Annie Oakley (1860-1926)
Sharpshooter who presented an early image of a powerful woman
While Annie Oakley (born Phoebe Ann Mosey) is a familiar name to all Americans, she is included here to recognize her for her noteworthy skills. Her level of marksmanship was extraordinary and required great vision, dexterity, excellent eye-hand coordination and the ability to function under pressure. What’s more, Oakley did what we all dream of—she found a way to make a living doing what she loved. Simply put, she was America’s first female superstar.
Phoebe Ann was born on a farm in the western part of Ohio (Darke County), the 6th of seven surviving children. Her father died when she was quite young. To help provide the family with food, Phoebe set traps in the woods, and one day when she was 6, she reportedly took her father’s gun and killed a squirrel.
Her mother remarried and was widowed again, and Phoebe (who seemed to go by Annie as a child) was placed in the care of the superintendent of the county poor farm. Eventually her mother married yet a third husband, and Annie moved back home.
Because of the family situation, Annie never attended school regularly and hunted to help the family. She killed enough game that she could sell it to local hotels and restaurants, helping to pay off the mortgage on her mother’s farm.
Over time, Annie’s shooting ability became well known. When marksman and traveling showman Francis E. Butler brought his act to Cincinnati, he placed a one hundred dollar bet with a Cincinnati hotel owner that he could out shoot any of the local people.
Phoebe was 21 at that time, and the hotelier, who knew Annie because he bought game from her, helped arrange for the two to compete at a shoot-out in Greenville, Ohio. Annie won, and Butler was smitten. The two were married in June of the following year.
Annie Mosey and Butler started married life in a section of Cincinnati known as “Oakley,” and it is from there that she took her stage name. Butler continued to travel and perform as part of a two-man act, and Annie assisted. One day Butler’s partner was ill, and soon Annie became the favored performer. In 1885 Butler and Oakley began performing in the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and over time Oakley slowly began getting a higher and higher billing in the ads as the stories of her dead-on marksmanship became known.
Annie sewed her own costumes. To allow her freedom of movement for her act, she made her skirts shorter than what were worn in that day, but she wore leggings to be certain she never showed any skin. She understood the importance of looking attractive but also having freedom of movement.
How good a shot was Annie? Remarkable. She taught herself to shoot with both her left and her right hands, and she could work with a pistol, a rifle, or a shotgun. Glass balls were frequently the target of choice for performances, and one day, using a .22 rifle, she hit 4472 glass balls out of 5000 tossed for her. At 90 feet Annie could shoot a dime tossed in the air, and she could slice the thin edge of a playing card, and then puncture the card with five or six more shots as it floated to the ground. To see a very brief demonstration of Annie’s ability, click here. This was filmed in Thomas Alva Edison’s film studio, known as Black Maria.
In 1898 when it appeared that the United States might enter into a war with Spain, Oakley wrote to President William McKinley 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.” However, McKinley did not accept the offer.
In 1901 Oakley was badly injured in a train accident; she fully recovered but it took five operation on her spine to do so. In 1902 when she returned to performing, she opted out of the Buffalo Bill show and performed a stage play written for her: The Western Girl.
During World War I Oakley traveled for the National War Council of the Young Men’s Christian Association and War Camp Community Service, and at stops along the way, she gave demonstrations of her shooting ability.
In her 60s, Oakley continued to perform and set records. At age 62, she competed in Pinehurst, N.C. hitting 100 clay targets in a row from 16 yards away.
Because she had grown up in poverty and had not always had the luxury of living at home, she gave generously to causes related to women and orphans. She believed all women should learn to shoot (and taught many) but she did not support women’s suffrage.
In 1922 Butler and Oakley were in a serious car accident; Oakley needed a steel brace for her leg, but a year and a half later she was performing again and set new records in 1924. The next year her health began to decline and she died in 1926. Butler was so devastated by her death that he refused to eat and died 18 days later.