Remembering Annie Oakley
Annie Oakley Foundation website
To read more about a foundation that is dedicated to creating an Annie Oakley museum in Ohio, click here.
The following article is reprinted from the June 2009 issue of PineStraw magazine.
She fit in well at Pinehurst. Never officially educated, Annie Oakley was nevertheless worldly.
She got her education in the court of Queen Victoria and Edward, Prince of Wales, both of whom went out of their way to compliment her. She rode the rails of America with her loving husband and manager, Frank Butler, on one side, Bill Cody on the other, Sitting Bull at the window.
By the time the Butlers began spending winters in Pinehurst in 1915 she was 55 years old, over a decade removed from her last performance in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and still the most famous non-royal woman in the world. About 5 feet tall, she was demure and ladylike to the point that some strangers, hoping to meet a Wild West outlaw, came away from her feeling oddly disappointed.
“There never was a sweeter, gentler, more lovable woman than Annie Oakley,” close friend and stage comedian Fred Stone said. “It was always amusing to watch people who were meeting her for the first time. They expected to see a big, masculine, blustering sort of person, and the tiny woman with the quiet voice took them by surprise.” Annie was more than willing to speak her mind, and she often got away with saying what might have been outrageous coming from another woman’s mouth. It certainly didn’t hurt that she could shoot a playing card held flat at 90 paces.
There is some confusion about Annie’s birth name. It could have been Phoebe Ann Moses, Phoebe Ann Mosey or Phoebe Ann Mozee. It hardly matters which is correct, because she rejected her birth name in favor of Annie Oakley early in her life. Born in 1860 in Darke County, Ohio, to Quaker parents Susan and Jacob, she was the fifth daughter of seven total children. Her father died when she was 6, and it wasn’t long before little Annie was doing all the hunting for the family. She had perfect eyesight, instincts and reflexes. Within five years, people as far away as Cincinnati were dining on game she hunted.
She was 15 when word of her prowess reached competitive shooter Frank Butler. A $50 contest ensued. Annie hit 25 live birds. Frank hit 24. Or so the legend goes. Frank, who was 10 years older, was quite taken with her. “Frank was so shy about courting her,” says Paul Fees, curator of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Wyoming, “he signed his notes to her ‘George,’ his dog.” A year after their first meeting, the two married.
Annie joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885 and reconnected with an old friend, Sitting Bull, who had previously dubbed her “Mochin Chilla Wytonys Cecilia” or “My Daughter, Little Sure Shot” and adopted her into the Sioux tribe. Annie first gained worldwide fame when Wild West toured Europe in 1887. The first stop was England, where the queen called her a “very clever little girl” and Edward said she was “the greatest shot I have ever seen.” In Germany, she shot the ashes off a cigarette held between the lips of Crown Prince Wilhelm. By the time the show returned to the states, the name Annie Oakley was legendary.
Fact From Lore
The popular story is that Annie and Frank came to Pinehurst shortly after a devastating train wreck that left Annie seriously injured and turned her glossy dark brown hair snow white. It’s a good story, but it seems to be mostly an exaggeration.
The wreck occurred on Oct. 29, 1901, at about 3:30 a.m., when a train carrying the Wild West Show from Charlotte to Danville, Va., collided with a freight train head on. It killed many of the horses and animals that took part in the show.
Accounts of the accident have Annie alternately gravely injured, partially paralyzed, in a back brace for the rest of her life, trapped for hours in burning wreckage and discovered and carried off by Frank himself.
In almost all the stories her hair turns white nearly overnight. It’s hogwash, Fees says. The source of the misinformation is likely the Butlers themselves, who knew that it would add to the legend of Annie Oakley. “The impact of the train wreck has been overstated,” he says. “Deliberately.”
Neither of the Butlers suffered serious injuries. However, it did have an emotional effect. With powder sponsorships and a play written specifically for Annie, money was not a problem.
“It helped them realize after 17 years, maybe it was time to move on,” Fees says.
Shortly after the accident, Annie retired from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. She never retired from shooting and spent much of the next few years giving exhibitions and suing newspapers that had wrongly identified her as a drug addict. In 1908, she gave her first shooting exhibition in Pinehurst.
The Butlers began wintering in Pinehurst in 1915, living at the Carolina Hotel and working at the Gun Club, now the site of Pinehurst No. 8. They had previously spent their winters in Florida. “Pinehurst was a more genteel version of what they were experiencing in Florida,” Fees says. The Butlers had several friends who were Pinehurst regulars, including Stone. “Pinehurst was one of the most attractive possible places for people like them. It was genteel, had a gun club and bird hunting. That’s what drew them.”
The Butlers quickly became the toast of the town. Annie enjoyed fox hunts and racing at the Jockey Club. They sometimes went to weekend dances in the Carolina ballroom. “It was a life of guns, dogs and horses and of relaxed and congenial people,” Oakley biographer Walter Havinghurst wrote. “In the gun room or on the sunny terrace they talked about guns, golf and game birds with John Phillip Sousa, John Bassett Moore, Walter Hines Page, John D. Rockefeller.”
