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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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Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
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Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.

1. THE MELBOURNE DART RIOT

The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).

2. THE LEICESTER BALLOON RIOT

In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.

3. THE TORONTO CLOWN AND FIREFIGHTER RIOT

Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.

4. THE BELGIAN NIGHT AT THE OPERA RIOT

A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.

5. THE NEW YORK DOCTORS' RIOT

Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.

6. THE BROWN DOG RIOTS

Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.

7. THE EEL-PULLING RIOT

Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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