Separating fact from myth when it comes to the life of Calamity Jane is an almost impossible task. A frontierswoman extraordinaire, Jane was born Martha Jane Canary in 1852. Her parents died young, which meant that Jane entered into the seedy world of dance halls and prostitution when she was only 15! The stories about her life in Deadwood, South Dakota sometimes seem too wild to be true. In fact, some of them are too wild to be true! Read on to discover 42 wild facts about this icon of the Old West!
42. What’s in a Name?
So where did Martha Jane Canary pick up her famous nickname? According to her own tales, she was given the name by a military leader named Captain Egan whom she saved from an embarrassing fall from his horse. Egan then laughed and said “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains,” and the rest is history.
41. Spinner of Yarns
According to some of Calamity Jane’s contemporaries, the story of how she was bestowed her famous nickname is completely made up. In fact, one Captain Jack Crawford went on record stating that Jane never even took part in any of the military regiments to which she claimed service on the American frontier. Hardly a stretch to think Jane at the very least extended the truth a bit.
40. Working Girl
When Calamity Jane rolled into Deadwood, South Dakota, she certainly knew where to make all the right friends. She quickly ponied up the leading lady of the Black Hills: Dora DuFran. Jane not only became a close friend to DuFran, but she also worked for her as a prostitute. It was in this time that she came to know Wild Bill Hickok.
39. The Tell-All Scoop
Dora DuFran was a businesswoman, first and foremost. So even though she was a good friend to Calamity Jane, she was not shy about profiting off this friendship. In 1932, DuFran wrote and published a 12-page booklet about her time spent with Jane, entitled Low Down Calamity Jane. It was quite successful—at least she waited until almost two decades after Jane died!
38. But I’m Your Daughter!
Given the fame that Calamity Jane accrued as a frontierswoman, a number of claims were made after her death about possible inheritance. The most well-known of these claims was by a woman named Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick, who said she was the legal offspring of Jane and Wild Bill. She produced some scraps of letters and a marriage license written on a page of the Bible as evidence. Jean McCormick’s claims have since been refuted by a number of sources due to anachronistic details in her story as well as a few other inconsistencies.
37. The Cat’s Out of the Bag
Calamity Jane worked for Dora DuFran in Deadwood at the very first “cathouse” in Deadwood. Of course, the oldest profession in the world had been around long before Deadwood, DuFran, Calamity Jane, or even the United States ever existed. But the phrase “cathouse” was actually coined by DuFran to describe her saloon in the frontier town. And if Calamity Jane is any measure, those cats had claws!
36. Changing Tactics
Despite the fact that several military officers said that Jane made up many of her claims, she doubled down on her record of military service in a 12-page autobiographical pamphlet that she published. In the autobiography, she said that she was once ordered to race to Big Horn River with a series of dispatches for the military. According to Jane, she swam the Platte river and covered some 90 miles to make it on time to give the proper orders for General Crook—contrary to the statement by Captain Jack Crawford that she never once worked with Crook.
35. Making Friends
It was while Jane worked as a madam with Dora DuFran that she started her (in)famous relationship with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter. The pair rode into Deadwood one day, and it seemed only a matter of time for a woman like Calamity Jane, so thirsty for adventure, to come around to see what all the fuss was about.
34. Wild Wild West
Calamity Jane gained a lot of her notoriety as a frontierswoman in America due to her time with Wild Bill Hickok, who was a venerable Renaissance Man of the Old West. He was a vigilante, gunslinger, lawman, actor, producer, soldier, spy, wagon master, gambler, and showman. I mean, it’s hard to figure out what he didn’t do—and Jane was right there the whole time. In many ways, they were made for each other.
33. A Generous Woman
Calamity Jane claimed in her biography that Wild Bill Hickok was only free to marry Agnes Lake because Jane herself gave the OK. She claimed that she and Bill were married for some time, but she suggested that they get a divorce so that Bill was free to get married to Lake, a woman he clearly loved. Yet, as with most yarns spun by Jane, no records exist to verify this claim.
32. Can We Redeal?
Wild Bill Hickok met his maker back in Deadwood, where his adventures with Calamity Jane began. He was partaking in one of his favorite rituals, a poker game in the saloon, when his number came up. He was holding a fairly good hand, a pair of black aces, a pair of black eights, and an unturned card. A drunken man named Jack McCall had recently lost a lot of money to Hickok. McCall entered the saloon, pointed a gun at the back of Hickok’s head, and shot him at point-blank range. That hand that Hickok held, Aces and Eights, was thereafter known as “The Dead Man’s Hand.”
31. Be My Valentine?
One of Calamity Jane’s most famous acquaintances on her trek out to Deadwood with the Newton-Jenney Party was the famous surgeon, surveyor, and adventurer, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy (best name in the West?). He became a mountaineer during the Newton-Jenney expedition while taking breaks from his more important role as a surgeon. He was famous for being the lead surgeon on the International Expedition that was sent to map the 49th parallel, also known as the majority of the border between the United States and Canada. No wonder Jane found a kindred spirit in Valentine!
