OAKLEY, ANNIE (Phoebe Ann Moses) (1860–1926) Wild West Show Performer
Known to the public as “Little Sure Shot,” Annie Oakley became an international celebrity through her astounding displays of sharpshooting in Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West show. Although she was considered by many to be the epitome of a western woman, she was born on August 13, 1860, near the village of Woodland, Ohio, about 70 miles north of Cincinnati. Her given name was Phoebe Ann Moses, but she was always known as Annie by her family.
The fifth of seven children, Annie suffered a difficult childhood. Her parents were barely able to scrape by as farmers. When she was six, her father died suddenly of pneumonia, and her mother, unable to feed her large family, had to find new homes for her children. Annie was sent to live and work first at an orphanage, then on a family farm. Unwilling to endure the family’s physical abuse of her, she ran away, hitched a ride on a train, and returned to her mother’s home. As a child, she helped her family by engineering crude traps to catch small animals for food. She soon taught herself to use her father’s gun, learning to shoot game animals in the head so as not to damage the meat. Annie became such a skilled hunter that she began selling her catch to restaurants in Cincinnati. Years later, she spoke with pride of being able to pay off her mother’s mortgage with the money she made. While visiting a sister in the city, Annie was chosen to show off her shooting in a contest with a professional marksman, Frank Butler. (Although the year of the contest is often cited as 1875, it may have occurred as late as 1881.) To Butler’s dismay, his tiny challenger bested him. Once he got over his embarrassment, he invited her to a show in which he was performing. The next year, he and Annie were married.
Soon Annie joined Frank’s act, taking the stage surname Oakley after a Cincinnati suburb. After playing vaudeville theaters and circuses for several years, Butler approached William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the owner of a show featuring trick riding, roping, and sharpshooting. In 1885, he convinced Cody to hire Oakley, who became the first white woman to perform in his Wild West show. Ten years her senior, Butler largely left the limelight to manage Oakley and teach her everything he knew about showmanship. Under his loving tutelage, she developed a thrilling act during which she used her gun to shatter glass balls thrown in the air, snuff out the fiames of candles attached to a revolving wheel, tear in two a playing card held in the hand of a trusting assistant, and even pluck an apple off the head of her beloved dog.
In addition to constantly thinking up new tricks, she and Butler also created a crowd-pleasing stage persona. Oakley dressed in a western costume, usually topped with a large hat, its brim upturned to show a silver star. She insisted on always wearing skirts to let her audience know that she was a lady. Oakley’s gentle demeanor helped make her favorite with the crowd: It allowed them to enjoy her expertise at a traditionally male enterprise whereas they may have been put off by the same display of strength and skill performed by a less overtly feminine woman. Because of her ladylike appearance, Cody usually placed her early in the program, reasoning that seeing her would comfort women and children made uneasy by all the loud shooting in the show.
Working for Cody’s show for 16 seasons, Oakley toured throughout the United States and Europe. She particularly caused a sensation in England, where she was presented to Queen Victoria. In addition to the thousands who saw her act, many were able to enjoy Oakley’s tricks recorded on an early nickelodeon film she made for Thomas Edison in 1894.
After suffering a serious injury in a 1901 train accident, Oakley left Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. The next year, she had a great stage success, playing the lead in The Western Girl. Her character triumphed over evil by shooting a liquor bottle out of the hand of a drunk and lassoing a villainess to keep her from committing murder. Oakley also spent time participating in shooting matches. By setting many new records, she helped open the sport to women. She also appeared regularly in shows for charities, especially for orphans’ homes.
After a brief comeback with Vernon Seaver’s Young Buffalo Show, she retired from show business for good in 1913. She continued to participate in shooting matches, however, even after she was left partially paralyzed by an automobile accident in 1922. With Butler, an ailing Oakley returned home to Ohio in 1926. There she died in her sleep on November 3, 1926. Butler followed her to the grave less than three weeks later and was buried next to his wife of some 50 years. Since her death, Oakley’s life has become a legend, told in myriad books and most famously in the stage musical Annie Get Your Gun (1946). This musical also had a successful run starting in 1999 with Bernadette Peters in the starring role. Country singer Reba McEntire performed the role in 2001.
Kaspar, Shirl. Annie Oakley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
Riley, Glenda. The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Annie Get Your Gun (1950). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Annie Oakley: Crack Shot in Petticoats. A&E Home Video, VHS, 2000.