She was born into extreme poverty and suffered abuse and hardship as a child, but she proved that if you set a goal and work hard enough, you can overcome anything. In her day, Annie Oakley was one of the most famous women in the world and America’s sweetheart, celebrated in books and film, and a friend to royalty. And it all began because she was hungry.
Phoebe Ann Oakley Mozee (sometimes spelled Mosey or Mauzy), was born in a crude log cabin on August 13, 1860, near present day North Star, Ohio, the fifth of seven children. Her sister called her Annie, and the name stuck. Annie’s father, Jacob, died in 1866, and her mother Susan, remarried, only to be widowed a second time.
Unable to support her children, Susan sent several of them to live with other families. Eight year old Phoebe Ann was first sent to live with a family named Edington, who supervised the local poorhouse. The Darke County (Ohio) Infirmary in Greenville, which the Edington’s administered, was home to many people who had fallen on hard times, from orphans and the elderly to the terminally ill. Young Annie quickly learned that no matter how hard her own life was, there were always people who were worse off.
She later said that living with the Edingtons was very good, and her foster mother taught her to sew and embroider. She had never attended school, but the Edingtons also taught her to read and write.
Unfortunately, that pleasant interlude didn’t last very long and soon she was sent to another family, where she was supposed to get room and board, and a small wage, in return for caring for their infant child. She would later call this family “the wolves,” and said that she was abused both physically and mentally, lived in subhuman conditions, and was treated like a slave. She finally escaped and returned to her mother, who had remarried a third time.
Her new stepfather, an older farmer named Joseph Shaw, was a kind man, but just as poor as Annie’s mother, and in poor health. He was always good to the children and provided the best he could. Annie would remember him as a good man who encouraged her to follow her dreams.
From the age of five, Annie had trapped birds and small animals to help feed her family. By age seven, she was using her father’s old muzzle loading shotgun to hunt for larger game, and she discovered that she was blessed with an uncanny skill with firearms. Soon Greenville merchant Charles Katzenberger was buying all of the game Annie could provide, which he distributed to restaurants and hotels throughout the region.
The young girl’s reputation as a crack shot began to spread, and soon she was competing in local shooting matches, often walking away with the top prize. She would later say that this was the happiest time in her life, and that she loved roaming the forests and fields with her trusty rifle or shotgun in her hands.
By age fifteen, Annie’s marksmanship had made her something of a celebrity in southern Ohio. In 1875, while she was visiting her married sister Lydia Stein near Cincinnati, she was invited to compete against an exhibition shooter named Frank Butler, and it was a turning point in both of their lives.
Butler later recalled that the minute the shy, pretty little girl stepped up to her mark, he knew he had not only lost the shooting match, he had lost his heart. He hit 24 birds out of 25, and Annie never missed a shot, shooting a perfect score of 25.
At first Annie wasn’t all that smitten by Butler, who was ten years older and performed his shooting act on the vaudeville circuit. She had, however, fallen for Butler’s dog, a French poodle named George, whom he used in his act. So Butler sent her letters and cards “signed” by George, and eventually she capitulated.
They were married and Annie went on the road with her new husband, assisting him in his traveling show. Annie adopted the stage name Annie Oakley, which came from the town of Oakley, Ohio. Frank Butler quickly recognized that his new bride was far more talented than he was, and he happily relinquished the spotlight to her, becoming her personal manager.
Annie’s shooting skills were amazing, whether with revolver, rifle, or shotgun. She could split a playing card on the edge, and then hit the two halves five more times before they hit the ground. She routinely shattered glass balls and drilled holes through coins thrown into the air 75 feet or more away. In one day long exhibition of her shooting skill with a .22 rifle, she hit 4,472 out of 5,000 glass balls thrown into the air.
In 1885, Annie joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and was the show’s star attraction for the next seventeen years. She toured the country and performed in Europe, always delighting the crowds who thrilled to see the small woman with the deadly aim. The famous Indian war chief Sitting Bull had joined Cody’s traveling troupe of performers, and after watching Annie demonstrate her marksmanship, he called the five foot tall sharpshooter Watanya Cicilia, Lakota for Little Sure Shot, and the name stuck.
Annie and Sitting Bull became close friends, and he adopted her into the Lakota tribe as a daughter. She also enjoyed a long and close friendship with Buffalo Bill, the celebrated frontiersman turned showman who ran the Wild West Show. Their friendship was so dear that when Cody ran into financial problems during a European tour, she loaned him $8,000 to keep the Wild West Show afloat.
During the European tour she performed two shows a day, seven days a week. In one part of her act, Annie would shoot the ash off a cigarette her husband held in his mouth. In Germany, Crown Prince Wilhelm asked her to perform the feat on him. Though she was certainly up to the challenge, Annie didn’t want to create an international incident, so instead she agreed to shoot the ash if he held the cigarette in his hand instead. Once again her aim was right on the mark, and her fame spread across Europe.
While traveling with the Wild West Show, Annie was in a train wreck in 1901 that resulted in a severe spinal injury that left her hospitalized for over a year and required numerous surgeries. When she left the hospital, she retired from show business. She was injured again in an automobile accident in 1921, which left her in a brace for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, her skill with firearms never waned; in 1922, when she was 62 years old, Annie hit 100 clay targets in a row without a miss.
Four years later, on November 3, 1926, Annie Oakley died of anemia in Greenville, Ohio. She was 66 years old. Frank Butler, her dedicated husband and show business partner, died just eighteen days later. They are buried together at the Brock Cemetery, north of Greenville.
When Annie began her career, she was an oddity. Ladies did not do that kind of thing, and she blazed many trails for the women that would follow. She showed that a woman could compete in a man’s world and still remain feminine, and that a woman could be in show business without compromising her integrity. She and Frank Butler proved that marriage could be a loving partnership of equals. She pioneered the way for women athletes by urging women to participate in outdoor sports.
Annie Oakley started from nothing and achieved stardom through hard work, integrity, and by making the most of her talents. And she did it without hurting others. All of her life, she remembered those less fortunate than herself that she had met when she lived at the poorhouse as a child, and she was generous to many people in need. Her life was celebrated in several movies, as well as the 1946 Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun.
Darke County, Ohio remembers it’s favorite daughter with a roadside marker on U.S. Highway 127, just south of North Star, where Annie lived as a child, and with a statue of Little Sure Shot in Greenville. The excellent Garst Museum in Greenville has a two room exhibit on Annie Oakley’s life and career, which includes several of her firearms and stage costumes. The next time you’re in southeastern Ohio, spend some time getting to know more about one of America’s first lady superstars.
Congratulations Jay Rubin, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of Big Lake Burning, the sixth book in my Big Lake Mystery series. We had 71 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – Sometimes you have to go more than halfway to meet in the middle.