c 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins
Ironically, one of the West’s best known celebrities never crossed the Mississippi until she was well into her career. Yet for Annie Oakley, stories of her incredible shooting talents spread far beyond the west like wildfire. In a time when women were mostly confined to their homes and families, Annie dared to hone her skills in a man’s world – and win. Her achievements earned her a permanent place in history.
Born on August 13, 1860 in Ohio, Phoebe Ann Moses suffered an intolerably poor childhood. Her father died when she was very young, leaving Annie’s mother with eight children to feed. Susan Moses was forced to “farm out” her children, a popular term and mode of the day. Poorer families often farmed out their children to other families, who in turn employed them as farm hands around the ranch.
Annie spent much of her uneducated childhood living with such foster families, as well as in the occasional orphanage. One family was especially abusive; punishment was meted out in the form of a coatless and shoeless night spent in the snow. Annie never forgot the severe beatings she received, vowing never to recall the names of those who abused her. In her reflections of her life with the farmer and his wife, she referred to them only as “he-wolf” and “she-wolf”.
Eventually, Annie found her way back to her mother, who had remarried. Having already experienced starvation, Annie became a major source for the family’s food. A missed mark meant a missed meal, but as Annie’s shooting skills improved, she missed less and less. By the time she was twelve, she was shooting game birds for both food and profit. Whatever her family didn’t eat was sold to local eateries. Soon, Annie was earning a reputation for her fine shooting abilities.
Annie’s fame as a markswoman grew when she was invited to participate in a contest at the tender age of fifteen. Her opponent was Frank E. Butler, a professional sharpshooter some ten years her senior. Butler had made a public wager against all shooters who might come up against him. A restaurateur to whom Annie had sold top game encouraged her to go for it. Annie took the bet and met Butler at Cincinnati in November of 1875. “I almost dropped dead when a little slim girl in short dresses stepped out to the mark with me.” Butler later recalled.
It was a match destined to change both their careers and their lives, forever. For Annie, used to shooting live fast-flying birds, the clay pigeons were a cinch. In spite of her victory over Butler, by just one shot, the older man fell in love with his petite successor. Within a year the two were married and on the road in theatrical productions. Annie, glad to cast off her haunted maiden name, took on the stage name of Annie Oakley as she progressed quickly from stage hand to star. Butler served as a sometime partner and more than apt manager.
In about 1885, Annie and Frank were employed by Buffalo Bill Cody to star in his traveling show. Then called Buffalo Bill’s Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition, the show was on the brink of bankruptcy when Annie and Frank joined. Soon, however, Annie rose easily to the top of the playbill. Her incredible feats were unlike anything any other sharp shooting woman in the United States had ever come up with.
Before amazed crowds, Annie could shoot dimes from a man’s hand and cigarettes from his lips. She could also shoot the flame off of a moving candle. Another of her special feats was to shoot the middle of the Ace of Spades over her shoulder, relying on the reflection of a bowie knife. Perhaps her most exciting performance was the shooting of glass balls. As four balls were catapulted into the air, Annie would bolt 20 feet, vault over a table, retrieve her gun and blast each ball before it hit the ground. She could accomplish the same deed while standing on the back of a galloping steed. Chief Sitting Bull is credited with giving Annie her nickname, Little Sure Shot.
With Buffalo Bill’s show, Annie continued to scale the ladder of fame while liberating American women in a clandestine way. The wholesome little figure performed wearing knee-length costumes as her chestnut hair flowed down her backCtwo no-no’s for feminine dress of the day. Little argument was made, due to her honest, simple and private life outside the arena. On the road, Annie was the picture of a gentlelady, engaging in reading the Bible and embroidering. She and Frank lived comfortably in an amply furnished tent on the road. In fact, when Annie and Frank later built a home in New Jersey, closets were left out because Annie preferred to live out of a trunk.
The Buffalo Bill show once traveled to Britain, where the Grand Duke Michael of Russia challenged Annie to a match. Annie easily beat the Duke, 47-36. Her accomplishment amazed even Queen Victoria, who called her “a very, very clever little girl.” For the next fifteen years, Annie and Frank continued with the show, netting $1000 or more per week.
In October of 1901, Buffalo Bill’s renamed Wild West Show suffered its first real tragedy. The show train collided with another, badly injuring Annie Oakley. It took five operations and two years of therapy before she was able to walk again. With determination and grace, Annie also worked to shoot again and resumed performing and giving shooting lessons for another twenty years.
Tragically, a car accident in 1922 resulted in a broken hip, leaving Annie incapable of walking forever more. Gone were the days of the Wild West Show; Annie Oakley was never to fire a gun again. Ever practical, she had her gold shooting medals melted down and sold the lumps for charity. In 1926, Annie Oakley died in her sleep after arranging her own funeral, including a tailored gown for the affair. Frank, her husband of 50 years, followed her just three weeks later. During her lifetime, Annie had taken over $100,000 in prizes for her shooting. It was a fitting reward for the lady who aimed to please.