09 December 2008

Sports & Entertainment: Sharpshooters in Love

By Elizabeth Lane

Cincinnati, Ohio
Thanksgiving Day, 1875

Frank Butler was a professional trick shooter who showed off his skill in traveling stage shows. When a $100 prize was offered to the winner of a shooting match, he was confident the money would soon be his--especially since he'd be shooting against a pint-sized 15-year-old girl.

Young Phoebe Ann Mosely, known as Annie, had been hunting game to feed her family for years. One hundred dollars was a fabulous sum, and she was determined to win it. The two competitors took turns firing 25 shots each. Annie hit the target 25 times. Frank missed his last shot. He lost the match, and his heart in the bargain. "I was a beaten man the moment she appeared," Frank later said, "for I was taken off guard." A gracious loser, he gave Annie's family tickets to his show. Soon he was courting her.

An Irish charmer, older than Annie by ten years, Frank had been married before and fathered two children, but he was a kind man with no bad habits, so Annie's mother gave her blessing. The couple was married August 23, 1876 (a date later given as 1882, perhaps because of Annie's age or because Frank may not have been legally divorced at the time).

A man with a poetic soul, Frank would write of his wife, "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." In the early years of their marriage, Frank performed with a male partner. On May 1, 1882, his partner took sick. Annie had to go on stage to hold the targets. Frank wasn't having his best night. When, after some misses, the audience clamored to "let the girl shoot," Annie gave a spectacular exhibition. Soon the team was performing as Butler and Oakley. But Frank soon realized that Annie was the real star of the act. Some husbands wouldn't have taken kindly to having a celebrity wife. But as Annie's fame grew, Frank became her manager, handling finance, bookings and promotions. It was a happy partnership that would last for the rest of their lives.

In 1885 the pair joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, touring and performing with them for 16 years. Annie Oakley became one of the most famous women in the world. But in private life she was always Mrs. Frank Butler. In 1901, after suffering injuries in a train wreck, they left the show to rest and recover. Frank took a job as a representative for the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. They continued to tour and perform on their own, finally retiring in 1913. Even then they did charity work, raising funds during World War I.

In 1922 Annie was planning a comeback when both of them were seriously injured in an auto accident. Annie never fully recovered her health. On November 3, 1926, at the age of 66, she passed away from pernicious anemia. After 50 years of marriage, Frank was unable to go on living without his Annie. He stopped eating and died 18 days later, on November 21.