Friday, March 16, 2012

Famous Speech Friday: Annie Oakley's Libel Cases

(Editor's note: For Women's History Month, our famous speeches series turns to historic women's speeches. Writer Becky Ham gives us this look at sharpshooter Annie Oakley's series of courtroom speeches, defending herself and her reputation against libelous accusations, early in the 20th century.)

"Dope Caused Her Downfall...Annie Oakley is Now in Jail...Her Appetite for Drugs Drove Her to Steal the Trousers of a Negro"

It turned out--not that William Randolph Hearst and his papers were terribly interested in looking deeper into the matter--that the woman in these lurid headlines was a burlesque dancer sometimes known as "Any Oakley," and not the country's most famous sharpshooter as reported. But similar stories around the country devastated the real Annie Oakley, or Annie Butler as she was known in 1903.

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

Character was everything to Oakley, who had made a career out of treading the thin line between besting her male competition and reassuring them that she was still the little lady. Roles were reversed in her Victorian-era marriage: She traveled the world supporting her husband with her phenomenal rifle skills and showmanship, and she taught more than 15,000 women how to shoot for self-defense. But she opposed women's suffrage, and she was so careful to maintain a demure appearance that she sewed her own modest skirts when she was the star attraction of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

Most newspapers retracted the drug story within a day, but it wasn't enough for Oakley, who embarked on a six-year courtroom tour to clear her name. And when she took aim in these speeches, "Little Sure Shot" rarely missed. Oakley won 54 out of 55 libel cases she brought against newspapers from St. Louis to Scranton.

When the trials were over, Oakley had spent more money than she had recovered from the papers. But as biographer Glenda Riley notes in The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley,Oakley had regained control over her reputation--and more importantly, her livelihood--by fighting through to the end. "Had Annie failed in her quest for what she called justice," Riley writes, "she might have never worked again. Her place in history might have been that of a money-hungry, vindictive ex-star."

So how did Oakley win over the public at the trials, and what you can you learn from her famous courtroom testimony?
  • Appearance counts. The original newspaper articles made much of "Any Oakley's" disheveled, slovenly appearance. The real Oakley's look in court went far in combating the false story before she even opened her mouth to speak. The newspapers now said she "bore the appearance of a kindly schoolteacher," with her neat dress, a black veil lifted when she took the stand and prematurely gray hair piled on her head. Then, as now, juries--a very important kind of audience--can be influenced by appearance.
  • Know when it pays to stay calm...Reporters and juries were won over by Oakley's "polished courtesy," according to biographer Shirl Kasper. Oakley's answers were delivered in a "well-modulated and low voice," even in response to questions like, "Aren't you the woman who used to shoot out here and run along and turn head over heels, allowing your skirts to fall, and you wore buckskin leggings?" Oakley coolly replied: "I beg your pardon, you're wrong. I never wore buckskin leggings, neither did I allow my skirts to fall. I am the lady who shot."
  • ...But don't be afraid to fight back. Oakley kept her cool for the most part, but her rare outbursts were memorably cutting. Pressured by aggressive defense attorneys in Charleston, she minced no words before threatening to leave the courtroom: "If the gentlemen who fought for South Carolina during the Civil War conducted their defense with as much cowardice as the defense has been conducted against one little woman in this suit, I don't wonder that they received such a sound thrashing."
Below, you'll find a reenactment of some of Oakley's courtroom speeches from the PBS American Experience program on the sharpshooter.



Oakley was also the star of a 1894 film by Thomas Edison, when Edison captured her marksmanship on a prototype movie camera. Little Sure Shot, indeed.



Looking for famous speeches by women? Check out The Eloquent Woman Index of Famous Women's Speeches, with a wide variety of women speakers, types of speeches and topics to inspire your next speech. Each one comes with lessons for speakers, plus video or audio and a transcript, where available.