The love story of Frank E. Butler and his dead-shot bride began at a shooting match. He was a professional marksman with a male shooting partner. They traveled all over the Midwest in search of shooting matches.
His specialty was trapshooting, knocking launched clay birds out of the air with his shotgun.
Phoebe Anne Oakley Mozee was an unknown young woman from Darke County when friends of hers challenged Butler to a match. Biographer Annie F. Swartwout fixes the year of the first shooting competition as 1875. Annie would have been 15, Butler in his late twenties.
She earned a living stalking quail in Darke County. A hotel and Katzenberger’s grocery purchased all the fowl she could bag. She could not afford to waste ammunition.
The tall marksman with a moustache and matinee idol good looks fared well in Cincinnati against the “gal,” but Mozee did better. She outdueled him with his own shotgun.
Smitten, he courted her for a year. He told her tales of poverty in Ireland and how he’d scraped together the price of a ticket in a ship’s steerage.
Her signature on the marriage license read “Annie Mozee.” In a short time, she became better known by a legendary stage name, Annie Oakley.
Soon, she replaced his male shooting partner and fans considered her an even better shot than her deadeye husband.
“Butler and Oakley” competed all over the Midwest. They bunked together in fleabag hotels and boardinghouses used by traveling actors. Much of what they owned fit in a trunk. They experimented with using different costumes to see what captivated audiences.
She was a superb horsewoman and rarely missed while prone or even standing on her mount. She was athletic and performed flips and backflips, biographer Walter Havighurst of Oxford, Ohio noted.
Butler never let jealousy give him the delusion that crowds came to see him shoot.
Frank’s shooting prowess was on the decline the day he and Annie turned up in Texas to put on an exhibition.
That day he couldn’t seem to hit a barn door. Even his surefire trick shot failed him.
Annie alternated with him and, as always, nailed every target.
“A big cowpuncher yells out, “Get outa here and let the little gal do it,” Butler told a reporter.
Other Texans in the crowd cosigned the heckler’s request.
Annie commenced firing at her targets and easily copied her husband’s trickiest stunts.
“So I took their advice, and from that day I have never done any shooting,” Butler said. “For I knew that Annie was a far better shot than I was or ever could hope to be.”
Ever hence, the former champion trapshooter became known as the husband whose wife shot the lit end of a cigarette clenched between his lips.
They traveled all over the world with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. One of her specialties was blasting tiny glass balls one right after the other.
In Germany, future Kaiser Wilhelm insisted he take Butler’s place. He slipped a cigarette below his prodigious handlebar moustache. Annie’s shot clipped the ash right off.
In 1917, as Kaiser Bill launched the Great War, she joked with reporters that she wished her fingers had shook a little back then.
In England, she easily won a shooting match against a Russian Grand Duke who was engaged to British royalty.
After his humiliation, the engagement ended. Late in life, she joked that she might have been the cause of the breakup.
Butler had the gift of gab and took a good job as an agent for a manufacturer of shells and cartridges.
Annie looked to him as her protector. And he was always at her side, and never more so than when a circus train wrecked in 1901, and she had to recover from surgery. The trauma, she said, turned her brown tresses white overnight.
Surprisingly, she recovered and returned to touring. She met politicians, entertained royalty, and learned to twirl a rope from lessons given by homespun Will Rogers, the famed columnist.
Then in 1922, while on vacation with friends, Annie experienced the second terrible accident of her life. Now in her sixties, her fractured hip and smashed ankle did not heal well, according to Havighurst.
While she was laid up at the home of a sister in Dayton, her old pal Will Rogers penned a column about her as a tribute. “She was the reigning sensation of America and Europe during the heyday of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,” Rogers gushed. “She was their star. Her picture was on more billboards than a modern Gloria Swanson.”
Diagnosed with severe anemia, the bedridden star wanted to come back home to her beloved Darke County. Fans and friends alike wrote her, and she answered many letters. She began an autobiography but was too spent to complete it.
Knowing that her time was short now, she sent her clippings and remaining marksman medals to a friend. She purchased cemetery plots in Brock, Ohio near fields still teeming with quail and game.
Unfortunately, her husband Frank no longer was robust at age 76. He hobbled on sore feet and suffered chronic coughing fits. Still, he ventured out to pick her wildflowers for the dresser in her bedroom.
The strong-willed Annie Oakley ordered her near-invalid husband to stay with a relative in Detroit. The relative planned to take him to Florida, hoping the warm sun might help him.
He never went South.
Annie and Frank both died in November 1926. He passed 20 days after her.
Together in life, they now had adjacent marble gravestones with their names and the same simple wording.
Author note: Information regarding the ages of Frank and Annie, as well as the year of the shootout was taken from old newspaper clippings. It had been replaced with corrected information contained in the book “Missie: An Historical Biography of Annie Oakley” by author Annie F. Swartwout.
Hank Nuwer is a local author who shares his reflections on the people and places he finds in Darke County and neighboring Indiana. His wife, Gosia, a native of Warsaw, Poland, is a freelance photographer.