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“Little Sure Shot”: the Saga of Annie Oakley

By Caroline Kim-Brown | HUMANITIES, May/June 2006 | Volume 27, Number 3

Annie Oakley, legendary sharpshooter and celebrated member of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, was one of America's first superstars. In the late nineteenth century, her image was known all over the world. She had tea with Queen Victoria, met the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, and was challenged by Grand Duke Michael of Russia to a shooting match. Though the Grand Duke was noted for being an excellent wing shot, Annie Oakley beat him, missing only three birds out of fifty, while he missed fourteen.

The great Sioux warrior Chief Sitting Bull was so impressed by Oakley's skill that he adopted her, giving her the name "Watanya Cecilia"--"Little Sure Shot." Though her life inspired dime novels, a Broadway play, and Hollywood movies, little is known about the real Annie Oakley, an intensely private, complicated woman who excelled publicly in a man's sport.

Near the end of her life, Will Rogers paid her a visit and then wrote about her in his daily newspaper column: "She was the reigning sensation of America and Europe during the heyday of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. She was their star. Her picture was on more billboards than a modern Gloria Swanson. It was Annie Oakley, the greatest rifle shot the world has ever produced. Nobody took her place. There was only one."

Annie Oakley, an American Experience documentary film airing May 8 on PBS, separates life from legend. Filmmaker Riva Freifeld says she was initially attracted to the project because "I thought this was the most extraordinary story of somebody breaking out of a mold. A woman of the Victorian age, small, petite, who had a horrible, miserable childhood. She pulled herself out of all that through her own talent and worked through the pressures against women and made herself into the most famous practitioner of a sport that is quintessentially male: sharpshooting."

Virginia Scharff, professor of history and director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico, agrees. "She is the epitome of the self-made woman. This is somebody who triumphs over about as miserable a childhood as you can imagine. You would never know that by looking at her public persona. She seemed like the all-American girl who must have grown up amid motherhood and apple pie, but the truth of the matter was that she grew up in the most abject kind of poverty."

Phoebe Anne Moses was born in Darke County, Ohio, in 1860. She was just six when her father died after being caught in a blizzard. Destitute, her mother was forced to give Oakley's younger sister to another family. She was hard pressed to take care of the ones who were left, and they all moved into the Infirmary, the county poor farm. Oakley went to work for a farmer and his family. "She was basically indentured," says Scharff, "sent off to live with this family and be their servant. They turned out to be the worst kind of people you could ever imagine. Annie Oakley never referred to them by name. She called them the 'wolves.'"

There are accounts of mental and physical abuse. Oakley was locked in dark closets, even, at one point, thrown out of the house for falling asleep while sewing. She later wrote: "Suddenly the 'She-Wolf' struck me across the ears, threw me out into the deep snow and locked the door. I had no shoes on. I was slowly freezing to death. So I got down on my knees, looked toward God's clear sky, and tried to pray. But my lips were frozen stiff and there was no sound."

After two years, when Oakley was twelve, she ran away. As her mother still could not support her, she returned to the poor farm where she worked for the new superintendent as a seamstress. She finally returned home to her mother when she was fifteen. Soon she was the family breadwinner.

Oakley was always drawn to guns. Her father may have taught her to shoot when she was very young, and Oakley herself said that when she was barely big enough to lift her father's old Kentucky rifle, she dragged it outside, rested the barrel on the porch railing, and shot a squirrel clean through the head. When Oakley returned home, instead of going to school, she earned good money by shooting game and selling it to the Katzenberger brothers' grocery store, which shipped the game to hotels in Cincinnati. She was so successful that she was soon able to pay off the mortgage on her mother's house. She once remarked that from the age of ten, she never had money in her pockets that she had not earned herself.

In addition to game hunting, Oakley entered local shooting contests that were popular at the time, winning so many turkey shoots that she was eventually barred from them. But such was her reputation that when professional sharpshooter Frank Butler was passing through southern Ohio claiming he could outshoot anyone around, the locals accepted his challenge. They failed to tell Butler that his opponent was a teenage girl. "I got there late and found the whole town, in fact, most of the county out ready to bet me or any of my friends to a standstill on their 'unknown,'" Butler later said. "I did not bet a cent. You may bet, however, that I almost dropped dead when a little, slim girl in short dresses stepped out to the mark with me." Butler lost, and gave Oakley tickets to his next show.

