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)


Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Goes to Paris

One of the highlights of Buffalo Bills Wild West was when the troupe performed in Paris France. After their fascinating success touring the United States, the group sailed to Europe and played a number of cities on the continent.Their original performances in England during 1887 paved the way for a much larger tour which included a six month engagement in France. The world was ready and eager to see these old west shows.

wild west show indiansThe tour in England had coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebration and the Buffalo Bill Cody planned his French tour to take place during the Exposition Universelle in Paris during 1889. The Paris Exposition commemorated the one hundred year anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, a somewhat similar event to the one hundred year anniversary of the United States. William Cody Buffalo Bill gained the reputation of being an excellent showman. This was not only for his performances in the arena but equally so for his skill in building publicity. Cody’s worldwide reputation along with an advertising blitz created an overwhelming response from the French. The opening performance alone drew some 10,000 spectators including Sadi Carnot, the French President. The French newspapers were filled every day with accounts of the Wild West and its performers. The Indians, just as in England, had attracted huge attention. As if their presence in France wasn’t enough, the French press put out large stories of Cody’s Indians climbing the famed Eiffel Tower.The public domain photo below shows the Eiffel Tower under construction in July 1888.

eiffel tower constructionThe French engineer Gustave Eiffel won a contest to build a gigantic tower as the spectacular centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle and Cody’s Indians surely would have been the first Native Americans to ascend this symbolic tower. The very act of touching the Indians became a popular pastime for young French couple in particular who thought such contact would assure fertility. French children were so thrilled by the Wild West and it’s authentic American Indians that they set up their own wild west encampment in the Bois de Boulogne. Everything in the Wild West show was intriguing to the Parisians of the time including the wild west buffalo itself.

All throughout the summer of 1889, as Buffalo Bill performed during the Exposition Universelle, it almost appeared that the Wild West was the main event in Paris rather than the Exposition itself. One side note to the Wild West’s tour of France involved Buffalo Cody trying to present a special gift to the French president. The gift was a nine foot tall lamp with a preserved bison head at the top. The lamp shade was scarlet red. While the gesture was surely meant as a compliment, the French president declined the offer. It’s not clear what happened to the intended gift after that.

annie oakley posterBuffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, featuring among others, the famous sharpshooter Annie Oakley and a full contingent of Native Americans, thrilled Parisians at the same time that Thomas Edison, come to promote his new talking phonograph in Europe. Clearly the excitement of the American frontier coupled with advances in science and engineering, such as Eiffels Tower and Edison’s inventions made the Exposition Universelle a showcase of the old and new.

Another historical side note regarding the Wild West’s performances in Paris involved that of Annie Oakley.Two years prior in 1887, Oakley had quit the show amid poor relations with the show’s other female sharpshooter, Lillian Smith, almost ten years younger than Oakley. By 1889 Smith had also quit the Wild West and Buffalo Bill was successful in persuading Annie Oakley to rejoin his group for their upcoming tour of Europe.

After the Wild West performed in Paris they moved through southern France and then onto Spain for sold out performances there. The Buffalo Bill show and all it’s advance publicity headed south.

buffalo bill wild west posterThe story of American old west frontier history has proved to be a lasting attraction. Today, in the 21st century, visitors to the Disneyland Paris show can see a sort of reenactment of what Buffalo Bill Cody brought to France over one hundred years ago. Now, twice daily, a man by the name of Trent Vance (Vance plays Buffalo Bill Cody) heads up a cast of up to 70 cowboys, Indians, bison, longhorn cattle, horses and a donkey in a 90-minute dinner performance portrayed just like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. The show includes chuckwagon scenes, a buffalo chase, rodeo games and a stagecoach attack along with other frontier acts. Named appropriately, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, there are two performances nightly and includes dinner. Disney’s knowledge of Buffalo Bill Cody goes all the way back to Walt Disney himself, who saw Buffalo Bill in a parade that came through Disney’s boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri.

Aside from attending the new Wild West at Disneyland in Paris, many artifacts and records can be seen at two Buffalo Bill Cody museums in the United States. One is the Buffal Bill Historical Center in Cody Wyoming just east of Yellowstone National Park. The other is at the Buffalo Bill Museum in Golden Colorado. The Buffalo Bill Museum’s Golden Colorado exhibits include memorabilia from Buffalo Bill’s life and Wild West shows, Native American artifacts, a large collection of antique firearms and other Old West artifacts. Golden Colorado is also the grave site of William Cody.