Annie Oakley's Libel Suits
The legal battle Annie Oakley waged against the 55 newspapers she felt had libeled her was a different kind of competition. But in this new arena, Oakley's aim proved just as true.
False Reports of Scandal
Annie had left Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show at the end of its 1901 season, and although she did some acting, Oakley looked forward to a quieter existence. That hope was shattered on August 11, 1903, by two Chicago newspapers belonging to publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, who controlled America's first national media chain, was famous for a lurid style of reporting called "yellow journalism." His papers had drummed up support for the Spanish-American War, and they regularly featured sensational headlines such as "Startling Confession of Wholesale Murderer Who Begs to be Hanged." The August piece about Oakley was cut from the same cloth: "Famous Woman Crack Shot ... Steals to Secure Cocaine," the headline trumpeted. The story claimed that Oakley was currently in a Chicago prison, sentenced to 45 days for "stealing the trousers of a negro in order to get money with which to buy cocaine." Oakley's "striking beauty" was now "entirely gone," the reporter declared. "Although she is but twenty-eight years old, she looks almost forty." None of it was true -- Oakley was nearly 43 and spending August on the New Jersey seashore. Nor had she ever stolen trousers or used cocaine. But newspapers from coast to coast soon picked up on the story, and friends mailed her articles with headlines like "Annie Oakley, Famous Rifle Shot is Destitute." Oakley was devastated -- she had always scrupulously avoided any scandalous conduct, and suddenly her reputation was on the verge of being destroyed. "The terrible piece ... nearly killed me," Oakley declared. "The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character."
The Libel Suits
Oakley began by demanding retractions. "Woman posing as Annie Oakley in Chicago is a fraud," she informed the Philadelphia Press, "Contradict at once." Oakley was right -- the woman was actually a burlesque performer named Maude Fontenella who appeared on stage under the name "Any Oakley." When they discovered their error, newspapers far and wide retracted the story and apologized. But Oakley was not mollified. "Someone will pay for this dreadful mistake," she had written, and Oakley began to file libel suits, 55 in all, at that point representing the largest such action in American history. For the next several years, Oakley traveled the country, testifying in case after case. She sued newspapers from St. Louis to Scranton, Chicago to Charleston. From the first trial in 1904 until the last appeal was concluded in 1910, Oakley was a professional plaintiff. Her shooting, her acting -- everything else gave way in the quest to restore her reputation.
By all accounts Oakley was persuasive in the courtroom -- she dressed conservatively, spoke courteously, and exuded respectability. Hearst tried to undermine her by having a detective go back to Darke County, Ohio, and try to dig up dirt, but he came up empty and was prevented by locals from staying overnight. When defense lawyers accused her of seeking publicity and charged her with immodesty on stage, Oakley almost always remained calm, denying that she ever appeared in "short skirts" or did "hand-springs" in her act. Pressed by one attorney on the subject of education, she said it was "a very good thing when backed by common sense, and a very bad thing in the head of a cheap lawyer." Even her rare outbursts likely increased the jury's sympathy. She once turned and left a South Carolina courtroom, telling opposing attorneys that this would give "you gentlemen who are such gallant defenders of woman's honor a chance to further your cowardice by shooting me in the back." When the dust cleared, Oakley had won or settled 54 of her 55 suits, receiving awards ranging from $900 in Scranton to $27,500 from Hearst's Chicago papers. Some estimated that she brought in $800,000 from her legal actions, while others thought it closer to $250,000. But when expenses and lost wages were considered, Oakley actually lost money. She did secure something more important to her, though — vindication. And even newspapers she had bested in court still wrote her praises — the Hoboken Observer later sent her a flattering story with the note: "Although you dug into us for three thousand [dollars] at a time when [that] was a large sum with us — you see we still love you."