Keeping Up with Calamity
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Published in: July-August 2020 issue.


Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane
by Karen R. Jones
Yale University Press. 303 pages, $28.


WHEN ONE THINKS of famous women of the Wild West, the list is fairly short, but Calamity Jane is likely to be among the top names that come to mind. In Karen R. Jones’ exhaustive and provocative biography, it becomes abundantly clear why her subject is so well known. Calamity Jane was a legend in her own time: a tall-tale-telling, gun-toting, danger-loving western woman, a friend of Wild Bill Hickok, and a performer in Wild West shows in her later life. And yet, there are holes in this iconic story.

            Born on May 1, 1852—or was it in 1856, as recorded in some documents?—Martha Jane Canary was the first child of a Missouri “gambler and a ‘woman of the lowest grade,’” writes author Jones. Canary’s father seems to have tried, at least at first, to maintain a small amount of respectability, but his wife was a “firebrand” who liked to drink, cuss, and wear “gaudy dress.” Jones says that for this and various other, similarly eccentric patterns of behavior, the whole family was the subject of gossip for the locals, some of whom claimed to have remembered them decades later, long after the Canarys had left Missouri to try their luck in Montana.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.