Sunday, January 26, 2020

Annie Oakley: From History to the Small Screen

By Christopher Robinson

Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Mosey, is forever immortalized as a symbol of the frontier spirit despite never roaming the frontier or living out west. Her fascinating legend was cemented, thanks not only to her unique skills and fame but to a smaller degree, her frequent portrayals in literature and on stage, film and television. Though many details of her incredible life are unknown, she remains an unrivaled and celebrated historical figure whose curious image in her own time might have proved polarizing or even controversial in ours.

Born to Quaker parents Jacob and Susan Mosey in Darke County, Ohio, in 1860, as the sixth child in a growing family, Annie learned responsibility and self-reliance early in life. After her father, Jacob, died from succumbing to illnesses after getting caught in a blizzard in 1867, Annie was placed in the care of local infirmaries or ‘poor houses’ that enabled her overburdened mother to better handle her crowded household. There Annie sewed, cleaned and looked after other children.

Annie soon was offered a temporary home with another family who offered her food, shelter and comfort. With the permission of her mother, Susan, she remained with them for about two years. However, the couple soon became abusive to Annie, subjecting her to endless tasks and cruel punishment. Apparently their treatment was so traumatic that Annie never spoke their names again, identifying them only as ‘the wolves’ in her subsequent writings.

Eventually she escaped, making her way back home where she began to hone her shooting, trapping and hunting skills. She learned earlier from Jacob to put turkey, quail, duck, possum, pheasant, rabbit, and squirrel on the family supper table. At about 10 years old, Annie was hunting and selling game to local businesses to help pay off her family’s home mortgage.

Annie’s natural proficiency for shooting her shotgun was further enhanced in these formative years with constant practice and daily hunting. This enabled her to begin competing in local turkey shoots and sharpshooting competitions.

In 1875, as a teenager, Annie entered a Thanksgiving shoot in Cincinnati where she competed against Irish-born showman and marksman, Frank Butler, who narrowly lost to the petite young woman. This was when he began to take an interest in Annie.

Frank had met his match in every sense of the word. The two developed a friendship which led to a romance and were eventually married in 1876. The couple then toured together with Annie quickly advancing from assistant to partner. In due time, Annie emerged as the show’s star with Frank in the role of manager. Throughout this inevitable transition, he reportedly showed no signs of jealousy, taking great pride in his wife’s accomplishments.

Annie, now using the stage name ‘Annie Oakley’ toured with Frank in the Sells Brothers Circus for a season leading to their joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, then a cultural sensation that toured cities across the country, thus bringing the sights, sounds and action of the Old West to the masses. Buffalo Bill Cody, the famed showman and producer of the Wild West Show, initially declined to hire Annie as he didn’t have a need for more sharpshooters, but with persistence, she soon won over Cody.

Some of her storied tricks during these performances included:
  • Shooting targets while riding upright on a horse.
  • Shooting from behind her back with the aid of a mirror.
  • Putting a bullet through the edge of a playing card, splitting it into separate layers.
Another lady sharpshooter in the show, Lillian Smith, allegedly felt threatened by Annie’s stardom and created antagonism and tension between the two. This led Annie to falsify her age in an effort to more appropriately compete with her much younger rival.

In 1887 the Butlers traveled with the company to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee where Annie, now the star of the show, made an apparently remarkable impression on the royal family. The couple left after the tour, rejoined in Paris with more shows in Italy and Spain, and then retired for a spell in New Jersey.

In 1901, while Annie and Frank were back with the Wild West Show, the train that carried them was involved in a crash which left Annie with a serious back injury, which led to several spine operations. During her years of recuperation, she entered a period of litigation, battling newspaper publications after false reports that charged her with stealing a man’s pants to pay for cocaine! She sued press giant William Randolph Hearst and a parade of other publishers for libel. This led Randolph to scramble in vain to find dirt on Annie that might absolve them from blame.

In her later years, Annie portrayed herself in a stage play as a lady sharpshooter and shot an early kinetoscope film for Thomas Edison titled The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West, the nickname having been given to her by Chief Sitting Bull on the Buffalo Bill tours.

She also supported charity causes, promoted women’s education, self-defense, women’s familiarity with guns, and women in the military, having been declined an offer to provide a battalion of skilled gun-women for President McKinley’s (later a gun victim) Spanish-American War effort. In 1917, Frank and Annie also raised money and performed for troops in World War 1. Free Jewelry Maker's Catalog of Hot Sellers

Annie Oakley died of natural causes in 1925 at the age of 66. Eighteen days later, Frank, her long-time husband, also passed away, allegedly ceasing to eat in his despondency.

Annie’s legend has grown in the years since, undoubtedly owing to the many details of her life that she preferred to keep secret. Even the origin of the surname--‘Oakley’--is a continuing subject of debate. Despite the missing pieces of the puzzle, we know a few things for certain:

  1. First, Annie Oakley was two sides of a buffalo nickel: she was an inspiration to young girls and women on one hand, and she firmly embodied the Second Amendment.
  2. Secondly, we know that she was, by all accounts, genuine, modest, generous and trustworthy (notwithstanding the lie told during the Lillian Smith rivalry).
  3. Thirdly, despite the rip-snortin’ sharpshooting that was always the bedrock of her image, she was pervasively a lady in every sense of the word.

Annie was played on the stage, movie screen and television by many actresses including Betty Hutton, Barbara Stanwyck, Geraldine Chaplin and Reba McEntire. She even lived to see some of the portrayals and scarcely might have recognized herself on the 1950’s TV series Annie Oakley. Singing cowboy legend Gene Autry wanted a cowgirl heroine on television that girls could look up to. In actress Gail Davis, he found what he was looking for. The popular series ran from 1954-1957 under Autry’s ‘Flying A Productions’ banner.

Davis solved crimes and busted baddies for her sheriff uncle who was perpetually absent from duty. Dolled up in fringe skirt and pigtails with bows, she defeated heavies by shooting their six shooters out of their grip. Assisted by her younger brother, Tag and her uncle’s deputy, Lofty, she came to represent the quintessential values of the western hero, but for younger audiences.

In keeping with that premise, her relationship with Lofty took on an ambiguously ‘Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty’ angle. Fittingly, the charismatic Davis became as groundbreaking in the role of lady action heroine as Annie Oakley was herself. An appropriate, if derivative and corny, tribute to an unlikely and unparalleled legend of history: “Little Miss Sure Shot,” Annie Oakley.

About the Author

Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

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