Written by Hannah Dunleavy


How the West Was Spun

As a new production of musical Calamity Jane tours the country, Hannah Dunleavy tells how after she discovered the harsh truth of the life of her childhood hero, she admired her even more.

Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary, the frontierswoman who never let the truth get in the way of a good story and made herself a legend.

Martha ‘Calamity Jane’ Canary, the frontierswoman who never let the truth get in the way of a good story and made herself a legend.

I inherited two things from my granddad Dunleavy: the cribbage board given to him by a Native American chief and the deeply held belief that the truth should never get in the way of a good story.

It was inevitable then, that the woman I first determined to grow up to be was Martha ‘Calamity Jane’ Canary. Pioneer. Arse-kicker. Massive, massive bullshitter.

I was five when I first saw Calamity Jane. Dad had barely had time to crack his (over my head) joke about how he preferred the films Doris Day made before she was a virgin, and I was hooked. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a great film. It’s all sorts of racist and it ends on the extremely bum note of Calam’ ladying up (how else could a man marry her?).

But, at five, all I saw was muddy adventure and a life of never having to wear a dress or clean my windows – of particular importance, since experience suggested I’d have to do it using a pair of unwanted undercrackers. I had no idea which of Newport Pagnell’s bus stops the Deadwood stage stopped at (probably the one by Boots), but I knew I wanted a seat on it. Preferably one on the roof.

Hannah’s brother a bit beside himself at the Deadwood sign.

Hannah’s brother a bit beside himself at the Deadwood sign.

Almost 30 years later, I finally arrived in Deadwood in an Avis rental car. Not quite the glorious entrance I’d envisaged. I’d decided to research the woman behind the legend a few years previously, after my brother gave me a copy of David Milch’s unforgivably underwatched HBO masterpiece Deadwood. In it, Jane (played by Robin Weigert) is transformed from a chirpy, headstrong tomboy, to a shambolic and filthy mess, with a liver “that runs from her chin to her genitals” and a mouth like Malcolm Tucker.

One of the few things fictional interpretations of Martha’s life agree on is her open relationship with truth. Twentieth-century historians were keen to point out this self-aggrandising was all encompassing. She was a drunk, a prostitute and a liar, who conned her way into history. It’s an exceptionally unfair dismissal of a woman who carved out a living and a reputation in an environment too harsh for countless men.

To understand Martha Canary, you need to understand the time and the place she lived in. When she arrived in Deadwood in 1876, it was no more than a collection of wooden shacks. It was not yet part of the United States; in fact, residents were squatting on land deeded to the Sioux. But the discovery of gold in them thar hills changed everything and prospectors flooded the area in search of fortune. The town was lawless, disease-ridden and surrounded by the enemy.

Options for women were virtually non-existent. Unless you were of means, or someone’s wife – and few took the missus to such a place – the only real route to money was on your back. Or, if you had the spine for it, you could run the brothel. Dora Du Fran, who kept cathouses for years and gave Martha work, is one of the few other women from the town to leave a distinguishable footprint on history.

“She was good with a rifle and a bullwhip, was a reasonable cook and ‘a big-hearted woman’. She swore profusely and according to White-Eye Anderson, ‘told some of the toughest stories I ever heard.'”

Du Fran also left a written record of Martha’s drunkenness or, more accurately, alcoholism. Martha indulged in hard liquor and long benders, and despite repeated attempts to quit, was never dry for more than a few weeks.

So, how did this woman, poor, uneducated and addicted, manage to gain a reputation that endured long enough for a girl born thousands of miles away and almost a hundred years later to ask Father Christmas for buckskins? The answer lies in her ability to understand and capitalise on two words I can scarcely believe were in her vocabulary: celebrity and zeitgeist. And on her deeply held belief that the truth should never get in the way of a good story.

In essence, it all hinged on four men.

The first was General George Armstrong Custer, who Martha claimed to have scouted for. No solid evidence of this claim exists.

