The Annie Oakley-Illinois connection—Part 1

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116181260620445.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘Annie Oakley’);

Phoebe Ann Moses was born Aug. 13, 1860. She was the fifth of seven children of Jacob and Susan Moses. In 1866, her father died tragically, and the family lost their farm. Annie was first placed in an orphanage for two years, then sent to work for another family as a live-in farm helper. She hated it. She was abused and miserable and, after several years, managed to run away.

By an almost miraculous stroke of luck, Annie was able to find her mother again. She had remarried, been widowed again, and was living with her third husband. Back in her mother’s home, 12-year-old Annie found her father’s muzzle-loading percussion smoothbore, and learned how to load and shoot it. The youngster began hunting to provide meat for the struggling family. She was so good at it that she was able to supplement the family’s income by selling some of the wild game she had shot. Her ducks, geese and rabbits were purchased for the tables of the finest hotels in Dayton and Cincinnati. By age 14, she was able to pay off the mortgage on her step-father’s farm with her market-hunting money.

In 1875, a well-known exhibition shooter, Irish-born Frank Butler, came to Cincinnati. He bet $100 he could out-shoot any of the local crack shots. A hotel owner who was one of Annie’s customers took that bet and summoned Annie. Butler was amazed when a slim 15-year old girl stepped up to the firing line and beat him resoundingly. He was so impressed that he began courting his opponent, and in June 1876, Phoebe Ann Moses became Mrs. Frank Butler.

Annie had become a most attractive woman. She stood 5 feet tall and weighed 100 pounds. Blessed with a great figure, chestnut hair and blue eyes, she wore knee-length skirts and leather leggings well before such attire was considered common or acceptable. The Butlers began touring the United States as “Frank and Annie.” She started using the last name “Oakley” professionally. Legend says she took it from the name of a Cincinnati suburb. Frank improved her stage performance by teaching her some trick shots. She would run into the arena on foot, grab up a rifle and begin shattering glass balls, which he tossed into the air. Then, she would leap onto the back of a horse and ride around the ring hitting targets that had been mounted on stands. She would shoot out the flames of lighted candles set on a revolving wheel. Her most famous trick was to place a rifle on her shoulder and use a shiny knife blade as a mirror to hit a target behind her.

Frank would throw playing cards into the air, and Annie would shoot holes into the spots on the faces of the cards. She would collect and autograph the cards and give them to people in the audience as free passes to her next show. In show business jargon forever after, free tickets became known as “Annie Oakleys.”

In 1885, they joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s famous “Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders” and traveled with that show for 17 years. Annie quickly became the star of the whole show, earning $1,000 a week, an enormous sum for those days. The show traveled the world, giving stunning performances before huge crowds wherever it went. Once, she shot the ashes off the end of a cigarette Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany held in his mouth. Later, during World War I, Annie would joke that if her aim had been a little bit poorer that day, she could have prevented the whole war. (To be continued … part 2 of the story tells where and when she performed in Illinois.)

This article was provided by the Illinois State Rifle Association. For more information about the association, call 635-3198 or visit

From the Oct. 25-31, 2006, issue

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