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Wild Bill and Calamity Jane – Side by Side in Death, But in Life…?

July 15, 2017 Destination Feature, Headline News No Comments Email Email

Students of the Wild West refuse to give up their search for an answer to the question that’s baffled experts for over a century: just what was the real relationship between legendary Wild Bill Hickok and less than law abiding Calamity Jane?

And visitors to today’s Deadwood in the Black Hills of Dakota can also still ponder that same question as they not only walk the same boardwalk streets that Wild Bill and Calamity Jane trod 140-odd years ago, but also visit their side-by-side graves and wonder at the strange relationship between these complete opposites.

The one-time Marshall Hickok (between engagements also a hired-gun and professional gambler,  is known to have considered Calamity little more than a drinking mate. So just why did the alcoholic hooker ask to be buried next to “her great love” as she was dying nearly 30 years after he was shot dead in a Deadwood bar-room?

No Doris Day, the “less than attractive” Calamity Jane Burke dressed as a man, swore furiously, was a part-time prostitute, and on drunken sprees would shoot out the lights of saloons and gambling houses.

History tells us that as in the movies, the Deadwood Stage did roll-out over the hills, lawbreakers were lynched in the streets of “the shootin’est town in the West,” and that Wild Bill and Calamity Jane did on occasion step Deadwood’s boardwalks together.

And just as in the movies, 30,000 gold miners did flock to Deadwood in the 1870s-80s, just as today tourists can visit the tombstones in the town’s cemetery of those who met their death by natural cause, rope or bullet.

But unlike in the movies, Hickok wasn’t interested in upholding justice when he left his newly-wed bride in Wyoming and jumped the Deadwood Stage: he planned on relieving gullible miners of some of their Black Hills’ Gold at the poker table.

Wild Bill didn’t go to Deadwood to uphold the law, but rather to relieve gullible miners of some of their Black Hills’ Gold at the poker table.

And again unlike in the movies, when he arrived in Deadwood in 1876, Hickok was mysteriously accompanied by Calamity Jane Cannary whom he’d previously worked with in a Wild West Show, together with a colourful one-time Pony Express rider, ‘Colorado’ Charlie Utter.

And Calamity soon turned out to be anything but Hollywood’s Doris Day who’d host Wild Bill to candle-light dinners in a rose-gardened Deadwood cottage.

Deadwood had hit the headlines in August 1875 when gold was found in a nearby creek; within days thousands of hopefuls had flocked to the Black Hills, in the beginning scooping-up nuggets “as big as candy bars,” and when these easy pickings petered out blasted their way into the gold-bearing hillsides.

Deadwood at the height of its 1870s goldrush.

On a fateful August 2 1876 Hickok – who drank with his left hand to keep his gun-hand free – dropped into the No.10 Saloon for a game of poker. The only seat at the table had its back to the door, so he opted out, fearful of ambush from behind.

But fellow gamblers talked him into staying, and he’d played just a few hands when drunken hoodlum Jack McCall stumbled through the bat-wing doors, and shot him dead with a single bullet to the head. His black aces and eights that spilled to the floor are known to this day as “Deadman’s Hand.”

McCall was tried, but acquitted on his claim it was revenge for Hickok killing his brother; when it was discovered McCall’s outlaw brother was already dead, he was recaptured and hanged.

Calamity Jane meanwhile was doing what Hollywood didn’t tell us: she was working as a barmaid and part-time prostitute in local saloons, often taking her pay in whiskey before both lifestyles caught up with her.

Deadwood today.

But just before her death she asked that she be buried next to Wild Bill, and posed, haggard and gaunt, with a bouquet at the grave “of her great love.” That was in 1903, 27 years after Wild Bill’s death and when she was 53; today the bodies of Martha ‘Calamity Jane’ Cannary and James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickcok lay side by side in Deadwood’s Mt Moriah Cemetery.

And this leaves historians mystified: the newly-married Hickock was immaculate in dress and grooming, and constantly wrote home to his new bride Agnes in Wyoming.

Conversely the “less than attractive” Calamity Jane dressed as a man, swore furiously, and on drunken sprees would shoot out the lights of saloons and gambling houses.

Deadwood today is a fascinating trek back into the Wild West, with a gambler’s El Dorado of restored boardwalk casinos, saloons and dining halls, an1860s gold mine to explore, and museums recounting its wild past.

Written by David Ellis

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