Oakley’s performances in Pinehurst were free. Any of the proceeds went to a charity of her choice. They were, of course, wildly popular. Patrons came from the hotels and resorts of the area but also drove in from the surrounding country. She did a wide variety of tricks, riding in the back of a Model T around the Harness Track and picking balloons off the car in front of her, shooting cigarettes out of Frank’s mouth and hands. Coins, marbles, playing cards, all thrown into the air met Annie’s bullets before they met the ground. She cracked raw eggs over the audience (which seemed to love it).
Will Rogers once wrote of her prowess, “When Miss Oakley whanged away at one, two, three, or even a dozen glass balls, we were sure of the same result. Those balls were going to break into more pieces than your pet china does when you are not watching your Slavonic maid with care.”
In fact, Annie may have done much of her best shooting at Pinehurst. In 1922, her final year in Pinehurst, she hit 100 out of 100 clay targets out from the 16-yard mark, thereby setting a world record for a woman shooter.
According to the Pinehurst Outlook, Annie would take people out of the audience and offer them a chance to play William Tell. “If you have the nerve to stand up to it, she might shoot an apple off the top of your head or shoot the ashes off the tip of your cigarette or shoot a nickel out of your fingers,” boasted the Outlook. The paper is credited with one of the most oft repeated quotes about Annie. It said she was a synonym for “cool and accurate fire-rifle, pistol, shotgun, standing, running, kneeling, sleeping, upside down at any target from moonbeam to a meteorite.”
Outlook reporter Arthur S. Newcomb wrote later that he recalled sitting in the lobby of the Carolina Hotel with Annie after one of her performances. Martin G. Brumbaugh, the governor of Pennsylvania, asked her to stop shooting an apple off Frank’s head. “We all grow older every day and someday something might go wrong.”
“For a moment, Mrs. Butler seemed stunned,” Newcomb wrote, “then, grasping the governor’s hand firmly, she said: ‘Thank you, governor, I never will.’ And she never did. I noticed tears on her cheeks when she said it.” The William Tell trick stayed in the act. The Butler’s dog, Dave, balanced the apple. He appeared to enjoy it more anyway.
Dave was an Irish setter and constant companion of the Butlers. “Dave was like a child to them,” Fees says. He remains the only dog ever allowed to live in a room at the Carolina Hotel. He was impeccably trained. During the shows, he stayed perfectly still with the apple balanced on his head until after the shot. Then, he pranced around tossing the pieces in the air. He would also run through the crowd, lifting men’s wallets for American Red Cross donations. That’s why he became famous throughout the country as the Red Cross Dog.
It seems that Annie’s largest joy during her time in Pinehurst was in teaching. One of her first pupils was Fred Stone’s daughter. The Outlook estimated that in 1921 about 800 “girls” took instruction from Oakley — and she enjoyed sharing her gift. A Dayton (Ohio) Daily News Magazine article from 1926 said that Annie instructed 2,500 women during her seven winters in Pinehurst.
Annie wasn’t much of a feminist, except in this particular area. She wrote an article in 1920 saying that women can shoot as well as men, and she encouraged them to learn to use a gun. “I modestly feel that I have some right to speak with assurance on this subject,” she wrote. “Individual for individual, women can shoot as well as men.” She urged women to learn how to use firearms so that they would know how to protect themselves. “And surely the Great War has revealed many instances when a woman with a pistol and no fear of using it might have been spared torture, shame and death.”
Annie pledged to train a regiment of female soldiers. “Oh! What wouldn’t I give to get a good old ‘high power’ to my shoulder, station myself where the Huns were trying to advance and knock those square-heads down as fast as they came in view,” she’s quoted in The New American Shooter in 1918, “and believe me, I could do it.” When the U.S. government failed to take her up on her offer, Annie and Frank toured to lift the spirits of the soldiers. She joked that shooting a cigarette out of the mouth of the Kaiser in Germany in 1887 was the one time she wished she had missed.
In the fall of 1922, the Butlers were involved in a car accident near Daytona, Fla. The car overturned and Annie was seriously injured. She crushed her hip and had to wear a leg brace for the rest of her life. She never made it back to Pinehurst. Sadly, Dave, who was by then the most famous dog in America, was hit by a car in February 1923 and killed. It was the saddest chapter in the Butlers’ long, prodigious life — one neither of them would recover from.
“Annie is out in Ohio with her niece on a farm. She is in very bad health — doctors don’t give me much hope,” Frank wrote Leonard Tufts, son of James Walker, the founder of Pinehurst. “Don’t know yet if I will get to Pinehurst or not this year. Haven’t seen any place we like better but doubt if we can afford it. Three years of doctor bills put a crimp in our bank account. Anyhow Pinehurst and the Tufts family have our best wishes.”
On November 4 of that year, Tufts came across Annie’s obituary in the newspaper. The next day, he penned a letter to Frank. “I have just learned from the morning paper of the death of Mrs. Butler in Greenville, Ohio, and I am sincerely sorry to learn of this sad event,” he wrote. “Annie Oakley’s memory will always be a kindly one to us at Pinehurst and we feel that we are better for having known her.”
Frank died Nov. 21. He had lived 17 days alone. His body was taken to Greenville, where there hadn’t even been a funeral service for Annie yet. Her ashes were put in a silver urn, and they were buried side by side. Frank had died en route to Pinehurst.
Thanks to the Tufts Archives, the Garst Museum and Paul Fees for sharing their information and expertise on Annie Oakley.
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