I can’t remember the first time I heard about Annie Oakley. It might have been the film “Annie Get Your Gun” with Betty Hutton. I adored Hutton and had the joy of meeting her in the seventies, a complicated, talented, frenetic comic actress. But back to Ms. Oakley, star of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, who achieved stardom with shotguns, rifles, and pistols. She also survived horrific childhood abuse, a vicious smear campaign, and a car accident. She could hit targets while riding full out, use a mirror to hit a target behind her, shoot the centers out of a playing cards at rapid fire, and the cigarette out of her husband’s mouth and never miss.
(Check out the link below, a brief film from 1894 of her amazing skills.)
The musical with Ethel Merman, IMHO is the antithesis of the real Oakley. The portrayal, show, and later film, are far from accurate. Merman’s brash, loud and boastful rendition was nothing like Oakley, who sewed her own plains-style costumes. The contention between Oakley and sharpshooter Frank Butler in the musical and in the film never existed, since theirs was a lifelong marriage.
Born in Ohio in the mid-eighteen hundreds as Phoebe Anne Moses, the petite and resilient Annie learned to shoot while hunting with her father, who sold whatever they bagged. I’ve omitted her birthday since she may have had a part in manipulating the date at one time in her life. More on that later.
When Annie’s father died, her mother was forced to send ten-year old Annie to the poor house. (Think Dickens and Oliver Twist to get an idea of the horror.) From there, Annie was placed with a farming family where she was cruelly treated to put it mildly. She eventually escaped and returned to her mother, earning enough to support the family as her father had, shooting game and selling to local buyers.
She never divulged the name of the malicious people who treated her so horribly. In later years, others figured out the possible names, but Annie never identified them as anything other than “the wolves.” She had no problem speaking her mind, but with the exception of one time in her life when she had to defend her reputation, she spoke with stoic, ladylike conviction, courage, and was universally respected for her moral character, even when she played the ribald vaudeville circuits.
Irish immigrant Frank Butler made his living as a marksman and respected competitor. He often issued challenges to local champions. When Frank accepted a challenge at a Cincinnati competition from a local, it’s written that he was astonished that his challenger was a fifteen-year-old girl. Some have suggested that Frank purposely missed his 25th shot and allowed Annie to win. He may have done, since he did marry her after a year of courtship.
Annie went on the road with her husband, and when Butler’s shooting partner in his stage act became ill, Annie took his place. That was the start of her career and soon to be the end of Frank’s. As her fame outstripped his, he gave up the stage to become Annie’s manager and promoter, which was probably a good idea. Annie had little schooling as a girl and picked up her education later in life. At no time was there any suggestion of Frank feeling bitter about being outdone by a woman. His support was unconditional and unwavering.
Part Two next week: the star of Cody’s Wild West Show, touring the world, a rival, saving a prince, and how she became known as Little Sure Shot.
In this 1894 film, it looks like she missed one, but the target has a hole in it and is stuck to the board. In exhibition, targets were never that close. Not sure if the man is Frank or her assistant. You have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the article to find the video.