August 13 - Happy Birthday, Annie Oakley

  Posted on August 13, 2022     

This is an update of my post published on August 13, 2011:

She was perhaps the world's greatest female sharp-shooter and America's first female superstar!

She could repeatedly split a playing card, edge-on, and put several more holes in it before it hit the ground.

From 90 feet away!

Born on this day in 1860, in a little cabin in Ohio, Annie Oakley's real name was Phoebe Ann Mosey. Her family was quite poor because Oakley's father died, and Oakley started to hunt with a rifle for food at age 8. (She began trapping for food even younger.) She didn't get much education, and at age 9 she was “bound out” to family who promised to give her 15 cents a week plus an education in exchange for babysitting services. The family broke this promise and kept Oakley in near slavery for two years, heaping mental and physical abuse on the girl. I'm not sure how Oakley escaped, but when she did, she went back to hunting for her mother and sibling, and she sold the excess meat to restaurants for money. By the time Oakley was 15, she had helped her mother pay off her mortgage.

People in Ohio began to realize what a good shot Oakley was. A hotel owner arranged a shooting match between Oakley and a male show marksman named Francis Butler. Butler lost the competition, lost the $100 he had bet (worth about $2000 today)—but he won something far more important: He courted and wed Oakley!

Even though Annie Oakley was only five feet tall, Buffalo Bill Cody hired her for his popular Wild West show. That's how, at age 25, she became popular and famous. She performed all over and even toured Europe with the show. She met Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The latter was so impressed with Oakley's aim that he asked her to knock the ash off his cigarette with a bullet, and she successfully did the stunt.

(People later thought, oh, wow, if ONLY she had missed and hit the Kaiser, World War I would never have happened! After the outbreak of the war, Oakley sent a letter to the Kaiser requesting a second shot. He did not reply.)

Historians estimate that Oakley taught more than 15,000 women how to use a gun. She believed it was important for women to learn to shoot to defend themselves. Before the Spanish-American War broke out, Oakley wrote to President William McKinley offering the government the services of herself and 49 other “lady sharpshooters” if the war did occur. She promised that they would provide their own arms and ammunition. McKinley did not accept the offer.

In 1901, Oakley was badly injured in a train wreck. Much later, in 1922, Oakley was in a bad automobile accident. Both times she worked hard to recover and got back to performing and setting records. Having to come back from injury (she had to have FIVE back surgeries!) only made Annie Oakley more of a legend to her adoring fans.

Another event from Oakley's life is that a burlesque performer who was arrested for stealing to support her cocaine habit told Chicago police that she was Annie Oakley. The newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst published the false story, and other newspapers picked up the “news” and printed stories of their own about the incident. The real Annie Oakley spent six years with 55 libel lawsuits against these falsehoods. Most newspaper publishers quickly realized that the story was incorrect, and they immediately retracted it and apologized to Oakley. However, Hearst didn't do that. He figured, if he had admitted his story was wrong, he would be liable for court judgements (estimated to be around $20,000, which today would equal about $300,000). So he sent an investigator all around to dig up some “dirt” – or at least some gossip that would tarnish Oakley's reputation. The investigator came up empty, and Oakley won 54 out of the 55 libel suits!

Above, some of the inaccurate headlines.
Below, an example of a retraction.

By the way, the word "Negro" appears in
some of these old-time headlines, but it
is now offensive to many Black people and
therefore almost never used nowadays.

Use, instead, African American or Black.

Oakley paid more in court fees than she collected in judgements, but she felt that her restored reputation were worth the loss of time and money.

In her 60s, Annie Oakley continued to set records. She also donated money and her efforts to women's rights and other important causes. She supported individual women who she met and felt were worthy of financial aid. When she died at age 66, from pernicious anemia, her husband Francis Butler was so depressed that he quit eating and died just 18 days later.

Also on this date:

Birthday of artist Margaret Tafoya

International Left Handers' Day

(2nd Saturday in August)

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