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Friday, November 03, 2006

Annie Oakley Dies, November 3, 1926

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Today in 1926, Phoebe Ann Mosey died at the age of 66. Known to the world as Annie Oakley, Mosey was one of the greatest female sharpshooters of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mosey was born on August 13, 1860 near North Star, Ohio as the fifth of seven children. Her father died when she was only six years old and young Phoebe was soon sent to live with the manager of the county poor farm. From there, she was “loaned out”, so to speak, to a local family who mistreated her. For the rest of her life, she would not talk about her time with the family other than to refer to them as “the wolves”. She received no formal education.

Mosey first began shooting at the age of nine, not for entertainment, but as a means of earning money. She would hunt wild game and sell the carcasses to nearby families; by this means, she was able to pay off the mortgage on her mother’s house in a few years. It did not take long for her to develop a regional reputation as a sharpshooter.

In early 1881, Frank Butler, one-half of the Baughman and Butler shooting performance show, arrived in Cincinnati. While there, Butler bet a hotel owner that he could beat any local sharpshooter. The hotel owner knew of Mosey’s reputation and contacted her to arrange a match. Ten days later, Butler and Mosey met in Greenville, Ohio. Butler lost the competition, but he won much more: he and Mosey were married the next year.

The couple lived for a while in the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati, which is where Mosey may have picked up the surname “Oakley”. On their first tour as a married couple, Mosey served as Butler’s assistant. However, it soon became apparent that Mosey was the better shot and was more popular with audiences. Eventually, Butler became Mosey’s manager and assistant. The image of woman as breadwinner was non-existent in 19th century American, but the team of Butler and Mosey made their partnership work for the rest of their lives.

Mosey’s chance at national stardom came in 1885 when she and her husband joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Mosey performed in front of American audiences and even European heads of state. At one demonstration, the Crown Prince of Germany asked the shooter to knock the ashes off a cigar he was holding, a feat that she performed flawlessly. That Crown Prince later became Kaiser Wilhelm II, the man who led Germany until 1918. Mosey later joked that, had her aim been a little less accurate, she could’ve helped humanity avoid the First World War.

Mosey developed a rivalry with Lillian Smith, another female marksmen who joined Buffalo Bill’s show at the tender age of 15. Smith was 11 years younger than Mosey and was so sure of her abilities that she once claimed, “Annie Oakley is done for.” Mosey was conservative in both dress and manner, while Smith was much more risque and flirtatious. Feeling pressure to seem younger than her years, Mosey eventually subtracted six years from her true age in order to more closely match Smith’s; had she subtracted any more time, her birth date would’ve been after the death of her father and would have implied an out of wedlock birth. Mosey would not risk shaming her mother in this way.

Smith had her comeuppance at a Wimbledon shooting competition in which her performance earned her harsh criticism by both the American and British press. She soon left Buffalo Bill’s show and faded from the scene. However, Mosey’s lie about her age would follow her past her death and even endures to this day.

In 1903, one of William Randolph Hearst’s publications published a story that described Mosey as a cocaine addict. These stories were all the rage at the time and famous people were often connected with the mysterious drug. The publication claimed that Mosey had been arrested while stealing to support her habit. Instead of ignoring the stories and hoping they would go away, Mosey sued every newspaper and magazine which repeated the libel. After six years, she had won 54 of 55 lawsuits.

Mosey continued professional shooting into her 60’s, despite her need to wear a leg brace as the result of a car accident. As she began to acquire money, she quietly donated large sums to charities that helped women and organizations that fought for women’s rights. Soon after her death from pernicious anemia on November 3, 1926, it was discovered that her entire net worth had been given away.

Frank Butler, her husband of over 40 years, died 18 days later.

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