It’s almost impossible to overestimate the impact Crazy Horse’s annihilation of Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn had on the American psyche. In a nation utterly entrenched in the notion that its inevitable march westward was sanctioned by God, Custer became a universally mourned martyr. If you knew the man, or you said you did, well, you could dine out on that story for years. Martha did.

At the time, Martha, then aged 20 and alone in the world since the age of 14, was about to meet the man who would change her life forever: William Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok.

She encountered the Hickok party in Fort Laramie in late June 1876. According to her biographer James L McLaird, when Steve Utter agreed to take her along she was “very drunk and near naked.” In the two weeks it took them to arrive in Deadwood, they established she was good with a rifle and a bullwhip, was a reasonable cook and “a big-hearted woman”. She swore profusely and according to White-Eye Anderson, “told some of the toughest stories I ever heard.”

When the group entered Deadwood on 12 July, it caused a sensation. Hickok was already a legend; a former lawman, Union Army spy and gunslinger, with a reputation for killing dozens of men (it’s likely closer to 10). ‘Calamity Jane’ was the only other person mentioned in the Black Hills Pioneer’s report of the arrival, likely as her reputation for ‘eccentric’ behaviour – the swearing and the men’s clothes – preceded her. It’s the first recorded instance of their names together. She was smart enough to ensure it would not be the last.

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Robin Weigert as potty-mouthed gunslinger and boozehound Calamity Jane in David Milch’s brilliant Deadwood for HBO.

By all accounts, she took to the town’s bars and Hickok to its poker tables. By 2 August he was dead, shot in the back in the No 10 saloon. How much time they’d spent together in the interim is unknown, but reports suggest she was distraught at his funeral.

For the next 30 years, this connection to a genuine Wild West star would serve her well. Her claims would change over the years: they were firm friends, lovers, even betrothed (he was married to someone else at the time). She even claimed to have tracked down his killer and brought him to justice. As the town and its reputation grew, there were always people happy to listen to a story from a close personal friend of Wild Bill.

Within a year, Martha’s bid for fame was given a helping hand by Edward L Wheeler, who authored the hugely popular Deadwood Dick series of Dime Novels.

All over the country, people were eating up stories about the heroes of the frontier, and Calamity Jane’s inclusion in the pulp genre made her a star. Readers realised the stories from the books weren’t true, but still bought into Martha’s elaborate tales, which grew ever more fanciful as the years went on and were often further embellished by those who heard them.

For the next few years, she made money, from photographs, storytelling and a ghost-written biography, all predicated on the legend she’d created. Herself.

As the fiction grew, the truth became increasingly harsh. She married and had a daughter, who was later given away to foster carers. She moved around and tried her hand at various businesses, but success always seemed to elude her. Her drinking got ever worse.

In 1893, her fame won her place in William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody’s travelling show. It should’ve been a triumph as Cody, historians almost unanimously agree, was the world’s first global celebrity, but Martha didn’t stick at it. Eight years later she was invited to appear at the Pan-American Exhibition, but again, unhappy and unsettled in the East, she asked Cody for the fare home.

As with many, the showman liked Martha despite her faults. Testaments from those who knew her noted her generosity, her effectiveness as a nurse and her friendliness to people of all races, faiths and backgrounds.

When asked about her years later, Cody said: “Only the old days could have produced her. She was one of the frontier types and she has all the merits and most of their faults.”

On August 1, 1903, Martha took ill on a train between Deadwood and Terry. She died the same day. She was aged somewhere between 47 and 56, depending on who you believe – not her, obviously; she’d long been adding years to excuse her weary and alcohol-beaten face.

Her funeral was one of the largest Deadwood had ever seen. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok, a man she barely knew. Some claimed this was a joke. Others that it was her dying wish. It didn’t really matter. Like her whole life, it was impossible to unpick the fact from the fiction. Her mission was finally accomplished.

Calamity Jane is touring the UK until August 2015. Details here.
Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend by James D McLaird is available to buy here



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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.