Calamity Jane: Part cheers, mostly booze
Everybody knows Calamity Jane. Some know her as Jane Russell, some as Doris Day and some as Robin Weigert in a particularly foul-mouthed version in HBO’s hit, “Deadwood.” But did you know that the real Calamity Jane, aka Martha Canary, once whooped it up in Spokane and North Idaho? “HOW CALAMITY JANE DEALT FARO IN SPOKANE” blared the headline of a Spokane Press article on Aug. 6, 1903. The story reported that Calamity Jane lived in Spokane in the early 1880s and “dealt faro bank on Main Avenue in a wooden building that stood adjacent to what is now the Owl saloon,” faro bank being a popular gambling game. “Jane in those days was the keystone around which all the excitement and life of the new town was reared,” said the newspaper, one of three local dailies at the time. “She rolled into town when the Northern Pacific was building through and stayed until the excitement died down, and she became one of the vanguard in the rush to the new Coeur d’Alene mining country.” This story was written 20 years after the fact, a few days after news arrived of her death in Deadwood, S.D. The story relied entirely on accounts of unnamed “Spokane pioneers.” Yet the basic facts are correct, according to a meticulously researched new biography, “Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend,” by James D. McLaird (University of Oklahoma Press, 2005). The infamous Jane had
spent most of the previous two years following the Northern Pacific railroad construction crews as they moved westward across Montana. McLaird writes that she established hastily built “road ranches” for the construction crews, “where she provided food, liquor and lodging,” as well as other friendly amenities.
The farthest west she went? Spokane in 1883.
Martha Canary was about 27 years (her exact birth date is in some doubt) and was already a well-known Western character. Many Eastern newspaper correspondents had written about her as an example of a titillating and colorful frontier “type.” She was already known primarily as Calamity Jane, a nickname which implied both wild abandon and trouble.
Martha Canary had already met – and helped bury, according to some accounts – the famous Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, S.D., even though their romantic involvement has been exaggerated.
By the time she arrived in Spokane, she was already the heroine of the wildly popular “Deadwood Dick” series of dime novels, although her character and accomplishments were wildly embellished and almost entirely fictional.
Yet despite all of that, she remained essentially a hardscrabble working girl, attempting to make a living by separating railroad workers, miners and cowboys from their pay by any means at hand. Her own burgeoning notoriety was simply good marketing.
” ‘Calamity’ quickly became one of the show features of the town, and no stranger ever quit our domains without first visiting her place of business,” a Spokane old-timer said in the Spokane Press.
She played up her image by sometimes dressing as a man (a ploy she first used while traveling as a camp follower with Army troops during the Indian wars) and by brandishing six-shooters and cigars.
“In those days, Jane wore a man’s suit, her nether garments tucked into the tops of rawhide boots,” said a Spokane “pioneer.” “Her hair was cut man-fashion and she would easily pass for a man, her features being rugged. While dealing (cards), her custom was to peacefully chew tobacco and smoke a cigar at the same time.”
This old-timer added this backhanded compliment: “With all of her free and easy ways in the matter of annexing new husbands, Jane had many good qualities.”
She stayed in Spokane for an unknown amount of time and soon returned to Montana and Deadwood. Yet she apparently decided that easy pickings were to be had in the Coeur d’Alene mining district, because she and eight other “girls” returned early in 1884 by railroad to Rathdrum, where they then took a stagecoach to Kingston and then rode on horseback on the Jackass Trail to Eagle City, Idaho, (not far from present day Murray, Idaho).
Eagle City was a gold-boom town, full of newly built saloons. Calamity Jane and her girls took over one tented barroom and delivered what McLaird believes is Jane’s first-ever stage performance.
“The red calico curtains parted” revealing Calamity Jane “in her mannish woolens,” wrote Adam Aulbach, a local newspaper editor at the time. She narrated a monologue of her life (a staple of her later stage performances) and then her eight dancing girls went on display.
“Each male was allowed a choice and one turn around the dance floor,” wrote Aulbach. “Short tempers! Fights! The crimson silhouettes on the snow attested to this.”
When daybreak arrived, Calamity wrapped up the proceedings “in her inimitable way – a rough-housing push, a shake and a hug,” wrote Aulbach.
“She yelled above the din: ‘At least we ain’t cooking in the hot boxes of hell. We’ll be a-wishing we were when we hit the commodious Jackass Trail. I’ll be back when the birds are a-twittering in the spring.’”
Calamity did indeed return just a few months later, seeking a bigger piece of the Coeur d’Alene action. Yet she ran into some unexpected competition: an Irish madam named Molly Burdan, aka Molly b’Damn. Burdan had already established a sporting house in the gold camps, according to McLaird.
Apparently, nothing went right for Calamity. She returned to Livingston, Mont., within weeks and told the Livingston newspaper editor that “she has had enough of the mines.” He wrote that she “abuses that country (the Coeur d’Alenes) in round terms.”
She joined a touring “wild west” show, lived in Wyoming for a time, and then moved back to the Black Hills. She lived out her life as a minor celebrity in Deadwood.
She was credited with being many things: a bandit, a road agent, an Indian fighter, a scout, a nurse, a Pony Express rider, an angel of mercy and a gunfighter. She promulgated a few of these myths; pulp fiction writers promulgated most of the others.
One thing she definitely was: an alcoholic. The Spokane Press story includes this passage: “If anyone suggested a drink, she was always Johnnie on the spot, drinking neat whisky with relish and buying a return treat with alacrity.”
Her life, as chronicled by McLaird, is less a stirring, romantic tale of the West than a depressing litany of drunken benders. During one spree, she tried to drive a horse and buggy to Fort Russell (Wyoming) but imbibed so much “bug juice,” as a reporter called it, she couldn’t find it. She ended up at Fort Laramie, 90 miles away, “with the vague idea that Fort Russell had been removed.”
Newspaper correspondents of the day “rarely displayed sensitivity about her alcoholism,” dryly noted McLaird. He concluded that her “enduring poverty derived from her acute alcoholism rather than lack of enterprise.”
In the end, it killed her. She died at age 47 near the Black Hills on Aug. 1, 1903, of “inflammation of the bowels.”
One old ranch hand from Fairfield, Wash., later delivered a fitting verdict: “She was a good woman only she drinked.”