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Annie Oakley, the Larger-Than-Life Sharpshooter

She led a remarkable life as a traveling performer.

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  • Annie Oakley photographed c. 1899.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Annie Oakley is perhaps best remembered as a performer. She toured the world with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, gaining fame and fortune as one of the show’s most popular acts. Although a naturally gifted—and well-practiced—shot, her deeds and accomplishments ranged far wider. A hunter, a teacher, and an activist, Annie Oakley established a name for herself in the male-dominated world of sharpshooting, always acting on her own terms and standing up for her integrity. She rose from the pain of a difficult childhood to become a wholly unique figure in history, as influential today as she was at her peak. 

Although she was born Phoebe Ann Mozee on August 13, 1860, she was always called “Annie” by her loved ones. She was her mother Susan’s sixth child, and when her father, Jacob, succumbed to pneumonia, he left the family in dire straits. Oakley and her sister Sarah Ellen were sent to Darke County Infirmary near their Willowdell, Ohio home. There, she studied the domestic arts, and was soon hired by a local family as a caretaker for their infant son. The family, whom Oakley would later call “the wolves” in her autobiography, underpaid and abused her. She soon fled, returning to live with her mother. 

Her family’s financial situation, however, was no less desperate. According to Oakley herself, she fired her first shot at the age of eight, hitting a squirrel squarely between the eyes. Now in her early teens, she turned that into a career, hunting and trapping game, then selling it to grocers, restaurants, and hotels. This was a lucrative operation—she was able to pay off her mother’s $200 mortgage by the age of 15. She became known throughout Ohio as a skilled shot and an efficient hunter. 

In 1875, the Baughman and Butler traveling show passed through the booming city of Cincinnati. One of the showmen, Frank Butler, was a sure shot himself, and offered $100 to anyone who could beat him in a shooting contest. Local hotelier Jack Frost, who likely knew Oakley through her hunting business, introduced the two. To Butler’s surprise, Oakley challenged him to a contest of 25 shots. The two went toe-to-toe, but on Butler’s final shot, he missed his target. Oakley took home the prize, and soon began a courtship with Butler. They married in 1882.

The couple remained in Cincinnati, moving into the Oakley neighborhood from which Annie would later take her stage name. Butler continued performing his show with another assistant, but one day in 1882, that man called in sick. Oakley filled in, instantly becoming the star of the show. 

Oakley set trapshooting records throughout her life; her signature tricks were varied and astonishing. She could shoot a playing card in half along its narrow edge. She shot dimes and glass balls that Butler threw into the air, sometimes while lying on her back. She could shoot cigars from between Butler’s lips, put out a candle, or uncork a bottle with a single shot. 

But it wasn’t only her talent as a sharpshooter that set Oakley apart. She was a skilled performer, and carved out a unique stage persona that juxtaposed femininity with the traditionally masculine art of shooting. On stage, she dressed in all the trappings of a proper Victorian woman, with a Western twist via a Stetson hat. She joyfully skipped the 30 paces from which she took her shots, blowing kisses as she went. She made accurate shots behind her back using a hand mirror. When she missed a shot—sometimes on purpose—she would pout theatrically. Oakley successfully exploited the novelty of being a woman marksman, turning her shooting talent into a performance. 

Oakley and Butler soon began an independent tour of the country. At the same time, the Lakota chief Sitting Bull embarked on his own traveling show. Born in 1831, he had led his people in a series of conflicts against white settlers, most notably in the 1876 Great Sioux War against Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment at Little Bighorn. After his forced surrender, Sitting Bull made speaking engagements throughout the US and Canada. He and Oakley crossed paths in 1884, when Sitting Bull attended one of her performances in Minnesota. He approached her after the show to express his admiration, and the two became fast friends. Sitting Bull later gave the five-foot sharpshooter the Lakota name Watanya Cicilla, which translated into her stage name Little Sure Shot. 

In 1884, Oakley sought to expand her show’s scope. She encountered William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the gunslinger who organized the Wild West show of the same name. Buffalo Bill already had a sharpshooter on his roster: world champion Captain Adam Bogardus. He wasn’t interested in hiring Oakley, so she and Butler joined the Sells Brothers Circus instead. But later that year, as his Congress of Rough Riders steamed down the Mississippi, their boat began taking on water. The performers all escaped alive, but Bogardus’ health was permanently damaged, and his guns forever lost. He quit the show a few months later, in March of 1885, opening a slot for Oakley. 

Oakley only rose to greater stardom with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, eventually becoming the second-highest paid performer in the show. Her act was a major selling point; advertisements of the era often used her name and image to draw crowds. The show included reenactments of historical events and other spectacles, like Sioux War battles, Pony Express rides, and train robberies. Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill the same year, and his friendship with Oakley continued. Through Buffalo Bill, Oakley also met Thomas Edison, who recorded her act with his Kinetoscope for the 1894 film The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West.

In 1887, Buffalo Bill’s show traveled to England, performing for royalty at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. In attendance, besides the queen herself, were King Umberto I of Italy, President Marie François Sadi Carnot of France, and the recently crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II. Some accounts claim she shot the ashes off the Kaiser’s cigarette, but this may just be one of the many tall tales surrounding Oakley. 

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  • Oakley shooting over her shoulder using a mirror.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Oakley was also a fierce advocate for women’s self-defense. It has been estimated that, along her travels, she taught up to 15,000 women how to handle a gun. In the days leading up to the Spanish-American War in 1898, Oakley wrote to President William McKinley, offering to raise a regiment of women volunteers. She did the same when the First World War broke out, but was never taken up on the offer. While she did support equal work and equal pay for women, and financially supported many young women in poverty, Oakley was not in favor of women’s suffrage, saying it would be acceptable if “only the good women” could vote.

In 1901, after 16 years with Buffalo Bill, a train accident left Oakley temporarily paralyzed. After five spinal surgeries, she made a remarkable recovery, and returned to performing by 1902. Buffalo Bill devised a less strenuous role for her: a play called The Western Girl, in which she starred as a frontier woman fighting off a gang of outlaws.

Oakley’s fame, however, brought with it some unpleasant consequences. 1904 saw the prohibition of cocaine in the United States. Many newspapers used the ban for fodder, publishing sordid stories of those who were driven to crime by addiction. When a burlesque performer arrested for stealing to support her habit quipped to police that her name was Annie Oakley, newspapers ran with the story. Oakley contested them, and many quickly recanted. Some, however, including those owned by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, refused. 

Instead, Hearst sent reporters to Oakley’s Ohio home to try and rake up further muck to discredit her. Over the next six years, Oakley undertook 56 libel suits against the offending publications, winning 55 of them. Her legal fees, however, greatly exceeded the damages she was awarded. 

Her legal battles won, Oakley embarked on a comeback tour. She continued performing with Wild West shows and setting trapshooting records. A car crash in 1922 almost took her out of commission, but she returned to the stage, and set new records even in 1924, at the age of 64. Annie Oakley passed away two years later, in her home of western Ohio. She was briefly survived by Butler, who died just 18 days later. They had no children. After her death, Oakley’s autobiography passed to the comedian Fred Stone, who discovered that she had donated the entirety of her vast fortune to charity.

Annie Oakley is widely remembered for her sharpshooting and performing prowess. She still looms large as one of the biggest personalities of the Wild West era, and her thrilling, triumphant story has frequently been portrayed on stage and screen. The home she built with Butler in Cambridge, Maryland, complete with a flat roof designed as a platform from which she could hunt game, still stands today as a monument to her wholly unique lifestyle, and her vast accomplishments.