Annie Oakley: 1860–1926
Possessing the perfect combination of skill, reserved elegance, and femininity, Annie Oakley never failed to dazzle a crowd. And while she certainly knew how to charm spectators, her life was more complex than simply being a sharpshooter in the spotlight.
Annie Oakley—Phoebe Ann Moses’ stage name—was born in 1860 on her family farm in Darke County, Ohio. The early years of her life brought great tragedy; Oakley’s father passed away of pneumonia, leaving the family with a financial crisis. Quick to act, eight-year-old Annie took her father’s rifle and shot a squirrel, hoping to provide any help to her family she could. Her mother was horrified when she found out, and Oakley was immediately forbidden from ever firing a gun again. Little did her mother know, Annie was already on the path to becoming a famous female icon.
At age 15, Oakley competed in a shooting competition against well-known marksman, Frank Butler. To Butler’s surprise, she beat him by one target. He was so impressed with her, they married soon after.
Butler and Oakley performed for a short time with the Sells Brothers Circus and then for 17 years in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Her exceptional shooting skills fascinated crowds. At 30 paces she could shoot holes in playing cards thrown in the air, and on occasion she would even blow kisses to the crowd after intentionally missing a shot. Oakley also engaged in riskier acts where she would shoot the end off of a cigarette that was held between her husband’s lips.
When Oakley was not performing she often gave lessons to women interested in learning to shoot. In fact, she once said, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle [firearms] as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”
However, Oakley’s life was not always about being the star attraction of a show. In 1903 a man named William Randolph Hearst wrote and published a false article about her, which claimed she was in jail for stealing in order to maintain her cocaine addiction. Although Oakley was mortified, it was clear she wasn’t going to take any grief from Hearst. In order to retaliate she filed 55 lawsuits for false reporting.
Oakley was always kind and well-spoken in the courtroom, but most of all she was persuasive. As a result, Hearst hired a detective to go to Oakley’s hometown of Darke County, Ohio to try and dig up a little dirt on her. To the detective’s disappointment he came up empty handed, and the locals even prevented him from staying in town that evening.
In 1917, Buffalo Bill passed away, and although Butler and Oakley did not attend the funeral, Oakley wrote a eulogy and referred to Buffalo Bill as “the kindest, simplest, most loyal man I ever knew…the personification of those sturdy and lovable qualities that really made the west.”
Annie passed away on November 3, 1926, and her husband of 50 years passed away only 18 days later; however, Oakley’s legacy as a performer, instructor, and role model continues to live on.