The Wild, Wild West

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Later that month he galloped into Deadwood with a retinue that included, of all people, Calamity Jane. He settled down to gambling, as was his wont ; she to drinking, as was hers. A little more than a month later Jack McCaIl shot him from behind, for no particular reason.

Hickok had been a brave army scout and an able Indian scout ; he had also been a liar, a frequenter of bawdy houses, a professional gambler, and a killer. His score, according to a conservative chronicler of his deeds, was thirty-six men killed, apart from his service in the Army and against the Indians. What more fitting, for such a man, than to enshrine him on television, during the children’s hour?

There is a tale that tells of how Calamity Jane, furious when she hears of Wild Bill’s death, pursues his killer and corners him in a butcher shop, where she has to be restrained from splitting his brisket with a cleaver. Alas ! not true. There is another tale that tells of how Calamity, on her deathbed years later, whispers, “What’s the date?” When she is told it is August 2, she smiles and murmurs, “It’s the twenty-seventh anniversary of Bill’s death.” Then, while the violins sob a little in the background, she adds, “Bury me next to Bill.” This is likewise horsefeathers. (She died on August i, 1903.) Yet the legends persist in linking the two together.

Were they lovers? Wild Bill’s adherents flatly deny it, claiming that their man was far too fastidious. What their denial lacks in gallantry, it makes up in logic. Calamity was the most celebrated female of the Wild West, but she was no rose.

She may have been born in 1852, in Missouri (or Illinois); her name may have been Mary Jane Canary (or Conarray). Her mother may have been a prostitute, and later a madame in Blackfoot, Montana, around 1866, managing a house that may have been called the Bird Cage. Notable citizens of the Wild West share an irritating nebulosity when it comes to recorded data.

There are seven different theories as to how she came by her name, none of them plausible enough to concern us here. This much is certain : Calamity Jane loved the company of men and, as time went on, she craved booze more and more.

Assuming that she was born in 1852, she was thirteen when she bobbed up in Montana, conjecturally an orphan; seventeen when, wearing men’s clothes, she was consorting with the railroad section gangs in Piedmont and Cheyenne, Wyoming; twenty when, in Dodge City, she made a cowboy crooner called Darling Bob Mackay dance tenderfoot (i.e., obliged him to scamper about by firing bullets at his feet) because he had said something indelicate about her underwear ; twenty-three, and the only female member, when she joined a geological expedition into the Black Hills ; and twentyfour when, the only woman amongst 1,500 men, she left Fort Laramie with a bull train hauling supplies for General Crook’s expedition against the Sioux.

Not long after, a scandalized colonel caught her swimming naked with some of her buddies in Hat Creek, near Sheridan, and promptly banished her. Undaunted, she got Grouard, Crook’s chief of scouts, to appoint her an Indian scout under his command —or so it was said, but never proved.

By then the unfortunate woman was a seriously sick alcoholic, ready for any man’s exploitation if only she could get a drink. Greedy showmen hired her for appearances in dime museums; her ghostwritten memoirs appeared, published in a cheap pamphlet, and Calamity took to hawking copies for whatever she could get.

And then, long after Calamity was dead, a woman appeared who produced a paper certifying the marriage on September 1, 1870, of Martha Jane Cannary and James Butler Hickok ; she claimed to be the daughter of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. She claimed it right out loud, to an audience of several million persons, over a network of radio stations. But presently the document was characterized as a forgery by experts, and the chroniclers of the Wild West could return to their speculations.

And here let us leave Calamity and Bill.

For we have come to our second Horrible—a slope-shouldered man whose blue eyes blink incessantly (he has granulated eyelids), and whose short whiskers grow dark on his chin and lower lip. We are now in the presence of the bandit-hero. He is

 

Any study of Jesse Woodson James (September 5, 1847-April 3, 1882)—the celebrated Missouri ruffian, murderer, bank robber, train robber, and American demigod—is best prefaced by a quick glimpse at his mother, Zerelda E. Cole James Simms Samuel. She was, by all accounts, a notable woman.