Read The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley Online

Authors: Glenda Riley

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Women, #History, #United States, #19th Century, #test

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BOOK: The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley
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Page 25
In 1884, the Sells Brothers Circus traveled eleven thousand miles to play in 187 cities in thirteen states, including Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Texas. But, to Annie and Frank's chagrin, conditions with this popular show proved less than ideal. One-night stands demanded daily travel. Arrangements and paychecks frequently proved unreliable. Wet weather plagued the show and caused illness among members of its troupe. Both people and animals were poorly fed, and the care of stock was inadequate according to Annie and Frank's standards. During the course of the season, Annie protested an unsafe saddle and inferior housing for the troupe, among other issues.
Finally, when the weather turned cold, the Sells brothers' operation headed toward New Orleans to wrap up the season in conjunction with the World's Industrial and Cotton Exposition. Its managers hoped to take advantage of the twenty-five thousand visitors thronging the city, but persistent rain persuaded them to pack up and head home after only two weeks. Before closing, the show signed Butler and Oakley for the following season at increased pay.
In the meantime, Frank had been looking for work to fill in the coming winter months of 188485. He placed an advertisement in the trade paper, the
New York Clipper
, on November 29, 1884, stating that "Butler and Oakley, premium shots, will close a 40-week season with Sells Brothers' enormous shows in New Orleans, La., shortly, and will have a new and novel act, for Variety Theatres, Combinations or Skating Rinks, Never Before Introduced." A few days later, on December 4, Frank noticed an announcement in the
New Orleans Picayune
: Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Park (Buffalo Bill refused to call his Wild West a "show") would soon set up right off Canal Street, not far from the Sells brothers lot.
The Wild West, which had begun in Omaha, Nebraska, the previous year and now billed itself as "an original American amusement enterprise," opened in New Orleans on December 8, 1884. The Sells brothers planned to close their show on December 15. Between the eighth and the fifteenth, Cody may have attended the Sells Brothers Circus, but it is more likely that Frank and Annie visited the Wild West lot to see how Cody and his partner, Nate Salsbury, managed their operation. Within minutes, Annie


Page 26
and Frank evidently decided that Buffalo Bill, with his dedication to family entertainment, his emphasis on shooting and riding, and his excellent facilities for people and stock, was the ideal employer for them.
The year 1884 marked an important turning point in Annie Oakley's life and career. Until then she was little more than an embryonic phenomenon. She had learned how to survive, first at home in Ohio and then on the road with Frank. She knew the crucial importance of money. Most likely, she had also discovered that the role of passive woman waiting in the background did not suit her.
But in 1884, Annie began to think of herself as a potential star. She had already recognized that her show business activities would engage her in a continuing struggle to balance the three dominant elements of her lifeentertainer, competitor, and lady. Now, in late 1884, Annie was considering adding another element to her life and her workan association with the American Westeven though she had been no farther west than Kansas.
Earlier that year, Annie and Frank had publicized Annie's friendship with Chief Sitting Bull, a realtionship begun in Minneapolis in March. By fall, it seemed that Annie was a natural for Buffalo Bill's Wild West. She embodied everything that he and his growing public held dear: humble beginnings, hard work, persistence, and lively personality. She had no apparent foibles or flaws. She was petite and pretty. She could shoot and ride. What more could the owners of the fledgling Wild West Exposition ask?
But, of course, neither Cody nor Salsbury had the gift of prophecy. They could not foresee what Annie Oakley would become. They knew only that they were already overloaded with shooting acts. Nor did Butler and Oakley recognize Annie's full potential as a Wild West star. Frank and Annie knew only that they needed good jobs, so they determined to catch the eye of the great scout and entertainer, Buffalo Bill Cody, or that of his shrewd partner, Nate Salsbury, and to persuade the pair to take an interest in what Butler and Oakley had to offer. Frank possessed unusual ideas and Annie unusual skill, but they would still need the intervention of fate to revolutionize their lives and inaugurate Annie's peak career years, 1885 to 1913.


