Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Outrageous, Notorious, Mysterious Life of Calamity Jane

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.


Rob Lopez said...

I watched that movie as a kid and I'll admit to having a crush on Doris Day as she appeared in that film.

The nitpicking of critics over the details of her life story seem a bit churlish. Undoubtedly she exaggerated her exploits. She'd passed the prime of her life and her livlihood was her story telling. Male versions of that kind of character can probably be found in many bars around Africa and South East Asia today, telling tales about their days as a mercenary or contractor. But, like the story tellers and historians of old, the exact details aren't always that important. And it's not always a matter of exaggeration - sometimes it's just the way memory works (like when witnesses to a crime fail to agree on most things), and an alcohol adled brain does tend to mangle the data banks somewhat.

If you take the story or her catching the captain as he fell from his horse, it should be obvious that the captain wasn't throwing himself off. Presumably he was slipping off reluctantly (as wounded men do) and for CJ to 'catch' him, all she had to do was ride alongside and grab his sleeve. In a further manoeuvre he could also have been leaned over to fall across her horse. She might have struggled to drag him on and steady him, but it's not an impossible manoeuvre by any means, and certainly a lot different to her actually picking him up from the ground and lifting him up. Being mounted does allow a rider to utilise some of the horse's strength.

And as for the acquital and retrial of McCall, there's nothing to say that it wasn't with her help that he was caught. And eventually he was hung, so Jane could simply have skipped over the tedious legal details and gotten straight to the point, as is the way with blue collar, practical types.

And it is clear, as you show, that she was indeed acquainted with physical acts of heroism and coping under pressure - and you can't fake that kind of stuff.

So in conclusion, while the jury's out, one can't discount everything she claimed because of a lack of scholarly rigour - that wasn't the standard by which she lived her life.

And what a life! Thank you for this. Another great article.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Rob, I don't know what to say! I agree with each and every point you've made! I think the quote by the doctor explains her situation very well--she was a woman ahead of her time. She did what she had to do to survive, and she did it well. Your description of the rescue of the Captain does make sense. It also makes sense that some others might mock her for it--they didn't go back and save the wounded Captain, and perhaps they thought it made them look bad that a woman succeeded where they had, well, not necessarily failed, but not succeeded. I think she has earned her hero status. She couldn't read or write, but she made her way in this world and lived an exciting life. I think it's sad that she struggled with alcohol, but people didn't understand alcohol or alcoholism back then the way they do now. She lived a hard life, just like the other men around her, but seemed to enjoy her life, pursuing jobs that interested her. A fascinating woman.

Dr.M said...

This was a really cool story, thanks for sharing!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Thank you for reading! I love sharing stories about the Old West. If I had lived in that time I would have been one of those grandmas in a rocking chair smoking a corn cob pipe, dozens of children at my feet listening to my tales about wagon trains and Comanche raids, all beginning with, "When I was your age..."

Blog Sisters said...

Darla I came across your blog. LOVE IT! I'm trying to uncover the tucked away pioneer and ghost towns in Florida when I'm not working 80 hours a week. But alas I lost my job and am working more than 80 hours to find a job!

This post of Calamity Jane is part of my fuel to keep going. These stories of smart women who did what they had to survive is motivating. I will survive and one day return to discovering my own backyard!

Looking forward to following your adventures.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I'm glad you feel inspired by my writing. Yes, looking for work is a full-time job, and I'm sorry you lost your job, especially in this economy, but if there's one lesson we can learn from Calamity Jane, it's that we, as women, are tough, strong, resilient, and survivors. You will get through this, and I look forward to reading your posts when you do.

tingtingYahee said...

How did you get the information from her autobiography? Was it actually published and authentically hers? I just read another account that it was probable that she was illiterate.

Do you know if she ever lived up in the mountain area near Salida or somewhere in Co in a cabin?

I do admire her courage to break out of the typical mold for women of her time.

I wonder what happened to her daughter....

Darla Sue Dollman said...

According to many historical accounts she was illiterate and the pamphlet, which she called a biography, was written by a ghost writer. It was supposed to be a Dime Novel, and Dime Novels generally contained a great deal of exaggeration, but Calamity Jane claimed it was a true biography. She was apparently teased and harassed on many occasions by people who were present at events mentioned in the autobiography and knew she was exaggerating her participation.

I obtained my information from biographies of Calamity Jane. I only found one mention of her daughter in my research, and it was implied that her daughter was taken in by foster parents when Calamity spent their money on alcohol. That would, however, be an interesting topic to research--her genealogy.

