Originally created 08/09/99

Wild West shows thrilled city



One of the big hits currently on Broadway is the revival of the musical Annie Get Your Gun, starring Bernadette Peters as the legendary Western figure Annie Oakley.

Augustans around the turn of the century got to see the real Annie Oakley when she made appearances here in the Wild West show produced by the even more legendary Buffalo Bill Cody.

Neither Mr. Cody nor Miss Oakley were born in the West.

William Frederick Cody was born on Feb. 26, 1846, in Scott County, Iowa, while Phoebe Ann Mozee (she spelled her name as "Moses" to reporters) was born Aug. 13, 1860, on a farm in Darke County, Ohio.

Col. Cody, as later billed, rode on a mail route for the Pony Express, served as a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War, operated a hotel and shot more than 4,000 buffalo in 18 months (hence his nickname) to supply meat for workers laying railroad tracks across Kansas.

He was a civilian scout for U.S. soldiers fighting Indians before he started touring the nation's theaters in late 1872 with his first Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.

He was awarded a Medal of Honor in early 1872 for valor shown while fighting Indians, but Congress revoked the award months after his death in 1917 because he wasn't a member of the military at the time the award was made. He would continue to serve as a scout and Indian fighter off and on until 1883, when he organized his major touring Wild West show.

Miss Oakley started hunting in her early teens, selling the shot game birds to restaurants in Cincinnati. It was in that city in a shooting contest that she met vaudeville sharpshooter Frank Butler, whom she would marry in 1876, when she was 16.

He took Annie under his professional show business management; with his wife borrowing her career last name of "Oakley" from a suburb of Cincinnati.

In April 1885, she hooked up with Col. Cody's Wild West Show, which rapidly was becoming world famous. The show performed before crown heads of Europe in 1887 (including Britain's Queen Victoria), with Miss Oakley performing amazing shooting feats such as hitting dimes and glass balls tossed in the air, splitting a playing card held by its edge and shooting cigarettes out of her husband's mouth.

When the troupe performed in Berlin, Crown Prince Wilhelm (later Kaiser Wilhelm II) insisted he wanted to have a cigarette shot out of his mouth, which Miss Oakley accurately obliged.

Miss Oakley toured with the Cody show from 1885 to 1901, except for a brief period in 1887 when she was lured away to work for a rival Western show.

My research into these fascinating people reveals that "Buffalo Bill (Hon. W.F. Cody)," as advertised in The Augusta Chronicle, came to the Opera House at Eighth and Greene streets in 1878 for two nights of performances Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 8-9. Presenting the show was John T. Ford of Baltimore, the namesake of Ford's Theater in Washington.

A review of the show after the second night noted, "Mr. Cody gave some wonderful exhibitions of his skill as a marksman with the rifle, shooting a potato from the head of a lady, while holding the gun in various positions and his back turned to her, knocking the ashes from a lighted cigar held in a man's mouth, etc. The audience almost held their breath while he was performing these seemingly perilous feats."

When Col. Cody brought his growing Western extravaganza back to Augusta in 1895 for afternoon and evening performances on Friday, Oct. 18, with him on the bill were "Miss Annie Oakley, The Peerless Lady Wing Shot" and "Johnny Baker, The Skilled Shooting Expert."

The immense tent for the 1895 Augusta show reportedly could seat 10,000 and offered exciting entertainment by 600 colorful world figures, including 100 Indian warriors, 50 American cowboys, 30 Mexican vaqueros, 25 Bedouin Arabs, 30 South American gauchos, 20 Russian Cossacks and 50 Western frontiersmen and marksmen.

The Chronicle review of the 1895 show noted, "Annie Oakley and Johnny Baker were in good form in crack shooting and broke glass balls in all sorts of positions. Colonel Cody did his usual remarkable shooting with the rifle while riding rapidly around the arena, seldom missing a shot at a glass ball tossed in the air by one of his Indians."

Miss Oakley and Mr. Baker were back in Augusta on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 1901. It would be Miss Oakley's last appearance in Augusta.

Just five days later, the Cody show train left Charlotte, N.C., bound for its last season engagement in Danville, Va. It hit head-on with a freight train. The impact was so great that 110 horses on Cody's cars were killed, including his favorite mount, Old Pap.

No people were killed, but Miss Oakley had performed with Buffalo Bill for the final time. She suffered internal injuries that led to several operations and kept her off the road for more than a year.

She appeared in other Western shows and devoted her life to helping other women. She reportedly gave free shooting lessons to more than 2,000 women and helped more than 20 young women through college and nursing school.

Col. Cody eventually made his final Augusta appearances for a matinee and an evening show on Monday, Oct. 28, 1912. He was 66.

"The people of both continents have been entertained by Buffalo Bill for these long years, and he has possibly appeared before more people than any living person," The Chronicle reported the next day.

Col. Cody actually would continue doing shows until his last one on Nov. 11, 1916, in Portsmouth, Va. He died on Jan. 10, 1917, and is buried on Lookout Mountain near Golden, Colo.

In writing of his last Augusta show four years earlier, The Chronicle observed that Col. Cody had standing room-only audiences at both performances.

"The people of this section, it seemed, just simply wanted to pay their tribute to the greatest Wild West showman this country has every produced, and whose equal may never be known," The Chronicle wrote.

"For Buffalo Bill lived the real life of the show that he presented, and that life is now almost extinct, even in the wildest parts of the West."

Don Rhodes is publications editor for Morris Communications Corp., parent company of The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or ramblin@groupz.net.