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Annie Oakley Part Three

In 1901, after working since childhood, Annie Oakley retired from Wild Bill Cody’s show for a quieter life. Then in 1903, her peace and reputation were destroyed by William Randolph Hearst’s vicious yellow journalism. A headline in one of his Chicago newspapers screamed that America’s favorite heroine was destitute and jailed for stealing to buy cocaine. Even though the source of the fraudulent story was soon unearthed—a burlesque performer using the name Any Oakely—the damage continued. The story took off and spread across the country.

Furious and horrified, Oakley did what few today dare to do. She challenged Hearst’s media monster and filed over fifty libel suits, suing each newspaper, starting a legal battle never seen before. Hearst had wakened a sleeping tiger, and Oakley had no plans to stop until her name was cleared and everyone at fault paid. Oakley forced retractions from newspapers all over the country, suing them in cases that continued for six years, while Hearst sent detectives to dig through her past and found nothing. Locals in Ohio made sure Hearst’s dirt-diggers weren’t welcome.

Her history of plain speaking was never more evident than when she spoke in her own defense, voicing outrage. When defense lawyers accused her of publicity seeking and lewd behavior on stage, Oakley defended herself on the stand with calm authority and courage. When opposing attorneys attempted to denigrate her lack of education, she claimed that education “is a very good thing when backed by common sense, and a very bad thing in the head of a cheap lawyer.” She had no patience, no respect for her detractors and left one courtroom, saying she’d give “you gentlemen who are such gallant defenders of a woman’s honor a chance to further your cowardice by shooting me in the back.”

Even though she won all but one case and hundreds of thousands of dollars, Oakley lost money after paying wages, fees and expenses, but she resurrected her good name. Some of the newspapers that had lost to her had the good grace to praise her again, running stories of her vindication.

Oakley’s legacy is one of determination to survive and achieve, no matter how fierce the odds. It’s estimated that she taught over 15,000 women how to shoot and protect themselves, and although not a feminist, championed every woman’s right to independence. She died in 1926, and her husband Frank Butler, joined her three weeks later.

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