She was the toast of New York, Victorian London, Paris and eventually the world. She was “adopted” by Indian Chief Sitting Bull, charmed the Prince of Prussia and entertained the likes of Oscar Wilde and Queen Victoria. Annie Oakley excelled in a man’s world by doing what she loved, and won fame and fortune as the little lady from Ohio who never missed a shot.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents “Annie Oakley,” the story of a five-foot, 100-pound sharpshooter who pulled herself out of the depths of poverty to become an iconic performer known the world over as a symbol of the Wild West. The film chronicles Oakley’s life from her childhood in the Midwest to her world tours with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. “Many people know the fictionalized story that’s been told on countless stages in Annie Get Your Gun,” says program producer Riva Freifeld. “But the real Annie was much more than a brassy cocksure babe who would do anything to get her man.”
Phoebe Anne Moses, called Annie, first picked up a gun in 1875 at age 15 not to become a superstar, but to save her family from destitution. Annie taught herself to shoot and took to the woods of Greenville, Ohio, to hunt quail, which she could sell at the general store. “She was a market hunter, and turning a very nice profit,” says Mary Zeiss Stange, a professor of women’s studies. “Certainly not something that was at all appropriate for a woman to be doing in that time and place.” Thanks to her prowess with a shotgun, Annie was able to become the primary breadwinner in the house and to pay off the mortgage on the family farm.
Annie was soon noticed by Frank Butler, who was making a name for himself on the variety stage. On a trip through Ohio, Butler boasted that he could outshoot anyone around. But the teenaged girl from Greenville didn’t just outshoot the rising star, she won Butler’s heart. They married and toured the world as Butler and Oakley — the stage name that Annie adopted.
As Annie Oakley, she dazzled crowds around the world, first on the variety circuit, then with the circus and eventually with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Annie amazed her audiences by splitting playing cards in two, hitting countless moving targets, even once shooting a cigarette out of Prince Wilhelm of Prussia’s mouth at 30 paces. She could shoot with her left hand, her right hand, upside down and sideways. “She was this really remarkable shot,” says historian Elliott West. “But what makes her especially interesting is that she was able to combine that with an image of American womanhood that was provocative, but that many people felt comfortable with.”
Annie found herself caught between the demure expectations of the Victorian age, and the lasciviousness that typified women on the stage. She made all of her own costumes in order to maintain an air of respectability. Her modest long-sleeved tops and skirts set her apart from other female performers.
In 1885, Annie entertained crowds in 40 cities across America. By 1895, that number grew to more than 130 cities around the world. She was a star at the Paris Exposition in 1889 and shone again in 1893 when Buffalo Bill set up shop just outside of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. The girl from Ohio had become a living symbol of the Wild West — a place that was fast disappearing.
But in true celebrity style, the end of Annie’s career was plagued with scandal. Erroneous stories of Annie stealing to pay for cocaine hit the papers in 1903, when Annie was 43 years old. She spent six years ensnared in legal battles trying to clear her name. “She had fought very hard to earn her own security, to have a good name, to be the kind of person that everybody would see as a role model,” says historian Virginia Scharff.
Annie would perform for just a few years more. She retired from public life in 1913, but continued working as an advocate of women’s use of firearms, teaching thousands to shoot. Hollywood and history have kept the legend of Annie Oakley alive. Her story lives on in film, television, on the stage and in history books.