Annie Oakley burst into the male-dominated profession of sharpshooting with guns blazing. She brought worldwide attention not only to her own talent, but to the abilities of women everywhere.
Born to Quakers in rural Ohio, Annie Oakley was the fifth of seven children. Her father died of pneumonia when Annie was just six, and she and her siblings grew up in poverty. To support her family, she began hunting at the age of seven. She proved skilled enough to make a living selling her game to local shopkeepers, restaurants, and hotels, and word of the little girl with a mean trigger finger spread across the region.
In 1875, one of her hotelier customers arranged a marksmanship competition between the 15-year-old Annie and Frank E. Butler, an Irish sharpshooter with the traveling Baughman & Butler Wild West show. To everyone’s surprise, the teenage girl won. Frank immediately began courting her, a year later they were married, and Annie joined her husband in the Wild West show business.
These touring shows, which capitalized on the lore of cowboy life on the frontier, were a fixture in 1880s entertainment. Much like the circus (and often even part of one), the Wild West shows featured feats of shooting, riding, lassoing, and other forms of expertise. Annie and Frank joined the best of the best—Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—where the 5’0” tall lady made the second highest salary, after Buffalo Bill himself.
Annie’s skills were nothing short of incredible, even by 21st century standards. She would stand on the back of a galloping horse shooting bullseyes around an arena. She could split a playing card right in half, “edge-on”. She shot cigars out of Frank’s mouth, and once even shot the ashes off the cigarette of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Her marksmanship only improved as she entered her 60s.
Her life quieted down after a debilitating train accident, but Annie never stopped shooting. She toured only occasionally, but always drew huge crowds. Rather than performing, she spent much more time on philanthropic causes for women’s rights. It’s estimated she taught some 15,000 women to shoot, and is quoted as saying, “I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they know how to handle babies.”
In 1926 Annie died of anemia, and Frank, distraught with grief, died a mere 18 days after. They had been married for 50 years, and were buried together in Brock Cemetery, roughly 20 miles from Annie’s birthplace. The couple left behind no children, and most of their estate was willed to charitable institutions.
Annie’s grave, though nearing a century old, is well kept and often has flowers left by admirers. Her epitaph simply reads, “AT REST”. After such a busy life, Annie Oakley deserves some rest.