JULY / AUG 2017: BY SCARLETT GRANT
As a British person, I was only made aware of Annie Oakley through the 1950 film musical Annie Get Your Gun starring Betty Hutton. The film has many inaccuracies (the most negligible being it shows Annie as a short-haired blonde, in spite of multiple images showing she was a long-haired brunette), but is the story of a young girl who grew up with nothing and became a star in her own right.But the real story is more inspiring than the clean-and-squeaky musical.
Annie was born on 13th August 1860 in a log cabin in rural Ohio. Her father died when she was only 6 years old. Due to financial difficulties this produced, Annie did not attend school much as a child. She learned to hunt animals to support her family after her father’s death.
This was not enough. Annie and her sister entered state care. Soon, Annie found herself “bound out” into domestic work for a local family. They promised her a small wage and education in compensation. However, these claims did not materialise. The family she lived under abused her physically and emotionally. In despite of her treatment, Annie never revealed who this family was. Even in her autobiography she referred to them as “the wolves.”
After two years of living under this treatment, at only 12 years old, she ran away from her captors. She made her way back to the superintendent of the county who she had met during her time in care. For several years she lived with his family before reuniting with her mother at 15. Throughout these difficult years Annie perfected her skill in shooting. After her reunion with her mother, she paid off her mother’s mortgage through selling game to local restaurants and hotels.
Through this, Annie became a well known figure in business circles. When the famous sharpshooter, Frank Butler, arrived in Cincinnati with his travelling show, he placed a $2,100 bet with a hotel owner he could beat any local shooter. The hotel owner entered Annie in a competition against Frank. Although Annie beat Frank, there was no hard feelings. After the contest, Frank and Annie began a relationship and married in 1882.
For a while Annie and Frank lived together in Cincinnati. It’s believed she took the name “Oakley” from a neighbourhood in the city (her birth name was Phoebe Ann Mosey). A few years later, in 1885, they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. At only five feet tall (1.52 m), the show dubbed her “Little Sure Shot.” During her first stint with the Buffalo Bill show, she had a tense rivalry with fellow shooter Lillian Smith. This resulted in Annie leaving the show, but she rejoined again in 1889 after Lillian left.
During her second stint with the show, she earned more than any other performer, second to only Buffalo Bill himself. She performed in multiple shows on the side, adding more to her fortune. When she came to Europe, she performed for many of the heads of state, including Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm. Her abilities never failed to dazzle an audience. The skill of this tiny woman stunned them. One of Annie’s most famous tricks was her ability to split a playing card, edge on. As it fell to the ground, she shot further holes in it, all at a distance of 90 feet (27 m).
Annie was one of the first film stars. Buffalo Bill was good friends with Thomas Edison. This led to Annie and Frank being featured in a short film entitled, The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West, an exhibition of rifle shooting at glass balls, etc filmed in 1894. She continued to perform with the Buffalo Bill show until 1902, a year after she a train accident badly injured her. While she recovered and continued to perform after this incident, perhaps she couldn’t keep up the pace required by the show. One of her post-Buffalo Bill performances was in a play written for her, The Western Girl.
During her quieter years, she campaigned for women’s rights. Annie advocated that every woman should learn how to use a gun if only for the empowering image it gave. She petitioned the US government to allow women to train and fight in the American-Spanish war. Although the government rejected her offer of training a group of woman sharpshooters, Annie inspired hope to many women and girls across the United States. She often stated women need education and independence. Annie was a regular donor to many charities caring for orphans.
One incident in 1904 made Annie a victim of what we would now call “Fake News.” Prohibition was active and the public devoured scandalous stories involving illegal substances. The infamous newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst heard of an “Annie Oakley” arrested for stealing to support a cocaine addiction. Hearst ran this story. Other newspapers across the country picked it up. It turns out the woman was a burlesque performer who gave the name “Annie Oakley” upon arrest.
While many other newspapers retracted the story and printed apologies, Hearst tried to avoid paying Annie the expected $533,111 in fines and sent an investigator to find gossip about Annie’s past. The investigator found nothing. Although the compensation Annie received did not cover her legal expenses, she believed the costs were necessary to preserve her character.
She continued to perform into her sixties. In 1922, a 62-year-old Oakley hit 100 clay targets in a row from 15 meters away. Even after a nasty accident in 1922, which required her to wear a brace on her leg alongside a year and a half of recovery, she performed in 1924. Her health declined in 1925 and she died in 1926 at 66. Upon her death, the world discovered she had spent her entire fortune on her family and various charities.
Annie Oakley was more than just a “Little Sure Shot”—she was an inspiration to women and campaigned for independence and equal rights in a time before they had the vote. It’s sad this part of her story wasn’t covered in Annie Get Your Gun.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.