The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane

Written by Richard W. Etulain
Review by Janice Derr

How did Missouri farm girl Martha Canary become Calamity Jane, one of the most infamous Wild West heroines? The name Calamity Jane typically conjures an image of a tough-talking, hard-drinking woman in men’s clothing, but how much of that image is fact and how much is dime-store novel fiction? Etulain meticulously investigates newspaper articles, public records and personal accounts from Calamity Jane’s time to sort out the truth about the woman behind the legend. A saloon hostess and dancer (Etulain is very diplomatic about claims Calamity Jane may have been a prostitute), Calamity Jane was also known for her skills as a nurse and midwife, providing aid to Deadwood’s sick and injured. Journalists and novelists historically were less interested in the truth, preferring a good story with colorful characters; thus the legend took off, with Calamity Jane adding embellishments of her own, making her one of the most popular figures to emerge from the Old West. Etulain provides a rich biography and an engaging examination of Calamity Jane and her place in popular culture. Recommended.