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Phoebe Ann Moses was born in 1860. Her family called her Annie as a child. She was next to youngest of seven children. Her father died in 1866 and three years later, her mother sent her to the poor farm, called the County Infirmary, because she could not feed everyone.
After a year there, she went to live with a family that treated her as a slave for two years until she ran away. Back at home, she found that she was now the sixth of eight children, her mother having remarried. However, the second husband died before Annie returned, so she began to use her father’s war musket from 1812 to hunt game on their farm. She became so good at it that she began to sell game to restaurants in town.
At the age of 15, the local hotel owner set up a shooting match with Frank Butler who was touring the country with his own shooting exhibition. Annie bested him in shooting and did not reject his attention afterwards. They maintained a long distance relationship until their marriage in 1876. However, their only existing marriage license is from Windsor, Canada dated 1882. It is generally believed that Frank had a difficult time getting a divorce and they chose to be married in spirit. Annie never spoke of it.
She chose the stage name of Annie Oakley, possibly after an aunt, and toured with Frank, and then they joined the Sells Circus, and then Wild West a year later. She was so popular with crowds that Frank became her manager as well as co-star, though Annie did most of the show. They were with Cody for sixteen seasons. When Cody brought in Lillian Smith in 1886 and gave her equal billing to Annie, trouble began. They both went to London in 1887, but the rift became so serious that Annie and Frank left the show and only returned when Lillian was gone in 1889.
An early photo of Annie and Frank before they joined the Wild West. They always had a dog to use in the show and may have had hunting dogs as well. They both enjoyed bird hunting.
The three photos above give us a good look at the attractive and young Annie Oakley. She always wore her hair down when performing to emphasis her youth, even as she aged. She also wore short dresses (for the period) in the shows, only conforming to society outside the show. As a part of that, she insisted on being called Mrs. Butler when not performing. She stood five feet tall, weighed 115 pounds (most of her life) and had, as you can see above, a 16 inch waist.
She was clearly one of the top ten best shooters in competitions, as this partial collection of medals would suggest.
Annie appeared in Wild West posters nearly as often as Buffalo Bill. Cody knew she brought in more money for the show, but he also had great personal respect for both Annie and Frank. Like many people who grew up poor, Annie was always willing to lend her name to products for a fee.
This poster did not have to elaborate on her abilities. She was a great athlete. Not only could she high jump, in a dress, she could carry an 8 pound shotgun while tramping through the woods all day.
One of her most popular features was shooting an apple from the head of their faithful, and trusting, dog. This picture was taken after the Butlers left the show and did their own exhibition shooting.
Anytime the show stopped at one site for a few days, tents were set up for the stars. They were placed in line and the show called it the Street of Stars. Annie and Frank also had their own rail car when they traveled and lived in it even on long stays. The stars did not sleep in tents. You will notice only a lounging chair inside. The stars did spend most of the day in and around the tents because they did two shows a day and there were customers in the grounds for most of 10 hours.
In 1901, the Wild West traveled in three trains. The Butler’s car was part of the second train. Due to a switching error, their train met another train head on. Because their car was one of the last on the train, neither sustained lift threatening injuries, but it was enough for them to quit the show. They visited a warm spring spa shortly after that and Annie was left much too long in the old metal steam box. She was unconscious when removed and her hair turned white as a result. In 1922, she was in a car wreck and fractured her hip and an ankle. Annie had to wear a metal brace, but did not stop hunting.
The Butlers around 1920.
When Annie died, Frank stopped eating and died 18 days later.
The family grave markers in Greenville, Ohio.