I have put off writing about Annie Oakley (born August 13, 1860 – November 3, 1926 Leo/Artemis) for some time now because I wanted to feature other Ohio Women in History that most people did not know about. Annie was one of the first superstars or famous actresses of her time. I read about her in a short biography by Chuck Wills for DK Biographies, so that it is more of a children’s reader. I’d love to find something more about her life but it appears that this was not her priority until after retirement and writing just wasn’t in her. She was only able to pen a few pages. Also, being a celebrity, more fiction was written about her than non-fiction.
In fact, I grew up watching a couple of movies about her life but now I have learned they were so far from the truth. The movies are simply movies with her name added to it. In reality, Annie was a down to earth rural Ohio woman. She was an elegant woman with good homespun values. She was a Quaker and they did not believe in killing but understood that people out on a farm had to do such things to survive.
Her father died when she was five and a half years old and by this time had only taught her trapping of small animals. When she was about 7 or 8, she took his gun down from the fireplace and it would seem she began to teach herself with a .40 or .50 caliber rifle. She was never higher than 5′ tall and weighed 110 lbs. as an adult. These guns were much bigger than she was and yet she learned to maneuver them. Her mother did not enjoy the fact that her young daughter was out in a man’s world but soon began to realize the necessity of this. After all, Susan Moses, her mother, was left with seven mouths to feed. The following advice is what she would later tell her students.
You must have your mind, your nerve, and everything in harmony. Don’t look at your gun, simply follow [the target] with the end of it, as if the tip of the barrel was the point of your finger.
Unfortunately, Annie faced a second early tragedy as her mother would have to send her and a brother to an orphanage (a poor house from that time). She would immediately be shipped off to a home known as “The Wolves,” which was not the families name but what she called them. They treated her like a slave and beat her and even tossed her out in the snow one evening for punishment. She escaped this plight one day by the kindness of a stranger who paid her train fare. Annie would have to return to the orphanage where the family who ran it, took her in. There she learned embroidery and this would serve her well with her costumes. Her second talent to shooting was that of the needle.
Annie continued to hunt and shoot and was able to earn her keep by bringing in game for a general store – who also supplied her with the gun and ammunition. She shot in competitions as well. She met her husband in one of these competitions and his name was Frank Butler who had come to her home town now called Greenville. Frank and Annie fell in love and were married and began to tour together. They were a vaudeville act. Both had deep respect and appreciation for the other. Frank soon began to willingly take a back stage to his wife; knowing she was the better shooter. They would go on to join the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show (which took on several names over the years) and traveled around the world for several decades.
No matter where Annie went, she delighted the audiences of all ages and classes. She would go on to meet many members of royal families from various countries. She was a very good friend, in the US, to Chief Sitting Bull. Annie had such depth to her personality and it was her ability to assert herself and set boundaries with people that endeared her to them. Rather than wearing revealing costumes; she made her own signature line. She did not wear make-up. Annie was not a “modern woman” per se, and yet she was not living the typical woman’s lifestyle of that era. Oddly, she did not believe in women’s rights to vote, which was occurring during her lifetime. I think I can understand this though as this was a new way of thinking for women at that time. The average woman was not as carefree and independent thinking as she was. She felt that only “good” women should vote. I would assume this to mean intelligent women who knew what they were doing. Another risky choice that Annie made was to not shake Prince Edwards hand, first, when she met him. She shook the hand of his wife, Princess Alexandria instead. The reason for this is that the Prince was known for his philandering which Annie did not believe in. She felt more respect for the Princess. The way Annie handled this was by explaining that in America, ladies come first.
Interestingly, Annie would die of Anemia in 1926, in her 60’s. Frank died 18 days later and it was said that he stopped eating (but he was also very sickly then as well). I say interestingly because I hadn’t know people could die of Anemia. However, it is reported that her death may have been more related to lead poisoning from all the buckshot and bullets she handled over the years shooting. She could also be remembered as a philanthropist throughout her life. She gave her money to women and children; who were as destitute as she once was.
Needless to say, I have been moved by her story and I began to feel a different level of respect by learning about her. Prior to writing about her, I have personally always been a pacifist and an anti-gun person. Not against the 2nd Amendment, but against my own personal handling of these weapons or using them. A friend of mine turned me onto these and I was fascinated with how quickly I became attached to using them on a range. Just yesterday, I went to a gun show here in Columbus for the first time in my life. I found myself amassed by gun enthusiasts and small time gun sellers. There were even some historical pieces that were on display and for sale, filled with the energy of times past. One particular rifle I saw was 200 years old and came complete with the initials and art work of the owners who once carried it. Like with Annie, I was moved to see this part of American life that for years I had assumed was something completely different (thanks to the negative stereotypes in documentaries). I think that it has been this new awakening that helped me to become more enthusiastic about reading her story. When I began to understand the woman behind the gun, I saw how she was able to keep her femininity and good ethics in tact.
The world of guns and gun ownership has been seriously injured by our society and horrible people (i.e., domestic and international terrorists) who have caused the country to be in an uproar. However, as I talk to responsible gun owners I learn more and more about their good values and the ethics necessary to have a concealed carry permit. It is interesting how serious these gun owners are to safety and responsibility.
Most people fear the level of power that comes with owning a gun. I think it is important to have this level of fear but to have knowledge and education to understand. As with all things, if you don’t have some humility toward a position of power, than you are lost as a person. We can’t depend on someone in power or with this power to have a level of humility. Therefore, we cannot control it either. I have always felt there are some guns that probably should not be considered legal though, I know that anything that is illegal can be purchased for a price nonetheless. As our society has become dangerously divided, similar to that of the Civil War and our nation is plagued with more and more domestic terrorists, the idea of being taught how to responsibly carry and use a gun makes a lot more sense.
Annie did not use her gun for harm but for sport and for the dining room table. She was once offered a position in the military, while travelling in Europe but declined the offer. Whatever the choice for using a gun, as long as it is with good and legitimate intentions and not intended to harm others (except in battle or for self-defense), we need to re-think the fear that we have about gun ownership and respect those who are a part of this lifestyle. This is a part of our country’s history and our culture.