As for her life in Colorado, I would say that there are many mysteries about this woman, many years where she seemed to simply disappear. It would not surprise me at all to learn that she living near Salida. It's a beautiful, wild area and I could imagine she would find it appealing.

If you have information on her life in Colorado I would appreciate it if you shared it with the rest of us! There are many in this group who enjoyed reading about her life. She was indeed a courageous woman who did what she believed she had to do to survive in the West, but also took on many different roles for the excitement and adventure. I admire her greatly.

tingtingYahee said...

Yes, it would be very interesting to know what happened to her daughter--if her daughter knew anything about her real mother, etc.

I had heard rumors that Calamity had a cabin in an isolated property up that way in Colorado at some time--and there may exist a real diary and she was not illiterate after all--but I know no more.

There was another red-headed western pioneer woman we were wondering about. Maybe you know her name. She was very versatile and possibly also a medicine woman, petite in stature, a 'bit of a wildcat'...(she didn't take any guff from anyone) during those same times...? Maybe her name was Maddie??

It's interesting that you have focused on these particular states--I have roots in Texas and my grandfather had a lot to do with the Yant-Lee Spindeltop oil deal.

Well, until next time!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I think it's more likely that Calamity Jane was illiterate. I haven't heard of a real diary, but it's worth researching. Even if she was illiterate, she may have had someone write her story--not a Dime novelist, but a friend who she trusted. There are many possibilities. However, there is no doubt that she had a severe alcohol problem and this affected her behavior when she was young, and her thinking and ability to communicate when she was older. I have studied chronic alcoholism extensively and it is a rather frightening subject, but alcoholism was rampant in the Old West--they didn't realize how dangerous it could be.

Mattie--I'm going to take a guess that you are speaking of Mattie Silks, a famous madam who had brothels in both Kansas and Denver, Colorado, and she had quite a reputation. She was involved in the first recorded duel between two women, which took place in Denver and of course the argument was over a man. We could be talking about two different women, but Mattie Silks was an extremely wealthy woman when she died. When I was a teenager there was a restaurant named after her in Denver. It may still be there.

There is a third woman who lived in an isolated cabin in that area after the gold rush, and the Old West, came to an end. Baby Doe Tabor was Denver politician Horace Tabor's second wife. His first wife, after their divorce, saved her money, invested wisely, and died a very wealthy woman. Horace and Baby Doe, however, took many financial risks, and in her old age, Baby Doe Tabor was destitute, living off the generosity of family. Her husband's mine was sold, but the owners allowed her to live in the shack outside the mine and she died in the shack. I wrote an article about them, which is published here: http://suite101.com/article/horace-and-baby-doe-tabor-scandal-romance-and-riches-to-rags-a346704

Gosh, now my thoughts are all over the place, I'm digging through books, pamphlets, looking through my files for old articles...

tingtingYahee said...

No, I don't think (that) Mattie was the red-headed one we were trying to think of.

Mostly we remember she was petite, very feisty--a good marks-woman with a hot temper. Maybe her name wasn't Maddie but something similar.

The Baby Doe story was very interesting but I doubt it's the the right location.

The alcoholism aspect of Calamity Jane's life was very sad, of course...some people still refer to it as "medicine" today.

Thanks for sharing your research.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

You're welcome--and the research will continue! You've intrigued me with a number of questions. I now want to know more about the mysterious daughter of Calamity Jane, the diary, her illiteracy and the possibility she might have received an education of any kind, and Maddie. I may need to make a list! Thank you for the conversation--I am one of those rare people who love research and you've given me quite a bit to work on here! And most of all, thank you for reading my blog!

tingtingYahee said...

It's a nice blog format and the historical photos alongside are interesting, too.

I've recently come to know about the canals in Utah built alongside canyon walls by mostly unskilled labor taking great risks and courage to bring water to their towns in the 1890's to early 1900's.

Most of these workers were Mormon with a mixture of transient miners who understood how to use explosives and were out of work from their mining at that time.

The interesting thing to me is how 2 canals were being built almost simultaneously on adjacent facing sides of the same canyon and the historical references I've found so far which were written by their descendents do not discuss each others projects at all, as if the activity going on right across the river was invisible to them!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

That is fascinating. And yet, since the references were written by descendants, they were probably completely focused on the experiences of their own families. From a historical perspective, I would want to know if and how the workers on the two sides communicated or socialized.

Mining is one of my favorite history topics, particularly mining in Colorado and New Mexico where there was tremendous conflict.

And thank you for the compliment. :-)

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