Page 27
Chapter 2
''The 'Show' Business"
Annie Oakley's initial encounter with William F. Cody and Nate Salsbury in 1884 resulted in disappointment; the two men refused to hire either Annie or Frank Butler. Discouraged and disheartened, Annie and Frank headed north to spend the winter playing variety theaters and living in theatrical boardinghouses. Their bid to join the Wild West seemed little more than an illusory dream.
What Annie called her "wounded vanity" got a lift, however, when she learned that Buffalo Bill's Wild West exposition already had a highly celebrated shooter on its bill. None other than Captain Adam H. Bogardus powered the shooting end of the Wild West program. Once a market-shooter in upstate New York, Bogardus had begun building his public reputation in 1869 when he accepted a challenge to kill five hundred pigeons in under eleven hours and won the bet with almost two hours to spare. In 1872, Bogardus defeated Abe Kleinman, the champion shooter in Bogardus's home state of Illinois, then wrested the U.S. championship from Ira Paine. Five years later, Bogardus shot his way to the world championship by defeating the English champion, Aubrey Coventry. Now, in 1884, Bogardus, along with his four sonslisted in the 1884 program as Eugene, age nineteen, Edward, thirteen, Peter, eleven, and Henry, ninethrilled audiences by shooting up the Wild West arena.
William F. Cody had garnered enough show business experience to recognize the value of such a star act. A former western scout and hero of Prentiss Ingraham's dime novels, Buffalo Bill Cody went first on the stage and then into the arena and had turned into a savvy entertainer. He had no reason to add the unknown Annie Oakley to the bill when he already had Bogardus and his sons. Something would have to change before Annie got the opportunity to build her reputation as a well-known entertainer.
Long before Annie appeared on the scene, Buffalo Bill Cody had


Page 28
worked hard to establish his own reputation as an entertainer. After touring on the stage beginning in 1872, he had instigated the "Old Glory Blow Out" on July 4, 1882, in his hometown of North Platte, Nebraska. In preparation, he sent out five thousand handbills announcing shooting, riding, and roping competitions and listing the prizes offered. He had hoped to attract one hundred entrants; the event drew one thousand.
About the same time, Cody talked to Nate Salsbury regarding the possibility of mounting a full-fledged western show. Both entrepreneurs recognized the existence of a national, and perhaps even a worldwide, fascination with the American West. Stage plays, vaudeville, some fifty circuses, and a growing number of rodeos exploited this interest in the West. But when Cody broached his plan for an outdoor show depicting western life to Salsbury, the latter hesitated, so Cody turned instead to the well-known shooter W. F. Carver. During the spring of 1883, Cody and Carver assembled scouts, cowboys, Native Americans, Mexican-American
, bucking horses, emigrant wagons, a genuine Deadwood stagecoach, and, of course, the two most celebrated shooters in the United States, "Doc" Carver himself and Captain Bogardus.
The first, and last, season of the Hon. W. F. Cody and Dr. W. F. Carver's Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition opened in Omaha on May 17, 1883. In his autobiography, Cody stated that he had taken "care to make it realistic in every detail." He added, "It was my effort, in depicting the West, to depict it as it was." He added, "The wigwam village, the Indian war-dance, the chant of the Great Spirit as it was sung on the Plains, the rise and fall of the famous tribes, were all pictured accurately." When the troupe reached Connecticut, the
Hartford Courant
judged it the ''best open-air show ever seen. . . . [Cody] has, in this exhibition, out-Barnumed Barnum."
The show clearly stood to make big money if the partners could resolve the difficulties. Doc Carver, for example, created a number of problems. When he missed a shot in a Coney Island performance, he smashed his rifle down on his horse's head and socked his assistant, thus alienating both critics and the public. When Nate Salsbury attended a performance, he commented that


