See biography by W. Havighurst (1954).
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Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Mosey August 13, 1860 – November 3, 1926) was an American sharpshooter and exhibition shooter. Oakley's amazing talent and timely rise to fame led to a starring role in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, which propelled her to become the first American female superstar.
According to the Annie Oakley Foundation, she was born in "a cabin less than two miles northwest of Woodland, now Willowdell, in Darke County", a rural western border county of Ohio. The village of North Star has a road sign stating it is near her place of birth. Her birthplace log cabin site is about five miles eastward of North Star. There is a stone-mounted plaque in the vicinity of the cabin site, which was placed by the Annie Oakley Committee in 1981, 121 years after her birth. The committee incorrectly spelled her birth name in two different ways on the cast bronze plaque.
Her parents, Susan Wise and Jacob Mosey, were Quakers from Hollidaysburg, Blair County, Pennsylvania who married in 1848. A fire burned down their tavern so they moved to a rented farm in Patterson Township in Darke County, sometime between sister Sarah Ellen's Hollidaysburg birth in 1858 and Phoebe Ann's Woodland birth in 1860. Her father, who had fought in the War of 1812, died in 1866 from pneumonia and overexposure in freezing weather. Her mother remarried to Daniel Brumbaugh, had another child, and was widowed a second time. During this time, Oakley was put in the care of the superintendent of the county poor farm, where she learned to sew and decorate. She spent some time in near-slavery for a local family where she endured mental and physical abuse (Oakley referred to them as "the wolves"). When she reunited with her family, her mother had remarried, a third time, to Joseph Shaw after 1868.
Because of poverty following the death of her father, Oakley did not regularly attend school. Later she received some additional education. Apparently, she could not spell her family's name, since she later rendered it ending in "ee". Her family's surname, "Mosey", ending in "y", appears on her father's gravestone and in his military record; it is the official spelling by the Annie Oakley Foundation maintained by her living relatives. Oakley began hunting at age nine to support her siblings and her widowed mother. She sold the hunting game to locals for money, and her skill eventually paid off the mortgage on her mother's house.
Oakley soon became known throughout the region as a shotgun sharpshooter. During the spring of 1881, the Baughman and Butler shooting act was being performed in Cincinnati. Traveling show marksman and former dog trainer Francis "Frank" E. Butler, an Irish immigrant (1850-1926), placed a $100 bet per side (roughly equivalent to modern US$2,000) with Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost, that Butler, age 31, could beat any local fancy shooter. The hotelier arranged a shooting match with Oakley, age 21, to be held in ten days in a small town near Greenville, Ohio. Butler later said it was "18 miles from the nearest station" (about the distance from Greenville to North Star). After missing his 25th shot, Butler lost the match and the bet — a serendipitous irony that led him to become a well-known winner in backstage life. Butler began courting Oakley, and they married on June 20, 1882 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
Oakley and Butler lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for a time, and she is believed to have taken her stage name from the city's neighborhood of Oakley, where they resided. At first, Oakley was Butler's assistant in his travelling show. Later, Butler realized that Oakley was more talented, so he became her assistant and business manager. Their personal and business success in handling celebrity is considered a model show business relationship even after more than a century.
They joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1885. At 5 feet (1.52 m) tall, Oakley was given the nickname of "Watanya Cicilla" by fellow performer Sitting Bull, rendered "Little Sure Shot" in the public advertisements.
During her first Buffalo Bill's show engagement, Oakley experienced a tense professional rivalry with rifle sharpshooter Lillian Smith. Smith promoted herself as younger and therefore more billable than Oakley. Oakley temporarily left the Buffalo Bill's show but returned after Smith departed.
Oakley had initially responded to the show's age rivalry by removing six years from her promoted age. She could not remove any more years without making it seem that she was born out of wedlock after her father died. As it was, her promoted age led to perennial wrong calculations of her true age and the dates for some of her biographical events. For example, the 1881 spring shooting match with Butler occurred when she was a 21-year-old adult. However, that event is widely reported as occurring six years earlier in the fall, which also suggests a mythical teen romance with Butler.
In Europe, she performed for Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and other crowned heads of state. Oakley had such good aim that, at his request, she knocked the ashes off a cigarette held by the Prince of Prussia, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Annie Oakley Foundation suggests that she was not the source of a widely-repeated sarcasm related to the event, "Some uncharitable people later ventured that if Annie would have shot Wilhelm and not his cigarette, she could have prevented World War I."
Oakley promoted the service of women in combat operations for the United States armed forces. She wrote a letter to President William McKinley on April 5, 1898 "offering the government the services of a company of 50 'lady sharpshooters' who would provide their own arms and ammunition should the U.S. go to war with Spain. The Spanish-American War did occur, but Oakley's offer was not accepted. Theodore Roosevelt, did, however, name his volunteer cavalry the "Rough Riders" after the "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World" where Oakley was a major star. The same year that McKinley was fatally shot by an assassin, 1901, Oakley was also badly injured in a railway crash, but she fully recovered after temporary paralysis and five spinal operations. She left the Buffalo Bill show and began a quieter acting career in a stage play written especially for her, The Western Girl. Following her injury and change of career, it only added to her legend that her shooting expertise continued to increase into her 60s.
In 1903, sensational cocaine prohibition stories were selling well. The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst published a false story that Oakley had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. The woman actually arrested was a burlesque performer who told Chicago police that her name was "Annie Oakley". The original Annie Oakley spent much of the next six years winning 54 of 55 libel lawsuits against newspapers. She collected less in judgments than were her legal expenses, but to her, a restored reputation justified the loss of time and money.
Most of the newspapers that printed the story had relied on wire services, and upon learning of the libelous error they immediately retracted the false story with apologies. Hearst, however, tried to avoid paying the anticipated court judgments of $15,000 ($300,000, adjusted for inflation) by sending an investigator to Darke County with the intent of collecting reputation-smearing gossip from Oakley's past. The investigator found nothing.
Oakley continued to set records into her 60s, and she also engaged in extensive, albeit quiet, philanthropy for women's rights and other causes, including the support of specific young women that she knew. She embarked on a comeback and intended to star in a feature-length silent movie. In a 1922 shooting contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina, sixty-two-year-old Oakley hit 100 clay targets from .
In late 1922, Oakley and Butler suffered a debilitating automobile accident that forced her to wear a steel brace on her right leg. Yet after a year and a half of recovery, she again performed and set records in 1924.
Her health declined in 1925. Annie Oakley died of pernicious anemia at the age of sixty-six and was buried in Brock Cemetery in Greenville, Ohio. Frank Butler was so crushed by her death that he stopped eating. He died just 18 days later.
After her death it was discovered that her entire fortune had been spent on her family and her charities.
In 1894, Oakley and Butler performed in Edison's Kinetoscope film, The "Little Sure Shot" of the "Wild West," exhibition of rifle shooting at glass balls, etc. Filmed November 1, 1894, in Edison's Black Maria studio by William Heise (0:21 at 30 fps; 39 ft.), it was about the 11th film made after commercial showings began on April 14, 1894.
Oakley's early movie star opportunity followed from Buffalo Bill and Thomas Edison's friendship, which developed after Edison personally built for the Wild West Show, what in the 1890s was the world's largest electrical power plant. Buffalo Bill and fifteen of his show Indians appeared in two Kinetoscopes filmed September 24, 1894.