The Buffalo Bill Show / Cody Tours Europe

Buffalo Bills Wild West Goes To Europe

Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West was probably the greatest show on earth. During the latter part of the 1800’s the majority of the population was east of the Mississippi River. Newspaper accounts of course supplied the eastern populace with news stories of the Indian Wars and the ongoing westward migration. Mostly because of the news accounts, people in the East were eager to learn more about the American West. What was it really like? Who were these mountain men and Native American warriors we heard so much about? What was it like to be under attack by hostiles? These questions and more were answered by William Cody and his performers. When you look at old pictures of the Wild West you can see how William Cody was a promotional genius in his era.

annie oakley photo

Sharpshooter Annie Oakley

The Wild West shows played to packed audiences in the United States before venturing overseas to Europe. The Europeans, some might say, even more than some Americans were absolutely captivated by stories of the American West. Books and dime novels were quite popular in Europe. One of the most popular acts in the Wild West was the sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Annie and her husband and business manager, sharpshooter Frank Butler, toured all the venues in Europe and thrilled the crowds.

England in 1887

In 1887 the Wild West toured England to sell out crowds. Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and many other society figures came out to see the Wild West. The show played in London, Birmingham and Manchester England. The story of the wild west was just as the English anticipated and they loved the show. Among the features were real Indians attacking a stagecoach and driven off. A reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn was performed with a bit of a different outcome. Most historians seem to agree that Wild Bill Cody embellished some of the scenes for entertainment value. Nevertheless, it was enthusiastically accepted by the audience. When Europeans wanted to see the wild west Buffalo Bill Cody brought it to their doorstep.

cody's wild west in 1890

Cody's Wild West, 1890

Wild West in Italy

In 1889 Cody’s show returned to Europe including a tour in Italy. While in Rome where they were invited to the Vatican to attend the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the coronation of Pope Leo XIII. A very publicized event while the Wild West was in Italy was a bronco-busting challenge between Buffalo Bill’s cowboys and true working cowhands from the Maremma region in central Italy. These men spent much of their time working with the Cajetan breed of horse, the wildest most untamed in Italy. The Prince of Teano challenged Cody’s men to break the Cajetans. Twenty thousand spectators saw the contest. There were mixed reports on the contest’s outcome. Most reports however were that the Maremma cowboys were only marginally to moderately successful at trying to duplicate that feat on Cody’s horses.

Many people assume that the Wild West was performed in Rome’s historic Coliseum. The fact was that there were too many stones and debris in the arena and the Wild West simply posed at the Coliseum for pictures. Tents were erected there but because of the debris and lack of sufficient space the performances couldn’t be staged at the very historic site.

william cody and sitting bull

Studio photo of William Cody and Chief Sitting Bull

The Wild West performed for eight days in Bologna. In Bologna there were congested streets and oversold arenas. It was in Bologna that American popcorn was introduced to audiences giving them a good sample of American culture. It’s interesting to observe that during 1890 the Indian Wars had subsided but had not disappeared entirely. The Wounded Knee Massacre of Sioux in 1890 is an example. In 1890 the Census Bureau officially declared the end of the frontier. That was somewhat true and the Indian Wars died down but there were still many Native American issues unresolved.

Nobody in Italy considered the Wild West show to be merely a circus. It was more of a display of current events in a way. At least that was the feelings of both William Cody and his Italian audiences. A good example of the realness of the Wild West were the Indians themselves. These were not professional actors.They were real Native Americans and some of them were believed to have participated in the Battle of the Little Big Horn against Custer.  

Some of Cody’s warriors had actually been in custody because of earlier uprisings and only released to Buffalo Bill to tour with his troupe. For the people of today who became acquainted with the 1800’s wild west via movies and television, they would have a hard time understanding what it was like for Europeans, including the Italians, to see a live display of this kind.There has been nothing like it since and probably never will be. Bear in mind that in the late 1800’s, media was nothing like it was now. People attained their knowledge of current events through printed means such as newspapers, books and magazines. Live plays typically didn’t involve current or somewhat recent events. Buffalo Bill brought the live action to the audiences with authentic performers and it was hugely successful. Many people believe that the 20th century movie makers drew their interpretation of the wild west from William Cody’s productions.

wilhelm II of germany

The Wild West played in Germany with Wilhelm II in attendance

When the Wild West show went to Florence for a three day engagement, the reception was the same. The whole town turned out. An estimated 10,000 people daily attended the performances. Newspapers at the time reported that the act the Florentines enjoyed the best was the Indian attack on the Deadwood stagecoach. The Indians looked like they had the upper hand but at the last minute the cavalry appeared to rescue the stage and it’s passengers. Ironically, it wasn’t that many years since these events actually happened in real life. This is just another reason why the show was regarded as much as a news event rather than only entertainment.

