She may have only been five feet tall, but she was a real pistol, or should we say a “rifle”? Born on August 13, 1860, Phoebe Anne Mozee (sometimes spelled Mosey) was the daughter of Quaker parents, Jacob and Susan Mozee who had moved from their home in Pennsylvania after a fire destroyed their livelihood as innkeepers. The couple relocated to a rented land in Ohio where they took up farming.
It was in Patterson Township of Darke County, Ohio that Annie, as her sisters called her, was born. Her father was a veteran of the War of 1812. When Annie was only six years old, he succumbed to pneumonia and overexposure to freezing weather. He died leaving behind his wife and seven children to feed. Annie’s mother remarried, but soon found herself widowed again and mother to another child. The finances of the family were so exhausted that Annie was put in the county poor farm. Later, she was sent to live with a local family. This was not a pleasant family atmosphere for little Annie. It was more a time of servitude. While in their care, she suffered mental abuse and even some physical abuse. After her mother married for a third time, Annie was returned to her family.
By age nine, Annie had taken on the task of shooting game for food for her widowed mother and siblings. When you are hungry, you learn to take pretty good aim. By the time she was sixteen, the young girl had developed quite a reputation for marksmanship in the area. Many of the neighbors paid her to hunt for them. Annie saved her money. By the time she had raised $200, she gave the money to her mother to pay off the family mortgage.
When she was only sixteen years old, Annie decided to travel to Cincinnati, Ohio to compete in a shooting contest against a famous marksman, Frank E. Butler. Mr. Butler often performed in vaudeville shows. When the match was over, Annie had taken Frank Butler by one shot. Mr. Butler was quite intrigued with Annie. The relationship developed into much more than a shooting match. The couple were married. Annie and Frank traveled around the country performing. Annie was her husband’s assistant in his traveling shooting act. However, Frank Butler was a shrewd businessman and soon realized that people were mesmerized by his petite female companion and her ability to hit her target with pistols, rifles, and shotguns. He stepped aside from the limelight and made Annie the star of the show. Frank took on the role of manager.
In 1885, the couple joined the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, owned and operated by that famous frontiersman, Bill Cody. As a star, Annie took on a stage name. Some say she chose it for a town in Ohio called Oakley. Annie Oakley, night after night, drew crowds to the Wild West Show for seventeen years. Spectators ooohed and ahhhed as she shot a dime tossed into midair from 90 feet away. It was recorded that Annie Oakley shot 4,472 of 5,000 glass balls tossed into the air in one day with a .22 rife. A trick people really came to see was when she shot a playing card with the thin edge facer her from 90 feet away. But Annie didn’t just shoot it once. Before the card fell to the ground, she had pierced it several times. Now you know where the term “Annie Oakleys” came from when it is used to describe a free ticket with a hole punched in it. In 1893, the Wild West Show set up next to the World’s Fair in Chicago. Can you believe it? The Wild West Show drew larger crowds that the World’s Fair!
Her shooting abilities took her to places no little girl from a farm in Ohio ever thought was possible. While in Europe, the Crown Prince of Germany, Prince Wilhelm, invited Annie to shoot a cigarette from his lips, a trick she had done before with her husband Frank. Annie convinced the Prince that being a prince, he should not take chances and that he should hold the cigarette in his hand instead of his mouth. He took her advice. In the end, Annie Oakley shot true to form that day…right on target.
The tiny figure of a woman who barely weighed 100 lbs. was called “Watanya Cecilia” which means “Little Sure Shot” by Native American Chief Sitting Bull. She was easily recognized in every show by the shooting medals she had won that she wore on her chest.
Annie and Frank lived in an exciting time of change. The frontier had moved to the stage and the arena, and Edison’s movie camera was making quite a hit. Annie and Frank did a test movie for Edison. The images are still around today.
The star’s career took a real setback when she suffered a spinal injury in a train wreck in 1901. After five operations, Annie remained partially paralyzed for a period of time. She never lost her ability to hit her target, however, she slowed down and performed less. She didn’t book as many tours as she had before the accident.
A play was written for her. Who played the leading role? Who could? No one but Annie herself.
Annie Oakley taught women to shoot and protect themselves. She favored suffrage for women as well as equal pay for equal work.
She officially retired in 1913 but performed once in a while with Frank until his death. Age didn’t seem to affect her marksmanship either. At age 62, she competed in a contest in North Carolina where she hit 100 clay targets in a row from sixteen yards out. Mrs. Oakley was in an automobile accident and suffered broken hip. Four year later, Annie died of pernicious anemia (lead poisoning).
She has forever been immortalized in movies and even a musical written and performed in her tribute: “Annie Get Your Guns.”