Page 29
the show needed stronger themes. Others believed that firmer management and tighter discipline would also help.
Yet, when Cody wrote home on August 16 from Coney Island, he boasted, "The papers say I am the coming Barnum." Then, in October, Cody turned up in Chicago, apparently fed up with Carver. Salsbury later recalled that Cody visited him at the Chicago theater where he and his troupe were playing and threatened that if Salsbury "did not take hold of the show he was going to quit the whole thing." According to Salsbury, Cody added that "he was through with Carver and that he would not go through such another summer for a hundred thousand dollars."
When Cody finally split with Carver later that fall, the two men divided their assets with a toss of a coin; Cody won the Deadwood stage. The aborted association dragged on, however. Carver charged Cody with being "dead drunk all summer," although, in reality, Cody had outshot the tippling Carver all season. Cody also took swipes at Carver and tangled with him in a series of court actions to stop Carver from using Cody's concepts and the name "Wild West."
After the split with Carver, Cody joined fortunes with Nate Salsbury by forming a company called "Buffalo Bill's Wild WestAmerica's National Entertainment." Salsbury fell at the opposite end of the spectrum from Carver, who Cody once said "Went West on a piano stool" and whom Salsbury called "the fakir" of show business. Originally from Illinois, Salsbury had seen action during the Civil War, done a stint as a prisoner of war at Andersonville Prison, served a long stage apprenticeship, and then organized his own successful comedy troupe, the ''Salsbury Troubadors." By the time the new, reorganized Wild West opened in St. Louis in the spring of 1884, Salsbury had demonstrated his sound management abilities. Salsbury also displayed disapproval of Cody's drinking on the job, his quarrels with his wife, Louisa, and his generosity to all supplicants, including old "pards.''
Cody capitulated on the first point. Just before the opening performance, Cody pledged: "I solemnly promise you that after this you will never see me under the influence of liquor. I may have to take two or three drinks today to brace up on, that will be all as long as we are partners. I appreciate all you have done. . . . This


Page 30
drinking surely ends today and your pard will be himself, and on deck all the time." The making and breaking of such promises would prove a consistent theme in the relations between Cody and Salsbury over the coming years.
In most ways, however, the two men complemented each other. Cody provided showmanship and Salsbury business acumen. In Chicago, their show packed in 41,448 people for a single performance. As it toured toward New York, it left a trail of rave reviews behind. Then, during mid-summer, disasters began to plague the operation, and Cody repeatedly turned to Salsbury for support and advice. Bad weather, a horse-riding accident that hospitalized Frank North, and unexpected expenses all challenged Salsbury. Then the steamboat carrying the Wild West toward New Orleans to finish the 1884 season collided with another steamer and sank within an hour. Losses reached approximately twenty thousand-dollars, although the horses, the Deadwood stage, the band wagon, and the personnel survived. Cody telegraphed Salsbury, who, with his troubadors, was playing the Denver Opera House. "Outfit at bottom of river, what do you advise?" In a terse reply, Salsbury advised, "Go to New Orleans, reorganize, and open on your date."
In just eight days, Cody assembled herds of animals, wagons, and props. The show opened on time, only to experience forty-four days of nearly incessant rain. On one occasion, the troupe played to an audience of nine people. It was during this dismal period that Annie Oakley and Frank Butler approached Cody and Salsbury regarding employment. It is not difficult to understand why the partners said no. Receipts were down, and they did not need another shooting act, especially at the salary Annie expected.
Then in March 1885, Bogardus, now in his fifties, left the Wild West. He had never recovered his equipmentor his equilibriumafter the steamer crash. The rain-filled run on Balsam Street in New Orleans depressed him further. Annie and Frank seized the opportunity his departure provided; they again approached Cody, this time proposing that Annie give three performances free of charge. Cody and Salsbury could then decide if Annie was, in her words, "worth the price," or whether she should join another company. Although Cody feared that the diminutive
BOOK: The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley
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