In 1953, Warner Bros. Studios released the musical extravaganza Calamity Jane starring Doris Day as the boisterous, boastful, gun-toting Calamity and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok, her not-so-secret crush. It is a fun movie with plenty of dancing and romance, but the only part of the film that remotely resembles the life of Calamity Jane is her habit of firing guns in bars, which at one time was welcome behavior in Wild West towns as Calamity's true, wild personality was known to attract large crowds to small town saloons.
From the day she was born, Calamity Jane was different from other women of the time. She had a special kind of energy that attracted friendships with men, but discouraged the same with women. Unfortunately, her wild social behavior eventually was her downfall. Like many of the notorious wild men of the West, Calamity spent her last days suffering terribly from years of hard drinking and heavy smoking.
There is so much about the life of Calamity Jane that remains a mystery. Biographer James D. Horan detailed the life of Calamity Jane in a collection of essays titled Heroic & Outrageous Women where he referred to her as "the most notorious woman in American frontier history. According to Horan, Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Canary, or Cannary, or Canarray, on May 1, 1852. In addition to the spelling of her name, her birth date and birthplace are also debated. Anyone who has tried to trace their family's genealogy will know immediately the source of this confusion--census records at that time were handwritten, often with very bad handwriting, and census takers did not always ask for the spelling of a name.
In her autobiography, titled Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, she begins her life story by stating, "My maiden name was Marthy Cannary. I was born in Princeton, Missourri, May 1st, 1852. Father and mother were natives of Ohio. I had two brothers and three sisters, I being the oldest of the children." She also describes her childhood fondness for horses and her keen ability to aim and shoot a gun. Although her talents with both horses and guns are well-documented, it is doubtful that Calamity Jane actually wrote these words as it is well known that Calamity Jane could not read or write.
There are few documented details about the early years of Calamity Jane, though it is known that she started her life, and ended her life, as a drifter. It is also known that one of her first employers was the Union Pacific Railroad. She must have been very young when she worked for the railroad as this was prior to her 1869 arrival in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Cheyenne was a bustling metropolis in the Wild West, the home of many wealthy men and women, and Calamity made quite an impact on the town as she was already wearing men's pants, chewing tobacco, spitting like a mule and drinking in the local saloons. She was, however, welcomed in bars as her wild antics--shooting mirrors, shouting and bragging--attracted customers. Over the next few years she is known to have lived in many Western towns, and worked many jobs. Some say she was attractive when she was younger, a dark-eyed beauty. Others say that it was fitting that she dressed like a man as she looked like one, too. This is not, however, how her fans wished to see her, then or now. For instance, in the 1936 film The Plainsman, Calamity Jane is played by the great Hollywood beauty Jean Arthur, and Wild Bill Hickok is played by Gary Cooper whose character clearly finds her attractive in the film, but has great difficulty expressing his feelings for her. Again, the stories told about Calamity Jane are as varied as the stories she told about herself.
Around 1873 it is believed that Calamity left Cheyenne to work as a mule skinner, a slang term for one who drives mules, but it is also possible she went to work on a cattle drive. She was then spotted in Abilene and later in Hays City, Kansas before making her way up to Montana. In Montana she made friends with Dr. W. A. Allen who years later commented on her dress and behavior, which was considered shocking and outrageous for the times. "She swore, she drank, she wore men's clothing. Where can you find a woman today who doesn't do such things? She was just fifty years ahead of her time," Allen said.
In her autobiography, Calamity claims to have been a scout for General Custer at Fort Russell, Wyoming in 1870, which is unlikely. However, she also says this was the first time she started wearing men's clothing, so it's possible she was able to blend in with the rest of the men. She claims to have been one of the best shots and the most reckless and daring horseback riders of her time, which seems to be a reasonable claim, as well. She bragged in her autobiography--and in many Western saloons--that she once saved the life of a fellow soldier under highly questionable circumstances. She said that she was with a group of soldiers trying to escape from marauding Indians. She was riding in front when she heard a shot, turned, and saw a man named Captain Egan slumped in his saddle. She rode back to Egan and caught him as he fell from his horse, then carried him back to the fort. Captain Egan, she says, is the one who named her Calamity Jane. It is this story that raises the most questions, and eyebrows, regarding the veracity of Calamity Jane's autobiography. How could she possibly have had the strength to catch a falling man in her arms while controlling both her horse and his? (In the Doris Day film, Wild Bill Hickok teases Calamity Jane about this story.)
Calamity also claims to have worked as a Pony Express rider, carrying mail from Deadwood for fifty miles through the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was a dangerous route, but Calamity explains that she experienced little trouble due to her reputation for her quick shot and careful aim--no one wanted to mess with her! She spent the rest of that summer hanging out with her friends Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter. It is also known that she spent a short time working at the brothel of local Black Hills madam Dora DuFran during this time, as well.