A romance sprang up between the two and they were soon married. But it was six years before the shooting team of Butler and Oakley appeared. In the meantime, Butler traveled the variety circuit with his partner John Graham until one night when Graham became ill. Initially, Oakley acted as Butler's assistant, holding targets. But Butler was having an off night and he could not seem to hit his targets. Amid the booing, someone shouted, "Let the girl shoot!" Oakley calmly took the gun and hit every mark.

Oakley was a natural performer. Modest, yet playful, she skipped onto the stage like a schoolgirl. She shot an apple from Butler's head, pierced the heart in the ace of hearts or, if the card was held sideways, sliced through it; she shot corks from bottles and blew out the flames from candles. She shot backward looking through a small mirror. She could shoot just as well with her left hand as with her right. Sometimes she pretended to miss and pouted, stamping her foot. At the end of her act, she blew kisses to the crowd and did a funny little kick as she disappeared behind the curtain. The audience loved her.

Frank Butler didn't mind fading into the background. "Because he was so open-minded about women," says Freifeld, "he basically created a situation where you had a role reversal of a typical Victorian marriage."

"I think Frank Butler understood that she had a kind of star quality that he didn't want to overshadow," says Scharff, "and Frank Butler didn't have a problem with that. I think he adored her. I think he also was a savvy businessman who understood that she was pretty, she was ladylike, she was petite. She would do what needed to be done to make that rise to the top. And he didn't want to get in her way. As a matter of fact, he understood that for the two of them, the best thing possible was to let her take the lead."

Being ladylike was extremely important to Oakley. Before she joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, she and Butler performed on the variety stage. This meant that their act appeared among those of comedians, singers, dancers, and actors, not all of whom were respectable. According to theater historian Don Wilmeth, "Variety was a largely male-oriented form of entertainment. There was a good deal of double entendre in comedy; there were suggestive lyrics in songs, and there was a good deal of semi-nudity. The acts could be a tad salacious."

Oakley had a horror of being seen as a loose woman. So making use of the skills she had learned at the poor farm, she fashioned her own costumes, outfits that covered her entire body. She wore a loose blouse with starched white collars tucked into simple embroidered A-line or pleated skirts and pearl-buttoned leggings. Always practical, she made sure that there was ease of movement in her clothing as well.

Tired of the variety circuit, Oakley and Butler joined the Sells Brothers Circus, but they really had their eyes set on joining Buffalo Bill's show. Not only was it clean family entertainment, it was also a popular, lavish show, a re-creation of the West.

According to historian Paul Fees, "The whole world was fascinated with the West. And, as it was becoming settled, those elements that were seen as the foundation of America's uniqueness, the rugged individualism, and the adventure, and the conflict with Indians and with buffalo, and all of those reckless parts of America's past, seemed to be coming to an end. Buffalo Bill was a representative, a living representative of that story, of that adventure. And it's that adventure that he put into his Wild West show. Audiences saw the real stagecoach; they saw real soldiers; they saw real Indians and cowboys."

The first time Annie Oakley applied for a place in the Wild West show, Buffalo Bill turned her down because he already had a champion sharpshooter in Captain Bogardus. However, after the show's steamer sank on the Mississippi with all of his shooting equipment on board, Bogardus quit the show. Initially, Buffalo Bill was skeptical that a woman of Oakley's size had the necessary endurance to perform every day, and balked at paying her what she demanded.

However, as Oakley and Butler were warming up for their audition before Buffalo Bill arrived, a well-dressed man who had been watching ran over and called out, "Fine! Wonderful! Have you got some photographs with your gun?" The man was Nate Salsbury, Buffalo Bill's business manager. He hired her on the spot.

Although at first Oakley was placed low on the bill, she was quickly moved up. She attracted women and children to the shows. "She was able to embody the combination of innocence and femininity that made her persona safe," says Scharff. "If you think about a woman who's at all sexy, or at all threatening, or at all masculine with a gun in her hand, then that's going to be something that's a little disquieting for audiences. But the theory is that she's a sweet little girl. 'She'd never shoot me.'"

