Storytellers: Little Sure Shot -- The Real Story Behind Annie Oakley
There are few things in this world I hate more than the musical, Annie Get Your Gun. The play, written in the 1940, is about the legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley, but it’s based on her life in approximately the same way that those “based on a true story,” horror movies are based on actual events. Mostly the authors took a handful of real life people, imported one or two of their superficial personal attributes (or in some cases none of them) and completely and totally changed everything and anything else about them. In the musical theater world, Annie Oakley was apparently a brash, naïve hick who just happened to be good with a gun, Frank Butler was a womanizing asshole who couldn’t handle the idea of a woman being better than him at something and Chief Sitting Bull is … well we won’t even go there. All of this is bad enough, but the thing that really gets me is in the portrayal of the relationship between Frank and Annie, and most especially the final shooting competition between the two, which Annie throws in order to win back the narcissistic, insecure, GOD I HATE THIS PROTRAYAL OF BUTLER SO MUCH Frank’s love. Because you should always hide your light under a bushel ladies: menfolk don’t like being outshone.
Phoebe Ann Mosey was born in Darke County Ohio in 1860, the fifth child of a pair of dirt poor Quakers, Jacob and Susan Mosey (or Moses or Mozee, accounts vary). When she was six, her father died of exposure during a particularly rough winter, throwing the family even deeper into poverty. Her mother remarried but was quickly widowed again (though not before bearing another child in need of support). The number of mouths to feed proved too much for the poor widow. At the age of eight, Annie and one of her sisters were sent to live on a poor farm when her mother could no longer provide for her. In 1870 she was “lent out” to work for a local family as a sort of indentured servant (she was promised pay but it never materialized). She spent the next two years enduring physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a family she came to refer to as “the wolves.” When she couldn’t endure anymore she ran back to the poor farm. She didn’t return to her mother, who by now had a third husband and even more children but still little material wealth, until she was thirteen.
At the poor farm Annie received little formal education, but she did learn to sew and decorate, and most importantly she taught herself to shoot a rifle. Once home, she began to use this last skill to hunt game to resell to local hotels and restaurants to make extra money for her family. By the age of fifteen she’d gotten so good at it she was able to help her mother and stepfather pay off the mortgage on their farm. Her aim was good enough that she generally killed animals with a head shot, sparing the meat and earning her a reputation as a markswoman among the locals. It’s doubtful Annie ever thought of her skill with a gun as anything other than a way to help her family, but it would soon land her a career in showbusiness and a doting husband.
The shooting contest where Annie met Frank happened sometime between her 16th and 21st year (the historical details tend to be a bit fuzzy, and Annie may have embellished the tales somewhat herself). At the time, Frank Butler was a 30 year old Irishman who made his living performing sharpshooting stunts. He and his partner had come to Cincinnati to perform, and Frank made a $100 bet with a local hotel owner that he could beat any local in shooting contest. You can imagine his surprise when the hotel owner presented his challenger: a petite young woman (Annie never topped 5 feet). Out of 25 shots Frank hit all but the last. Annie didn’t miss one, winning the match and something more besides. Frank began courting her and within a year the two were married. After their marriage, Annie joined Frank on tour, but it wasn’t until Frank’s partner John Graham took ill that Annie stepped onto he stage herself. The audience loved her - sharpshooting acts were common but there weren’t many women performing before Annie. And unlike in the musical, when Frank realized that Annie was not only a better shot than him, but a natural performer too, he stepped aside and made her the star. According to Frank, she simply, “outclassed,” him. Annie seems to have held her husband in just as high esteem. For her stage performances she adopted the name Annie Oakley, but in her private life she always insisted she was, “Mrs. Frank Butler.”
In 1885 the Buffalo Bill Cody invited Annie to join his famous Wild West show. For sixteen seasons she was a main attraction. One of her most famous tricks was to shoot a cigarette out of Franks’ mouth or in one case, out of the mouth of Kaiser Wilhelm II (after the outbreak of World War I she’s reported to have quipped that she wished she’d missed that one). Annie was ambidextrous, able to shoot accurately with either hand. She would shoot targets while riding a bicycle, jump over tables, snuff out a candle with a bullet, or hit targets thrown behind her using a mirror, and she could split a playing card in half sideways (you can see her at work here). She always charmed the audience, blowing kisses to the crowd, dancing celebratory jigs and sometimes feigning petulance on the rare occasions she missed a shot. Her on-stage persona was charismatic and cheerful, though she’s been described as lady-like and introspective off stage. She charmed people off stage too, notably bonding with the Lakota medicine mad, Sitting Bull, during this time when he spent a season with the show. It was Sitting Bull who gave her the nickname “Little Sure Shot,” and whenever Sitting Bull’s grew intractable, it was Annie Cody would send to sooth him.
Annie left the Wild West show briefly in 1888. She was always vague about her reasons, but a rivalry with a younger female sharpshooter, Lillian Smith, who’d recently joined the show and ego clashes between Annie and her husband and Cody were probably part of the reason, though the couple remained close to Cody, who Annie described as the, “kindest-hearted, most loyal” man she knew. She briefly toured with the Pawnee Bill show before returning to the Wild West show for a European tour in 1889 (after Lillian had left). By now, Annie had become a star, one of the main attractions of the Wild West Show. Annie left the show for good in 1901, after sustaining injuries in a train wreck (and after her hair turned rather abruptly white, possibly a greater concern for the admittedly somewhat vain Oakley, who soon took to wearing a brown wig).
Unable to resist the spotlight, Annie turned to acting, appearing in a play called The Western Girl. During her “retirement” she also taught sharp shooting, mostly to women. Annie didn’t believe in suffrage, but she did believe in equal pay for equal work and supported women learning to shoot and even felt that women should serve in the army. She toured again briefly with a newer wild west show from 1911-1913, but motion pictures were started to take over the public imagination and there wasn’t much call for sharpshooters anymore. Annie eventually retired from touring for good but continued to shoot in (and win) contests into her sixties. In 1925 her health declined and in 1926 she passed away from pernicious anemia. Frank, loyal to the end, didn’t last long without her. He died 18 days later, having simply stopped eating after her death.
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