Annie Oakley

"Little Sure Shot"

August 13 (1860) is the birthday of Annie Oakley, sharpshooter and exhibition shooter, and one of the first American women to become a “superstar”. 

She was born Phoebe Ann (Annie) Mosey in a cabin in the rural western border county of Darke County, Ohio. Her parents had married in 1848 when her mother, Susan Wise, was 18 and her father, Jacob Mosey, was 49. Annie was the sixth of nine children, who came along starting in 1851. The last child, stillborn, was born in 1865. 

They moved to a rented farm about 1855 and later purchased the farm with a mortgage. Jacob Mosey died in 1866 of pneumonia. The much younger Susan soon remarried in 1867 (?) and was widowed again and remarried for a third time in1878. But the death of Annie’s father left them in poverty, and she did not regularly attend school as a child. 

When she was nine, she and a sister were admitted to the Darke County Infirmary (a poorhouse) in 1870, and she was under the care of the superintendent. Later that spring she was “bound out” to a local family to help care for a child in exchange for small pay and an education. This amounted to near-slavery, and Annie ran away from “the wolves” two years later and wound up back under the care of the Infirmary superintendent. She returned to her mother’s home in 1875. 

Annie started hunting and trapping at a very early in life, selling what she caught or shot to locals, shopkeepers, hotels, and restaurants. She was so successful at this that she could support her mother and siblings and eventually paid off the farm mortgage when she was just 15.  

On Thanksgiving Day 1875 a traveling marksman named Frank E. Butler put on an exhibition in Cincinnati. He had a bet with a hotel owner that he could outshoot any local shooter. The hotel owner arranged a match between Butler and Annie, for it had become well known in the region that she was an expert shot. Annie, just five feet tall and 15, beat him. Butler was entranced.  He began courting her and they married on August 23, 1876. 

There is some confusion about the dates of the match and the marriage. Some accounts put them in 1881. This may have been because Butler may not have divorced first wife yet in 1876. Later Annie’s age would often be quoted as five years younger than she actually was, perhaps to validate the 1881 date. 

Annie and Frank had no children. 

The lived in Cincinnati for a while. Annie took on the name Oakley when they started performing together. Oakley was the name of the neighborhood in which they lived. 

They joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885.  It was Sitting Bull, also performing in the show, who gave Annie the nickname “Little Sure Shot”.

She left the show for a few years because of an intense competition with another sharpshooter Lillian Smith. But she rejoined the show when Smith left.

Annie Oakley became famous. She was paid more in the show than everyone else except Buffalo Bill himself. And she also earned money on the side with shooting exhibitions. The show toured Europe and Annie performed in front of heads of state.

Annie was badly injured in a train accident in 1901. In 1902 she switched to a less strenuous career on the stage, starring in a play written especially for her and to display her shooting prowess. Her shooting skill continued to increase into her 60s.

Annie was a strong advocate of women learning to shoot. She taught something like 15,000 women how to use a gun.

Annie Oakley had an amazing shooting skill. At 30 paces she could split a playing card held edge-on. She could hit dimes tossed into the air. She shot cigarettes from her husband’s lips. She shot playing cards tossed into the air. She could snuff out candles and knock corks from bottles. 

In 1904 the William Randolph Hearst newspaper published a false story that Annie had been caught stealing to support a cocaine habit. The person arrested had given the police the name “Annie Oakley”. Once the woman’s real identity was learned, other newspapers that had printed the story immediately retracted the story with apologies. But Hearst didn’t. Annie sued him and won libel suits repeatedly. But her legal expenses were greater than the judgments. Still, she was adamant about protecting her reputation, especially since she knew she was a role model for girls and young women.

By 1912 the Butlers had semi-retired. They moved to Maryland. But in 1917 they moved to North Carolina and returned to performing. In 1922 in a shooting contest in Pinehurst, NC, Annie hit 100 clay targets in a row from 16 yards. Later in 1922 they were in a car accident, and it took her a year and a half to recover. But she took up shooting again, and again set records in 1924. 

In 1925 Annie’s health deteriorated.  She died at the age of 66 on November 3, 1926 in Greenville, Ohio. Frank died just 18 days later, many said from a broken heart. Their marriage had lasted 50 years. After Annie’s death it was learned that she had spent her entire fortune on family and her many charities, especially those in support of women’s rights. 

Many of Annie’s personal possessions, guns, and performance memorabilia are kept in the National Annie Oakley Center, part of the Garst Museum in Greenville, OH.