This story originally appeared in the July/August 2018 edition of Echoes Magazine, our member publication. For info about membership, visit ohiohistory.org/join.
In the 1935 movie Annie Oakley, the title character, played by Barbara Stanwyck, enters a shooting contest against Toby Walker, “the greatest shot in the world.” She’s about to beat him, too, until she deliberately misses her last shot, letting Walker, the man, win.
More than 80 years later, the scene still rankles Annie Oakley scholars and fans, who claim it was not merely inaccurate, but also preposterous.
“The idea of Annie intentionally missing a shot to let a man win is, well, complete nonsense,” says Jeremy Johnston, curator at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY.
“The Walker character is based on Frank Butler, who became Annie’s husband and business manager. Frank was never jealous of Annie’s talent, and both understood that Annie was the star of the show.”
Annie Oakley in profile, taken while she was touring in London, England. Ohio History Connection archival collections.
Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses on Aug. 13, 1860, in a cabin two miles northwest of present-day Willowdell in Darke County, Ohio. Her father died when she was six, and her mother sent her away, first to an infirmary and later to work for a couple on a nearby farm. In her autobiography, Oakley describes being in essence enslaved by the couple, referring to them only as “the wolves.”
She began trapping animals at age seven and shooting and hunting at eight—though some sources have her doing both by the time she was six—in order to put food on her family’s table.
Annie Oakley poses with her rifle and a dead rabbit, taken between 1875-1890. Oakley began hunting as a young child to support her family. Ohio History Connection archival collections.
Oakley probably met Butler in 1876, when she was 16. The couple joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1885 and toured Europe with the troupe in 1889, performing for royalty and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
GETTING TO KNOW ANNIE
Paul Fees spent years poring over Oakley’s papers, housed at the Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio, and trying to set the record straight. It was a more difficult task than he might have imagined when he began his research back in the 1980s.
“Oakley is such a popular figure, well-known up to a point,” says Fees. “But she’s deceptively hard to get a handle on. She was so utterly private. You can’t tell if she has a personality because she kept it so well hidden. She was able to forge a public persona that the press and public were never able to crack.”
In her autobiography, Oakley makes several claims that have been proven untrue over time. Yet Fees insists he never grew frustrated by the sharpshooter’s mask.
“I suppose it would have been frustrating if I’d been a biographer looking for an angle,” Fees says. “But as a historian, I never got bored researching Annie. Her public persona and accomplishments are very much worth studying and celebrating.”
Johnston agrees: “sorting out the public image of Annie from her private life is nearly impossible. Annie was very protective of her public persona, and very shrewd in developing it.”
This illustration, created in 1889, appeared on Annie Oakley brand cigars. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Karen Besecker and Nancy Stump both work at the Garst Museum’s National Annie Oakley Center. Stump has a pet peeve of her own about the perception of Oakley as it’s evolved over the years.
“Some people compare Annie to Calamity Jane,” she says. “But, no, she was not like Calamity Jane, not at all. Annie always wore dresses and never wore pants. She was not wild in the way we think of Calamity Jane being wild. Annie was always a lady.”
In 1903, Oakley’s image was severely damaged when two of William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago newspapers printed a story with the headline “Famous Woman Crack Shot Steals to Secure Cocaine,” which was subsequently picked up and run in hundreds of newspapers across the country.
As it happened, Maude Fontenella, who had once performed in a burlesque Wild West show, had used Annie’s last name when she was arrested. Oakley was enraged by the damage done to her reputation, eventually suing 55 newspapers, and winning or settling with 54 of them.
The libelous newspaper article slowed Oakley down, but ultimately her public persona triumphed over the lie.
Fees said men who grew up on the Wild West shows admired Annie because she fit the so-called feminine ideal––“petite, athletic and exceptionally demure.”
Sorting out the public image of Annie from her private life is nearly impossible.
AN INSPIRATION TO WOMEN
But Oakley represented something else entirely for the women who’d grown up watching the sharp-shooter and reading about her exploits in newspapers and magazines.
“Annie was liberating for a great many women. She was a wildly successful entertainer. And she was really on the order of an Olympic athlete. She was only five feet tall but was incredibly strong,” Fees says.
“She had to be strong. Her rifle was 6 ½ pounds, and she’d shoot it at targets hundreds of times a day, thousands of times during the run of a show, all the while running and riding her horse and doing handsprings.”
An illustration of Annie Oakley shows the sharpshooter on the back of a horse while aiming a rifle. Ohio History Connection archival collections.
Near the end of her life, Oakley said something that endears her to this day to the proud citizens of Darke County:
“After traveling through 14 foreign countries and appearing before all the royalty and nobility I have only one wish today,” she told a reporter from the Newark Star-Eagle. “That is when my eyes are closed in death that they will bury me back in that quiet little farmland where I was born.”
She is buried in Darke County, in Brock Cemetery in York Township, about eight miles from her birthplace.
Oakley’s gravestone in Brock Cemetery, August 15, 1938. Ohio History Connection archival collections.
Books about Annie Oakley are many, but historian Paul Fees recommends Annie Oakley: Woman at Arms by Courtney Ryley Cooper (published in 1928) because it was the first biography and was written by a contemporary who had firsthand sources. Historian Jeremy Johnston recommends two more recent biographies, Annie Oakley by Shirl Kasper and The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley by Glenda Riley.