Unfortunately, on August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed by Broken Nose Jack McCall during a poker game at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon No. 10 in Deadwood. (Oddly, when he died, Hickok was holding a Dead Man's hand of two black aces and two black eights. A few days before his death, Hickok told friends that he had a premonition he would die that night.) In her autobiography, Calamity claims she heard of Bill's death and ran from her room without her weapons. She tracked McCall to Shurdy's Butcher Shop and threatened him with a meat cleaver until other men arrived to lock him up in a log cabin. Calamity claims McCall escaped from the cabin and was later caught in Yankton and hung. Historians, however, state that McCall was tried and acquitted for Hickok's murder, then arrested a second time in Yankton when he bragged about the murder, retried, and hung for the murder.
It is clear that Calamity Jane tries hard to make herself out to be the hero in every tall tale in her short book, but this type of writing was expected from dime novels about the Wild West. If her book was published in contemporary times she might face a few lawsuits for libel and find herself chased off the Oprah show, but at the time it was published, in the late 1800s, her readers accepted her stories as truth. In the eyes of her readers, in the minds of her fans, Calamity Jane was a Wild West hero.
Following Hickok's death, however, there are also a few well-documented instances of Calamity Jane's true heroism. For instance, she did rescue passengers in an overland stagecoach that was attacked by Plains Indians. She distracted the Indians then took over the reins of the stagecoach--the driver was killed during the attack--and delivered the passengers safely to Deadwood. She also served as a health worker during a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood in 1876 and showed great compassion toward the men she nursed back to health. She also worked desperately to save the life of a young man, C.H. Robinson, who would later appear again in the story of Calamity Jane.
Sadly, according to historian James D. Horan, Calamity spent many years moving from saloon to saloon, drowning her sorrows in massive quantities of alcohol. She eventually made her way back to Wyoming where she worked on a cattle ranch, then down to El Paso where she claims in her autobiography that she met and married Clinton Burk (Burke) in 1885. (A Montana newspaper, the New Northwest, also challenged this story, claiming she had been married twice--once to a man named Washburne and a second time to Lt. Summers, who was the father of her child. Others claim she was married three times, and Calamity told many of her friends that Wild Bill Hickok was the father of her child. Some believed they were secretly married. The mysteries about the life of Calamity Jane are truly endless.)
According to Calamity, she gave birth to a daughter on October 28,l 1887. She says that she and her husband moved to Boulder, Colorado and managed a hotel until 1893. In 1893, Calamity appeared in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show with many other great western performers, such as sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Calamity was working as a storyteller, but again, her drinking interfered with her ability to perform.
Calamity and her daughter arrived in Deadwood, without her husband, in 1896. The many years of hard drinking and smoking had changed her appearance and her friends were shocked and saddened to see these changes. One acquaintance, Ben Arnold, famous for his own exploits as an Indian fighter, wrote that she had changed so much he did not recognize her.
Nevertheless, Calamity was offered lucrative employment. She was hired to play herself in a traveling show about the Wild West. In her autobiography, she tells of her first "engagement" held at the Palace Museum, Minneapolis, January 20th, 1896. According to a 2001 article in Deadwood Magazine titled "Girls of the Gulch," Calamity's autobiography made its appearance about the same time she started performing in the show. Her first performance in the show also marks the end of her story in her autobiography.
Calamity drank so heavily during her time with the show that she was fired. She was broke, and she gave away copies of her autobiography in saloons to pay for her alcohol. In 1899, she once again arrived in Deadwood with her daughter. Her friends, saddened by her degradation and concerned for her child, arranged a benefit on her behalf. Calamity abandoned her child at a hotel and spent the evening drinking at a local saloon until she spent all of the money from the benefit. Her child was turned over to foster parents.
Calamity Jane was next spotted at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. In 1902, explorer Louis Freeman found her in Yellowstone. They shared a few beers, then he took photographs of Calamity smoking a cigar. In 1903, Calamity returned to Madam Dora DuFran's in the Black Hills, cooking and doing laundry for the other women who worked at the brothel.
In August of 1903, Calamity Jane failed to show up for work. She was found in her room at the Calloway Hotel, dying. She told her friends that she wanted to be buried next to Wild Bill Hickok and they complied. According to James D. Horan, her funeral is believed to have been one of the largest to ever take place in Deadwood. The rector of the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in South Dakota where she is buried, the man who closed her coffin, was C.H. Robinson, the young boy she had saved during the smallpox epidemic so many years before in Deadwood.