How the Wild West stage was won by a Longford man

Frank E Butler.
Thousands of miles separated Co Longford from the American West, but one local man bridged the gap to became a central part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and his marriage to one of its best-loved figures inspired a Broadway musical.

Thousands of miles separated Co Longford from the American West, but one local man bridged the gap to became a central part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and his marriage to one of its best-loved figures inspired a Broadway musical.

Francis ‘Frank’ E Butler was born in Longford town on January 20, 1847, to Michael and Catherine (née Whelan). Records show he was baptised 10 days later, and his godparents were Edward and Maria Halligan.

Frank was the second child born to the couple, after his sister Eleanor (1845) and three more siblings followed: John (1849), Mary Anne (1851), and Michael (1853).

When he was 13 the family moved to the USA and he worked in a succession of odd-jobs, including one position as a glass-blower at a factory in Camden, New Jersey.

In 1870 he married Henrieta Saunders, and the couple had two children together, Edward and Katie, before the marriage fell apart.

Frank then went on to became a successful vaudeville actor, and he combined this talent with his superb ability as a sharpshooter to develop his own stage act.

It was during a shooting competition in 1875 that he first encountered a teenage girl called Phoebe Ann Mosey, who would go on to be come better known by her stage name, Annie Oakley. She out-gunned Frank to win the competition, but instead of nursing a bruised ego he fell in love with her. The couple married the following year, at which time Frank was 29 and Annie was 16.

Continuing his stage career, Frank created and toured with two more crack-shot roadshows, including one he formed with John Graham in 1882,called ‘America’s Own Rifle Team and Champion All Around Shots’.

When his partner fell ill prior to a performance, Frank recruited his wife to take his place, and her popularity with the crowd persuaded them to form their own act.

The couple joined the Sells Brothers Circus in 1884 before being recruited by the famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show the following year. With Annie shooting to fame as the star attraction, Frank stepped aside and became her manager.

With Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the couple toured throughout North America, as well as Europe, where they entertained royal figures such as Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, and Kaiser Wilhelm II. One European tour in 1889 included a show at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, which also featured the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower.

They retired from the Wild West Show in 1901, after which Frank took up a role as a salesman with the Remington Arms Company and Union Metallic Cartridge Company, although both returned to the world of showbusiness with Vernon Seaver’s ‘Young Buffalo Show’ between 1911 and 1913.

Annie and Frank appear to have shared a happy retirement together, spending time in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and North Carolina, before settling down in Ohio.

The couple had been married for 50 years when Annie died on November 3, 1926.

The story goes that Frank refused to eat after her death, and he died in the care of Annie’s sister just 18 days later at the age of 79.

However, in Shirl Kasper’s 1992 biography of Annie Oakley, the author claims his birth certificate listed his place of death as a nursing home in Michigan and the cause as “senility”. One item on the document not open to conjecture, though, was his occupation: “Showman”.

According to his wishes, Frank was laid to rest beside Annie in Greenville, Ohio.

Inspired by the couple’s story, Dorothy and Herbert Fields adapted a fictionalised version for the stage, with lyrics and music by Irving Berlin. ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ debuted on Broadway in 1946, and opened in London’s West End a year later. It was later adapted for the cinema and television, and remains popular with audiences to this day.