30. It was a Midnight Smash!
Mount Noriah Cemetery has its own collection of odd tales to tell travelers. Not only was Calamity Jane buried beside Wild Bill Hickok there, but Jane’s friend, Dora DuFran, was also buried there, alongside her husband and her parrot named Fred!
29. The Hard Life
Leading a life full of mystery, adventure, suspense, and violence is bound to take its toll on even the most hardened figures. Towards the end of her life, Calamity Jane suffered from depression that was exacerbated by her alcoholism. Allegedly, she once got so drunk that, while on a one-mile jaunt from Cheyenne to Fort Russell, she completely missed her destination and ended up at Fort Laramie, some 90 miles past where she was headed!
28. A Sad End
Calamity Jane finally met her maker in the summer of 1903. She had been on a train to Terry, South Dakota and drinking heavily. She became so inebriated that she began to feel violently ill. With the help of the train conductor, a few men carried Jane to the local Calloway Hotel. A doctor was called but it was too late—she died the next morning. The official cause of death was reported as inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia.
27. Letter Down Gently
One of the prevailing pieces of evidence that Jean McCormick used to claim that she was, in fact, the daughter of Calamity Jane was a bundle of letters addressed to her from her supposed mother. According to some reports, Jane had the bundle of letters stashed amongst her belongings at the time of her death. Others were pretty skeptical of Jean’s claims for one fairly obvious reason: the general consensus was that Calamity Jane was illiterate!
26. Have I Got a Story for You
Fairly down on her luck in the final decade of the 19th century, Calamity Jane looked to make some money doing the thing she knew best: telling stories. She began working as a storyteller for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1893 and even made an appearance at the Pan-American Exposition—a World’s Fair held in Buffalo, New York in 1901.
Many of the prevailing myths and iconic images of the American frontier can be traced back to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a variety act run by Bill Cody. Along with the campfire storytelling of Calamity Jane, the show included a re-enactment of the Pony Express, the sharpshooting talents of Annie Oakley, and a pretty racist depiction of a Native American attack on a settler’s cabin.
24. Nickel and Dime
One of the reasons that the fame of Calamity Jane spread so quickly across the United States was her appearances in “dime novels” of the period. Dime novels were cheap, throwaway stories usually based on cowboys and the frontier life. Jane became a major character in the Deadwood Dick series of novels that was published in 1877.
23. Is This Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?
The American public couldn’t get enough of Calamity Jane when she started appearing in serial adventure stories like Deadwood Dick and Calamity Jane: Queen of the Plains in the late 19th century. Jane seemed to have little say about the depictions of her, which meant they were entirely fictitious—and the public lapped it up. Not one to refuse fame, Jane was perfectly happy for her real life to be conflated with the exploits of the fictional heroine.
22. Movie of My Life
There have been countless adaptations of Calamity Jane for the silver screen over the years. The very first one, though, came only a few decades after Jane’s death in 1903. The Plainsman hit theatres in 1936 and starred Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok alongside Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane. The film was directed by the Hollywood legend Cecile B. DeMille and was a huge success.
HBO’s acclaimed drama Deadwood put a new spin on the old tales of the frontier, which, of course, meant retelling the story of Calamity Jane. This adaptation was much grittier than the old dime novels and Hollywood films of before. Robin Weigert became the latest actor to take up the personage of Calamity Jane.
20. Give or Take a Few Years
The very first screen portrayal of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman was maybe not the most accurate when it came to timelines. The movie famously opens with a scene featuring American President Abraham Lincoln. It should be noted that Lincoln was killed in 1865, at which point Jane would only have been 12. Oops!
19. It’s My Party
Calamity Jane made her way to Deadwood, South Dakota as a member of the 1875 Newton-Jenney Party. This scientific expedition headed out to the Black Hills looking for one thing and one thing only: gold. In other words, it was right up Jane’s alley. Led by Colonel Richard Dodge, the party was a major expedition in the Gold Rush on the American Frontier, and when they found the Black Hills full of that fine yellow stuff, they instigated the Great Sioux War of 1876-77.
18. Jane Nightingale
One of the less documented aspects of Calamity Jane’s life was the fact that she worked as a nurse in Deadwood, South Dakota when there was an outbreak of smallpox along the American frontier. Many others were too afraid to go anywhere near the afflicted, yet Jane rolled up her sleeves and helped take care of them. I suppose that kind of story doesn’t sell dime novels!
17. But How Wild?
The stories about Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok’s relationship and possible marriage seem to have been blown way out of proportion thanks to the tales of the American West and Jane’s own yarn-spinning. In reality, the pair had only known each other for about six weeks before Bill drew the dead man’s hand.
16. Humble Beginnings
For the tall-tales and the myths that proliferated through Jane’s life, her upbringing was perhaps more calamitous, if more mundane. Her father was a Missouri farmer who had tried, but failed, to reform the ways of her prostitute mother. After her mother died in a mining camp and her father died shortly thereafter in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jane, the eldest, was left to take care of the family.
15. Uncle Sam Wants You… No, Not You!
In order to help keep her family afloat after the death of her parents, Jane was working as a dancing girl and possibly as a prostitute by the time she was 15. But that only lasted so long thanks to Jane’s desire to kick things up a notch. While dancing for a group of soldiers one night, she came out on stage dressed in their military uniform. At the time women could be fined for wearing men’s clothes, so the owner of the establishment swiftly kicked Jane out onto the street.
