Yesterday was International Women’s Day and to celebrate we felt a very special In Memoriam was in order: Pet Easton writes a tribute to Annie Oakley, the American sharpshooter.
The name Annie Oakley conjures up images of a gun-wheeling, thigh-slapping, buxom and brassy, trigger-happy, pony-riding cowgirl. That image, I’m pleased to say, is only partly right. Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Anne Moses on 13 August 1860, had a quiet and demure character – and a surprising story leading to her many great successes.
Annie’s carefree childhood ended on a snowy day early in 1866 with the death of her father from hypothermia. Annie’s mother then had to undertake desperate measures to fend off extreme poverty. Following the death of Annie’s sister from TB, her youngest sister was soon given away to another family to prevent a similar fate. Annie was just 10 when she too was sent away, this time to a poor house where her day began at 4am and ended after dark when all her chores had been done.
Annie’s life at the poor house improved greatly as she showed more and more responsibility and capability in her work. She also had a deep yearning to save every penny she could, and at 15 she returned to the family home, with ideas about avoiding poverty and helping the family.
A local grocery store near her home formed part of the plan. The store had a reputation as a trading post where wild turkeys and rabbits could be exchanged for wheat, flour and ammunition, and Annie’s game plan was to shoot and trap her way from poverty’s door, having had no lessons and using a hand-me-down gun.
Despite Annie’s slight build, she had no problem spending most of her working day trapping and shooting with her muzzle-loader for game for the trading post. Annie’s first proper breech-loader was a 16-bore hammer gun, providing quicker reloading in the field and allowing her to shoot more game. Legend says that Annie’s shot game was highly sought after in hotels, as it was all shot in the head and there were never any complaints about shot in the cooked meat.
By the time Annie was in her late teens she had already been barred from local ‘turkey shoots’ as she would always win against the male farmers and labours. But live pigeon shooting had become a popular sport at this point. Many men were becoming household names for their fantastic shooting abilities, and the era of the exhibition shooter was born. One day Annie was put up to challenge an exceptionally capable and well-known live pigeon and exhibition shooter by the name of Frank Butler. The prize purse was $100 and Frank was confident, not knowing his new challenge of opponent was a ‘country unknown’ or a woman.
Annie stepped up to the plate with an unruffled confidence that she would display for the rest of her public life. She won with 23 to Frank’s 21. Not only was it her first huge purse for shooting, but at 20 it was her first romance. Frank and Annie were married in 1882.