, which was filmed November 1, 1894 in Edison’s Black Maria studio by William Heise. It lasted 21 seconds at 30 frames and 39 feet.

In 1904, sensational cocaine prohibition stories were selling well. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst published a false story that Oakley had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. The woman actually arrested was a burlesque performer who told Chicago police that her name was Annie Oakley.

Most of the newspapers that printed the story had relied on the Hearst article, and they immediately retracted it with apologies upon learning of the libelous error. Hearst, however, tried to avoid paying the anticipated court judgments of $20,000 (equivalent to $650,000 in 2022) by sending an investigator to Darke County, Ohio, with the intent of collecting reputation-smearing gossip from Oakley’s past. The investigator found nothing.

Oakley spent much of the next six years winning all but one of her 55 libel lawsuits against the newspapers. She collected less in judgments than the total of her legal expenses.

In 1913, the Butlers built a brick bungalow style home in Cambridge, Maryland. It is now known as the Annie Oakley House and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996

Oakley continued to set records into her sixties and also engaged in extensive philanthropy for women’s rights and other causes, including the support of young women she knew. She embarked on a comeback and intended to star in a feature-length silent movie. She hit 100 clay targets in a row from 16 yards (15 m) at age 62 in a 1922 shooting contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina.

In late 1922, the couple were in a car crash that forced Oakley to wear a steel brace on her right leg. She eventually performed again after more than a year of recovery, and she set records in 1924.

Oakley’s health declined in 1925 and she died of pernicious anemia in Greenville, Ohio, at the age of 66 on November 3, 1926. She was cremated and her ashes buried at Brock Cemetery, near Greenville.

According to B. Haugen, Butler was so distraught by her death that he stopped eating and died 18 days later in Michigan. He was buried next to her ashes. Kasper reports that Butler’s death certificate gave senility as the cause of death. One rumor claims that Oakley’s ashes were placed in one of her trophies and placed with Butler’s body in his coffin prior. Both body and ashes were interred in the cemetery on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1926.

A vast collection of Oakley’s personal possessions, performance memorabilia, and firearms are on permanent exhibit in the Garst Museum and the National Annie Oakley Center in Greenville, Ohio.

After her death, it was discovered that she has spent her entire fortune on her family and charities.✪

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