Historian Discusses Annie Oakley Visiting County Court

Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County historian, was the featured speaker for the Brown Bag Lecture at the Fenton History Center Wednesday. Henry discussed Annie Oakley’s lawsuit against the Dunkirk Herald, which was one of 55 newspapers throughout the country that printed an untrue sensationalized story about the well-known sharpshooter. P-J photo by Dennis Phillips

When she was at her most lethal, famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley was usually carrying a Winchester or a Remington rifle.

When “The Little Sure Shot” visited Chautauqua County Court in 1906, however, she was carrying an even more powerful weapon — the truth.

On Wednesday, Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County historian, was the featured speaker for the Brown Bag Lecture at the Fenton History Center. Henry discussed the time Oakley appeared in Chautauqua County Court to clear her good name following a sensationalized newspaper article about the well-known exhibition shooter was printed in the Dunkirk Herald.

In 1903, Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s publishing company produced a false story about Oakley being arrested for stealing in Chicago to support a cocaine habit. The woman actually arrested was a burlesque performer who told Chicago police that her name was Annie Oakley.

Henry said one of the 55 newspapers throughout the country that ran the sensationalized story was the Dunkirk Herald. Following the story being published, Oakley sued Hearst and each of the newspapers, even the ones that ran a retraction, that published the unfounded story. Oakley won 54 of the 55 lawsuits.

Henry said Oakley won $20,000 from Hearst, which would be equivalent to around a half a million dollars today. The settlements with the other newspapers ranged between $5,000 to mere cents.

Henry said it was determined by the county court jury that the owner of the Dunkirk Herald, Daniel Toomey, had to pay Oakley $500 for printing the erroneous story. However, at the end of the lawsuits, Oakley collected less in judgments than the total of her legal expenses.

During the presentation, Henry also discussed what is known about Oakley’s life. She was born in 1860 in Darke County, Ohio. At the age of six, her father died, with her mother later remarrying. However, her second husband also died, which lead to the family moving into the “poor farm.”

Henry said at one point Oakley was sent to live with a family as a servant where she was to be paid and allowed to attend school. However, that was not the case and the family treated Oakley like a slave. The environment was so bad that Oakley ran back to live at the poor farm.

In 1922, Oakley was married to sharpshooter Frank Butler and together they formed a gun shooting show that would later perform with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West tours. Henry said Oakley became internationally known for her skills shooting a gun and was a star throughout the world.

When Oakley died at the age of 66 in 1926, most of her estate was left to charities that assisted orphans and widows.