A Case of Mistaken Identity – Annie Oakley

WORLD HISTORY | June 27, 2019

Annie Oakley Trick Shooting with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show - January 01, 1900. Source: (Bettmann/Getty Image #517294102

(Original Caption) Her name has become a byword. Annie Oakley, who did a trick shooting act with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and had European royalty goggle-eyed with her ability to handle a rifle with almost microscopic accuracy, gained immortality as a synonym for free show passes. She used to shoot holes in cars so that they looked like a punched ticket. Breaking glass balls by firing as she stood on the back of a galloping horse was Annie's specialty. This illustration shows her doing that very trick.

The Legend of Annie Oakley might not have become such a legend if a certain newspaper had gotten their way. The pen can be mightier than the sword (or the gun) if not fought back with the proper weapons. Annie Oakley was willing to do whatever it took to fight back and win.

Annie Oakley and Her Gun. Source: (thefamouspeople.com)

Annie Oakley was born in 1860 in Darke County, Ohio. Her birth name was Phoebe Ann Moses but everyone just called her Annie. When Annie was only six years old, her father died of pneumonia. Annie’s mother struggled financially after that as Annie was one of six children. Although her mother married again, the man she married died too not long after they had a baby together. Annie helped out the family by living at the Darke County Infirmary for awhile to help out with the children there while also getting an education and learning how to sew. She returned home when she was about 14.

Even though her mother had married again, finances were still a concern, so Annie began to hunt small game for a grocery store using her father’s rifle. The game was sold to hotels and restaurants. With the money she made, she was able to pay her mother’s mortgage.  

Annie Oakley and Her Horse In front of the set of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)

Word got around about Annie’s ability to shoot so she was offered a chance to enter a shooting contest with Frank Butler, a well-known marksman who toured the country along with other marksmen. Annie beat him shooting 25 shots without missing a single one. Butler missed his last shot. Needless to say, this common interest ultimately sparked a relationship between them and they ended up getting married in 1876 (or 1882 as some sources disagree on the actual year).

By 1882, they were doing shows together and, as her popularity began to rise, Annie eventually started using the stage name of “Annie Oakley.” She became friends with Sitting Bull who was so impressed with her shooting skills that he called her “Little Sure Shot.” They were touring all over including England and winning all types of awards and trophies. When they started doing shows with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885, she became the star and her husband Frank stepped back and became her manager. They stayed with the show for sixteen years. 

Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Source: (youtube.com)

In 1903, a story began circulating among various newspapers that Annie Oakley was a drug addict and a thief. It originated with William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers. They ran this story with the headliner of “Famous Woman Crack Shot . . . Steals to Secure Cocaine.” Other newspapers picked up on the story and some papers even stated that Buffalo Bill was her father-in-law, which was a lie. To say that Annie was upset over the story would be quite an understatement. She was very angry because the negative publicity almost ruined her, so she set out to clear her name by taking Hearst to court as well as all of the other newspapers that ran the libelous story. It turned out that another person who called herself Annie Oakley did have a drug habit and was arrested for theft. She was a burlesque performer.  

Annie Oakley. Source: (thefamouspeople.com)

Several of the newspapers printed retractions along with apologies but not Hearst. He tried to find something he could use against her in order to get out of having to pay for his “error,” but he was unsuccessful and ended up having to pay her $27,500. It was not easy for her to do, particularly in those days, but despite the odds, she was able to win 54 out of 55 lawsuits. She acted in her own defense, traveling all over the country, and having lawyers accuse her of using the lawsuits for publicity. It took her from 1904 until 1910, but she was determined. Despite winning almost all of these cases, it still ended up costing her more than what she won in them, but, to her, it was worth it to clear her name.

Annie Oakley died at the age of 66 and her legend continues. Her husband Frank died 18 days later reportedly out of grief over her death.

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