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Wednesday, May 8, 2013


“When she entered the arena, she blew kisses to the audience. The little five-foot tall young lady was being used to warm up the crowd to the sound of gunfire. She was an ambidextrous shot who fired rapidly and with unerring accuracy. On the rare occasion when she missed a shot, she immediately fired again. Sometimes, she intentionally missed and then pretended to become petulant; stamping her foot in frustration and throwing her hat down and walking around it to change her luck. Then, when she did hit the mark, the audience would roar louder than ever. Her act often included hitting targets while riding a bicycle with no hands. She concluded her act with a funny jig and would kick up her heels as she left the arena.”
This little lady was a true star - an international star. Her name was Phoebe Ann Moses, but most of her fans, then and now, just called her “Annie Oakley.” She was the most famous woman in American in the late 19th Century, and the finest woman sharpshooting entertainer of all time. Some think of her as a western legend, but Annie Oakley was not born in the west, and never lived there either.
Annie was born in Darke County, Ohio, on August 13, 1860. She was the fifth of seven children born to Susan and Jacob Moses, Quakers from Pennsylvania. Her father died when Annie was a young child. She inherited his Kentucky rifle, and with it she tried to help her mother feed the other children by hunting and trapping game in the surrounding woods. At age 10, she was sent to live at the county poor farm where she received a little schooling. During her early teen years, Annie divided her time between the institution and living with her mother and new stepfather.
A few years later, an Irishman sharpshooter named Frank Butler arrived in town. He made his living by travelling around accepting shooting challenges from local marksmen. He would put up $500 against the challengers’ $50 entrance fee. One day in Greenville, Ohio, Annie Moses stepped up to shoot against Frank. “I almost dropped dead when a slim girl in a short dress stepped out to the mark with me,” said Frank, “I was a beaten man the moment she appeared.” Annie won, Frank lost. But Frank Butler had fallen in love. He invited her to see his act in Cincinnati where he would shoot an apple off the head of his dog, George; then George would retrieve the apple. The dog began taking the fruit to Annie instead of Frank. A year later, Annie Moses became Annie Butler. The two remained in love for the rest of their lives.
Annie joined her husband’s act under the name Annie Oakley (Oakley was the name of the Cincinnati neighborhood where they lived). Realizing that his wife was the real star, Frank put his own career on hold to manage Annie. He once said, “She outclassed me.” In the early years, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler played small theatres, skating rinks, and circuses. In New Orleans in 1884, they met Buffalo Bill Cody. After a three-day try out, Buffalo Bill hired the pair. They toured with his Wild West Show for 16 seasons; the only contract they ever had was verbal.
Annie had a theatrical flair and the agility of an athlete. She practiced constantly and never relied on trickery. She preferred Lancaster shotguns, Winchester rifles, and both Colt and Smith & Wesson handguns. She was given the nickname “Little Sure Shot” by fellow performer Chief Sitting Bull. Whenever Sitting Bull got cranky, Cody would send for Annie who would talk to the chief for a while then do a little jig. It always made the chief laugh and it lifted his spirits.
In 1887, the Wild West Show sailed to London as part of the U.S. delegation sent for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. After the first show, Prince Albert Edward, a notorious flirt, wanted to meet Annie. When he held out his hand to her, she passed it by and shook his wife’s hand instead. Annie told the Prince, “You’ll have to forgive me. I’m an American, and in America, women come first.” A few days later, Queen Victoria attended the performance. As the American flag entered the arena, she stood up and bowed deeply. Everyone present was shocked. No monarch had ever done that before. Annie curtsied and walked up to the Queen. Then Victoria said to her, “You are a very clever little girl.” Annie’s fame began to spread.
The following year, the western spectacle went to France. At first the French believed the shooting was faked, but when they saw Annie Oakley perform, they were convinced that she, at least, was the real thing. They idolized America’s “Little Sure Shot,” as did people across Europe.
In 1894, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and a group of Indians performed in front of Thomas Edison’s moving picture machine at the inventor’s laboratory in New Jersey. Edison was delighted that his machine could capture the gun smoke and shattering targets. Now the public could go to kinetoscope parlors and, for a nickel, see Annie Oakley in action. She had become the first “cowgirl” in motion pictures.
After another five seasons, Annie and Frank began to think of retirement from the road. The travel was wearing them down. Then in 1901, the unthinkable happened. As the company was travelling by train to their last performance of the season, it ran into an oncoming train. Annie was pinned beneath the rubble for hours. Legend says that just 17 hours later, Annie Oakley’s hair turned from brown to white due to the stress of the crash. She needed five spinal operations and suffered some paralysis. She and Frank decided to leave Buffalo Bill’s show.
They retired to Cambridge, Maryland, where both could hunt and shoot. They had no children. In 1922 at age 62, Annie suffered more injuries in an automobile accident that fractured her hip and ankle. She was forced to wear a steel leg brace from then on; but she kept on shooting. In 1926, Annie and Frank were back in Darke County, Ohio, where it all began. She died from pernicious anemia on November 3rd. Frank stopped eating or caring and died three weeks later. His only wish was to join his wife.

1 comment:

  1. Such skill, determination and devotion to both her performance and husband, is a long forgotten art.