Two additional articles with photos you’ll be interested in are Annie Oakley and Frank Butler and the story of the Wild West Touring Paris.

The Wild West Remains Popular

Stories of Buffalo Bill were popular many European countries in the early 20th century, The Nerbini publishing company in Florence started publishing in an illustrated format the adventures of “Buffalo Bill, The Hero of the Wild West“. Historians have long debated and discussed the meaning of the Wild West performances, especially the enormous drawing power they enjoyed. As an example, a newspaper in Florence while the show was performing there, pointed out that the Wild West really was a story of a dying race. The paper further pointed out to history students in the area to make certain to meet the Indian performers since they represented a people who would vanish from the earth. The paper was pointing out that the story of the disappearing Native American was actually a side theme of most of the acts.

Historians can and have debated this issue and I feel they are partly right. Right or wrong wasn’t part of the performance. That wasn’t the intent of Cody’s show. The show did an excellent job chronicling the old wild west and it accomplished that with flair. There’s no question that some acts were embellished but such is the norm in show business. News accounts at the time stated that many Florentines wandered the show grounds particularly interested in seeing the Indians close up. The audiences loved the show despite what some single critic might have had to say. The Florentines were awed by the sight of the warriors, especially when they had their war paint and headdresses on and shouted a war cry.

buffalo bill cody in 1903

William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, 1903

Buffalo Bill Cody made a fortune with his Wild West. He didn’t use or like the word “show’, possibly because he thought it had the connotation of being phony or fake. That is the reason the performances were called the “Wild West” without using the word “show” although you do see the word “show” used in some research pieces. Every indication from the research I have seen is that William Cody believed he was presenting a piece of very unique history. William Buffalo Bill Cody died in January 1917 in Denver Colorado. When word of Cody’s passing reached overseas, tributes came in from European leaders all over the continent. That was testament to the lasting mark he made to people from all over the world.

(Photos from the public domain)


Annie Oakley and Frank Butler / The Sharpshooting Duo

In the late 1800’s and at the turn of the century there may not have been a more famous couple than Annie Oakley and the skilled sharpshooter Frank Butler. They were partners in marriage as well as partners in show business. They traveled together, performed together and had a marriage that lasted some fifty years. Today, a fifty year marriage between such famous performers is a rarity for sure.

Annie and Frank in Cincinnati

young annie oakleyFrank Butler was born in Ireland and came to the United States at the age of thirteen. During his early years in the U.S. Butler developed excellent skills in sharpshooting and put together an act. Who would have believed that his future partner for life would have also been a very skilled sharpshooter? As fate would have it, Frank Butler met a 15 year old Annie Oakley at a shooting competition held in Cincinnati Ohio.

In a way it was love at first shot. Actually, Butler met Annie when he placed a $100 bet with a Cincinnati hotel owner that he could beat any sharpshooter he could produce. The person he produced was Annie Oakley. After missing on his 25th shot, Butler lost the match and the bet. After that he began courting Annie, and they married on June 20, 1882.

The Origins of the Annie Oakley Name

Annie and Frank Butler lived in Cincinnati at first and the story of her stage name, Oakley, which she only adopted when she and Butler began performing together has a few different versions. One is that she is believed to have taken it from the city’s neighborhood of Oakley, where they resided. Some other people believe she took on the name because that was the name of the man who had paid her train fare when she was a child. Regardless of the fact that her birth name was Phoebe Ann Moses, the name the American public came to know her as was Annie Oakley

A Touring Duo

Annie and Frank began touring together as an act and joined the Sells Circus which had it’s winter home in Ohio. In 1885 they joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West where Annie picked up the nickname of “Little Sure Shot”, given to her by Chief Sitting Bull while he was with the Wild West for about four months. When Annie first joined the Wild West there was a big rivalry with another skilled sharpshooter, Lillian Smith, and eventually this rivalry and ill feelings caused both Annie and Frank to quit the Wild West. They resigned from the show at the end of their first trip to England during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Smith left the Wild West a few years later and Annie patched up her relationship with Cody and she and Frank rejoined the troupe.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History article on Samuel Colt, His Repeating Firearms and a Murder Trial

The Trials and Successes of Samuel Colt

annie oakley 1899Frank Butler and Annie Oakley remained very close. Frank was part of the act at various times. Annie had the limelight and that was okay with Frank. he understood that they were a team and her success was good for both of them.

