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Annie Oakley Once Took Hearst Newspapers to Court for Reporting a False Cocaine Addiction

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Generally, it isn’t a good idea to pick a fight with a world-famous sharpshooter. William Randolph Hearst and his editors found this out the hard way when they ran a story that said the already-legendary Annie Oakley was a drug addict and a thief. But Oakley did not reach for her rifle. She took Hearst to court, along with many other newspapers that picked up the story. She wanted to clear her good name.

If what you know about Annie Oakley comes from the musical Annie Get Your Gun, forget most of it. Oakley learned to shoot as a young girl in Darke County, Ohio, because she needed to put food on the table for her impoverished family. Her skill with a firearm was soon noticed, and she went up against one of the leading marksmen of the day, Frank Butler, and she outshot him. They married and toured the country as a marksmanship act. He became her manager. From the time she became a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in 1885, she was nationally famous.

But although Oakley was called Little Sure Shot and The Princess of the West, she was a demure, married, proper Victorian lady who always went by Mrs. Frank Butler or Annie Butler in her private life. She sewed her own costumes and although they showed her ankles and some of her lower leg, they were modest by show business standards.

In 1903, Oakley was taking a break in her career and, having left Buffalo Bill’s show, was living in New Jersey, planning a future in acting after a well-received role in the play The Western Girl. In August of that year, two of Hearst’s Chicago newspapers ran a story about how Annie Oakley had been arrested for theft and had turned to thievery to support her cocaine habit. The headline? "Famous Woman Crack Shot … Steals to Secure Cocaine." (Other papers erroneously ran that Oakley was Buffalo Bill's daughter-in-law—also a complete fabrication.)

The truth was that a burlesque performer who went by the stage name "Any Oakley" had been arrested for theft and imprisoned in Chicago. Hearst’s papers claimed that the woman was destitute because of her drug habit, and was 28 but looked like 40. In reality, the gunslinger Annie Oakley was in her early 40s and was hale, healthy, and still quite attractive. The fact that the arrested woman wasn’t the real Annie Oakley was ignored by Hearst’s editors and the story ran. It was picked up by dozens of newspapers across the country.

The real Oakley was furious. "The terrible piece...nearly killed me," she recalled. "The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character."

And purge her character, she did. Oakley started by announcing that the Chicago woman (whose real name was Maude Fontenella) was not her and that the whole story was utterly untrue. Many newspapers published retractions immediately.

However, Hearst doubled down. He even sent investigators to Ohio to try to dig up dirt on Oakley. They found absolutely nothing that could be used against her.

Oakley did not stop with asking for retractions. She sued 55 newspapers for libel in one of the largest libel actions in U.S history. The first case came to court in 1904 and the last one was finally finished in 1910, but Oakley would not back down no matter how long it took. She crisscrossed the country to testify in her own behalf. She took the stand and stared down defense lawyers who tried to hold her show business career against her. They accused her of bringing the lawsuits only for their publicity value and of immodest performances on stage. Despite the provocations, she remained calm and ladylike on the stand.

Of the 55 libel suits that Oakley brought, she won or settled in 54 of them. She won $27,500 from Hearst’s newspapers, and between $250,000 and $800,000 all told, depending on who is doing the estimating. Despite winning virtually every case, Oakley lost money. But she got what she was aiming for: getting her good name back.

Oakley continued to perform off and on for the rest of her life and even offered to raise "a regiment of women sharpshooters" to help fight World War I. She died in 1926 at the age of 66. Her ever-supportive husband, Frank Butler, died 18 days later.

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For Sale: More Than 150 Items of Victorian Mourning Art, Clothing, and Jewelry
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Courtesy of Freeman's

Funeral fashion hasn't always been reserved for memorial services, judging from a massive memento mori auction that's being billed as perhaps the largest collection of mourning art ever offered for sale. Spotted by Atlas Obscura and sponsored by Philadelphia-based Freeman’s auction house, the online sale—which kicks off on Wednesday, November 15—features more than 150 works from a renowned private collection, ranging from clothing and jewelry to artworks.

During the Victorian era, people paid tribute to their loved ones by wearing black mourning garb and symbolic accessories. (The latter often featured jet or real locks of hair, according to a 2008 article published in the academic journal Omega.) They also commissioned death-themed artworks and objects, including paintings, as exhibited by Angus Trumble's 2007 book Love & Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.

These items have long since fallen out of fashion, but some historic preservationists amassed their own macabre private collections. Anita Schorsch, who’s arguably the most famous collector of memento mori, used her historic treasures to launch the Museum of Mourning Art back in 1990. Located in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, the museum is—as its name suggests—the only institution in the nation devoted exclusively to mourning art. The museum has been closed since Schorsch's death in 2015, and the items featured in Freeman's auction are from her collection.

Check out some of its memento mori below, or view the online catalogue here.

Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Hairwork choker, 19th century-mori, from the Collection of Irvin and Anita Schorsch
Courtesy OF Freeman's


Hairwork shroud pin, 19th century, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Gold, enamel and pearl "Stuart crystal" mourning slide, made in late 17th century England and part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Group of 19th century ladies and gentleman's mourning costumes, from the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's


18th century iron and brass cemetery padlock from London, England, part of the Collection of Irvin & Anita Schorsch
Courtesy of Freeman's

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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