When newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst threatened her stellar reputation with a scandalous story, the little lady with the big gun turned to lawsuits.
The story—a folktale, really— features a wisp of a girl in a broad-brimmed Stetson taking careful aim with her rifle and shooting a cigarette from the mouth of Crown Prince Wilhelm, future emperor of pre–World War Germany. In fact, it happened almost exactly that way, with only a few minor course corrections for accuracy. By November 1887 she was hardly a girl but an attractive, self-possessed woman of 27. And she didn’t exactly shoot the cigarette out of his mouth. The crown prince had heard of her remarkable shooting skills when the show in which she was performing—Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—crossed the Atlantic to perform in Great Britain earlier that year. When the Wild West wrapped up, Oakley and husband Frank Butler had continued on to the Continent to see the sights and put on shooting exhibitions. Attending their performance in Berlin, Wilhelm marveled at Annie’s ability to shoot the ashes from a cigarette held between the lips of her preternaturally trusting husband and at one point requested the markswoman do the same for him. Rather than risk drilling a hole in the royal skull, she shot the ashes from the crown prince’s handheld cigarette. It is said that after Kaiser Wilhelm II became the Allies’ hated enemy in World War I, many wistfully wished Annie had shot the man instead. Indeed, years later the sharpshooter herself reputedly said, “If my aim had been poorer, I might have averted the Great War!” But then, Annie Oakley seldom missed.
Throughout her long and successful career “in the lights” Oakley presented herself as a woman of grace and elegance, despite her lack of formal schooling. For a woman making her living in show business, this was no mean feat. During the Victorian era, in which women were expected to remain at home raising a family, the term “showgirl” was frequently a euphemism for a woman of easy virtue. Not so Annie. Soft-spoken, courteous to a fault, she never failed to impress, as much for her dignified bearing as her skill with firearms. “To be considered a lady has always being [sic] my highest ambition,” she once wrote an admiring newspaperman. And indeed Oakley was, in the best sense of the word, a lady.
It was not by chance; her personal reputation was paramount, and she was careful to avoid scandal. As Western historian Virginia Scharff observes, “She was one of the first American celebrities who was really branding herself, and she was very shrewd about her own marketing.” Nevertheless, some things were beyond even her control. When powerful newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst threatened her image as America’s Sweetheart with a sensational story about her fall from grace, she was staggered, but once Annie recovered, she was ready to fire back.
Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey) on August 13, 1860, into a hardscrabble life on an Ohio Quaker farm. At age 5 she lost her father to pneumonia, and her mother soon lost the family farm. Annie was the fifth of seven surviving children, and her beleaguered mother—unable to keep and feed everyone—ultimately placed her in the county poorhouse/asylum. Soon after a couple took her home to perform chores around their house. According to Annie’s recollections, no Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo saga could have surpassed the barbarous treatment she received at their hands. The abusive couple locked her in closets, beat her, worked her mercilessly and on one frigid winter night—as punishment for falling asleep at her darning—put her outside in the snow without a coat. “I got down on my little knees, looked toward God’s clear sky and tried to pray,” she recalled. “But my lips were frozen stiff.” In later life Annie refused to refer to the couple by name, calling them only the “he-wolf” and “she-wolf.”After two years of unthinkable abuse Annie ran away, and as her mother remained unable to support her, she returned to the poorhouse. She was 11 years old.
Three years later Annie finally came home. Having taught herself to shoot with her father’s old cap-and-ball rifle, she went to work as a market hunter, selling quail and other game to help support her family. Eventually, Annie’s skill with the rifle earned her the $200 needed to pay off her mother’s mortgage, and her reputation as a shooter grew. After winning several local shooting contests—along the way acquiring both a sharpshooting husband and the moniker “Annie Oakley”— she demonstrated her talents on the vaudeville circuit and as a member of a traveling circus. In December 1884 Annie and Frank met Wild West promoter and living legend William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Within the year they were shooting in his Wild West, and fellow performer Sitting Bull “adopted” Annie as his daughter and dubbed her Watanya Cicilla (“Little Sure Shot”). The legendary Lakota leader didn’t stay with the show long, but Oakley and Butler had found a home, on and off, for the next 17 years.
The harshness of Annie’s upbringing doubtless played a major role in building a persona that, while understated, was
utterly fearless and unflappable. Combined with her uncanny skill with firearms, these traits made her the perfect attraction for Cody’s extravaganza. Performing flawlessly before millions of spectators at home and abroad, she won the hearts of all who watched her shoot, or saw an early film clip of her in a peep-show machine, or simply read the highly embroidered dime-novel tales of her adventures. Her public avidly read her interviews and found solid common sense in her words.
In short order Annie Oakley became the Wild West headliner, the Victorian version of an international superstar. The toast of Europe and the darling of royalty—Queen Victoria deemed her a “very clever little girl”—the 5-foot markswoman with flowing dark hair was liked and respected by most of her fellow performers. As humorist and radio
celebrity Will Rogers later recalled: “I had heard cowboys who had traveled with the Buffalo Bill show speak of her in almost reverence. They loved her. She was a marvelous woman, kindest-hearted, most thoughtful, a wonderful Christian woman.”
