The Annie Oakley Cocaine Case

During the 1880s and ‘90s, Annie Oakley was the star attraction of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. She was a pretty young lady, a sharpshooter who could hit a dime tossed in the air thirty feet away, or split a playing card edge-on.  Once she shot the ash off a burning cigarette held in the mouth of the German emperor.  “Little Miss Sure Shot” was known and loved by millions of fans on three continents.

Then, in the summer of 1903, came the shocking news. Annie Oakley was in jail in Chicago!

The August 11 issue of the Chicago American told the story.  A scruffy-looking woman had been arrested for stealing the pants of a man who’d befriended her.  While in custody she’d admitted that she was the famous Annie Oakley.  She had stolen the pants to support her cocaine habit.


“An uncontrollable appetite for drugs has brought me here,” she told the judge when arraigned at the Harrison Street Police Court. “I began to use it years ago to steady me under the strain of the show life I was leading.  Have pity on me.”

The judge was unmoved. He imposed a fine of $45 on the woman, committing her to jail until it was paid.  “A good, long stay [there] will do you good,” he said.

The story was soon out on the wire services around the country. It was read with particular interest by Mrs. Frank Butler of Nutley, New Jersey.  She was the real Annie Oakley.

Oakley immediately started writing to the newspapers, exposing the impostor. After investigating the matter, the Publishers Press wire service issued a retraction.

The woman in Chicago turned out to be Maude Fontanella, who’d once performed in a burlesque Wild West show as “Any Oakley.” After her arrest, Fontanella had “accidentally” told a matron that she was the noted sharpshooter.  The matron had tipped off an American reporter.  The reporter had interviewed Fontanella, and she had conned him as well.

Now the papers began printing retractions. Apologies poured in to Oakley.  That was not good enough for her.   She decided to take legal action.  Perhaps having to pay out money would make the press more careful in their reporting.  She felt that she was being reasonable in taking this approach to the insult.  “In the South they simply kill the man who slanders the good name of a woman,” she told a reporter.

Over the next seven years, Oakley brought suit against fifty-five newspapers. She traveled from city to city to personally testify.  William Randolph Hearst, whose American had printed the initial story, hired a detective to look for any dirt that might be used against Oakley.  Nothing was found.

In the end, Oakley won judgments or settlements from all but one of the fifty-five newspapers. The total awards came to $625,000—the equivalent of $25 million today.  Taking into consideration legal fees, travel expenses, and missed income, most historians conclude that Oakley had actually lost money in her pursuit of justice. But her reputation had been restored, and the case is considered a landmark in celebrity libel law.

This is just one of the stories in my newest book, Unknown Chicago Tales.  Available in bookstores or on Amazon.


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