Annie Oakley Libel Case Revisited

By Reisman, Phil | Editor & Publisher, June 8, 1991 | Go to article overview

Annie Oakley Libel Case Revisited


Reisman, Phil, Editor & Publisher


Annie OaOakley Libel case revisited

It is a nearly forgotten fact that Annie Oakley, the great rifle shot, was once libeled in print. When it happened, Annied didn't get her gun. She got a good lawyer.

She took aim at - count'em - 46 newspapers and knocked down 44 of them for judgments, ranging from $500 to $27,500.

Pretty good legal shooting for a little old country girl from the backwoods of Ohio.

Like those who collect Sandwich glass or baseball cards, I collect and file away fine and ephemeral examples of history trivia.

I decided to dust off the Annie Oakley libel case after reading about the recent $58 million award given to a former district attorney in McLennan County, Texas. In case anyone missed it, the story about the biggest libel prize in American history was stripped across Page 19 above an ad in the April 21 Sunday edition of the New York Times.

I could be wrong but I doubt the story got much better play in other newspapers or received much airtime on tv evening news broadcasts. Editors would rather run election results from Sri Lanka above the fold before expending too much ink on news that a lottery-sized prize was dished out to o a victim of the Fourth Estate. That is because libel cases, particularly when they go against the defendant, are often viewed as financially intimidating threats against a free and unfetered press.

They can also serve as c cautionary tales that serve to lift the profession's standards of accuracy and fairness. Annie Oakley's grievance - the first big celebrity libel case of this century and one of the b biggest bonehead miscues in newspaper h history - certainly fits neatly y in a Journalism 101 primer on n commonsense practices and procedures.

The year was 1903 somewhere near the beginning of the end of journalism's Mesozoic Era when yellow was the color of choice and truth was too often considered an inconvenience. As H.L. Mencken said, a newspaper reporter in that age had a public status "above that of a streetwalker but below that of a police captain." His editors were self-serving "Babbits in Greeley whiskers."

By contrast, here stood five-foot-high Annie Oakley. She was 43, suffering from chronic health problems, and all but out of the public eye since having left Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show years earlier. She was still an American legend, but a prime candidate for slander. One need only glance at today's supermarket tabloids to understand how fading stars are treated as fair game - even Annie Oakley, a woman Will Rogers once compared to a saint.

An enthralled Queen Victoria called her "my clever little girl." Sitting Bull, who had little use for most whites, was smitten by Watanya Ceilia, "Little Sure Shot," a creature imbued with a medicine so powerful that nothing could harm her.

Sitting Bull never met George W. Pratt, a reporter for the Chicago American. .

Pratt's dubious claim to newspaper immortality was staked on the careless reportage of what ordinarily should have been regarded a routine police e arrest. The drama began on Aug. 8,8, 1903, at Harrison Street Police e Court in Chicago where a man named Charles Curtis filed a complaint that a toothless hag, who called herself Lillie Cody, had stolen his penants to get money to support her cocaine habit.

Justice John R. CaCaverly issued a warrant for Lillie's arrest "on a plea of debt for failure to pay the city a certain demand not exceeding a hundred dollars, for a violation of Section 1287 of said city, in regard to making an improper noise, disturbance, breach of the peace . …

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