Annie Oakley (August 13, 1860 – November 3, 1926), born Phoebe Ann Moses, was an American sharpshooter and exhibition shooter.

Oakley’s amazing talent led to a starring role in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, which led her to becoming the first American female superstar.

Oakley’s most famous trick was being able to repeatedly split a playing card, edge-on, and put several more holes in it before it could touch the ground, while using a .22 caliber rifle, at 90 feet.

During her lifetime, the theater business began referring to complimentary tickets as “Annie Oakleys”. Such tickets traditionally have holes punched into them (to prevent them from being resold), reminiscent of the playing cards Oakley shot through during her sharpshooting act.

Country & Western singing star Reba McEntire played Annie Oakley, opposite Anjelica Houston (as that other famous gunslinging woman, Calamity Jane), in the 1995 TV movie “Buffalo Girls”.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

That’s how Hollywood saw it.

Here’s what history has to tell us about the lady:

Annie’s Early Life

Phoebe Ann (Annie) Moses was born in “a [log] cabin less than two miles northwest of Willowdell in Partentown North Star, Ohio”, a rural western border county of Ohio.

Annie’s parents were Quakers of English descent from Hollidaysburg, Blair County, Pennsylvania: Susan Wise, age 18, and Jacob Moses, age 49, married in 1848.

They moved to a rented farm (later purchased with a mortgage) in Patterson Township, Darke County sometime between 1855 and her sister Sarah Ellen’s birth there, in 1857.

Born in 1860, Annie was the sixth of Jacob and Susan’s seven children, but her mother also had another child from a previous relationship.

Her father, who had fought in the War of 1812, died in 1866 at age 65, from pneumonia and overexposure in freezing weather.

Annie’s mother married Daniel Brumbaugh, had a ninth child, Emily, and was widowed for the second time.

On March 15, 1870, at age nine, Annie was admitted to Darke County Infirmary, along with elder sister Sarah Ellen. According to her autobiography, she was put in the care of the Infirmary’s superintendent, Samuel Crawford Edington and his wife Nancy, who taught her to sew and decorate.

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. She spent about two years in near-slavery to them, where she endured mental and physical abuse.

When, in the spring of 1872, she reunited with her family, her mother had married a third time, to Joseph Shaw.

Because of poverty following the death of her father, Annie did not regularly attend school. But later, she did receive some informal education.

She rendered her surname as ending in “ee”, while it appears as “Moses” on her father’s gravestone and in his military record; it is the official spelling by the Annie Oakley Foundation maintained by her living relatives.

Variations in the accepted surname spelling (“Moses”) have included “Mosey”, “Mosie”, and “Mauzy”. There is no known record to substantiate Annie’s vehement assertion that the correct spelling is “Mozee”.

Annie began trapping animals at a young age, and shooting and hunting by age eight, to support her siblings and her widowed mother. She sold the hunted game for money to locals in Greenville, as well as restaurants and hotels in southern Ohio. Her skill eventually paid off the mortgage on her mother’s farm when Annie was 15.

A Bet, and A Marriage

On Thanksgiving Day 1875, the Baughman and Butler shooting act was being performed in Cincinnati.

Traveling show marksman and former dog trainer Francis E. Butler (1850–1926), an Irish immigrant, placed a $100 bet per side (roughly equivalent to US$2,000 in today’s money) with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost, that he, Butler, could beat any local fancy shooter.

The hotelier arranged a shooting match between Butler and the 15-year-old Annie saying, “The last opponent Butler expected was a five-foot-tall 15-year old girl named Annie.” After missing on his 25th shot, Butler lost the match and the bet.

Butler soon began courting Annie, and they married on August 23, 1876. They did not have children.

Joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West

Annie and Frank Butler lived in Cincinnati, for a time.

Oakley – the stage name she adopted when she and Frank began performing together – is believed to have been taken from the city’s neighborhood of Oakley, where they resided. Some people believe she took on the name because that was the name of the man who had paid her train fare when she was a child.

They joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885. At 5 feet (1.5 m) tall, Oakley was given the nickname of “Watanya Cicilla” by fellow performer Sitting Bull, rendered “Little Sure Shot” in the public advertisements.

During her first engagement with Buffalo Bill’s show, Oakley experienced a tense professional rivalry with rifle sharpshooter Lillian Smith. Being eleven years younger, Smith promoted herself as younger and therefore more bankable than Oakley. Oakley temporarily left Buffalo Bill’s show, but returned after Smith departed.

Around the World

In Europe, she performed for Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, King Umberto I of Italy, Marie François Sadi Carnot (the President of France) and other crowned heads of state.

Oakley had such good aim that, at his request, she knocked the ashes off a cigarette held by the newly crowned German Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The Annie Oakley Foundation suggests that she was not the source of a widely repeated quip related to the event:
“Some uncharitable people later ventured that if Annie had shot Wilhelm and not his cigarette, she could have prevented World War I.”

After the outbreak of World War I, however, Oakley did send a letter to the Kaiser, requesting a second shot. The Kaiser did not respond.

Pioneering Work

Oakley promoted the service of women in combat operations for the United States armed forces. She wrote a letter to President William McKinley on April 5, 1898, “offering the government the services of a company of 50 ‘lady sharpshooters’ who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain.”

The Spanish-American War did occur, but Oakley’s offer was not accepted. Theodore Roosevelt, did, however, name his volunteer cavalry the “Rough Riders” after the “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World” where Oakley was a major star.

The same year that McKinley was fatally shot by an assassin (1901), Oakley was also badly injured in a train accident, but she recovered after temporary paralysis and five spinal operations. She left the Buffalo Bill show and in 1902 began a quieter acting career in a stage play written especially for her, “The Western Girl”. Oakley played the role of Nancy Berry and used a pistol, a rifle and rope to outsmart a group of outlaws.

Following her injury and change of career, it only added to Annie’s legend that her shooting expertise continued to increase into her 60s.

Throughout her career, it is believed that Oakley taught upwards of 15,000 women how to use a gun.

Oakley believed strongly that it was crucial for women to learn how to use a gun, as not only a form of physical and mental exercise, but also to defend themselves. She once said: “I would like to see every woman know how to handle [firearms] as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”

Multiple Libel Cases

In 1904, sensational cocaine prohibition stories were selling well.

The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst published a false story that Oakley had been arrested for stealing, to support a cocaine habit. The woman actually arrested was a burlesque performer who told Chicago police that her name was “Annie Oakley”.

The original Annie Oakley spent much of the next six years winning 54 of 55 libel lawsuits against newspapers. She collected less in judgments than were her legal expenses, but to her, a restored reputation justified the loss of time and money.

Most of the newspapers that printed the story had relied on the Hearst article, and upon learning of the libelous error they immediately retracted the false story with apologies. Hearst, however, tried to avoid paying the anticipated court judgments of $20,000 (around $330,000, adjusted for inflation) by sending an investigator to Darke County with the intent of collecting reputation-smearing gossip from Oakley’s past. The investigator found nothing.

Her Final Years

Oakley continued to set records, into her sixties.

She embarked on a comeback and intended to star in a feature-length silent movie.

In a 1922 shooting contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina, sixty-two-year-old Oakley hit 100 clay targets in a row from 16 yards (15 m).

In late 1922, Oakley and Butler suffered a debilitating automobile accident that forced her to wear a steel brace on her right leg. Yet after a year and a half of recovery, she again performed and set records in 1924.

Her health declined in 1925, and she died of pernicious anemia in Greenville, Ohio at the age of sixty-six on November 3, 1926.

She was buried in Brock Cemetery in Greenville, Ohio.

Butler was so grieved by her death that he stopped eating. He died just 18 days later, on November 21, 1926 in Michigan.

Butler was buried next to Annie.

Annie Oakley was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas.

Quite the lady.

And quite a story.

I hope you’ll join me, for our next one.

Till then.