Lehigh Valley

History's Headlines: Annie Oakley rides again

It was the last year of WWI, but on May 22, 1918, nobody knew it yet. A big German push on Paris was in the works, according to the newspapers, and submarine warfare was sinking ships left and right.

But at Allentown’s Camp Crane there was another event that that was more entertaining taking place.

Annie Oakley, the Queen of the Sharp Shooters, was scheduled to make an appearance to show off her shooting skills. Traveling with her husband Frank Butler, Oakley had turned down an offer of $85-a-night appearances to travel to Army camps to entertain the troops. She was traveling at her own expense.

In 1918, nobody had to be told who Annie Oakley was. As the featured act of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, she had traveled the nation and the world and was the highest paid female performer of her day, a fate she could hardly have imagined as a child.

Long after her death, Broadway would base the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” on her life and Hollywood would follow it with a movie version. In the 1950s, “baby boomer” kids were following Oakley’s made-up exploits on a TV program.

In real life, Annie Oakley was Phoebe Ann Mosey. Born on August 13, 1860, in a cabin in Drake County, Ohio, both her parents hailed from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. When her 66-year-old father died in 1866, Oakley - one of nine children - decided to take it upon herself to support her family.

She is said to have begun trapping at the age of 7 and shooting and hunting sometime between 8 and 10 years old. She sold the game to local shop keepers who in turn shipped it to hotels in Cincinnati and other cities. Later she began selling them to hotels in northeastern Ohio herself.

She was placed with foster families, at least one of whom treated her abusively. But Oakley’s skills with a rifle made her sought after for competitions and, eventually, she gathered enough money to help her mother pay off the mortgage on the family home.

It was on Thanksgiving Day 1875 that Oakley’s life changed forever.

Frank E. Butler, a noted marksman, was attending an event at a hotel. He told the hotel’s owner that he would bet him $100 that nobody could beat him in a shooting contest. It was going his way when the last contestant, the 15-year-old Oakley, came forward.

After missing his 25th shot, Butler lost both the match and the bet. Impressed, Butler soon started to court the attractive young sharpshooter.  There is some dispute about exactly when they were married, but some sources claim Butler had to get a divorce from his wife first.

But a record exists showing they wed on June 20, 1882, in Windsor, Ontario. The couple was living in Cincinnati for a time when she adopted the name Oakley from the neighborhood in which they lived.

Now a husband and wife shooting team, they came to the attention of Buffalo Bill Cody. An actual scout in his youth, Cody had gone on the stage in the 1870s. One of the first places he appeared was at Allentown’s Hagenbuch’s Opera House, located on the 800 hundred block of Hamilton Street.

He was in a western show “The Scouts of the Prairie,” featuring real Pawnee Indians. The couple joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885. One of the most celebrated productions of its day, the show included a staged stagecoach raid. Oakley quickly became the leading act of the show.

As one biography of Oakley puts it, after a three-year tour, “it cemented Oakley as America’s first female star.” Her celebrity was exceeded only by that of Buffalo Bill himself.

Taking the Wild West Show to Europe made Oakley an international star. She appeared before the crowned heads of Europe, among them Britain’s Queen Victoria and King Umberto of Italy. Oakley was later to recall on her visit to Allentown in 1918 that one of them was Crown Prince Wilhelm II, later emperor of Germany and the U.S.’s enemy that year.

Wilhelm apparently asked her to shoot a cigarette out of his mouth, which Oakley claimed she did. But she also made a prophecy after talking to him that she repeated to the Morning Call. “If this man ascends the throne, he will plunge the whole world into war,” she said.

From 1892 to 1904, the couple made their home in Nutley, N.J. Oakley, who claimed she had trained 15,000 women how to shoot, offered the government, at the outbreak of the Spanish American war in 1898, to recruit a unit of “lady sharpshooters” to take part in the conflict. It was turned down.

A strong supporter of the women’s rights movement, Oakley gave generously to the cause. She also personally supported several women who had fled from abusive marriages and relationships. Oakley believed that all women who wanted to learn should be trained to shot.

“I would like to see every woman know how to handle guns as naturally as they handle babies,” Oakley said.

After an accident, not related to shooting, Oakley gave up traveling with Buffalo Bill and took a role in a stage play based around her life.

How Oakley decided to pick Camp Crane to appear is unknown. One reason may have been her ties with Joe Hart. Hart had been a publicist for the Wild West Show in the early 1890s before settling in Allentown.

He was a familiar figure in the local theater scene. A play he was promoting at the Lyric Theater, now Miller Symphony Hall - “The Second Mrs. Winthrop” - brought him to town, and he decided to stay. He was also a founder of Allentown’s Flag Day Association.

When the couple came to Allentown in 1918, they stayed at Hart’s home on North Jefferson Street. Before settling in with Hart, the Butlers took advantage of an invitation from General Harry C. Trexler to tour the “Game Preserve and Trout Fishery,” with Hart and his wife.

This was followed by dinner at the officer’s mess with Capt. Furman R. Shute, chairman of the Camp Crane Entertainment Committee, “all of which was thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated.” At 3 o'clock the next afternoon, a crowd estimated at 5,000 soldiers and members of the community were on hand at Camp Crane to witness Oakley’s display of marksmanship.

“Annie Oakley opened by piercing the ace of hearts then splitting the card, edgewise, continuing by snuffing the ashes from a cigarette held in the mouth of Frank Butler, her husband, shooting an apple from off the head of her English setter ‘Dave’ who has a great deal of confidence in his mistress…” noted the Morning Call.

Following a few more examples of fancy shooting, hundreds of soldiers gathered around the couple. “Someone remarked that if Uncle Sam had one regiment of crack shots like Annie Oakley, they would clean up the German army,” claimed a reporter.

At 5 o'clock that afternoon, Oakley and her husband got on a train to Philadelphia and an appointment the next day at what became Fort Dix, N.J. Oakley, who performed until 1925, died the following year in Greenville, Ohio. She was 66 years old.

Oakley’s body was cremated, and her ashes buried in the Brock Cemetery in Greenville. Her grief-stricken husband died 18 days later in Michigan. Both her ashes and his body were buried in the same Greenville cemetery on Thanksgiving Day November 25, 1926.

There are several sites around the country that honor their memory.

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