“VINDICATION”

— BATTLING YELLOW JOURNALISM —

At about 11 o’clock on the evening of November 3, 1926, legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley Butler died in Greenville, Ohio, from a diagnosis of pernicious anemia. She was 66. 

VINDICATION

Born Phoebe Ann Moses in Patterson Township, Ohio, in 1860, Oakley achieved fame as one of the most famous female entertainers of her time, occupying the center stage at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

Oakley and her entertainer sharpshooter husband Frank Butler retired from the show in 1901 and moved to the New Jersey shore. She was 43.

Although she never embraced feminism—from a political perspective—Annie Oakley emerged as a symbol of the liberated woman.

According to the Annie Oakley Foundation, she campaigned for women’s rights “to hold paid employment, earn equal pay, participate in sports, and defend themselves in their homes and on city streets.”

Often praised for her generosity, some say she was responsible for educating at least eighteen orphaned girls.

Oakley worked hard to cultivate her reputation as a proper Victorian lady throughout her career but found herself back in the national headlines—and not in a positive way. 

One day, a series of newspaper headlines across the country branded her a destitute who stole a man’s trousers so she could feed a cocaine habit.

“Famous Woman Crack Shot. . . Steals to Secure Cocaine,” read one headline. Another announced, “Annie Oakley Is In Prison Cell.”

The stories attracted coast-to-coast press coverage thanks to two Chicago newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst, who developed the country’s first national media chain, made liberal use of sensational and manufactured headlines to sell papers—a style known as yellow journalism.

Fifty-five newspapers printed the Oakley story before authorities discovered the actual person and arrested and jailed a burlesque performer named Maude Fontanella, who adopted the alias, Any Oakley.

Annie Oakley wasted no time in demanding all the newspapers involved publish retractions. Most agreed, but the actions didn’t fully satisfy the well-known performer.

Oakley filed fifty-five libel suits, traveling around the country to testify in various courtrooms.

Hearst retaliated by sending a private eye to Oakley’s hometown of Greenville, Ohio, to dig up dirt on her, but the attempt failed.

The seven-year legal battle, the largest of its kind in history, ended in 1910. Oakley won or settled fifty-four of fifty-five suits and collected an estimated $900 to $27,500.

Historians, however, say she lost money because of her legal and travel expenses. 

But what mattered to her was achieving vindication.

“The terrible piece … nearly killed me,” Oakley declared. “The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character.”

_______

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13 comments to “VINDICATION”

  • Catriona Lovett

    I idolized Annie Oakley as a child, but I never heard about these parts of her life. Thank you for sharing this account!

  • Hi Catriona, Glad you enjoyed the blog. Annie Oakley was quite a woman who took on an empire and won.

  • Hearst was famous for “Yellow Journalism.” He’d fit right in with today’s MSM and Social Media Giants.

  • Hi Frank. Not much has changed, has it? He definitely would be an ideal fit.

  • Heart newspapers are STILL sensation-making rags, in my opinion.

  • Hello Cheryl–Not much has changed, has it?

  • Adele Embrey

    Hi Tom, I had a wow moment the other day after I read your post here .I was reading a book and there right in front of me was the word leviathon. Unreal. Don’t remember ever seeing it before but there it was. If I hadn’t read your post I would have just skipped over it and not thought any thing about it but it jumped out at me because I had and I knew what it meant.Thank you for this segment.

  • Hello, Adele–That’s great to hear. It’s always nice to have one of those “Aha!” moments.Thanks for letting us know. Hope all is well.

  • Adele Embrey

    Hi Tom, Yes everything is fine here. Australia is starting to open up now.Accepting over seas visitors again.Maybe from limited places but at least it is a start. It hasn’t bothered me much here as we live on acreage but I do feel for those who live in the city and had to be locked down and so forth. Haven’t had to wear a mask,made some just in case to avoid a fine or what ever if it come to that but doing great.

  • So good to hear, Adele. Living on acreage apparently has its advantages. I ran across that particular term when I was reading an article by a man who moved to Australia from the UK. He wrote “People here don’t so much buy the land to live off it though, they just like lots of space around them.” I think in these troubled times, space is important. Thanks for the update.

  • Adele Embrey

    Hi Tom, The world is getting a bit scary.
    I like my “Acreage” our nearest neighbour is a mile away.
    We could run around in the nude and noone would know. A friend said that one day, when they visited. Made me blush.lol.

  • You have taken social distancing to the extreme, Adele! Ha.

  • Your acreage accommodates extreme social distancing and, in these days, probably a good thing, Adele.

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