Oakley, Annie (1860–1926)

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Oakley, Annie (1860–1926)

Sharpshooter and equestrian who helped create the image of the self-reliant frontierswoman in late 19th-century America. Name variations: Annie Oakley (stage name from 1882); Annie Butler in private life after her marriage. Born Phoebe Anne Mosey (also sometimes given in records as Moses and Mozee) on August 13, 1860, on a farm near Woodland (now Willowdell), in Darke County, Ohio; died in Greenville, Ohio, on November 3, 1926; sixth daughter of Jacob Mosey and Susan Mosey (both farmers of Darke County, Ohio); had basic schooling in orphanage; mainly self-taught; married Frank Butler (a professional marksman), on June 20, 1876 or 1882 (died November 21, 1926); children: two stepdaughters.

Annie Oakley was one of the most celebrated entertainers in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A crack shot and a skilled rider, she starred in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, but she was also a skillful competitor in shooting contests and a good businesswoman. Escaping from humble origins, she was always careful to show that she was a "true lady" in the Victorian manner, and not just a rough-and-tumble "showgirl." Ironically, she came from Ohio and spent very little of her life in the "wild west" even though she did more than anyone else to create the popular image of the American frontierswoman.

She was born Phoebe Anne Mosey in 1860, the sixth daughter of Jacob and Susan Mosey , Quakers and poor farmers in Darke County, Ohio, who lived precariously. Her only brother and another sister soon followed. When Oakley was five, her father Jacob was caught in a blinding snowstorm as he rode his wagon home with much-needed supplies. He arrived barely alive and, contracting pneumonia, died before the end of the winter (February 11, 1866). Her mother then married Daniel Brumbaugh in August 1867. Two years later, Annie was sent by her overtaxed mother to a nearby state orphanage, run by a family friend. The friend contracted Oakley out to a family nearby who quickly reneged on their promise to send her to school in return for farm work. Instead, they kept her working at home, beat her without mercy, and gave her no education. Some of Oakley's recent biographers believe that the father of this family, whom she always referred to as the "he-wolf," sexually abused her as well. Finally in 1872, Oakley ran away and returned to the orphanage, where she helped out by hunting for food in the woods, and reestablished contact with her mother and siblings. By then, her stepfather had died as the result of a fall, and her mother was once more a widow, with a new baby. In 1874, Susan would marry a mailman and old friend, Joseph Shaw.

Oakley quickly learned to be a good hunter and an extremely accurate shot, bringing home small game and birds for the family. Right-handed by preference, she soon became equally adept with her left. She learned how to shoot ducks in the head so that pieces of shot would not be embedded in the meat when it was brought to the table. At the same time, she tried hard to make up for lost time in education, and practiced reading, writing, and the more delicate female arts, such as fancy needlework. In her writing and domestic work, as in her hunting, she was almost excessively attentive to order and detail, but her methodical ways paid off. The earnings from her hunting enabled her mother, whose new husband Joseph was going blind, to pay off a mortgage on a family farm started 13 months previously.

Her first opportunity to move into a wider world came when, as a teenager, she entered a Cincinnati shooting contest against Frank Butler, a well-known marksman, and defeated him. Butler, who was about ten years her senior and already well known as a theatrical gunman, accepted this defeat in a good spirit and began to woo Oakley. Within a year, they had married, though whether the year was 1876 or 1882 remains unclear because publicity agents later knocked six years off her real age and re-dated the events of her early life accordingly. Butler was divorced and had two daughters, whom Oakley adopted, but the couple had no children of their own.

Under the tutelage of Butler, who was a sensible businessman as well as a crack shot, Phoebe Mosey, who had now taken the name Annie Oakley, became a celebrity in traveling variety shows and circuses. She made her own costumes—ankle-length dresses with buckskin fringes and, often, a cowboy hat, and performed lively shooting acts, skipping around the arena, bringing down fast-moving targets, and kicking up her heels as she left the ring. She had never been farther west than Kansas but she came to epitomize in appearance and manner the women of the West, or at least the popular idea of such women. Her big break came when she was accepted into the Buffalo Bill Wild West Exposition, run by William ("Buffalo Bill") Cody. Cody had rejected her on her first application but when his partner Nate Salsbury saw her shooting at clay pigeons he was sufficiently impressed to hire her on the spot. Among the acts she perfected as part of the show were shooting clay pigeons in rapid succession, shooting down

clusters of glass balls thrown through the air, and riding a galloping horse sidesaddle while untying a ribbon from one of its legs.