Often Frank would stand in as a target so to speak for Annie when she was performing.

One well known episode of this occurred in 1899 when the Wild West was touring Germany. Annie had a particular shooting act where she would shoot the ash off the tip of a volunteers cigar. Annie Oakley would ask for volunteers from the audience and typically there wasn’t anyone volunteering to hold the cigar in their mouth while Annie shot the ash off. Frank Butler would then stand up and act as the prop.

In 1899, while performing in Berlin, Annie asked for a volunteer and none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II stood up  and volunteered. Obviously this caused some anxiety among his entourage. Annie, who was known sometimes to take one shot of whiskey before her act, probably wished someone other than the Kaiser himself had stood up. She took aim and fired her trusty Colt 45 and shot the ash clean off the Kaiser’s cigar. You couldn’t invent this kind of story.

During her and Frank’s time performing with the Wild West they traveled all throughout Europe from Spain to the Netherlands  and just about everywhere in between.  Oakley and Butler left the Wild West for good in 1902. Annie then did some acting in a play written specially for her named “The Western Girl“.

The Hearst Trouble

Oakley and Butler met their next challenge as a result of William Randolph Hearst and his newspaper chain. Hearst had a reputation for sensationalism. In fact, many people had claimed that Hearst’s sensationalizing of the battle ship Maine explosion in the Havana Cuba harbor actually started the Spanish American War. Such was the influence of print media at the turn of the century.

The most popular new stories in the year 1904 seemed to be about cocaine prohibition. Hearst’s newspaper published a false story that Oakley had been arrested for stealing to support a cocaine habit. A devastating accusation made on such a popular American as Oakley. As it turned out, the woman who was actually arrested was a Chicago burlesque performer who decided to tell the police her name was “Annie Oakley”. The real Annie Oakley spent about six years suing Hearst and other newspapers. Oakley filed some 55 lawsuits and won 54 of them. The story of the time was that although she won and cleared her name, the amount of money she collected from the suits was less than her legal costs.

Other papers that had printed the story written by Hearst quickly reprinted a retraction story when the truth was discovered. Not Hearst. When Annie was finally awarded $20,000 from Hearst (today that would equal about $300,000) he tried everything he could not to pay. Hearst went as far as sending his own private detectives to Oakley’s home town in Ohio to try to dig up gossip and dirt. Hearst tried to unearth anything he could smear her with. The detectives  were unable to find anything for Hearst.

The Latter Years

annie oakley 1922The photo at right is of Annie Oakley in 1922. Annie and Frank spent their later years working for charitable causes and in general helping women.

Womens suffrage would not occur to after World War One. During the war they helped raise a lot of money for the Red Cross. Butler really became the family supporter after Oakley left Buffalo Bill.

While Oakley spent her time suing William Randolph Hearst, Butler became a representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. After Oakley’s absolute final Wild West show in 1913, they settled into a comfortable retirement. They spent the winter in North Carolina, taking automobile trips, and hunting.

This couple, Frank and Annie, who remained married for close to fifty years and traveled the world together, meeting heads of state and royalty, both passed away at close to the same time. Annie Oakley died on November 3, 1926 in Greenville Ohio of pernicious anemia. She was 66 years old. Frank Butler, her husband, died eighteen days later. The story was that Frank was so upset over Annie’s death that he simply stopped eating.

Garst Museum

Those wanting to learn more about the amazing life on Annie Oakley and Frank Butler need only visit the Garst Museum. The museum is located at 205 North Broadway in Greenville Ohio. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is operated by the Darke County Historical Society. The Garst Museum is home to the Annie Oakley Center and would make an interesting side trip when you’re traveling through the area.

(Photos and images are in public domain)