STUDENTS of America’s Wild West are as mystified today as ever they were about the real relationship between two of the most-opposite characters to walk the boardwalks together of legendary Deadwood – the suave former lawman Wild Bill Hickok and part-time hooker and some-time drinking mate, Martha Jane Burke, better known to us all as Calamity Jane.
For while he cut an almost debonair figure, she was anything but the beauty as portrayed by Doris Day in Hollywood’s version of the life of these two: a sex-for-booze roughie whose youthful good looks had long forsaken her, she most-often dressed like a man, cussed as enthusiastically – and got her kicks from shooting-out bar-room chandeliers while smashed on whiskey.
Yet historians know that this seemingly odd couple did share time together, and as Calamity approached her Maker nearly thirty years after Wild Bill was shot dead at a Deadwood card table, she begged to be buried alongside the man she described as “my great love.”
But despite over 130 years of research, historians say it’s unlikely they’ll ever know the real relationship between the two, beyond their fondness for a drink or three in the local saloons.
Deadwood had hit the headlines in the mid-1870-s when gold was found in the surrounding Black Hills of Dakota. Within days thousands of hopefuls were “scooping-up nuggets, some as big as candy bars” and blasting their way into the gold-bearing hillsides.
Thirty-thousand miners invaded Deadwood in the 1870s and ‘80s, and headstones at the town’s Mt Moriah Cemetery tell of the unhappy demise of many by rope, bullet or booze.
But unlike in the movies, James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok – who had once served as a US Marshall and was not averse to moonlighting as a bounty hunter – did not go to Deadwood to put on a lawman’s badge: he left a newly-wed bride at home in Wyoming in the hope of relieving gullible miners of some of their Black Hills gold at the poker table.
And when he arrived on the Deadwood Stage in 1876, he was accompanied not only by his mate, the colourful former Pony Express rider, ‘Colorado’ Charlie Utter, but strangely by Calamity Jane whom he’d met when they were both Army scouts.
The former Marshall is said to have considered Calamity little more than a drinking mate, and she quickly proved to be anything but Hollywood’s Calamity who would host “Marshall” Wild Bill to candle-lit dinners in a rose-gardened Deadwood cottage.
But their relationship ended on August 2 1876 when Wild Bill – who drank with his left hand to keep his gun-hand free – dropped into the Saloon Number 10 for a game of poker. As the only seat at the table had its back to the door, he opted-out for fear of being ambushed from behind.
But he was talked into staying, and had played just a few hands when a drunken hoodlum, Jack McCall stumbled through the bat-wing doors and shot him through the head. Wild Bill’s two black aces and two black eights spilled to the floor, and are known to this day as “Deadman’s Hand.”
His pair of guns were sold to pay for his funeral.
McCall was tried, but acquitted after claiming the killing was revenge for Hickok killing his brother. But when it was discovered that McCall’s brother was an outlaw who had died years earlier, he was tried again, and this time hanged.
Calamity Jane meanwhile was doing what Hollywood didn’t tell us: working as a barmaid and part-time prostitute in local saloons, often taking her pay in whiskey.
And as she was dying at age 53 she asked that she be buried next to Wild Bill. She died on August 2 1903, bizarrely twenty-seven years to the very day after the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok – and got her death wish.
Deadwood today is a fascinating trek back into the Wild West, with its restored boardwalk casinos, saloons (including one on the site of the original Saloon Number 10,) dining halls, an1860s gold mine to explore, museums recalling the days of the Wild West, and Wild Bill and Calamity’s side-by-side graves.
Canada & Alaska Specialist Holidays can add a short-break to Deadwood to a USA, Canada or Alaska vacation; phone 1300 79 49 59.
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