Most women working the burlesque, vaudeville, and show circuit in the late 19th century had reputations for fast living and slatternly behavior. Oakley did everything she could to distance herself from this image. Wrote Glenda Riley , "She believed that a quintessential Victorian woman must embody five major qualities. A genuine lady should be modest, married, domestic, benevolent, and a civilizing force." Her dresses were modestly buttoned up to the neck, she always rode horses sidesaddle, even for stunt shooting, and she was ostentatious about having a husband and a settled domestic life, never drinking or gambling, and fulfilling her family's Quaker principles. Being on the road nearly all the time made it difficult for her to have a settled Victorian home of the approved sort, but she compensated by decorating her boarding house rooms and her circus tent with elaborate draperies and knick-knacks, and by inviting women to tea like a good society matron. She positioned herself at the doorway of her tent between acts, embroidery in hand, to indicate that she was living up to the delicate, domestic ideal. In many ways she was, of course, a convention-breaker, taking on the kind of challenges previously reserved almost entirely to men. But she did not think of herself as a feminist and was not a votes-for-women advocate. She managed instead to blend a stage presence of Western daring with an offstage manner of unviolated femininity.

Annie was a natural for Buffalo Bill's Wild West. She embodied everything that he and his growing public held dear: humble beginnings, hard work, persistence, and lively personality. She had no apparent foibles or flaws. She was petite and pretty. She could shoot and ride. What more could the owners of the fledgling Wild West Exposition ask?

—Glenda Riley

The Wild West show became an enormous popular hit during her first season, the summer and fall of 1885, and it ran throughout the next summer at Staten Island, New York, attracting 360,000 visitors. Cody was one of the first showmen to romanticize the Western frontier just as it was closing, and he helped create the larger-than-life, storybook image of cowboys, Indians, settlers, prospectors, and soldiers which has been a staple of American popular culture ever since. He also aimed to be an educator, and collected testimonials from generals and presidents who declared that his shows enabled men and women who had never been out West to get a real taste of it. Cody, an excellent equestrian and marksman, came from North Platte, Nebraska. He had previously worked as a hunter providing transcontinental railroad building crews with buffalo meat (hence his nickname) and, like most white Americans of his era, he was excited by the rapid expansion of Euro-American civilization. But he could also see the tragic aspect of the story, especially from the Native Americans' point of view. His colorful troupe of Western "types" delighted audiences in the rising industrial towns east of the Mississippi and were sufficiently famous by 1887 to be invited to England as part of the celebrations of Queen Victoria 's 50th year on the throne, her Golden Jubilee. The queen herself came to see the show, as did her son Prince Edward (Edward VII), daughter-in-law Alexandra of Denmark , and ex-Prime Minister William Gladstone. All were introduced to Annie Oakley and found her an enchanting mix of feminine delicacy and Western flair.

While the show was in England, however, Oakley and Buffalo Bill began to fall out. Both were reticent about the causes of the rift, though they certainly involved his decision to add another woman sharpshooter to his entourage, an ill-mannered, boastful, but talented teenager named Lillian Frances Smith . British journalists wrote admiringly of both women but usually gave the greater accolades to Oakley, who more nearly fit their ideal of a good woman. (Smith later raised eyebrows by running away with one of the show's cowboys.) At the end of the British season, Oakley and her husband left the Wild West show, toured alone in Europe for the rest of that summer, and then returned as independents to America. Working for another Wild West show the next summer, she won a challenge for her new boss, "Pawnee Bill," by killing 49 out of a group of 50 live pigeons in mid-air before an audience of 12,000.

Oakley rejoined Buffalo Bill's Wild West the next year, now that Lillian Smith had left under a cloud of scandal. Annie became its star attraction during a Paris exhibition on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, in the shadow of the newly built Eiffel Tower. Her show was becoming steadily more elaborate. She introduced such tricks as shooting the ash off a cigarette in her husband's mouth, shooting a dime from between his finger and thumb, and shooting an apple off her pet dog's head. In addition, she and Cody perfected a set of melodramatic theatrical scenes in which settlers showed their mettle and Western soldiers their bravery in rescuing helpless women and children from bandits or Indians.

The king of Senegal, a French colony in Africa, offered Cody 100,000 francs for her, declaring that he could use her to hunt the man-eating tigers which afflicted his people. A French noble also wrote her a love letter and proposed taking her away from the show, enclosing his photograph. She replied by shooting the man's

picture through the head and sending it back, with the words "Respectfully declined" across the top. Her stage name, "Miss Oakley," and her girlish appearance, led male fans to assume that she was unmarried and in need of a protector. They did not realize that this image was carefully contrived by her husband, so she was bombarded with love letters and marriage proposals wherever she went.

