Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Annie Oakley

Episode Summary

Annie Oakley (1860-1926) was a famous sharpshooter and Wild West performer. She traveled around the world, wowing audiences with her abilities and thriving in a male-dominated sphere.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s contender was a famous sharpshooter and Wild West performer. She traveled around the world, wow-ing audiences with her abilities and thriving in a male-dominated sphere.

Let’s talk about Annie Oakley. 

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses on August 13th, 1860, in Darke County, Ohio. When Annie was six, her father, Jacob Moses, died from pneumonia. Annie’s mother, Susan Wise, soon remarried. But her second husband died suddenly, too. With eight children and very little income, Annie’s family was sent to the county’s “poor farm.” 

These institutions pre-dated federal safety nets like Medicare and Social Security. Residents often dealt with miserable living conditions, while battling the cultural stigma of needing help. 

Annie was placed with local families, where she would work in exchange for room and board. She started hunting at eight years old. From the start, Annie was a gifted shot, selling her game to local restaurants to help support her family. 

At fifteen, Annie’s hunting skills paid off the mortgage on her mother’s farm. That same year, she traveled to Cincinnati to compete in a shooting competition with Frank E. Butler.

Butler was a traveling marksman, who made bets with local communities that he could beat anyone in a sharpshooting match. Annie made all 25 shots. Butler missed the final one. The two started courting, and married soon after, in 1876. Annie was 16 years old. 

Annie and Butler continued Butler’s tour of the country, with Annie acting as his assistant. Despite her skills, Annie was responsible mostly for holding up items for Butler to shoot. All of that changed on May 1st, 1882, when Butler’s partner fell ill. Annie filled in onstage. From then on, Annie was officially part of the act. 

After touring for a year with the Sells Brothers Circus, Annie and Butler joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was Annie, who had been given the nickname “Little Sure Shot” by Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull, who really rose to fame. Butler eventually chose to serve as her stage assistant and manager. 

Even by today’s standards, Annie’s stunts were jaw-dropping. She would shoot glass balls and coins out of the air and cigarettes out of her husband’s mouth. Her show often opened with her skipping onstage, lifting her rifle, and in one shot, snuffing out the flame of a lit candle.

Annie and Butler remained with Buffalo Bill’s show for 16 years. The tour took them all around the world. They performed for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in England, and traveled through Spain, Italy and France. 

Every time she stepped onstage, Annie proved that women were more than capable of using firearms, challenging the discipline’s masculine reputation. She publicly encouraged women to learn how to use a pistol and carry it in their purse, arguing that self-defense was empowering. 

In 1901, after returning to the United States, Annie and Butler were in a train crash. Annie injured her back, and stopped touring. 

Two years later, in 1903, it was reported in Chicago that Annie had been arrested for stealing a man’s trousers and selling them for cocaine. Despite the story being entirely false -- the woman arrested had used the false name “Any Oakley” -- news outlets ran with it. Annie sued every paper that ran the false accusations. Over seven years, she won 54 of 55 cases. 

In 1917, the United States entered World War I. Annie wrote to the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, offering to fund and raise a regiment of female volunteers to fight. She also offered to help teach soldiers how to accurately shoot. Neither offer was accepted. 

In 1922, Annie began preparing to tour again, but a car accident delayed her plans. After a year of recovery, Annie finally returned to the stage. 

Soon, though, Annie fell sick, and in 1925 she moved back to Ohio, to be closer to her family. Annie Oakley died on November 3rd, 1926. She was 66 years old. Her husband, Frank E. Butler, died three weeks later. The two had been married for 50 years. 

In 1946, a fictionalized version of Annie and Butler’s love story debuted on Broadway, as the Irving Berlin musical, “Annie Get Your Gun.” The show is still regularly performed by theaters around the country. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. On Sundays, we’re taking a break from our normal episodes to highlight women we’ve previously covered who did amazing things in healthcare. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!