One looks in vain for young, urban art with authentic roots on the streets instead of an art academy pedigree.
You’re a bad, bad toad.
A cask of Whiskey and two fists for a Hail Mary
“They were gonna chase me outta town. They came to the saloon with a ridin’ crop and scissors, to cut my hair. I leaped from the bar right into the crowd and before they could say a word, I was finished with them.”
Calamity Jane about the “proper women” of Deadwood
The beginnings of the great trek to the West in the 19th century had the taste of freedom for everyone involved. Apart from the prospects of work and their own piece of land, most settlers were also driven by the promises of adventure and individualism. Exceptional for this time: even women had the chance to fulfil their dreams in the Wild West, since no newcomer was denied the treasured right to peacefully do whatever they wanted to do – not even females. In that sense, this time can be seen as something like the roots of emancipation in American society, since the women in the West really did what they wanted. For the first time, they took over male positions and often even had to toil as hard as the men, giving a hand in the sweat driving work on the farm. However, this newfound freedom didn’t last for very long. Once established, a frontier community quickly adopted the same old East coast conventions. Still, some women rebelled against these middle-class structures. The most legendary, and also the most violent, sottish, dangerous, and freest of them all was THE amazon of the Wild West: Martha Cannary-Burke, aka Calamity Jane.
There are many tales surrounding this woman, who was respected by the most awe-inspiring gunslingers. Her own habit of swindling a little too much surely helped to support her incredible reputation, since she claimed to have been an army scout, a stagecoach driver and an Indian fighter. Others swear she was nothing but a loudmouthed habitual drinker, a saloon lady, bully, and most of all a prostitute. Until today, it’s unclear whether certain stories or details from her life were invented by herself or whether they are the truth. The only certainty is that Calamity Jane wore men’s clothing all her life, swore like a trooper, boozed, chewed tobacco, was an extremely able rider, knew how to handle a gun, and how to inspire awe in the baddest mothers around. This text can therefore only be an attempt at collecting the facts of her life and therefore give as truthful as possible a picture of this unusual woman. How much of it is myth and how much truth will be left to the reader to decide.
Martha Jane Cannary was born in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri, allegedly the daughter of a preacher. Her mother died when she was still a teenager, and soon after her death the family moved to Virginia City, where Jane had to look after her younger siblings. During an Indian revolt she was separated from her father and her brothers, and from then on was on her own. At age 18 she joined General Custer’s army as a scout. Since women weren’t allowed in this profession, this seems to have been the point when she developed a taste for men’s attire. As a frontier fighter she made a name for herself among her comrades. She was regarded as exceptionally courageous and made her way into areas that were avoided by even the most experienced soldiers. Apart from this, she was very popular with her male company – the reason for that shall go unmentioned here… Along the way, she became friends with another legend of the West around this time: the legendary Buffalo Bill, who fought in the same band as Jane, and allegedly it was here that she received her byname “Calamity”. During a cruel battle in 1872, an outright massacre occurred in which the Indians slaughtered white men in scores (and, presumably, vice versa). Commander-in-Chief Captain Egan was injured and fell off his steed. While the male soldiers fled in every direction possible, Jane risked her life to save Egan from the redskins. The Captain survived, much impressed, and gave her the name “Calamity”, which he took from a character in the book “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte – thus legend has it.
According to another story, the name “Calamity” derived from Jane’s habit of warning men that whoever would get in her way was flirting with disaster or calamity. The third story is that her name goes back to a gig as nurse during which she selflessly looked after the victims of a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood. Since she also worked as a prostitute, the joke at the time was that her good care helped to also give the ailing syphilis instead of healing them from the pox. Nonetheless, her charitable work and her sense of altruism are the reason why she was rehabilitated after her death and adored like a saint by many inhabitants of Deadwood. It is quite impressive how notoriety can change to its complete opposite after you die.
And rightly so, since apart from the many smallpox victims and Captain Egan, Jane also saved the lives of six stagecoach passengers in 1876 while they were under attack from Indians. The driver had already been hit by an arrow and fallen off the coach, and the remaining passengers – all of them men – couldn’t muster the courage to face the aggressive redskins. Jane, who happened upon the scene, jumped into the driver’s seat with no hesitation, cracked the whip, got rid of the Indians and brought the coach to its destination in time. What a daredevil! Despite her heroic deeds however, Jane was discharged dishonourably from the army that same year. Whether this was due to her rough demeanour, her alcoholism, or simply the fact that she was a woman is unreported.
After her heave-ho from the army, Jane met the man around whom she would build something akin to a love cult for the rest of her life: the gunslinger Wild Bill Hickock. He must have been extremely good-looking and most of all a wild guy (hence the name), since Jane was ablaze for him the instant she met him. She herself claimed to have been married to him and that they had a daughter together. The story around her alleged marriage has to be taken with a grain of salt however – particularly since Bill Hickock died a couple of weeks after their meeting in a gunfight. Nonetheless, Jane was buried next to Wild Bill in Deadwood, as she had always asked. After Hickock there was one other man reported about in Jane’s life. In 1884 she moved to El Paso, where she met Clinton Burke whom she married shortly after that. In 1887 they had a daughter, whom they gave to foster parents. But their happiness was short-lived as well. The couple was divorced in 1895.
And so, Calamity Jane was on her own once again – for her sustenance she had cared herself anyway all her life, being the emancipated woman she was. In 1881 she bought a farm near Yellowstone National Park where she ran a saloon for a short time, and even during her marriage she tried to work as a bar lady. She found her way back to her true calling in 1893 when her old buddy Bufallo Bill asked her to be a horse rider and gun artist in his Wild West show. However, she got the boot two years later because she was constantly drunk. Nonetheless, she participated in the Pan American Exposition in 1900, but by this time she was a heavy-drinking alcoholic and suffered from severe depression. It was something like a vicious circle – the more she drank, the louder she wailed, until somebody showed mercy on her and carried her home to put her to bed with a bottle of booze, to quiet her down for the night. Jane never stayed long in any one place and constantly got in trouble with her employers. In the end, alcohol took her over completely, which the following anecdote illustrates: friends of Jane’s organised a benefit performance in a local theatre to raise money for her daughter with Clinton Burke. As a matter of fact, a handsome amount of money was gathered, but Jane took it and spent it all that same night with her drinking buddies. Real motherly sentiments look a bit different than that…
Jane spent the last months of her life forsaken, desolate and sick in a hotel room. In 1903 she died from influenza. In her estate a bundle of letters to her daughter was found, which she had never sent. And so the mythical story of Calamity Jane – a woman whose unique reputation and eccentricity helped to make her into the only female legend of the Wild West – ends as low-key as this.
text: Katja Vaders
illustration: Dave Décat
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