Thursday, August 14, 2014

Remembering Annie Oakley

Yesterday was a great American’s birthday. She would have been 154. Annie Oakley was the stage name of Phoebe Ann Moses a sharpshooter whose skill at shooting led her to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Annie started shooting at a very young age. She ended up supporting her family hunting when her step-Father died leaving the family to fend for themselves. As a young woman she met Frank Butler, a traveling marksman who entertained, who challenged anyone to shooting contests. Annie beat him again and again. They began a courtship and married about 1876. The Butlers began performing together in 1882. After seeing Annie shoot Sitting Bull the famous Indian Chief gave her moccasins he had worn at the Little Bighorn and the nickname “Watanya Cicilla” or Little Sure Shot.
In 1884 Annie and Frank met Buffalo Bill in New Orleans and negotiated a 3-day trial with the Wild West Show. Annie and Frank would go on to perform with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show for 16 seasons. Cody called Annie "Li’l Miss," an apt nickname for the five-foot-tall markswoman, and had her perform early in the show to help audiences get used to the sound of gunfire. Her charisma and her skill with many firearms endeared audiences to her and to the show. At 90 feet, she could shoot a dime or a cork out of a bottle or snuff out candle flames. She could also shoot a playing card with the thin edge held facing her multiple times—the theatre business began referring to free tickets, which had holes punched in them, as "Annie Oakleys."
Annie performed literally all over the world and for heads of state and kings. She toured France, Spain, Italy, Austria, and Germany. Returning to the U.S. Annie Oakley is a household name, a national celebrity.
On October 29, 1901, the show members were traveling north in North Carolina to the final performance of the season in Danville, Virginia. Because of a misunderstanding at the switching station, the second train, the one Annie and Frank were on, ran head-on into a southbound train. Whether because of this accident or because it was just time—the 41-year-old sharpshooter had been touring continuously for nearly 20 years—she retired from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Around this time, her hair had begun to turn white as well, which was an obvious liability for a performer.
In 1912, Frank and Annie had began building a house in Cambridge, Maryland, which is on Maryland’s eastern shore. The roof of the house was designed so that Annie could step out onto it and shoot game off the Choptank River. They spent the rest of their lives in that house, spending some of their time at resorts in North Carolina and Florida. Hunting and shooting remained important parts in their lives. In 1922, Annie performed at a benefit show on Long Island and was rumored to be making a comeback, but she did not—in November, at the age of 62, she was in a car accident in Florida and fractured her hip and ankle. The brace she had to wear may have kept her from performing again, but it did not keep her from hunting and shooting.
Over the next four years, her health began to decline, and she and Frank returned to her roots in Ohio. On November 3, 1926, she died of pernicious anemia at the age of 66. Frank mourned so deeply, he stopped eating and died 18 days later on November 21. They are buried in Greenville, Ohio.
One of the things Annie Oakley did was open the door for the possibility of women in the shooting sports. Most of us know that woman have a better aptitude for shooting. A few of my sons are into shooting, but usually my “occasional shooter” daughters can out shoot them. My youngest daughter is pretty deadly. When she grows into some of our rifles, I think she will be another Annie Oakley.
I hope we can remember Annie Oakley and her spirit and love of shooting and hunting. I’m grateful my daughters have her to look to as a shooting role model.
Semper Paratus