In a four-part series for the next two weeks, we’re going to discuss Calamity Jane, and how movies of the mid-20th century saw her. She’s a figure in American history that has been so hyped and exploited, and so little understood that the real person, whoever she really was, was jettisoned long ago -- partly by journalists and dime novel authors and partly by herself -- that what remains is the residue of legend, myth, outright lies, and that purest alloy of American fame -- marketing.
All this happened long before the movies, so by the time the “character” of Calamity Jane hit the big screen, she was already open to interpretation. As we will see in the four films we’re going to cover, the interpretation runs the gamut between tough-talking tomboy frontier scout, to shrewd businesswoman, to something between an innocent, goofy kid sister and a raucous rodeo clown.
When she was in her 20s, her fame was already spreading across the country as the heroine in popular dime novels of the day, usually as the friend of one “Deadwood Dick” created by author Ned Wheeler, who never went west himself but brought it to life for his young readers. A popular play written only a couple years after the famous murder of Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota, has her avenging Hickok’s death, and from then on there grew many tales about Calamity Jane that depicted Wild Bill and her as lovers, and fellow frontier scouts for the Army.
Some stories were embelished from fact. She did spend quite a bit of time in Deadwood during the gold rush of 1876, and she knew Wild Bill Hickok, but they were never lovers. Even she never claimed that in her short autobiography. She was in town when he was murdered, and did mourn for him, but that was the extent of their intimacy.
She was reputed to be a great rider, and a great shot, and she was. She was reputed to have a warm and sympathetic nature, and did perform kindly services now and again -- taking care of the sick, helping those in need in various ways, but she was no superhero. For the most part, Calamity Jane did nothing special to deserve icon status, and we may wonder why she became so famous. Not even her wild behavior was unusual in the Wild West.
And she was wild, restless, and impulsive. She had relationships with many men, a number of whom she lived with for periods of time and called her husbands. She had two children, a son who died in infancy, and a daughter for whom she cared until shortly before her death. She was reported to be a loving and affectionate mother. Calamity Jane died in 1903 at 47 years old , an alcoholic.
There were only two kinds of women in the American West of that period, tough women, and dead women.
Library of Congress, 1901, public domain.
One very good book on Calamity Jane written by James D. McLaird: Calamity Jane - The Woman and the Legend (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005) goes into meticulous detail not only about Calamity Jane’s life, but how her legend developed. That is the more fascinating story. But, long before the media of the day caught hold of her, she was a girl named Martha Jane.
The author quotes the very first time the woman who became Calamity Jane appeared in print, in a newspaper from Virginia City, Montana. It was December 1864, and she was eight years old.
“Three little girls, who state their name to be Canary, applied at the door of Mr. Fergus, on Idaho Street, soliciting charity…the eldest carried in her arms her infant sister.” Martha brought her younger sisters, all wearing nothing but calico slips that winter day, to ask for food. The newspaper described their parents as “inhuman brutes who have deserted their poor unfortunate children.”
This was the pitiful beginning of her relationship with the media that lasted throughout her life, and long after her death.
Sagebrush sagas, B-movies, comedies, musicals. Her fictional character was adable enough to fit in everywhere, but Martha had too much trouble finding a place for herself in real life. We seem to see all sides of her except what really was. Somebody tagged her The Prairie Queen, but that wasn’t quite it, either.