I can tell by the swarms of bewildered men wandering aimlessly through the greeting card and candy aisles at Wal Mart that Valentine’s Day is upon us. So, I figured I had better come up with a lovey-dovey Western blog post. I’m thinking that since this holiday has a cherub mascot that is a sharp shooter with a bow and arrow, it might be a good idea to continue with that sharp shooter theme. So, I hereby dedicate this Valentine’s edition of The Campfire Chronicle to the loving sharp shooters, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler!
I should also confess something to you. You’ve undoubtedly noticed that I often write about fairly obscure topics, and this is because I truly enjoy learning about them. But also, it’s because I find it a little boring to write about any topic that might fall under the “common knowledge” category. While there is no true metric to gauge when a topic becomes common knowledge, I think that it’s safe to say that it if Irving Berlin wrote a musical play about the subject, it’s no longer remotely obscure! But, hey, I’m feeling daring. . .and anyway, I think you’ll find that there are some aspects of the Oakley-Butler love story that are quite surprising and obscure, and not at all common knowledge. So, why don’t you go grab a handful of those chalky little conversation hearts to munch on while I tell you about one of the greatest love stories of the Old West?
Why Annie Got Her Gun
Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Moses (or Mosey, depending upon the source) in Darke County, Ohio on August 13, 1860. She was the sixth of seven children, and while the other girls in the family were playing with ragdolls and dreaming of motherhood, Annie was dreaming about the day she could get her hands on her father’s gun!
She was just five-years-old when her father died from complications of frostbite, and lean years followed for the Moses family. Annie was eager to help, and her opportunity came in the shape of her father’s old rifle. Annie was eight-years-old when she took her father’s gun and shot her first squirrel.
She built her skills and did an impressive job at providing food and income for her family, but there’s really only so much any little girl with a shotgun can do. Seven mouths were simply too many to feed and Annie’s mother placed Annie and most of her six living children in foster care or orphanages. As you might imagine, it was not a happy time for Annie. She was a teenager when she finally returned home. Again, she grabbed her father’s rifle and went to work. She made so much money selling game to a local grocery store that she was able to pay off the $200 mortgage on her mother’s home!
Annie began entering shooting competitions and she won them with such regularity that her hometown disqualified her from entering any more. Maybe that’s why she traveled to Cincinnati, at the age of fifteen, to enter a contest being held there.
The Butler Didn’t Do It
It was 1875 when Phoebe Ann Moses found herself competing against a sharp shooter named Frank E. Butler in a Thanksgiving competition. Butler was a dashing twenty-five-year-old Irish immigrant, who was already well-known as a crack shot and a successful vaudeville performer. But when it came to winning that particular competition on that particular day, the Butler didn’t do it!
Lesser men might have been humiliated to lose a contest to a fifteen-year-old girl who measured in at about five-foot-zero, but Butler was not. Rather, he was pretty impressed, and not just by his competitor’s shooting skill! When I look at pictures of Annie Oakley, I can easily see why Frank Butler was instantly smitten. . .she was extraordinarily beautiful, with thick, flowing hair and full-lips. Apparently the attraction was mutual, and they began seeing each other regularly. I’m glad that Annie found a man who could appreciate her as more than just a pretty face!
Shot Through the Heart
They were married ten days after Annie’s sixteenth birthday, which wasn’t even remotely creepy in 1876! Frank continued touring with a shooting act and joined forces with a male partner named Baughman. They spent a while touring with a circus, and Annie was right there with Frank every step of the way offering moral support.
In 1882, Frank found a new partner, John Graham, and the two performed in theaters in an act they called, “America’s Own Rifle Team and Champion All Around Shots.” Hey, the name of the act might not have flowed off the tongue, but they did all right financially! Then, one night in Springfield, Ohio, Graham became ill and Frank needed a replacement. Hmm… If only he had known a another crack shot he could hire as a replacement. . .
Fortunately, Frank was not too proud to acknowledge that he was married to the perfect person to fill that available job, and that was the beginning of a new life for both of them. The crowds loved Annie! Graham was out of the act permanently, and Annie was in. By this time, Annie was going by the name Annie Oakley and “Butler and Oakley” joined the vaudeville circuit as a team, and later joined the famous Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show.
Little Sure Shot and Mr. Secure in Himself
Annie met Chief Sitting Bull in 1884 while she and Frank were touring with Buffalo Bill, and the Chief was so impressed with Annie that he “adopted” her and gave her the Lakota name, Watanya Cicilla or “Little Sure Shot.” Sadly, no such ceremonial names were given to poor Frank Butler! But heck, I still like to think of him as “Mr. Secure in Himself.” It took a lot for a man from the Old West to step back and let his wife take the spotlight the way Frank did, and throughout their many years of touring, he was always proud to have Annie Oakley take top billing.
Over the years, Frank Butler has been portrayed as a man who was envious of his wife’s talent and audience appeal, but the facts show that this was not at all the case. When they toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Butler was more the manager of the act, while Oakley was the undisputed star.
This Wild West couple had a wild ride during their professional partnership. They enjoyed an extended tour of the United States as well as Europe, they hobnobbed with royalty and rode the roller coaster ups and downs of show business together. . . as a team.
Mr. and Mrs. Butler
In the end, the marriage of Annie Oakley and Frank Butler proved to have more staying power than their impressive careers. Annie officially retired from Wild West shows in 1913, and they thoroughly enjoyed their golden years of domestic normalcy. They amused themselves with hobbies and charities and they took long automobile trips together. Basically, they just spent a whole lot of time enjoying life as Mr. and Mrs. Butler.
The pair had been married for fifty years when Annie died on November 3, 1926. Frank was so distraught that he simply stopped eating, on the hope of joining her, as soon as possible. And Frank got his wish . . . he followed her in death eighteen days later, on November 21, 1926.
As Valentine’s Day approaches and I watch the frantic men scouring the greeting card aisles, I can’t help but think they would do well to take a little lesson in love and romance from Frank Butler. Of his beloved Annie Oakley, he wrote:
Her presence would remind you
Of an angel in the skies,
And you bet I love this little girl
With the rain drops in her eyes.
Yes. They were a loving couple, with a deep bond. Whether their story is common knowledge or not, theirs is a love story that is uncommonly good.
Here’s a very special video, originally filmed in 1894 by none other than the inventor of the light bulb, Thomas Edison, featuring Annie and her beloved Frank.
Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!