One of history’s most famous sharpshooters, Annie Oakley, almost lost her life on two occasions in accidents that had nothing to do with guns and bullets.
Train wrecks and boiler explosions were common tragedies a century ago. One railway accident in October 1901 involved a curious cast and cargo. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a popular traveling show, was being transported by rail near Linwood, North Carolina. Bound in the opposite direction on the same line was a fast special. In the head-on collision, Buffalo Bill lost much of his livestock but, thankfully, not his personnel.
Initial reports were that one of the most famous members of his troupe, Annie Oakley (“Little Sure Shot”), had perished. (It later was rumored also that her hair turned white overnight.) The truth was that she temporarily was paralyzed and underwent five spinal operations. But she recovered and returned to her world-famous form as a markswoman.
Another Narrow Escape: Annie Oakley’s Car Accident
In 1922, Annie and her husband Frank Butler were seriously injured in an automobile accident. Her recuperation took more than a year. In time, she was able to resume her shooting exhibitions—but only briefly. She died in 1926.
The couple’s dog Dave was killed in a highway accident in 1923.
Annie Oakley’s Early Life
Phoebe Ann Mosey, born in Ohio in 1860, made herself a crack shot as a child. Her father’s death meant she had to become the primary supporter of her family. Her shooting skill not only put food on the table but helped pay the mortgage with the sale of wild game to neighbors.
When she was 17, she won a shooting match against a renowned marksman of the region, Frank Butler. She hit her target 25 times in 25 shots; he hit his 24 times. Perhaps his single miss could be attributed to a mounting distraction—he found his opponent quite pretty. They soon were married and began exhibiting their skills professionally with such enterprises as the Sells Brothers Circus.
“Little Sure Shot” Takes the National Stage
Dapper entrepreneur William “Buffalo Bill” Cody hired the Butlers to join his wild west show in 1885. The extravaganza toured North America and Europe. Cody himself was quite an act as an expert roper and rider. He hired native Americans and gun-handy cowboys (some of them famous) to stage mock battles and stage hold-ups. But to many viewers, Annie Oakley, as she then called herself, was the star attraction. Her admirers included kings and queens.
Perhaps her most sensational demonstration employed the assistance of Crown Prince Wilhelm (later Kaiser Wilhelm II) of Germany. She routinely shot out lit cigarettes in the mouth of her husband. The young prince gallantly invited her to shoot one from his own lips. Prudently, she opted to shoot it from his hand.
A Rival Shootist: Lillian Smith
Annie Oakley’s contribution to the popularity of the wild west show is well documented. Less well known is that she wasn’t the only woman sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s entourage.
Lillian Smith was a crack riflewoman 11 years younger than Annie. Among other performances, the young upstart demonstrated the Winchester repeating rifle to Queen Victoria of England, then presented Her Majesty with the firearm. Some observers judged Lillian Smith’s aim superior to that of Oakley.
It’s believed animosity between the two experts were the cause of Smith withdrawing from the tour.
Annie Oakley’s Legacy of Charity
The fame of “Little Sure Shot”—heightened by the hit Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun—continues today. Her amazing accuracy with rifles, shotguns and pistols is legendary.
She should be remembered, too, for her generosity. During her career, she often presented benefit exhibitions. During World I, she raised money for the Red Cross. Privately, she paid for higher education for orphans and widows.
A survivor of early hardships, Annie Oakley was a great believer in perseverance. Her motto was to “keep on aiming and keep on shooting for only practice will make you perfect.”
- The Annie Oakley Foundation, Greenville, Ohio.
- Dorchester County (Maryland) Public Library.
- Forbis, William H. The Cowboys. Time-Life Books [“The Old West”] (1973).
- Huffaker, Clair. Clair Huffaker’s Profiles of the American West. Pocket Books (1976).