In a much subtler vein, as the first female act in the show, Annie was a trendsetter, representing as she did a self-made, independent Western woman (albeit Ohio-born), capable of surviving—and thriving—on her own merits. And when she married fellow trick-shot artist Frank Butler, she was matched to a man with the wisdom to acknowledge his wife’s superior skill and with the strength of character to give her the spotlight. In the Butler household it was Annie who was the breadwinner.
Annie turned 43 in 1903. She had left the Cody show, and after performing briefly onstage as the rifle-toting heroine of her own vehicle, The Western Girl—was living a quiet life with Frank in the New Jersey suburbs. Then, out of nowhere, she received the shocking news that newspaper mogul and scandal monger William Randolph Hearst had smeared her name across the front pages of his papers. Hearst had never let the truth interfere with a lurid, moneymaking story, and this time he aimed his muckraking machine squarely at America’s Sweetheart.
Word of Hearst’s “exposé” caught Annie completely off guard. She had spent her entire adult life carefully crafting her image, and now her name was being sullied in the national press by one of the nation’s most powerful figures. And he was indeed a force to be reckoned with.
If ever there was a man unaccustomed to setback, it was William Randolph Hearst. Born during the Civil War to a California Gold Rush millionaire, he had received every advantage available to a child of privilege—a Harvard education (until expelled for misconduct), extravagant tours of Europe and the money to follow whatever field he chose. And Hearst chose newspaper publishing.
He clearly had a knack for it. His father had purchased the San Francisco Examiner in 1887, to further his own political agenda, and he turned over the running of the failing paper to his son. As editor in chief, 23-year old William brought the paper back from the brink by introducing the most modern printing equipment and featuring the writings of such literary luminaries as Jack London, Mark Twain and the vitriolic Ambrose Bierce. The most notable change to the newspaper, however, was its new editor’s penchant for headlining sensationalistic stories, many based on half-truths and outright lies. Justifying any story that served to boost newsstand sales, he became the master of journalistic hyperbole, in the process globalizing a form of reporting that came to be known as “yellow journalism.”
Hearst’s budding newspaper empire became bicoastal with his acquisition of the also failing New York Journal, which he turned into a muckraking publication like the Examiner. Employing the same questionable methods, he began to use his news vehicles to support his political leanings, launching investigations into corruption and—ironically—abuse of power. By shamelessly pandering to the most salacious tendencies of his readers with such blatantly false and incendiary headlines as Refined Young Women Stripped and Searched by Brutal Spaniards While Under Our Flag (accompanied by an equally provocative illustration by Frederic Remington) — he successfully promoted the 1898 Spanish-American War. By 1900 Hearst was also operating newspapers in Chicago, Boston and a number of other cities, with a subscription list numbering in the millions. The American reading public fed voraciously on his brand of reportage.
At the time Hearst, whom his staff referred to deferentially as “the Chief,” threw his hat into the rough-and-tumble arena of New York politics and handily won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1902. By the following year—in which he married a chorus girl half his age—William Randolph Hearst was considering bids for New York mayor, state governor, perhaps even the presidency. He was a man in his prime.
Then he made the mistake of aiming at a target who actually fired back, with accuracy and determination.
Under the headline Steals to Secure Cocaine, papers ran a story in August 1903 claiming Annie Oakley had recently been jailed for “stealing the Famous Woman Crack Shot… Hearst’s two Chicago trousers of a negro in order to get money with which to buy cocaine.” The articles piled innuendo atop groundless innuendo. Missing Annie’s age by 15 years, they stated that her “striking appearance…entirely gone,” the 28-year-old celebrity “looks almost 40.” Hearst’s other papers quickly picked up the story, heaping on lurid details and running headlines claiming Annie Oakley, Famous Rifle Shot, Is Destitute. The story quickly spread to papers across the country, run by editors who preferred juicy headlines to the truth.
Initially, Annie—with both her career and personal reputation at stake—was devastated. “The terrible piece…nearly killed me,” she later said. “The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character.” First she had to determine where the story, which contained not a grain of truth, had taken root.
Apparently, a burlesque performer of questionable character named Maude Fontenella, performing under the stage name “Any Oakley,” had been arrested for various offenses, whereupon an overenthusiastic reporter jumped to the wrong conclusion. Without checking the veracity of the story, Hearst launched his smear campaign against the real Ms. Oakley. Annie determined to fight back, regardless of the cost. Frank was wholly supportive, assuring his wife, “I am able to earn our living if necessary, and we will spend what we have to get you justice.” Her first step was to demand retractions. She wrote to several papers: “Woman posing as Annie Oakley in Chicago is a fraud. Contradict at once.” But while the Publishers Press wired her demand to its members, and Annie received an immediate retraction from several newspapers, she was not satisfied. “Someone will pay for this dreadful mistake,” she vowed and set about making her threat a reality. As she saw it, the damage had been done, and it must be undone one newspaper at a time. “The only thing left for a person who is slandered in the press in the North,” she told one interviewer, “is to sue for money.” She added wryly that in the South they “simply kill the man who slanders the good name of a woman.” Annie filed a total of 55 libel suits—one against each of the offending papers—and spent the next seven years in and out of court pressing her case. Putting aside her career, she tirelessly traveled thousands of miles, from Missouri to Pennsylvania, Illinois to South Carolina, testifying against every publication that had wronged her. Meanwhile, Hearst did his best to destroy her and at one juncture sent a detective to her childhood hometown of Greenville, Ohio, to unearth sordid elements from her past. He failed utterly; there was simply nothing to find.
