Monday, August 13, 2018

Yellow Journalism Pisses on American Icon Annie "Get Your Gun" Oakley

Annie Oakley as "The Western Girl"
An episode of PBS's "American Experience" reveals that Annie Oakley, the first female American superstar who was born on this day in 1860, was smeared by William Randolph Hearst's Chicago newspaper as being in jail and destitute after stealing a pair of man's pants to buy cocaine.

AP picked up the story and it ran in dozens of newspapers before it was revealed that the person arrested was a burlesque dancer posing as Oakley. Annie got her (legal) guns and sued 55 newspapers—the largest libel suit ever—even though most had printed retractions or apologies. She won 54 of the cases, including a $27,000 suit against Hearst, but the six-year struggle lost her money and career opportunities in the end.

Oakley was born in Greenville, Ohio to a Quaker family with five children. Her father died when she was six and she was sent to a poorhouse, then to a family she called "the wolves" as a servant. When the "wolf" mother locked her out of the house in the snow for falling asleep while darning, Oakley looked up at the moon and prayed for help. She ran home and learned to shoot, and never missed, aided by keen eyesight, athleticism, balance and possibly divine intervention. At the age of 15, she fed her family by hunting, selling hampers full of quail to local stores.

Annie and her husband, Frank Butler
When neighbors arranged a shooting contest between Oakley and Frank Butler, a professional shooter, she won both the contest and his heart. Butler became her husband and, in an unheard of move at the time, took a backseat to his wife's rising star. Oakley joined Bill Cody's Wild West Show where Chief Sitting Bull recognized her gift and gave her her Indian name "Little Sure Shot." She demanded to be paid like a man and though Cody tried replacing her with a younger, less talented, and less expensive act, Annie prevailed. Among the many she impressed during her career were Oscar Wilde and Queen Victoria, when she performed in London in 1887.

After a train accident injured Oakley's spine, she retired from the Wild West Show and began an acting career at the age of 42, appearing to rave reviews in "The Western Girl," a play written for her. But her fledgling second career was squashed when the Hearst article appeared, and her focus shifted to clearing her name. Hearst fought the suits, even hiring a detective in a vain attempt to dig up dirt on her. His lawyers tried to smear her on the witness stand as having an "insatiable" desire for drugs, and for being an exhibitionist. "That terrible piece nearly killed me," she said. "The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character."

Annie Oakley died on November 3, 1926 at the age of 66. She's immortalized in the fictionalized Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun," in a role originated by Ethel Merman and played by many others, including Bernadette Peters (who played opposite Tom Wopat).

Hearst was instrumental in the smear campaign against marijuana in the 1930s, publishing stories with headlines like, "Hasheesh Goads Users to Blood Lust."

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