Will the real Calamity Jane please stand up?

Doris Day
Image by Annalise Batista on Pixabay

Calamity Jane. When you read that name, you most probably think of the blond-haired, pretty, gunslinging character played by Doris Day in the movie Calamity Jane. It should come as no surprise to learn that Hollywood has taken a large dose of creative licence with the character of  Calamity Jane and the real woman was somewhat different to the idealised move studio version of the femme from the Wild West.

We have a new, and more informed understand of her thanks to the work of Karen Jones, who is a professor of environmental and cultural history at the University of Kent. Jones has written a new book, The Many Lives of Calamity Jane, on the Wild West’s most notorious gun-toting woman.

Fun fact for you: Calamity Jane’s real name was actually Martha Jane Canary and she held her own with the men of America’s most colorful era. She became a celebrity in her own right and thanks to her association with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody.

Martha Jane Canary was born in 1852 in Missouri and she was an orphan by age 12, when she had to fend for herself and would eventually meet Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood. Her kindness, together with her skill as a sharp shooter, refusal to wear the typical women’s clothing of the day and heroism made her a legend of the day, and long after. Her reputation was advanced with her own autobiography and western dime novels popular in the day.

The legend of Calamity Jane has overtaken the real story of the woman Martha Jane Canary and her own biography embellishes her life. There are no official records of marriage or childbirth, but there were some reports with varying levels of credibility she had married and had either a son or a daughter. Towards the end of her life, she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show performing sharpshooting skills astride a horse. Her hard drinking and hard life took its toll on her and Martha Jane Canary died aged 51 and is buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in South Dakota.

In Jones’ book, she looks at the story of this iconic frontierswoman and pieces together what is known of Canary’s life and shows how a rough, itinerant life led her to alcohol-fueled heroics that dominated her career. The book spans Canary’s life and considers how her image was embellished over the years, finds Jones described her as feisty, eccentric, transgressive, and very much complicit in the making of the myth that was Calamity Jane, even penning her own autobiography.

As a cultural historian, Jones looks not just at the historical events, but considers the meaning of this unusual woman at that time in hstory and how she created a new and radical type of female character with a lasting resonance. No wonder Hollywood couldn’t resist.

The 1943 movie Calamity Jane with Doris Day is still available if you’re in the mood for some Hollywood nostalgia. You can find it on Google Play and YouTube. Guardian film reviewer Peter Bradshaw gives his take on this proto-lesbian, whip-crackin film, although he notes it’s politics are jarring for contemporary progressive audiences.

But what would be even more radical is to see the character of Calamity Jane return to our screens in a new TV series that could explore her life and portray a far more realistic, darker character that is closer to the real, radical Martha Jane Canary. A sort of Orange Is the New Black meets Godless.

If you’re a fan of outback or Wild West stories, here are some TV and movie suggestions.



Lots of outlaw women in these movies.

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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