Memory  /  Book Review

The Real Calamity Jane Was Distressingly Unlike Her Legend

A frontier character's life was crafted to be legendary, but was the real person as incredible?

‘This is the West, Sir,’ says a reporter in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ This is very much the advice that has applied to Calamity Jane over the years. She was the lover of ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, avenged herself on his killer and bore his secret love-child. She rode as a female army scout and served with Custer. She saved a runaway stagecoach from a Cheyenne war party and rode it safely into Deadwood. She earned her nickname after hauling one General Egan to safety after he was unhorsed in an ambush. She was a crack shot, a nurse to the wounded, a bullwhacker and an elite Pony Express courier.

Not one of these things is true. In fact, as Karen Jones sets out dismayingly early in her book, the only things that the real-life ‘Calamity Jane’ can with confidence be said to have in common with her legend is that she wore pants, swore like a sailor and was drunk all the time. Martha Jane Canary spent most of her itinerant life in grim poverty and hopelessly addicted to alcohol. She worked not as an army scout but as a camp-follower, laundress, saloon girl and occasional prostitute. As one 20th-century biographer put it crisply, her true story is ‘an account of an uneventful daily life interrupted by drinking binges’.

Karen Jones’s book, then, is a sort of dual biography: it’s the biography of Martha Canary (who checks out halfway through this book in 1903, at 47, from alcohol-induced inflammation of the bowels), and it’s the biography of the legend that grew up around her, much of it during her own lifetime and with her encouragement and collusion, and how it changed over the years that followed. She was, writes Jones, a ‘multi-purpose frontier artifact’.

The main point that Jones makes, and makes rather a lot, is that by dressing like a man and drinking in saloons and swearing and shooting things (aka ‘female masculinity’) Martha disrupted the ‘normative feminine behavior’ of the Old West. Non-academic readers might be warned that there’s a good deal of social studies jargon woven through this story. Jones is forever going on about normativity and gender performance and ‘the frontier imaginary’ (in an apt piece of linguistic cross-dressing, ‘frontier’ here serves as an adjective and ‘imaginary’ as a noun). But the material is all here, and very interesting material it is, too. There can be pretty much no reference to Calamity Jane that this diligent researcher does not find space to note: the Beano character ‘Calamity James’; My Little Pony’s ‘Calamity Mane’; ‘“Calamity” Jane Kennedy’ in the Devon-set BBC comedy drama The Coroner; and even — I was impressed by this — a trash-removal company in Margate that ‘sports an advertising insignia of a horse-drawn stage and a name founded on a stupendous use of badinage: WhipCrapAway’.