The Wild West show was a central feature at the great Chicago Exposition in 1893, and Oakley again proved a great draw to shooting enthusiasts and her personal fans. The 1890s also witnessed a craze for bicycles, which were then being mass produced for the first time. Oakley bought one in England and claimed later that she was the first lady cyclist in London. She took it back to America, learned how to ride without using her hands, and to shoot down moving targets as she went along. She also designed a modest yet practical cycling outfit for women which did not involve Bloomers, which she regarded as unladylike. But her conformity to feminine ideals did not prevent her from offering to raise a regiment of armed fighting women when America went to war against Spain in 1898.

Frank Butler remained an effective manager for Oakley. He cultivated good relations with journalists to help ensure that she had favorable press everywhere and arranged lucrative publicity deals with the gun and ammunition makers whose equipment she used. Throughout her years with the Wild West show, Oakley entered shooting contests and usually proved the equal or superior of the men she encountered, including a succession of American champions. She soundly defeated the crown prince of Russia on one visit to England and made a distinguished showing at the Grand American Handicap in Kansas City in 1902, the last big shooting contest to use live pigeons. The sports magazines and associations honored her with medals, trophies, and regular stories, so that by the turn of the century she had a huge collection of honors. Her renown opened up sport shooting to other women. These were the years in which for the first time women became participants in such sports as croquet, tennis, and archery, and many of them cited Annie Oakley as an inspirational example. She believed that women would benefit from taking up shooting, both as a form of exercise and for self-defense. In interviews, she defended the idea that women on the city streets should have revolvers hidden in their umbrellas, ready to repulse assailants.

By 1900, when Oakley was 40, the couple had decided to leave the traveling show and settle down for a while. Since 1893 they had owned a house, built to their own specifications, in Nutley, New Jersey, and had spent there whatever months' break from the traveling routine they could manage. In 1901, they were involved in a train crash when the second section of the Wild West train in which they were sleeping collided head on with a freight train in North Carolina. Oakley's back was injured, and she had a succession of spine operations in the ensuing months. She cited this crisis to her fans to explain her decision to leave the show, adding that the shock of the accident had turned her hair white overnight (though in fact it had turned soon after she was accidentally left too long in a scalding spa bath) and forced her to don a wig. But Oakley found it difficult to settle down to domestic life in New Jersey, fell out regularly with her servants, and finally sold the house in 1904, to resume her wandering life in hotels, boarding houses, and tents.

That same year, she sued more than 30 newspapers around the United States for carrying a story which said that Annie Oakley was a cocaine addict who had been stealing to finance her habit, and that she was now in prison. In fact a Chicago woman had pretended to be Oakley, and the press had not checked its facts. The real Oakley, eager to defend her unsullied reputation, won several cases, which prompted most of the other newspapers to settle out of court. She took particular pleasure in winning damages of $27,500 from the Chicago news baron William Randolph Hearst, who had added insult to injury by sending a private detective to Greenville, Ohio, trying to dig up scandals against her.

Over the next few years, much of the couple's income came from Frank Butler's work as a salesman for an ammunition company in Connecticut and from Oakley's winnings in competitive shooting matches, though she also played heroines in several stage melodramas. She enjoyed a brief comeback in the arena between 1911 and 1913 with the Vernon Seavers Young Buffalo Show, and even had the pleasure of giving free tickets to children from the orphanage where she had lived as a child. In this show, she developed a new trick of firing behind her back, using a mirror to aim, and was still able to hit targets with unerring accuracy. Another stunt was to split playing cards held lengthwise with a single shot.

Through the teens of the new century, she moved frequently between Florida, Ohio, Maryland, and New Jersey, still shooting competitively, hunting, and teaching other women how to shoot. When America became involved in the First World War, she wrote to President Woodrow Wilson offering to raise a regiment of women sharpshooters for home defense in the event of a German invasion. He declined but was glad to learn that Oakley, at her own expense, was giving shooting exhibitions to young army recruits in hastily constructed military camps. By 1922, now 62, she was contemplating another comeback, and considering movie offers, but was involved in a serious car accident near Daytona, Florida, which landed her in hospital for more than a month. From then on, she was forced to wear a leg brace and could walk only with difficulty.

Annie Oakley died in Greenville, Ohio, on November 3, 1926, near her family and friends, after trying to write an autobiography which was left unfinished. Frank Butler died less than three weeks later. Oakley was reintroduced to later generations of young Americans in 1946 in the musical Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman on Broadway and Betty Hutton on film. In 1953, ABC television created a popular Annie Oakley television show starring Gail Davis , which ran for four seasons (1953–56).

sources and suggested reading:

Havighurst, Walter. Annie Oakley of the Wild West. NY: Macmillan, 1954.

Kasper, Shirl. Annie Oakley. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Riley, Glenda. The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.


Annie Oakley Foundation, Greenville, Ohio; Nutley Historical Society, Nutley, New Jersey.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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