Modest in both dress and speech, Annie comported herself with quiet dignity—while privately clipping anti-Hearst articles and pasting them in her scrapbooks. In court she testified courteously and confidently, rarely losing her composure, even under the intense grilling of Hearst’s teams of aggressive attorneys. They accused her of appearing “immodestly” onstage, whereas Annie had always sewn her own costumes, which she specifically designed to cover her entire body. When one lawyer, seeking to play upon her lack of schooling, asked her opinion of a formal education, she archly replied it was “a very good thing when backed by common sense, and a very bad thing in the head of a cheap lawyer.” On another occasion she became so disgusted with the Hearst attorneys.’
Annie performed intermittently in the years following her campaign against Hearst. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, she sent a telegram to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, offering to raise and train a “regiment of women” for home defense. There was no answer. Despite the rebuff, Annie, on her own dime, put on a series of shooting exhibitions at various Army camps to raise money for the war effort.
In 1922, Annie was in a serious auto accident that fractured her hip and right ankle. She wore a brace throughout her remaining years, growing increasingly frail. In the summer of 1926 Annie and Frank moved back to Greenville, where, on
November 3, she passed away in her sleep at age 66. A heartbroken Frank died just 18 days later.
Throughout her life Annie was quietly outspoken on issues that engendered her support—but she was far from predictable. Philosophically, she walked a careful line between either side of the early feminist movement. She espoused the cause of equal pay for women. She also believed women should be allowed to carry guns for protection and over the decades taught countless women to shoot. However, Annie opposed granting women the vote, saying she would agree to it “if only the good women voted.” She also trod a delicate path between the Victorian mores of her day and the desire to excel at what had long been an exclusively male pursuit. Through the careful sculpting of her image, she achieved the seemingly impossible task of shooting better than any man—in a culture where men regularly carried guns and prided themselves on their skill—and doing so in a completely unthreatening way. Will Rogers visited Annie a few months before she died. “She was in bed; had been for months, but she was just so cheerful,” he recalled. “Just think of a little, frail, gray-haired woman who had spent her life with a Wild West show, remaining in your memory as being just about the most perfect thing you ever saw besides your own Mother.”
Annie Oakley achieved what so many public figures seek but seldom attain: lasting fame. Although she never officially starred in a film, in 1894 Annie was a subject of Thomas A. Edison’s early efforts at movie production. Apparently,
Edison wanted to determine whether his new Kinetoscope method would capture the smoke from her rifles; it did. The Library of Congress has preserved Edison’s clips of her [www.loc.gov/item/00694108] shooting at both fixed targets and glass balls thrown in the air by a crouching Frank Butler.
In 1935, just nine years after Annie’s death, RKO Pictures released a film titled Annie Oakley, featuring an up-and
coming starlet named Barbara Stanwyck as the lady sharp shooter. Typical of Hollywood biopics, the film played fast
and loose with nearly all the details of Annie’s life, though it managed to capture some of her spirit. The year 1946 saw Ethel Merman belting out her portrayal of Annie in the hit Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Four years later it became an Academy Award– winning film (best score) starring the irrepressible Betty
Hutton. In 1954 the emerging medium of television seized on the legend with the debut of the fictionalized series Annie
Oakley. Starring a blonde Gail Davis, it portrayed a “hard ridin’, straight-shootin,’” crime-fighting cowgirl who bore
no resemblance whatsoever to her namesake. Meanwhile, Annie Get Your Gun enjoyed several revivals, both in the United States and abroad, starring such big-name performers as actress Bernadette Peters and country singer Reba McEntire as Little Sure Shot.
Over the past several decades authors have penned a number of Annie Oakley books, both fiction and nonfiction, including the 1983 Marcy Heidish novel The Secret Annie Oakley. Among the most entertaining is Larry McMurtry’s 2010 dual biography The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America. For well over a century Annie Oakley has captured the popular imagination, and there seems to be no end in sight. Where other cultural Western icons such as James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Jesse James represented a frontier in which guns were drawn regularly and used with deadly force, Annie attracted millions of fans by demonstrating a talent with firearms completely devoid of mayhem and violence. And yet, through sheer grit, and buoyed by the conviction she was completely in the right, the tiny sharpshooter fired unerringly at the mighty Hearst machine and single-handedly brought it to bay.
Ron Soodalter of Cold Spring, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to Wild West (including “The Long Trail: Life on the Cattle Drive,” in the April 2013 issue) and other Weider History publications. For further reading he suggests Annie Oakley, by Shirl Kasper; The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley, by Glenda Riley; and Annie Oakley of the Wild West, by Walter Havighurst.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.