Oakley made the audience feel safe and prepared them for the chaotic spectacles that followed: reenactments of Indians attacking a settler's cabin and ambushing the Deadwood stagecoach, cowboys riding bucking broncos, and Mexican vaqueros rushing in shooting off revolvers. Oakley wasn't the only woman in the show, but she was one of the few who did not need to be saved by the cowboy.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West show made Oakley a star. Although she was from the Midwest, she allowed herself to become an icon of the West. "Her mythology was really about the girl of the golden West," says Scharff. "She didn't talk much about her childhood. She was more concerned with creating this myth of the little sure shot, of the perfect, ladylike, small, diminutive, pretty woman who could handle a gun and who could shoot anything. Buffalo Bill loved it. It was sort of like having somebody who embodied all the qualities of femininity and womanhood but also had this great sporting skill and could be an heroic little girl."

Annie Oakley also explores aspects of Oakley little known to her audiences: her intense competitiveness and the fierceness with which she protected her reputation. When Oakley was faced with a young rival, Lillian Smith, who joined the Wild West show as a fifteen-year-old sensation, Oakley dropped six years from her age to become a more youthful twenty. Smith was distinctly unladylike, bragging that now that she had joined the show "Annie Oakley was done for." Though Oakley was privately contemptuous of Smith's "ample figure" and "poor grammar," she never publicly feuded with her. Instead, Oakley beat her at the annual rifle competition at Wimble-don in London, and, even better, she had the satisfaction of always being more popular than Lillian Smith.

But the real crisis in Annie Oakley's career came on August 11, 1903, when William Randolph Hearst's Chicago newspapers reported that Oakley had been arrested for stealing a pair of men's pants in order to buy cocaine. She was horrified. "The Associated Press sends it across the country," says biographer Shirl Kasper, "and all these papers pick it up and Annie is just devastated. It's like everything she's worked for her whole life to keep this respectable reputation is shattered."

The real woman who was arrested was a burlesque dancer impersonating Annie Oakley. Oakley fired off telegrams to all the newspapers that had carried the story: "Woman posing as Annie Oakley is a fraud . . . contradict at once . . . someone will pay for this dreadful mistake." Most newspapers did retract the story but the damage had already been done. Oakley became obsessed with salvaging her name and spent five years suing each of the fifty-five newspapers. She won fifty-four of the cases.

"Many people think that suing these newspapers and taking time out of her career to do this to get her reputation back was a legacy of her childhood," says Freifeld. "It was the largest libel case in American history at the time."

Given her extreme privacy, according to Scharff, being slandered in the press was especially painful for Annie Oakley. "This is a person who basically survived by not showing how she was feeling. This is not going to be somebody out there spilling their guts to the cameras-tremendously protective of her privacy, tremendously protective of her name, reputation, and standing."

Annie Oakley was a paradox. While she believed women should be active in sports, even teaching women to shoot free of charge, and spoke publicly about equal pay for equal work, she did not support women's suffrage. She was a Victorian woman who placed the utmost importance on being seen and treated as a lady, yet she excelled in a man's sport.

Although in Annie Get Your Gun, Oakley is portrayed as losing the match with Frank Butler in order to win his love, in real life, she beat him. When it came to shooting, she never lost.

The young Texas sharpshooter, Johnny Baker, who was also part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and a protégé of Annie Oakley said of her: "There was never a day when I didn't try to beat her. But it just couldn't be done. You know, the ordinary person has nerves. They'll bob up on him in spite of everything; he'll notice some little thing that distracts his attention, or gets fussed by the way a ball travels through the air. Or a bit of light will get on the sights, or seem to get there, and throw him off. I wasn't any different from the average person, but Annie was. The minute she picked up a rifle or a shotgun, it seemed that she made a machine of herself-every action went like clockwork. How was a fellow to beat anybody like that? To tell the truth . . . it would have made a better show if I could have beat her every few performances. But it couldn't be done."

Caroline Kim-Brown is a writer in Oakland, California.

Riva Freifeld received $595,606 in NEH grants for consultation, planning, scripting, and the production of Annie Oakley, which airs on The American Experience May 8.