Annie Butler v. Globe Publishing Company (1904)
In 1901, Annie Oakley retired from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show to a quiet life with her family in Nutley, New Jersey. Then in August 1903, two Chicago newspapers ran stories with the headline: “Annie Oakley Is In Prison Cell. Famous Rifle Shot of Buffalo Bill’s Show Steals a Negro’s Trousers to Get Money to Buy Cocaine.” The articles also claimed that Annie was 28 years old, yet looked like she was 40 (she was actually 43). In reality a burlesque performer in Chicago was arrested for theft to support a cocaine habit and when arrested, the performer told the Chicago police her name was Annie Oakley.
Other newspapers nationwide also picked up the story from the Chicago papers and immediately retracted the story with apologies when they learned of their error. William Randoph Hearst, however, who owned the two Chicago stories that initially fabricated the story, send an investigator to collect reputation-damaging gossip from Oakley’s past. The investigator turned up empty handed.
Annie Oakley had always worked to carefully craft her public image. She cultivated a wholesome image and felt the articles had ruined her reputation. Therefore, instead of accepting retractions and apologies from the newspapers, Oakley sued 55 newspapers for libel. She then spent from 1904 to 1910 traveling the country testifying in various courts and eventually winning or settling 54 of the cases. In the end, however Annie collected less than she spent in legal fees and lost in wages. However, restoring her reputation was more important to her than the money.
Below are two pages from a court petition describing the libelous article that had appeared in the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat.