Today, August 13, is the birthday of the American hero, Annie Oakley (1860-1926). Also dubbed, “Little Miss Sure Shot” because she stood only five feet tall, Annie Oakley was at one time the nation’s most recognized sharpshooter…and perhaps she still is. Truly, some call her America’s first female star. Her prowess was staggering. With a .22 caliber rifle at 30 paces , she could snuff candles, hit dimes tossed in the air, shoot cigarettes out of her husband’s mouth, and repeatedly split playing cards, held on edge! At age 15 she joined Buffalo Bill’s famed Wild West Show, thus securing her legend for generations to come. With Buffalo Bill, she traveled and performed across the nation and world…including Paducah…not once, but twice, in 1897 and 1901.
Around the same time Oakley and Cody were gracing our riverbanks, a pair of Paducah siblings, the Terrell Brothers, decided to form their own, competing western show, curiously and similarly called Buckskin Bill’s Wild West Show. Ever heard of it?
Keep in mind, that in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, much of the area west of the Mississippi River was still consider the Old West. Much of that territory wasn’t considered for statehood until after the Civil War. The exploits of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp all took place around the 1880s, so the tales were still fresh in the minds of many Americans. The Old West was considered a foreign land by many “easterners”, so imagine the spectacle then to see all these popular characters come to life.
Buffalo Bill Cody
Buffalo Bill’s show first rolled into Paducah on October 5, 1897 and was advertised in the Paducah Daily Sun for nearly a month prior. The regular advertisement for the extravaganza promised no fewer than 100 Indian Warriors, 50 American Cowboys, 30 South American Gauchos, 50 Western Frontiersmen & Marksmen, 25 Bedouin Arabs, 20 Russian Cossacks, as well as a bevy of Cavalry, Lancers, German Cuirassiers, and live buffalo. Add to this three bands, trick horses, a parade (led by Colonel Cody himself), a display of 250,000 electric lights (still a relative oddity for those days), and the famed Annie Oakley, and you’ve got yourself one rip roaring festival.
The fairgrounds were erected at Tenth and Boyd streets. Buffalo Bill’s advertisements boasted tents that could hold 20,000, and by all accounts, it seems that Paducah might have reached that number. In the following day’s paper under the headline “Whew, What a Crowd,” the Paducah Daily Sun stated that folks came to town from as far away as Chattanooga and St. Louis to see the show. “They arrived in wagon loads, boat loads, carriage loads, and train loads. No adequate means of transportation could be found.”
Among the crowd of the thousands who witnessed Buffalo Bill’s grand performances in 1897 were a pair of brothers, Ed and Fletcher Terrell. The Terrell Brothers were no strangers to the entertainment business as they were already the owners and operators of a small circus and of Morton’s Opera House which stood at 4th and Broadway. Surely inspired by Buffalo Bill, his fame and success, the brothers decided to start their own Wild West show, based right here in Paducah. They named their show Buckskin Bill’s Wild West Show, and found a star with the moniker Colonel V.F. Cody, as opposed to Buffalo Bill’s true name W. F. Cody.
The first mention of their enterprise reached the Paducah paper on December 22, 1899: “The wild west show that Messrs. Terrell are to start on the road in the spring is the ‘Buckskin Bill Wild West Show,” which was incorporated a few months ago by these gentlemen. These gentlemen…have purchased the Bothe Wagon factory and will use it as a winter quarters for their show. The knowledge they have of the business and the preparations they are making for the show insures their success.”
And preparations they did make; the papers for the next few months are full of notices of the arrivals of all sorts of performers. Success, however, was much harder to come by. Almost from the onset in the spring of 1900, the Buckskin Bill show was besieged by tragedy and criminality. The list is of offenses is mind-blowing: an 18 year old horse rider, Theresa Russell, was dragged to death by her horse during a performance; one of the show’s snake handlers tried to commit suicide in front of the crowd by downing a bottle of laudanum; a spectator was killed in a shootout with some of the show’s “cowboys;” a 15-year-old girl from Vanceburg, Illinois was kidnapped by some of the men from the show, the Terrell’s Opera House burned to the ground by disgruntled Buckskin Bill employees, and an assassination plot against Fletcher Terrell was hatched…but not realized.
The Buckskin Bill show was jinxed, at least in the hands of the Terrells who ultimately sold their show a year and a half later to a Chicago firm, who in turn sold the show to Frank Jesse and Cole Younger of the James-Younger Gang. Still traveling under the name Buckskin Bill, the show found moderate success under new management.
Just around the time Buckskin Bill’s left Paducah in 1901, Buffalo Bill returned to town with his show. Held on October 3, 1901 behind the I.C.R.R. hospital, Buffalo Bill’s show enjoyed the same phenomenal success it had enjoyed in 1897. “Combining as it does so much that is instructive as well as entertaining, so much of history mixed with romance, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West never palls on the public taste, but the more it visits us the more we see of it, the heartier is our welcome for it.” (Paducah Sun, 1901).
Among the performers in that October 3, 1901 show was our birthday girl, Annie Oakley. The Paducah show proved to be one of her last performances with Buffalo Bill. A little over three weeks later one of Buffalo Bill’s trains was hit head-on by another train in North Carolina, an accident that left Oakley temporarily paralyzed from spinal damage and ending her traveling career with Buffalo Bill.
To learn more about the Wild West, be sure to visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library. And if you like this article, make sure to “like” our Facebook page.