In the year of August 1903, a man closed the coffin lid upon a frail middle aged ladies’ corpse. She had died before her time due to the excesses of alcohol. Over the years, the constant intake of liquor had finally taken its toll on the woman who had died in a hotel in Terry, South Dakota. Her body, by dying request, had been bought to Deadwood, a short distance from the town of Terry. The man, placing the lid upon the coffin, would have been caught in the moment of sad nostalgia that gripped the town of Deadwood in August 1903. The man had reason to show gratitude for the dead woman because she had helped, save his life – nursing him to health, from smallpox when it swept the town in 1876. He had been an infant boy at the time and the cursing drunken frontier lady had helped in the smallpox hospital of the frontier town that had sprung up in the middle of Indian Territory. Her name was Martha Cannary and she would have been in her early twenties at the time of 1876. To Deadwood and those who read the dime novels, the lady was known as Calamity Jane. She had lived a colourful life of adventure – one that she exaggerated and another that she really lived – perhaps a sadder one that legend eclipsed.
She had been a wild and reckless frontier lady of her time and was reputed for telling tall stories to anyone that would listen. She was quick tempered, under the influence of drink, and dressed often like a man of the frontier in buck skins and so forth. She said that she had been a scout for Custer’s seventh cavalry in the early 1870s and had saved a Captain from death during an Indian attack. She was a colourful larger than life character that may have told tall stories and some truthful jazzed up ones. The dime novelists from the east had written accounts about her exploits because she had known Custer and Wild Bill Hickok. She had died on August 2nd, the same date that her friend, Wild Bill Hickok had, twenty seven years earlier.
Her burial was to be on Mount Moriah, overlooking the town of Deadwood, and next to Wild Bill Hickok’s grave. The town of Deadwood had a huge gathering of people for Calamity Jane’s funeral because she was an important person in the founding days of the town when all sorts of strange people came into the fringe town of Deadwood because of the gold rush.
In 1876 many of these people were misfits from the civilized world – searching for something that might give them their vocation in life. Some were good for the enterprise while others were not cut out for such things. I think people like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok were not cut out for such things. They burned brightly but always had to be moving on. Deadwood would become the end of the line for Wild Bill Hickok.
Calamity Jane had come out of hospital at Fort Fetterman after falling ill during her scouting for the US Cavalry. The stories of scouting for Custer had been before this time and these were her last days in the employ of the US Cavalry – if she ever was. From Fort Fetterman, Calamity Jane rode to Fort Laramie where she came upon another famous frontier man named Charlie Utter. He was with a wagon train going to Deadwood where there had been a gold strike in the surrounding hills and streams. People from all over were descending upon the shanty town that had sprung up in the Indian nation outside the jurisdiction of the US government. With Charlie Utter was the famous frontier man and gunfighter, Wild Bill Hickok. These were hard drinking people and Calamity Jane was taken by Wild Bill and his reputation.
It was with Charlie Utter and Wild Bill that Calamity Jane entered into Deadwood. There were all sorts of cut throats and double dealers in Deadwood and within a few weeks of arrival, Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead while playing poker in a saloon. He was killed by a young man named Jack McCall who shot him in the back of the head. The death of this legendary character was a great shock. It was August 2nd 1876 and almost the entire shanty town of Deadwood turned out for his funeral. Calamity Jane claimed to be romantically involved with Wild Bill, but many of his friends discounted this. The dime novelist would use this to give Calamity Jane better celebrity for selling dime novels back east.
Calamity Jane showed the signs of obvious alcohol abuse and gained the reputation as a story teller. However, she showed endearing qualities too and she gained some special and caring friends among the outcasts and misfits of Deadwood. Perhaps these people knew the true Calamity Jane with all her weakness and fine qualities. One such quality, came to the fore during the smallpox epidemic of Deadwood. Her help was said to have been very substantial and many who came to know her, valued that less expressed feature of Calamity Jane.
She stayed in Deadwood, often seen in a drunken state, until 1881 when she moved on and tried various other things, including marriage and hotel running. These things failed because of her weakness for alcohol – the demon that would always get the better of her. She also gave birth to a daughter that she had adopted.
She joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show – shooting from her horse while galloping in an arena staged circus. This might have come about because of her reputation, back east, in the dime novels. Again, the same old gremlin took her away from the circus show and by 1903 she was burnt out and dying when she returned to the South Dakota town of Terry, close to Deadwood, where she died a few months later in August 1903.
Calamity Jane burnt her way into legend through the dime novels and her brief acquaintance with Wild Bill Hickok, plus her reports of scouting for Custer. But there were others of Deadwood that had a different impression of her – a likable but sad impression of a tomboy lady that told tall stories and drank too excess, but had a heart of gold. Perhaps the man who put the lid upon her coffin would know of the true goodness that was Calamity Jane – the rough, cussing, frontier lady that helped nurse him from the clutches of death during the smallpox epidemic in 1876.
I wonder what the real Calamity Jane would have made of the movie about her, played by the more glamouros Doris Day. I think Calamity Jane might have been amused but also flatered.
There is also the HBO tv series of Deadwood that features many characters from Deadwood's history and Calamity Jane is portrayed by an actress called Robin Weighert. I have to say she palys Jane Cannary to the way many people reported her to be. Foul mouthed and hard drinking, yet with genuine moments of goodness.