Annie Oakley, America's First Superstar

August 20, 2019

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley was America’s first female celebrity and indeed one of the country’s first superstars. She was born Phoebe Ann Mosey in 1860 in rural Darke County, Ohio, just northwest of Dayton.

Her father passed away when she was just six years old, plunging the family into poverty. For a time she worked for another family under slave-like conditions, returning to her mother, and new stepfather, when she was 15. To help support the family, she used the shooting and trapping skills she had developed from the age of 7 to hunt game, selling pelts to the G.A. Katzenbergers Brothers store in nearby Greenville.

Annie’s shooting prowess was so well known that when a professional sharpshooter named Frank Butler came to town, the locals told him they knew someone in the area that could beat him. Butler was stunned when he saw his competition was a 15-year-old girl. They alternating hitting targets until after the 22nd shot Butler missed. Annie hit her remaining targets and won the contest. Instead of being angry or disappointed, Butler, 13 years Phoebe Anne’s senior, was smitten. The two were soon married. 

At first, following the marriage, Butler toured with his longtime performing partner John Graham. Annie helped out on stage but was relegated to holding various targets. At one performance, though, Butler was having an off night and kept missing. Some in the crowd, aware of Annie’s reputation as a sharpshooter, yelled for her to have a go, and Frank obliged. She hit every target. 

When John Graham fell ill a few weeks later, the act became Frank and his bride. It was around this time she took the stage name, Annie Oakley. There is some debate about why she chose Oakley. Some reports say it was because she and Frank had lived, for a time, in the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati. According to PBS’ American Experience, the name was that of her grandmother. However, genealogy records do not contain the name Oakley before Annie using it, so likely it did come from the neighborhood in Cincinnati.

Butler, recognizing Annie’s talent and beauty, made her the star of the show. The duo later joined up with various vaudeville tours and circuses before catching on with Buffalo Bill Cody’s very popular Wild West Show.  The 1891 program for the show describes Annie as “an accomplished equestrienne, and her success with the public has been greatly enhanced by the fact that in dress, style, and execution she is as original as she is attractive.”

In 1901, a train, carrying the show from Charlotte, NC to New York, crashed. Annie suffered injuries that forced her to leave the show. She went on to star in a play and was starting to build a whole new career when her reputation suddenly came into question.

Reports surfaced in the Hearst newspapers that Annie had been arrested in Chicago for stealing to support a cocaine habit. It was quickly revealed that another person, a burlesque performer, was simply using Annie’s name, but the damage was done. She sued 55 papers across the country for liable, and though she won 54 of the suits, she still lost money pursuing legal action.

In 1913 she and Frank briefly returned to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show only to perform for smaller and smaller crowds. Annie was as sure a shot as she’d ever been, but the entire show was competing with a new form of entertainment called motion pictures. In 1913, Frank and Annie left Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and settled into retirement; but not for long.

Bored with domestic life, the two were soon back on the road, only this time touring for fun. Annie also taught thousands of women to shoot before a car accident ended her career and she was forced back into retirement. She died in 1926 at the age of 66. Frank died 18 days later. While he had been in declining health for some time, family and friends were convinced he died of a broken heart. They are buried side by side in Greenville, OH not far from where any grew up.

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