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A Different Perspective

A little different look at a famous sharpshooter

Phoebe Ann Moses, or as you know her, Annie Oakley, but do you really know her?

She was born into a Quaker family on August 13, 1860, in Drake County, Ohio. Her father died of pneumonia when she was only six years old. This left her mother with nine children to care for and raise. When she was just eight years old she began to hunt with her father’s rifle to put some food on the table. While her mother did her best, they lived in abject poverty.

Phoebe and one sister went to live at the Drake County Poorhouse in 1868. It was promised that if they worked for five years, cooking cleaning and caring for the host family, that she would receive an education. This did not happen. The two girls became slaves.

“All went well for a month. Then the work began to stack up. I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning, got breakfast, milked the Cows, fed the calves, the pigs, pump the water for the cow cattle, fed the chickens, weeded the garden, take to wild blackberries, got dinner after digging the potatoes for dinner and picking the vegetables-- and then go hunting and trapping. Mother wrote for me to come home. But they wouldn't let me go. I was held prisoner. They wrote all the letters to my mother, telling her that I was happy and going to school.” ~ Annie Oakley, Autobiography of Annie Oakley

The girls were sadly mistreated while their mother was told that both girls were happy and enjoyed life there. In the future she never used the names of her overlords, she only referred to them as “the Wolves.” Finally, she was able to flee from the “wolves” and took the train back to her farmhouse.

She encountered a kind gentleman on her way to the train. She looked a sight and when he enquired if she all right, she told her story. He was aghast, bought her dinner and gave her the fare to escape her abusers. Eventually, when the wolves had been replaced, she did return to the poorhouse where she learned a trade as seamstress and received an education.

She began to shoot game and sell it to financially support her family. Her business prospered and at the age of 15 she paid off the $4,300 mortgage on the Moses farmhouse. She engaged in shooting matches and very quickly gained the reputation of sharpshooter. Her skill was unrivaled in her county and soon she began to take on competitors in other cities. In Cincinnati, a local hotel owner, Jacob Frost, set up a match between the 5 foot, 110 pound Phoebe and a 28 year old exhibition shooter, Frank Butler, from Ireland.

The betting began and Frost be $50 that Moses would win. Frank hit 24 out of 25 targets. Phoebe hit all 15, winning the match. Butler was now intrigued with this pretty young woman in a pink gingham dress and sun bonnet. He gave her and her whole family free tickets to his next show. Phoebe became completely enamored, but not with Frank, with his French poodle, George. A conversation began between Frank and Phoebe and they conversed through letters and did begin to court. Frank had a charismatic nature and dignified character. He didn’t drink or gamble and treated Phoebe with respect and love. Her family approved. They married on August 23, 1976 and began their shooting career together. Phoebe became Frank’s assistant and we presume George, the poodle, was there as well. The couple did not have any children.

During a performance on May 1, 1882, Butler gave a rather poor performance and a spectator began to shout “Let the girl shoot!” And shoot she did. She was reported to have been spectacular. In the following months Phoebe became increasingly popular with the crowd. Surprisingly, and in a really remarkable reversal of the roles of the day, Frank stepped away from the limelight and assisted Phoebe. He was part of her act, holding up cards for her to shoot and managing the finances and paperwork. Together they broke barriers, raising awareness about poverty, disease and inequality while they entertained and excelled in their skill of sharpshooting. Her career really took off when in 1885 the pair joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Annie shot playing cards in the air and performed stunts on horseback.

The Wild West Show toured across Europe and performed for many of the leaders and elite, including Queen Victoria, the Kings of Italy and Senegal, the President of France and the emperors of Germany and Russia. She shot the ashes off Kaiser Wilhelm’s cigar, received many marriage proposals and won the hearts of Europeans. She was heard to have said, after the fact, about shooting the ashes off the Kaiser’s cigar, “If my aim had been poorer, I might have averted the Great War.”

Her career was long and successful. She always demonstrated not only great skill but amazing class. After retirement, Annie was involved in the National War Council, YMCA, War Camp Community Services, and the Red Cross.

On November 3, 1926 the legendary daughter, wife, sharpshooter, philanthropist, and Ohioan known to the world as Annie Oakley died in her home in Greenville, Ohio ironically, from pernicious anemia due to lead shot poisoning.