In the “About” section of this blog I mention doing occasional “Beyond The Books” special features concerning historical and cultural topics outside of literature. I’m kicking off that feature today with a quick look at an important Ohioan, whose birthday is today: legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Mosey on August 13, 1860 in Darke County, Ohio.
Many of us know something of Annie Oakley. Her story has been told in numerous books and articles, and was also the subject of one of the great musicals of the 1940s: Annie Get Your Gun.
Annie was born into farm family and knew hardship and poverty. Her father died at the age of 65 when she was only five years old, and Annie and one of her sisters were placed in the Darke County Infirmary, a situation similar to placement in an orphanage. Later Annie was placed with a Preble County farm family who treated her badly. She was with them for two years before returning to her own family at the age of twelve.
Annie had begun trapping, hunting, and shooting earlier in her childhood. After her return home from being “bound out” to the Preble County family, she was able to provide for her own family by shooting and selling game to local residents, hotels, and restaurants. She was highly sought after since she made clean kills by shooting animals in the head—which spared restaurant managers the embarrassment of patrons picking buckshot out of their food! Annie made enough money to pay off the family mortgage as well.
Her break came when a Cincinnati hotel owner had Annie compete against vaudeville marksman Frank Butler, part of a traveling act called “Baughman and Butler.” Annie defeated Butler in a hillside contest above the city of Cincinnati in November 1875, but the man ten years her senior was smitten by this five foot tall teenage sharpshooter. Less than a year later the two were married and were also show business partners. They lived in Cincinnati for a while, and some believe Annie took her last name of Oakley from the subdivision of Cincinnati in which they lived—others believe the name comes from a man who paid for some badly needed train fare when Annie was a child.
The years after their wedding saw Annie perfecting her shooting and showmanship skills with the Sells Brothers Circus. She was far from the rural world of her childhood, and was soon a veteran performer familiar with the world of trains, steamer trunks, and city hotels. While this life could be hard, Annie grew used to it, and audiences were captivated by the remarkable talents of this diminutive markswoman.
Oakley and Butler went on the road with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1886, beginning a legendary career that saw her stunning large audiences with her dazzling feats of marksmanship. A superb athlete gifted with excellent balance, lightning quickness, and virtually off-the-charts hand and eye coordination, she wowed audiences by shooting cigarettes and cigars out of Butler’s mouth, hitting dimes hurled into the air, and shooting objects behind her with the use of a mirror. She could shoot with either hand, nail target after target while riding a bike, and leap over a table, grab a rifle, and hit glass balls thrown into the air as she leaped the table. Chief Sitting Bull, who was part of the show for a while, called her “Watanya Cecilia,” which means “Little Sure Shot.”
Oakley stayed with Buffalo Bill until suffering a bad injury in a train accident. Following her recovery, she played roles on stage and continued to demonstrate an even greater range of shooting prowess, setting shooting records into her sixties. She was also a philanthropist and advocate for women’s rights. She believed women should be able to handle firearms and defend themselves if necessary. In 1898 she offered President McKinley her services to raise a company of “50 lady sharpshooters” to aid the U.S. military if the country went to war with Spain.
Annie Oakley died on November 3, 1926 of pernicious anemia at the age of 66—almost the same age her father was when he died. Her husband Frank died just eighteen days later on November 21, 1926. They are buried in Brock Cemetery in Greenville, Ohio.
Wikipedia: Annie Oakley.
Annie Oakley of the Wild West—Walter Havighurst. (1954)—Scribner’s. Used 2003 Castle Books edition.
The Ohio Guide. WPA (1940). 1962 reprint.
Heroes of Ohio: 23 True Tales of Courage and Character. Rick Sowash, Rick Sowash Publishing Co. 2003.