Annie Oakley – Your Gal Friday

Named by Sitting Bull “Little Miss Sure Shot.” She wow’d audiences before, after and during her time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She was an international star and rarely missed the mark. Today we’re talking about the life and legacy of your gal, Annie Oakley.

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Early Life

Annie Oakley was born as Phoebe Ann or (Annie) Mosey on August 13, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio. Her sisters called her Annie and it just stuck. Annie was the sixth out of nine children.

At the age of five, Annie trapped birds and small animals to help supply food for her family. Annie found that her happiest times were those spent in the woods and the fields. She was so good at shooting that she was able to help provide a living for her family. There were merchants and restaurants who would buy the game Annie shot.

Annie’s father became very sick and bed ridden after overexposure to the cold during a blizzard in late 1865 and died of pneumonia in early 1866 at the age of 66. Because of poverty, following the death of her father, Annie did not regularly attend school as a child. On March 15, 1870, at age nine, Annie was admitted to the Darke County Infirmary, along with her older sister Sarah Ellen. 

Beginning in the spring of 1870, she was “bound out” to a local family to help care for their infant son, on the false promise of fifty cents a week and an education. The couple had originally wanted someone who could pump water, cook and take care of the child. She spent about two years in near-slavery to them where she endured mental and physical abuse. One time, the wife put Annie out in the freezing cold, without shoes, as a punishment because she had fallen asleep.  Annie referred to the couple as “the wolves” even in her autobiography.

Eventually Annie ran away from the “wolves.” She walked to a train depot, but she didn’t have enough money for a ticket. A kind man listened to her story, bought her food, and then bought her a train ticket home.

Annie continued shooting game for her family. When Annie was 15 she sold enough game to restaurants and hotels to pay off the mortgage on her mother’s farm.

Her Debut

On a visit to her sister Lydia’s home near Cincinnati she met hotel keeper Jack Frost. He knew about Annie’s talent as a sharp-shooter and arranged an exhibition match with Frank Butler.

Annie was 15 years old, Frank was 28. The competition was trap-shooting with 25 birds. Frank shot 24, Annie got them all.

The Annie Oakley Center Foundation has this adorable story: “Frank later would say that he had lost as soon as he saw the pretty and shy 15-year-old girl step to the mark. What is certain is that he had fallen for her. In his professional shooting act he was assisted by a dog, a French poodle named George. Annie fell for George. So frank courted Annie by sending her letters and cards “signed” by George.’”

Annie and Frank were married and spend the rest of their lives together.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

The wild west was a mystery and a curiosity to all, especially those who have never been out west. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody opened Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show on May 19, 1883 at Omaha, Nebraska. 

In 1893, Cody changed the title to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included US and other military, cowboys, American Indians, and performers from all over the world. Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols and Georgians displayed their distinctive horses and colorful costumes. Visitors would see main events, feats of skill, staged races, and sideshows. Many historical western figures participated in the show.

When Annie was first added to the playbill she was lower on the list. But as her act grew more popular her act eventually made it to the beginning of the show right after the introductory act. 

In 1886 William Cody received an invitation to perform at the London’s American Exhibition. The event was sponsored by British royalty and the U.S. Government. The steamships entourage included: 83 saloon passengers, 38 steerage passengers, 97 Indians, 180 horses, 18 buffalo, 10, elk, 5 Texan steers, 4 donkeys and 2 deer.

After setting up they did a private preview show for the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward 7). When Annie was summoned to the Prince’s box he extended his hand, expecting a handshake, Annie reached out and to shake Princess Alexandra’s hand first. In the Book Annie Oakley by Shirl Kasper states Annie said to the future King “You’ll have to excuse me, please, because I am an American and in America ladies come first.”

The press had a field day. The Daily Chronicle called it “Charming Naivete” I saw one account where it was said the Prince called her a “wonderful little girl.”

The Prince was smitten by her. He even urged his mother, Queen Victoria to attend a performance. For the first time since her husband’s death she appeared at a public performance. The world took notice.

The troupe did two performances a day to crowds around 30,000 people. When the exhibition ended in 1887 well over a million people.

Queen Victoria was so wow’d that she asked for another performance on the eve of her Jubilee Day festivities attended by royalty from around the world.

In April of 1889 the troupe was in Paris for the Universal Exposition then to Spain, Italy and Germany before returning back to England.

It would be during a show in Germany that none other than King of Prussia (and German Emperor) Friedrich Wilhelm the 2nd stepped forward to assistant with one of Annie sharp shooting stunts. According to research, few volunteered and it would usually Annie’s husband who ended up assisting. Had Annie missed her target (which she never did) World War 1 might not have happened.

Film & Theater

Buffalo Bill was friends with Thomas Edison. Buffalo Bill and 15 of his show Indians appeared in two Kinetoscopes filmed September 24, 1894. Among those people, Annie Oakley also appeared in one of Edisons films. She was in the Kinetoscope film called, “Little Sure Shot of the Wild West,” an exhibition of rifle shooting at glass balls. It was the eleventh film to be shot in Edison’s Black Maria studio.

In 1901, Annie was badly injured in a train accident, but she recovered after temporary paralysis and five spinal operations. Annie left the Buffalo Bill Show and actually tried her hand at acting again, but this time in a play. In 1902 she starred in a play especially written for her called ‘the Western Girl’. She played the character Nancy Berry who used a pistol, rifle and rope to outsmart a group of outlaws.

Women’s Rights

Annie taught girls and women to be comfortable with firearms. It is said she taught 15,000 women how to use a gun. Keep in mind Annie’s time was quite different than today. She did however push for women to educated and independent. She knew that that image of her as the top of her sport showed that women were just as capable as wehen when offered the opportunity to prove themselves.

She offered President McKinley during Spanish-American War “50 lady sharpshooters” She said in her letter, “Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government” McKinley did not take her up on her offer.

When America’s involvement in World War 1 was on the horizon she offered to President Woodrow Wilson “A regiment of women from home protection, every one of whom can and will shoot if necessary.” She again was ignored.

Annie was quiet about her philanthropic work. For most of her life she donated to charitable organization helping orphans, widows and young women get an education. She would but on benefits as well. The Annie Oakley Foundation even states “There is evidence to show that she funded college and professional training for at least 20 young women.”

Fun Fact

Complimentary tickets to the theater or to sporting events have traditionally been punched with holes to designate that the tickets are free. During the late 1800s, these freebies were called “Annie Oakley’s” since Annie was known to be able to shoot holes in playing cards. Baseball observers quickly adapted “Annie Oakley” and still is also known as a “free ticket” or “free pass” to first base. Even Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “Annie Oakley” as “a free ticket”.

How She Dealt With Suitors

Lots of people proposed to Annie. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West at Buffalo Gal’s Luncheon in 2012 has a video talking about one of the many suitors who wrote to her proposing marriage.

Her Death

In 1922 Annie and Frank were in a terrible car accident that put Annie in a steel leg brace and took a year recovery.

In 1925 her health was failing her. She moved to Dayton to be with her sister Emily. The next year she come back to Greenville where she died of anemia November 3, 1926 at the age of 66. She’s buried at Brock Cemetery near Greenville, Ohio.

In a super bittersweet twist Frank died 18 days later. They were buried together.

_There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man._

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ABOUT YOUR GAL FRIDAY

Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast with supplemental video and article profiling and amazing gal of our galaxy that we can all learn from. Each month your hosts Kate Chaplin & Phoebe Frear talk about the life and legacy about a gal in the subjects of art, history, science and culture. Winner of Best Family Podcast by Indy PopCon Podcast Awards.

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