Occasionally, we ask guest writers to share information or stories about researching in our collections, public library programming or activities, and other topics which Library of Virginia users may find informative. Today’s guest blogger, Bryn Silverman, is an editor and producer of films on a variety of topics. Her current project is the subject of today’s post.
Annie Oakley is an American legend. Lauded for her skills with a rifle, she was one of the 20th century’s most famous athletes. Today, Annie is a preeminent face from the Wild West canon. But her life was riddled with contradiction. Coined the “Western Girl,” Annie never lived further west than the Mississippi River. And, contrary to the way she is remembered today, Annie was not an advocate for women’s suffrage and certainly not a feminist by today’s standards. Over four years ago, I started researching Annie for a feature film I was writing based on her life. This project has since evolved into a scripted series, centered on these contradictions and a time in Annie’s life that has been largely overlooked.
In 1903, Annie was at the height of her career. She had traveled multiple times overseas with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and was praised by Queen Victoria of England. She had even performed on Broadway in The Western Girl that same year. She was a star. But on 13 August, William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the Chicago American, published an article with the headline “Annie Oakley in Prison Cell in Bridewell?” The article went on to describe a “destitute” Annie, addicted to morphine, who stole a man’s pants to pay for her addiction. This article threatened a very pristine, highly constructed public image that she and her husband (and manager) Frank Butler had created for her.
“Celebrity” was a new concept at the time, and Annie and Frank were writing the rules on how to work the media to promote her brand. For example, you won’t find a picture anywhere of Annie with animal carcasses, though she was a hunter and shot pigeons for a living! Such images of her would not have been received favorably for a woman at that time and she knew it. She was thriving in a man’s world, in a man’s sport, and she had to play her cards right. Up until this slanderous article came out in Chicago, she had a spotless reputation.
Her instinct—as both a competitor and businessperson—was to fight back. She sued Hearst’s paper and more than 54 other newspapers that reprinted the article. One after another, she won. Annie put her career on hold to travel around the country and take these publishing companies to court.
JoAnne Sweeny, professor of law at the University of Louisville, mentions that per civil procedure law at the time, Annie would have had to travel to the cities where she was suing. Despite the unimaginable inconvenience this would have been, she did it anyway. The fact that she invested so much time and money in traveling to all of these states, hiring new lawyers in each state (where she would be the underdog) just goes to show how determined she was to clear her name.
Annie defeated papers in Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, among many others. But in 1905, her winning streak came to an end in Richmond, Virginia.
Annie sued the Richmond News-Leader for slander. In this case, she was up against an interesting argument, one that stood apart from the other cases. The Virginia courts claimed that the article would not affect her reputation because those who knew her best wouldn’t believe it. In most of the cases across the country, the courts agreed with Annie that her public image was tarnished. That those who didn’t know Annie personally would read this article and assume she actually was destitute and addicted to drugs. It was pretty unanimous around the country that this would negatively impact her career. Richmond was a standalone decision in a slew of cases that Annie brought to court.
The hundreds of pages about this case from the Library of Virginia are all in relation to Annie’s suit for libel in Circuit Court in Richmond—Annie Butler vs. The News-Leader Co. When the court was selecting jury instructions—which essentially tells the jury how they should view the evidence—the court chose to adopt the defendant’s proposed version. This set of jury instructions was undoubtedly slanted towards the defendant and could sway the jury more towards the News-Leader and not Annie. Remember, the jury at this time would have been all white and male. There may have been a legal basis for the court’s decision, but it could also have been favoritism (Richmond was a small town run by white men) or due to the fact that Annie was coming in from out of state as the underdog.
The fact that Annie sued in state versus federal court would have meant the judge was an elected official, with more local ties to the local lawyers and politicians than a federal judge. Sweeny mentions the fact that Annie sued in state court versus federal court, might mean Annie got some bad legal advice. Regardless, after she lost, Annie appealed. Her lawyers claimed it was a “misdirection of the court.” The case ended up at the Supreme Court of Virginia.
The material I found at the Library of Virginia affirmed many of the conclusions I’ve come to about Annie. She was full of wit, competitive, and ruthless in pursuit of her own justice. She was also private and composed. Annie lied often under oath when speaking to topics around her name and family origins, her education, and even her age. The Richmond case was no different.
The lawyer for the defendant asked at one point: “You won’t mind, I am sure, my asking you your age. If you do I will withdraw my question.” Annie responded, “Not at all. I am 38.”
She was born in 1860 and would have been 43 when the article was first published in 1903.
Annie was under incredible stress in this effort to clear her name. Not only that, but she continued to obsess over upholding her status as the best sharpshooter in the US, a feat that would be difficult for anyone while pursuing this type of litigation. It’s not surprising that she would cling to whatever narrative control she could, even if it was lying about her age under oath.
On top of that, Annie most often had to sue using her married name, Butler. In many states at the time a woman was not allowed to speak for herself in court. In one case in Louisiana, the defendants stated that the case should be dismissed, arguing that Annie’s husband, Frank, was actually the injured party because any injury to a married woman was actually damage to her husband. That argument failed, but only because there was a statute that said personal injuries were no longer part of that rule, not because the court didn’t think the actual harm had been done to her husband.
Annie’s resolve and commitment to travel around the country, spending what today would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees all in an effort to preserve her public image, paid off. Today, no one thinks of libel court cases when they think about Annie Oakley. That, to me, is the magic and danger of her story: a story (however edited) about a very precise, poised person that continues to touch so many.
Annie Oakley, standing on horseback, gives a demonstration of her shooting ability.
“The Amateur Circus at Nutley” by American illustrator Peter Newell (1862-1924). 1 drawing: black ink, gray wash, and gouache on illustration board, 35.5 x 40.5 cm. (sheet). Published in “Harper’s Weekly”, 31 March 1894. Exhibited at Library of Congress, “They Made Them Laugh and Wince and Worry,” 1977-1982.