Today is the birthday of Annie Oakley (Phoebe Ann Moses, 1860-1926). Raised dirt poor in rural Western Ohio, she was trapping and using firearms for hunting from age eight to help support her widowed mother and her family. Famed throughout the region for her abilities, she first gained professional attention when she beat exhibition shooter Frank Butler in a Cincinnati contest on Thanksgiving Day, 1875. The following year she married Butler, becoming part of his act around 1882. For the next few years she toured the fledgling vaudeville circuits demonstrating her shooting prowess. The novelty of a female being so adept at a skill traditionally dominated by males made for good theatre. Her fame spread. The practice of showfolk calling free tickets “Annie Oakleys” (still common to this day) originates in the fact that the hole punches in tickets looks like bullet holes in playing cards, a favorite stunt of hers.
In 1885 Butler and Oakley joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, becoming two of the major stars of his show. It was Lakota Sioux Chieftain Sitting Bull, also with the wild west show, who gave her the famous nickname “Little Sure Shot”. Annie toured with Buffalo Bill for 15 years, enjoying international fame and performing for the crowned heads of Europe (she shot a cigarette out of the mouth of the Kaiser), and even starred in one of Thomas Edison’s first motion pictures in 1894.
In 1901 she suffered grievous multiple wounds in a train accident and shifted down to a quieter career, touring theatres with a melodrama called The Western Girl, a starring part that allowed Oakley to show off her shooting skills as she foiled a gang of outlaws. From 1904 through 1910 she amassed a large fortune in a series of libel suits when the Hearst organization falsely accused her of stealing to support a cocaine habit. (A burlesque performer who’d been arrested had used her name). By the time of her death, Oakley had given her fortune away to various charitable organizations. It is also estimated that she had taught as many as 15,000 women how to shoot a gun over the years. In recent times, she’s become an unlikely feminist hero. She died in 1926; the great love of her life Frank Butler followed her 18 days later.
But thanks to popular culture I bet you already know a lot of this stuff! Barbara Stanwyck played her in that great bio-pic in 1935. And then there’s the 1946 Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, produced by Rogers and Hammerstein, starring Ethel Merman, with songs by Irving Berlin and book by Dorothy Fields and her brother Herbert. The 1950 film version was originally to reunited Judy Garland and Frank Morgan from The Wizard of Oz, but the former melted down and the latter passed away, so the version that made it to theatres starred Betty Hutton and Louie Calhern, which isn’t a bad bargain either. And from 1954 through 1957 there was the western tv show Annie Oakley featuring her fictionalized heroic adventures (starring Gail Davis).
Annie Oakley was inducted into Coney Island USA’s Sideshow Hall of Fame in 2016.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville and performers like Annie Oakley, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.