Sam Leith Sam Leith

The real Calamity Jane was distressingly unlike her legend

Apart from the fact that she wore trousers, swore like a navvy and was drunk all the time, she had nothing in common with the dare-devil frontierswoman of folklore

‘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 trousers, swore like a navvy and was pissed 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, launderess, 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 artefact’.

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