14. Humanitarian Jane
Along with her time as a nurse during a smallpox outbreak in Deadwood, South Dakota, another account shows Calamity Jane’s more humanitarian side. One man from Spokane wrote about the time he witnessed Jane stay up all night with a dying gambler. He was known as a rough fellow in that part of the country, but that didn’t stop Jane from showing him a bit of kindness. A regular Florence Nightingale!
13. The Real Deal
After her brief time with Wild Bill Hickok, Jane’s life was probably less full of adventure and thrill-seeking than she let on. At the very least, she was married three different times. These were not successful partnerships by any stretch of the imagination—one of the men was even jailed for physically assaulting Jane.
12. Child’s Play
Although Jean McCormick became the most prominent person to claim she was the child of the famous frontierswoman, Calamity Jane did, in fact, have a number of children, though they didn’t always have the greatest fate. One tragic example is the only son that was recorded to be born from Jane. His name is unknown, but in all likelihood, it seems he died in infancy.
11. Game Over
One of the stranger arenas for Calamity Jane’s legacy to really take off has been in video games. The adventure one seeks in video games seems to be in line with the adventure of the frontiers in some way. Or something. Whatever the case, Jane has been referenced in popular video games like Fallout 3 and Fortnite. Does… does she have a dance?
10. Sin City
It seems only natural that a figure with such a rich and infamous mythology as Calamity Jane would make her mark in a town like Deadwood, South Dakota. The very founding of the town is infamous! Based on the Treaty of Fort Laramie, no settler was supposed to set up shop in the Black Hills, as it was legally the territory of the Lakota people—a promise that was kept right up until gold was found in the area, setting off the Black Hills Gold Rush and the eventual founding of Deadwood, treaty or no treaty.
9. Is That Your Final Answer?
When Calamity Jane (reportedly) led a mob against Wild Bill Hickok’s murderer, Jack McCall, after he was acquitted, they had the law on their side… err, kind of. Because Deadwood was an illegal settlement according to the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the law against double jeopardy was not applicable to McCall. That meant that after he was tried and acquitted in Deadwood, the ruling was declared illegitimate. The mob then took him out of town to a Dakota Territory Court, where he was found guilty and promptly hanged.
8. Ride the Rails
Part of the reason that Calamity Jane became such a celebrity in America at the end of the 19th century was that she seemed to embody the make-it-as-you-go, free-spirited attitude that was imagined to be the ideal of the American frontier. For Jane, this kind of attitude started early and out of necessity: by the time she was 15, she was already riding the rails of the Union Pacific Railroad out to Wyoming with her brothers and sisters in tow.
7. Night at the Museum
Most of the wild stories that circulated about the life of Calamity Jane were created by Jane herself as a way of a promoting herself. The famous autobiography that she published in 1896 is the source of much of the information (misinformation?) that we have about her. She wrote the pamphlet as she was about to go on a tour of dime store museums in the US, appearing as an oddity, a celebrity, a curiosity; whatever could help her make a living.
When all is said and done, Calamity Jane probably would have been pretty proud of her celebrity and legacy. After all, not every American folk legend gets to be played by one of the best, and most beautiful, actors of all time. Model turned actor Anjelica Huston played Calamity Jane in the 1995 television film Buffalo Girls.
5. Heed the Name
One of the more popular tales to describe the origins of Jane’s nickname had to do with her time working as a prostitute. The story goes that she gave frequent warnings to her male customers that if they ever stepped out of line, they would “court calamity.” That’s one way to keep the clients in check!
4. Let’s Get Him, Fellas!
After Jack McCall was initially acquitted on charges of murder for the death of Wild Bill Hickok, rumor had it that Calamity Jane roused a mob to find McCall and perform a bit of extrajudicial justice. This, the tale goes, is what led to the second trial and eventual execution of McCall. But like so many of the stories about Jane, the evidence points to the contrary—she was supposedly imprisoned by the military at the time of Bill’s death, so she couldn’t have led the mob.
3. Love You… Forever?
Calamity Jane made sure she was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok because, as she claimed, it was what they both wanted. Apparently, Bill was less enamored with the idea, but the pair were still buried together… as a practical joke! The four gravediggers who buried Jane figured Bill didn’t really harbor any feelings for her, yet decided to place her next to him as one last dig at the man.
2. A Calamitous Affair
Calamity Jane certainly earned her nickname during her lifetime, but even she couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen when she traveled to the Pan-American Exposition as a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West variety show in 1901. The exposition just so happened to be the site where the Polish-American anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated the American President William McKinley. Wrong kind of calamity!
1. Give up the Ghost
Jane’s reputation might have made her the star of her day—gracing the pages of dime store novels and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—but it wasn’t always a positive aspect of her life. She had to give her daughter Jessie, whom she once called “all I’ve got to live fer… my only comfort,” up for adoption when the girl was just ten years old. Apparently, Jessie had suffered bullying from other kids because of her famous Ma.
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